In “The Geography of Bliss,” Eric Weiner poses a series of questions: “What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?”
In search of answers -- and an understanding of why people are happier in some places than others -- the National Public Radio correspondent and self-described curmudgeon spends a year visiting 10 countries.
Weiner’s odyssey begins in the Netherlands at the World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam. There, he meets a “professor of Happiness Studies” and -- resisting the urge to shout: “Give me the damn formula for happiness!” -- patches together an “atlas of bliss” from answers people around the world have given to the question: “All things considered, how happy would you say you are these days?” The findings are intriguing: People in countries with gaps between rich and poor aren’t necessarily happier than those in places with a more even wealth distribution. Although the “happiest” nations are secular, overall, people who attend religious services report greater happiness than those who don’t. Democracies aren’t necessarily happier than dictatorships, and many of the world’s “happiest” countries also have high suicide rates.
Armed with this happiness index, Weiner globe-hops, visiting various places: Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Thailand, Britain -- and Moldova, which he calls “the least happy nation on the planet.” Everywhere, he asks locals, gurus, Peace Corps volunteers, expats, even a bona fide heathen, their thoughts on happiness, personal and national. Interspersed are descriptions of studies and experiments on the nature of happiness, and quotations from various philosophers.
In Bhutan, Weiner questions whether the government’s policy of encouraging “Gross National Happiness” will survive television’s recent arrival. In the British town of Slough, where the BBC retained “happiness experts” to “change the psychological climate” a few years earlier, he takes a man-on-the-street approach to investigate whether there have been any lasting effects.
Naturally, the sources of happiness prove difficult to pin down. Contradictions abound. Drinking in Iceland contributes to happiness, in Moldova to misery. Permissiveness works wonders in the Netherlands, whereas the Swiss prefer their rules.
Weiner incorporates a tongue-in-cheek quest for his own happiness, but the result falls flat. One problem is that this amalgam of travelogue, self-help, philosophy and memoir isn’t fused so much as arranged -- paragraphs and chapters feel more like containers for ideas than part of an organic flow.
Another problem: No doubt, some readers will find Weiner’s tone charming and lovably grumpy, but the book just isn’t funny. His free-ranging and associative style, while useful for ruminating on the nature of happiness, isn’t suited to crafting one-liners. For example, of Swiss neutrality he suggests, “Maybe it is not based on a deep-seated morality but on a more practical reason. Fondue and war don’t mix.” This and similar lines left me wishing for a straightforward collection of interviews on the subject of happiness. Studs Terkel with a passport.
Weiner’s brisk itinerary, which necessarily limited his ability to explore happiness in certain cultures, unfortunately has led to reductive and occasionally stereotypical depictions. This is evident in the chapter on Qatar, where, having visited a pitiful museum but not having yet met a single Qatari, he asserts that Qataris have “no culture.”
There’s an irksome tendency, too, to conflate the nation and the individual. He likens Qatar’s recent boom in oil and gas wealth to winning the lottery, then cites a psychological study on the effects of winning a lottery, as if one relates directly to the other. Most frustrating about this application of psychology to a sociological phenomenon is the sense that we’re not getting any closer to a real understanding of Qatari happiness.
Ironically, the most successful chapter, the one that is both informative and downright entertaining, is the chapter on unhappy Moldova, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. Here Weiner comes alive, as do the landscape and the inhabitants. Is it simply the case that, as Weiner writes, “unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for great stories”? Or is it that Weiner (pronounced “whiner,” he informs us) identifies with the material? Either way, freed from his “hunt for happiness,” Weiner shines here with more texture and genuine humor than anywhere else in the book.
In the end, “Bliss” turns out not unlike Weiner’s description of India, simultaneously seductive and exasperating. There’s enlightenment in these pages if one is patient and knows where to look.