Pity the writer who attempts a treatise on happiness without resorting to shopworn philosophic quotations and the predictable shout-out to Tolstoy. Surely Eric Weiner deserves points for devising a new way to address the perennial question of what makes people happy and why.
The operating conceit of this odyssey memoir is that the author, a professed grouch (“My last name is pronounced ‘whiner,’ and I do my best to live up to the name”), will travel to the world’s happier places to explore to what degree an individual’s happiness is intertwined with a shared geography and culture. To that end, he shoots off to unusual locales — Bhutan, Iceland, Qatar — and to Thailand and India, perpetual stopovers for pleasure seekers, visiting nine foreign countries altogether over the course of a year. His final chapter is about the United States, which “is not as happy as it is wealthy.”
Weiner’s first destination is the Netherlands. He heads to something called the World Database of Happiness, where a social scientist tries to quantify and rank countries by self-reported contentment. There he learns about such happiness fundamentals as “Wealthy people are happier than poor ones, but only slightly” and “People are least happy when they’re commuting to work,” along with broad indicators like the East Asian Happiness Gap, which demonstrates that countries emphasizing societal obligations over individual contentment report lower levels of happiness. Over all, he discovers, the world’s happiest nations are secular and homogeneous, and often report high suicide rates.
Armed with this information, Weiner visits not only happy countries but also a couple that fall into the sad camp, as he puzzles out the sources of relative discontent. Chapters follow a trajectory, from initial annoyance (“Damn the efficient, competent Swiss to hell”) to grudging appreciation (“Swiss toilets are indeed clean”) to outright admiration (“I’m in love. The object of my amour is not a woman or even a person. It is the Swiss rail network”). He adeptly weaves his own discoveries and others’ academic conclusions into his travelogue; not once does it feel as if information had been systematically downloaded into a chapter, or narrative threads elaborately woven to make data fit.
And what does he learn? As Weiner says of happiness science and could easily say of his book, “The research findings are alternatively obvious and counterintuitive, expected and surprising.” In general, happiness levels within a country vary less than happiness levels between countries, though not everyone’s personality suits the cultural blueprint of his native land. In several places, Weiner encounters people he calls “hedonic refugees,” those who realize they were born in the wrong place and bound off in search of a better “cultural fit.” They may head to Thailand, where happiness seems to stem from avoidance of analysis and introspection. Or to Switzerland, where contentment means living in a democracy in which people have real power over their choices and trust others to carry them out.
Yet disorienting contradictions abound. Drink brings merriment in Iceland but adds to the sorrows of Moldova. Icelanders relish personal failure and “indulge in ‘enjoyment of misery,’ ” while “Moldovans derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success.”
Weiner is best in lowly Moldova, one of several post-Soviet nations dumped at the bottom of the happiness heap. Without an “abiding faith or culture on which to rely,” Moldovans, Weiner writes, harbor a superstition that is “free-floating, anchored to nothing but the cloud of pessimism that hovers over this sad land.” Hopping aboard a crowded bus, he observes, “Every face is frozen in an expression that is simultaneously vacant” and vaguely teed off — “an expression I came to identify as the Moldovan Scowl.”
This part of the book is funny, but not all of it is. The problem with “The Geography of Bliss” is one of tone. It comes across as an attempted amalgam of Paul Theroux’s bleak humor, P. J. O’Rourke’s caustic wit and David Sedaris’s appreciation of the absurd. There’s a kind of forced jocularity to Weiner’s writing, as if the author were trying to affect the appropriate persona for his subject. Rather than projecting a hoity NPR-ness (Weiner was one of its foreign correspondents for a decade), he cops an attitude of faux populism, taking potshots at the Ivy League, Nietzsche and other dead white males, all of which comes across as somewhat insincere.
The book is also weakened by the disconcerting fact that Weiner sometimes spends as little as two weeks in a given country. This might be O.K. if he were writing about its olive oil industry, but someone trying to tackle something as intrinsic yet amorphous as a culture’s well-being could have used more time in each place. Fascinating nuggets of information are too often wedged between thunderingly obvious generalizations; pithiness occasionally veers into the trite: “The disease and the cure,” reads a typical, less-than-illuminating passage. “India has it all. One-stop shopping.” It’s not especially clear what the reader is meant to make of the information on hand.
According to a recent study, Denmark’s key to happiness is lowered expectations. With that in mind, readers will find pleasure, however fleeting, in these pages.