Book Review: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

I’m winding up the reading of this book; I’ve got about a chapter and a half to go.  It’s time to set down a few words about it, mainly because I have a block of time to spare.  It’s Sunday afternoon, and by Monday morning I’ll be busy with other projects.

I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed – or am enjoying – this book.  It is just what I needed.  I was reading a thick volume of short stories, many of which were ponderously and pretentiously literary, and I needed to break it up with some lighter fare.

This is a travel book.  Ostensibly the author is journeying the globe searching for the key to what makes people happy.  In reality, it’s more like a stand-up comic doing a routine about a global search for happiness.  You can tell all along that the author isn’t really serious about it.  He uses the happiness motif as a theme, an excuse of sorts, for some fairly random traveling and enjoying a diversity of cultures.  One thing that made me skeptical about his true intentions is the writer’s obvious wealth.  He can afford to travel all over the world, stay in fine hotels in places like the Netherlands and Switzerland, sample the cuisine, hire private transport to take him from place to place.  The book is a surface-level perusal of some of the places the author equates with happiness, a sort of smorgasbord where he samples a bit from here and a bit from there and ends up drawing few conclusions about the reason for his search.

Now remember that I said I like the book.  It’s a fun read.  But don’t read it if you are interested in finding real happiness, or even if you are looking for where to initiate your own search.  The author is insincere, and he makes it clear at the outset that sincerity was never his intention.  He constantly pokes fun at himself for being the type of person he is, while at the same time manifesting no inclination for genuine change.  In each chapter he posits theories as to what might constitute happiness, but it is obvious that he is bluffing.  For one thing, as I said, he gives up nothing of himself.  He maintains the position of impartial journalist throughout; he allows nothing of what he experiences to faze him.  He gives no hint about any personal unhappiness that might have initiated his search.  Now that would have been a first-class read – if he had had a crisis in his life and had genuinely, desperately needed to find a modicum of happiness to salve his pain.  Alas, there is not the tiniest inkling of sincere personal unease.  He goes about his supposed quest on a higher plane, above it all, untouched by individuals he encounters.  His interview subjects are presented as caricatures – fodder that the stand-up performer can use to sharpen his wit – not real people with real problems.

The author journeys to ten countries in search of the elusive fountain of happiness, and devotes a chapter to each.  He goes to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Thailand, Great Britain, India, and the United States on his happiness quest, and for contrast makes a visit to Moldova as supposedly the unhappiest place on the planet.  Of course the reader realizes that it is impossible to delve into the culture and current circumstances in any one of these countries in just one chapter and that the excuses he makes for choosing to visit these countries rather than others are just that – excuses rather than valid justifications.

I have visited a number of the countries presented as examples in this book, although under starkly different circumstances.  I was generally broke and struggling to survive, and as a result became enmeshed in the culture and lives of the people around me in ways that this author does not even pretend to pursue.  I was genuinely searching for happiness, which in my mind was linked with finding my voice as a writer, and I tell the story of the early part of my journey in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.”  If the author were truly interested and in need of discovering sources of happiness, he would have had to initiate his task in emptiness.  When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, right?  A true search involves a desperate need to reach the goal or find the answer.

I would have to write another book to sift through my own experiences to find even a semblance of an answer to the questions flippantly proposed in this book, but one observation I had as I read it was based on the many years I lived in Greece – which, by the way, the author should have included in his itinerary.  I got to see an example of deep-seated happiness in the reactions I saw around me when the Greek economy collapsed and many Greeks were plunged into economic chaos and despair.  Sure, they grumbled and complained and held demonstrations.  But the people I saw around me in their day to day lives generally reacted in a mature, nuanced, and joyful manner.  They continued to live their lives, take care of their children, take whatever work they could find, celebrate their feast days and holidays, visit their relatives and neighbors, drink their coffee and smoke their cigarettes.  In short, life went on.  I think that the contentment, the resiliency, the affection for each other, the joy in tradition and family is such an integral part of Greek culture, and has been for so long, that they have the emotional reserves to see themselves through a crisis.  Crises have happened before and they will happen again, but life goes on.

For a final time I will emphasize that despite all my comments above, I enjoyed this book and you probably will too.  Just don’t expect what isn’t there.  Don’t look to it for any answers – or even clues – in your search for happiness, and don’t expect any sort of comprehensive look at the countries that the author visits.  Still, it’s a light, fun read.

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