The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner
New York: Twelve, 2008
352 pp., $25.99 (cloth)

HAPPINESS IS a subject we can’t seem to leave alone. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, historians, spiritual teachers, self-help mavens, your mother, and, admittedly, this reviewer—there’s no end to the string of experts and pseudo-experts contributing to the bibliography of bliss.

Add Eric Weiner to the list. In The Geography of Bliss, the National Public Radio correspondent trots out facts and findings gleaned from the happiness professionals. But he departs from the well-worn what-is-happiness path to embark on a different, more interesting quest: Where is happiness? What places are notable for their happy people and why?

Weiner’s career has taken him to some pretty unhappy spots—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, among them. “I roamed the world telling the stories of gloomy, unhappy people,” he informs us. In the news business, of course, happy people are like Tolstoy’s happy families—pretty much all alike. It’s the miserable ones, in miserable places, that make for arresting stories.

After a decade of chasing misery, Weiner wondered what it would be like to visit places with “one or more of the ingredients we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, chocolate, among others.” Armed with an itinerary culled in part from the World Database of Happiness, he hoped to separate the jolly from the morose.

With his keen eye and loopy humor, Weiner seems the ideal guide to flush out joy. But wait . . . the book’s subtitle is “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World,” and the author is a self-described Eeyore. (Remember the chronically depressed donkey who repairs to the backyard to eat thistles in Winnie the Pooh?) Can we really trust this guy to find paradise?

Weiner acknowledges at the outset that his search for happiness may well be a “fool’s errand.” Historically speaking, the expectation of finding bliss here on earth is a recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, he sets off to test the happiness quotient of ten different countries, from Iceland—one of the world’s happiest—to Moldova, the pits. (Don’t know where Moldova is? Neither did Weiner. It’s a former Soviet Socialist Republic wedged between the Ukraine and Romania.) The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Thailand, India, the United Kingdom, and America round out his list.

The purpose of life is to be happy, the Dalai Lama often says. Weiner agrees—up to a point: “All cultures value happiness, but not to the same degree.” It’s not that geography alone is hedonic destiny. If it were, how would we account for the fact that Icelanders, mired in the cold and dark for much of the year, are cheerily optimistic, while Qataris wallow lugubriously in a sunny desert Eden? “Is there a point where excess comfort actually dilutes our contentment?” Weiner wonders.

As he sees it, happiness springs from a variety of factors, some sociological, some characterological, some geophysical, some perverse. The Netherlands—home to the World Database of Happiness and a laissez-faire policy on prostitution and drugs—is high on the happiness chart. But once Weiner has met Ruut Veenhoven, who oversees the Database, he barely gives the country a second glance. Ditto Switzerland—also one of the world’s happiest places—whose sheer lack of excitement seems to be its hedonic selling point. (Weiner attributes Swiss happiness to what he calls “conjoyment”—”more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy.”) Somehow we get the feeling that unless there’s a little irritation somewhere—hardship of some sort—Weiner’s not convinced a country can really produce a pearl.

OTHERWISE, HOW to explain Bhutan? By Western standards, it should be low on the contentment scale. Bhutan is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita income of $870 per year and a Gross Domestic Product of between $927 million and $2.9 billion, depending on who’s doing the accounting. By any calculation, that’s less than Donald Trump’s net worth. Though exporting hydroelectric power is giving the economy a boost, Bhutan was the last place on the planet to receive television—and one of the last to log on to the Internet.

But what Bhutan lacks materially it makes up for in other ways. It was the first country to make happiness an official policy. Some thirty-five years ago, the king decided progress should be measured not conventionally, by GDP, but by a Gross National Happiness index that takes a broader view of well-being. Instead of tallying up material wealth, GNH defines riches in terms of sustainability, democratic governance, and environmental and cultural preservation. Happiness is even enshrined in Bhutan’s national anthem.

Buddhist teachings are woven into the national fabric. Weiner cites a British scholar’s definition of attention—”the universal currency of well-being”—as a key to Bhutanese happiness: “Attentive people, in other words, are happy people.” So too are those who grasp the notion of impermanence. “You see, everything is a dream,” a Buddhist teacher tells Weiner. “Nothing is real.”

If nothing is real, the Bhutanese are nothing if not realistic. “Bhutan has never said we are a happy people,” the Home Minister informs Weiner. “What we are saying is we are committed to this process of Gross National Happiness. It is a goal.” But most villagers have never heard of Gross National Happiness, Weiner counters. “No,” replies the minister, “but they are living it.”

“Living it,” it turns out, is a good clue to where to find happiness. Even better is where people are living it together. Happiness is largely a function of community, Weiner discovers. “There is no such thing as personal happiness,” Karma Ura, a Bhutanese scholar and cancer survivor, tells him. “Happiness is one hundred percent relational.” Where individualism thrives, contentment goes down. Despite our prosperity—and a self-styled President of Eternal Optimism—the United States is only sixteenth or so on the happiness scale, behind our neighbors Mexico, Canada, and Guatemala.

Weiner explores various factors accounting for happiness around the globe: diversity, tolerance, trust, “happiness training”—even taxation and failure. His assertion that above $15,000, more money doesn’t make people happier is debatable—other have sources set the floor higher, in the $40,000 to $50,000 range—but he repeatedly finds evidence that money can’t buy happiness. Oil-rich Qatar, a mecca for the nouveau riche, is a case in point.

Like happiness itself, some countries are too vast, too contradictory to admit easy analysis. India is one, Weiner finds. In the writings of an Indian professor he’s about to interview, he uncovers the great paradox of happiness: “Desire is the root cause of sorrow, but desire is also the root cause of action.”

Flirting briefly with the idea of moving to Iceland, Weiner ultimately opts to stay put. (He now lives in Washington, D.C.) “Paradise,” a friend reminded him, “is a moving target.” In the end, Weiner is content to surrender his quest and relearn the simple joys of home. Happiness, he comes to realize, “is a by-product, not a prey to be hunted.” Fortunately for us, it’s likely to be a by-product of this chatty, hilarious read.

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