"One's destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things."
Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
The jacket cover of Eric Weiner's 2008 work, "The Geography of Bliss", is a deep sky-blue and features a small paper airplane made out of a colorful page from an atlas.
Atlases are tools of the trade for Weiner, a National Public Radio foreign correspondent. During his 10-year stint with NPR, he covered events in excruciatingly unhappy places across the planet. Injustice, destruction and war are always newsworthy topics – he notes that stories of the misery of others can inspire compassion and often move people to good actions. But, according to Weiner in the introduction to his travelogue, The Geography of Bliss, in some ways he was drawn to these locales and stories because unhappiness was familiar terrain for him.
Despite being born in the year of the yellow happy face, 1963, Weiner is a whiner by his own account; like many people who tend to be dissatisfied with their own context. Pondering the intangible nature of happiness and seeking its quantifiable qualities, Weiner sets out to discover if his own mopey-ness might be related to geography: Where on the globe are people the happiest? Can happiness be found, as many of us believe, "somewhere else"? What makes some places "happier" than others? Are there certain areas where the grass really is greener?
The book follows Weiner's one-year journey to explore the nature of happiness in relationship to place. He examines his personal interior (and rather gloomy) landscape, while bearing in mind that the concept of "where" includes both cultural and physical environments. His experiences around the world make for delightful reading. I especially like the tales involving miscomprehension due to language usage. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on The Netherlands:
The hotel dining room is small, cozy. The Dutch do cozy well. I order the asparagus soup. It's good. The waiter clears my bowl and then says, 'Now maybe you would like some intercourse.'
'Intercourse. You can have intercourse.'
I'm thinking, Wow the Dutch really are a permissive bunch, when it dawns on me that he is speaking of something else entirely. Inter course. As in 'between courses'.
'Yes,' I say, relieved. 'That would be nice.' (p.7)
Even the names of the chapters are funny. For example, "Chapter 2 – Switzerland, Happiness is Boredom" and "Chapter 6 – Moldova, Happiness is Somewhere Else."
Weiner includes a balanced mix of personal anecdotes, scientific data collected on happiness, literary quotes, and historical references from across the globe. It is a well-paced, entertaining and informative read. The Geography of Bliss is a travel book of sorts, but one that delves into the cultural similarities and differences of a single state of being shared by all human beings, happiness.
All the countries Weiner visits offer him a unique perspective from which to contemplate the nature of happiness, but perhaps the title of Chapter 8 best sums up the essence of the book. The chapter is ostensibly about happiness in Great Britain, but the subtitle is applicable to any nation – or any individual, for that matter: "Happiness Is a Work in Progress."
I'm happy to recommend The Geography of Bliss. Wherever you are, geographically or emotionally, this book offers an armchair tour of the globe guaranteed to make you chuckle.
Below, the author talks with internet correspondent Thomas Scrampton about Icelandic happiness.