Take one self-proclaimed ‘grump’ who has spent his entire adult life working as a journalist, and send him off to ten countries with the largely indefinable task of finding the secret to happiness. This is the basic premise of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. (And even though the 8-year-old in me so wanted his name to be pronounced wee-ner, it is actually a homophone of ‘whiner,’ and the irony of this is not lost on him.)
Weiner documents his travels to ten countries, including some that consistently score among the highest (and lowest) on ‘happiness scales’ developed by social scientists who have actually been studying happiness quite some time. Ironically enough, many of these findings do not necessarily support what might be a typical American’s image of the happiest place on earth: tropical locale with white sanded beaches… nope, think more along the lines of Iceland. I appreciated the balance of research findings and personal accounts that are presented in these chapters. As Weiner travels, he shares his own observations about his surroundings, and takes many opportunities to spend time with and interview the ‘locals’ about their assessments of the level of happiness in their countries.
The tone of this book vacillates between a straightforward journalistic reporting and a humorous, often irreverent, storytelling voice. Having only stepped outside of our American borders twice in my life, I cannot call myself a world traveler by any means. Given this, I was well aware of the naive perspective that I brought as a reader to this book. There have been some critical reviews of this book, implying that he simply looked for evidence that would confirm many already held stereotypes of the particular countries that he visited. Since I don’t have the personal experience to confirm or deny these notions, I can’t say for sure that this wasn’t the case. (Are the Swiss lacking in the sense of humor department? Do Icelanders come equipped with an innate sense of cooperation, and style to boot? These are things I cannot attest to.) Even the author himself questions this at times, wondering if he is working with a subtle ‘confirmation bias.’ With this in mind, I would still assert that his experiences hold a level of truth to them– the stories that we read are true for the people who tell them, so even if they don’t apply as a generalization for the entire country, they still hold individual weight.
I found myself chuckling along with Weiner frequently, often thinking that he and I had similar introspective questions about our own views of the world and our personal levels of ‘happiness.’ As I traveled around the world vicariously along with him, I also turned inward time and time again, pondering my own definition of happiness. This book definitely left me with more questions than answers, which I think is creditable… and perhaps was the intention all along.
Dawn regularly contributes money to her local library in the form of late fines. She can be found captivating a very small audience at my thoughts exactly.