Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner

How many of you have ever thought about happiness? I mean, what does it mean to be happy? How does one remain in a state of contentment and never let anything bad happen to them? Or, rather, how does one deal with both the good and the bad in their lives?

Eric Weiner wondered just that. As a foreign correspondent for NPR, he had been to places such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Iraq--places not exactly known for happy people. Unhappy people and places, Weiner reasoned, make for good stories, because they inspire people, and they are more newsworthy.

After reporting so much, though, on the doom and gloom of the world, he thought about taking one year off to study the happy places of the world:

Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others. Around the world, dozens of what-ifs play themselves out every day. 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? (introduction, page 2)

Weiner starts his journey in the Netherlands, where he visits the World Database of Happiness, an institution which attempts to collect data and statistics on this state of being. In other words, happiness is something that can be measured. Along the way, he attempts to find his own brand of Dutch happiness by ordering from the many offerings at one of Rotterdam's famed hashish bars. Did he find happiness in that bit of Moroccan hash he smoked? Well, just for a little while.

That is just one of many little experiments that Weiner conducts during his year-long voyage around the world. He visits ten countries in all, including a study on American happiness, written after he returned to the Mother Land. I won't include details on everything that he learned (since I'd really like you to read the book), but there are some interesting little revelations throughout the work. In his visit to Switzerland, Weiner figures out exactly why Swiss watches are known for their punctuality--Switzerland itself is obsessed with being on time, right down to the second the trains and planes leave the stations and airports. In Bhutan, the king has implemented something called the Gross National Happiness, a national priority/mandate. (NPR actually covered this recently on Morning Edition; you can read more about this report here.)

In Iceland, happiness can be found in one's failures--in fact, failure is encouraged in Icelandic culture. This is a lesson that I believe Americans need to learn desperately. In our culture, failure is seen as something terrible, and many spend their lives trying to avoid it. In Iceland, one is a failure for not experiencing failure. This chapter, for this very important lesson alone, is one of the most valuable in the book.

Another chapter I found really intriguing was the one about Qatar, a nation that is full of money and riches--but no national culture. It's interesting to read the reasonings behind how a nation can be content with all of its riches, but still lacks such a self-awareness about something to call its own. This is something that Qatari expatriates pick up on very quickly, but something that the natives are, almost blissfully, unaware of.

The chapter on India is also especially interesting. This is a nation where poverty and misery are profound, yet this is a nation where many foreigners travel to find contentment in one of its many ashrams. Weiner does indeed visit an ashram, but it is not where he obtains perspective on the Indian philosophy behind happiness.

I picked up this book on a whim one day, at Borders, during one of their "buy one, get one 50% off" sales. It, like many of my purchases, made its way to my bookshelf for about a year. I finally retrieved it from "Bookshelf Hell" when I decided to embark on my own little Happiness Project. This was the first book I decided to read, and I am--pardon the expression--happy that I did. The Geography of Bliss really gave me a lot of perspective on my own definition of happiness and contentment. Not only that, it helped me get perspective on balancing happiness with sadness. Down times are inevitable in anyone's life, and to see how different cultures deal with life's ups and downs help me deal with mine.

More importantly, it helped me examine the overall American attitude towards contentment. There is a general American perception that one needs to be happy and content all the time. Sadness, failure, and depression are too often seen as weaknesses. If this book does anything for our national culture, I hope it's teaching the lesson that sadness, failure, and depression are not weaknesses, but character builders. I'm going to stop short of saying that The Geography of Bliss should be required reading in psychology courses, but it should be something for people who are going through their own Happiness Projects should read. If anything, it provides so much perspective.

Stay tuned over the next few months, kittens, as I read more books I've chosen for my Happiness Project, along with an explanation--coming soon--as to why I've decided to launch this.


blueviolet said...

That book sounds pretty good to me!

Marie said...

Great post. I think you're so right about American culture and happiness. It's not possible to be happy all the time & our culture treats people who aren't like there is something wrong with them.

Jenners said...

I love these types of "take a year and study some random subject" books. I think I'll have to add this to the list.

And I'm guessing perhaps you are trying "The Happiness Project" for your happiness reading??? I bought it and hope to try doing my own happiness project later in the year.

SmallWorld at Home said...

Great review! I'm linking to it on my review.