Monday, October 10, 2011

Happiness in these pages

   "It's simple," he says. "There's more than one path to happiness."
   Of course. How could I have missed it? Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own ways. [page 400]
What happens when you take a self-confessed grump and you follow him in his travels across countries as he explores what makes people happy? The result is one funny book which is part travelogue and part a study in sociology. Such a blissful read is Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss.

So what does Weiner discover in his journey? Well, it turns out that there's no simple recipe for a country's happiness. It's a confluence of factors, some of which are quite surprising. Here's a summarized list of the places he visited, which have reported high levels of happiness among the citizens:
  • The Netherlands -- Apparently, the place's permissiveness is a factor in making people feel happy. Prostitution and marijuana are legal.
  • Switzerland -- Lots of rules and laws are in place. The Swiss can also be very "boring." And Switzerland is also extremely democratic; people vote six or seven times a year. The Swiss even voted to increase their own taxes! How crazy is that!
  • Bhutan -- The government has put in place a program called Gross National Happiness. The hell with the gross national product!
  • Qatar -- Well, sad to say, wealth is an important factor in being happy, but only up to a certain point. The Qataris are so rich that they can buy their own culture.
  • Iceland -- This one was quite surprising. I couldn't imagine being happy in a country that has weird daylight patterns and in temperatures that are way below zero. But Icelanders seem to thrive in these conditions. Of course, it helps that the citizens drink a lot and seem to celebrate the importance of failures.
  • Thailand -- Thais are too busy being happy to think about happiness. Their known for their distrust in thinking and for that famous genuine Thai smile.
  • India -- The country's rich culture and tradition play a part in bringing happiness.
Weiner also made it a point to visit countries that scored way below the happiness scale. His trip to Moldova established why money is important, for Moldovans have little of it. He decided to travel to England to observe the stiff upper lip manners of the British. True, in England, outbursts of happiness are rare. Tony Blair is even rarer; he's a prime minister who smiled.

The Geography of Bliss is truly eye opening. Weiner is very thorough with his research, often stating the probable effect of reverse causality and desirability bias involved in happiness studies. It's also one very funny book that is hard to put down. Weiner describes the culture and the people of the places he visited in a very intimate way. I believe that this is probably due to his experience as a journalist.

So what does Weiner find out at the end of The Geography of Bliss? The paragraph below may be simplistic, but how can you argue with a man who has seen the evidence up close.
. . . I am no philosopher, so here goes: Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude. [page 400]
Read this book if:
  1. You feel like relocating to some place happier.
  2. You're into travel books.
  3. You think of yourself as a grump.


Harvee said...

I think it's funny what he says about Thailand and the Thais:)

Stepford Mum said...

Everyone's been saying great things about this book. I will (eventually) read it!

Peter S. said...

@Harvee: But it makes you want to pack your stuff and go to Thailand, no? Hehehe.

@Stepford Mum: The hype is true!

ram said...


Peter S. said...

Hello there, ram.