The Geography of Bliss is a tough book to nail down. It defies categorization. I like to think of it as a philosophical humorous travel memoir. It is all of those things, and more.
For years, as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, I covered a multitude of catastrophes, natural and man-made. But for The Geography of Bliss, I decided to tell the other side of the story by visiting some of the world’s most contented places.
Using the ancient philosophers and the much more recent “science of happiness” as my guide, I travel the world in search of the happiest places and what we can learn from them. As I make my way from Iceland (one of the world’s happiest countries) to Bhutan (where the king has made Gross National Happiness a national priority) to Moldova (not a happy place), I call upon the collective wisdom of “the self-help industrial complex” to help navigate the path to contentment.
I travel to Switzerland, where I discover the hidden virtues of boredom; to the tiny-and extremely wealthy-Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where the relationship between money and happiness is laid bare; to India, where Westerners seek their bliss at the feet of gurus; to Thailand, where not thinking is a way of life; to a small town outside London where happiness experts attempt to “change the psychological climate.” I am no dispassionate observer. In my quest for the world’s happiest places, I eat rotten Icelandic shark, smoke Moroccan hashish and intervene to save (almost) an insect in distress.
Is this a travel book? Yes, but not a typical one. While I do log thousands of miles in researching the book, The Geography of Bliss is really a travelogue of ideas. I roam the world in search of answers to the pressing questions of our time: What are the essential ingredients for the good life? Why are some places happier than others? How are we shaped by our surroundings? Why can’t airlines serve a decent meal?
Is this a self-help book? Perhaps, but not like any you’ve read before. I offer no simple bromides here. No chicken soup. You will find no easy answers in these pages. You will, however, find much to chew on and, perhaps, some unexpected inspiration. We Americans, it turns out, have no monopoly on the pursuit of happiness. There is wisdom to be found in the least likely of places.
Place. That is what The Geography of Bliss is about. How place—in every aspect of the word—shapes us, defines us. Change your place, I believe, and you can change your life.
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My bags were packed and my provisions loaded. I was ready for adventure. And so, on a late summer afternoon, I dragged my reluctant friend Drew off to explore new worlds and, I hoped, to ﬁ nd some happiness along the way. I’ve always believed that happiness is just around the corner. The trick is ﬁnding the right corner.
Not long into our journey, Drew grew nervous. He pleaded with me to turn back, but I insisted we press on, propelled by an irresistible curiosity about what lay ahead. Danger? Magic? I needed to know, and to this day I’m convinced I would have reached wherever it was I was trying to reach had the Baltimore County Police not concluded, impulsively I thought at the time, that the shoulder of a major thoroughfare was no place for a couple of ﬁ ve-year-olds.
Some people acquire the travel bug. Others are born with it. My afﬂiction, if that’s what it is, went into remission for many years following my aborted expedition with Drew. It resurfaced after college with renewed fury. I desperately wanted to see the world, preferably on someone else’s dime. But how? I had no marketable skills, a stunted sense of morality, and a gloomy disposition. I decided to become a journalist.
As a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, I traveled to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia: unhappy places. On one level, this made perfect sense. Unconsciously, I was observing the ﬁrst law of writing: Write about what you know. And so, notebook in hand, tape recorder slung over my shoulder, I roamed the world telling the stories of gloomy, unhappy people. The truth is that unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for good stories. They tug at heartstrings and inspire pathos.
They can also be a real bummer.
What if, I wondered, I spent a year traveling the globe, seeking out not the world’s well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places? 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?
That’s exactly what I intended to ﬁnd out, and the result of this admittedly harebrained experiment is the book you now hold in your hands.
I was born in the Year of the Smiley Face: 1963. That’s when a graphic designer from Worcester, Massachusetts, named Harvey Ball invented the now-ubiquitous grinning yellow graphic. Originally, Ball’s creation was designed to cheer up people who worked at, of all places, an insurance company, but it has since become synonymous with the frothy, quintessentially American brand of happiness.
Ball’s cheery icon never worked its magic on me. I am not a happy person, never have been. As a child, my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character was Eeyore. For most of human history, I would have been considered normal. Happiness, in this life, on this earth, was a prize reserved for the gods and the fortunate few. Today, though, not only is happiness considered possible for anyone to attain, it is expected. Thus I, and millions of others, suffer from the uniquely modern malady that historian Darrin McMahon calls “the unhappiness of not being happy.” It is no fun at all.
And so, like many others, I’ve worked at it. I never met a self-help book I didn’t like. My bookshelf is a towering, teetering monument to existential angst, brimming with books informing me that happiness lies deep inside of me. If I’m not happy, they counsel, then I’m not digging deep enough.
This axiom of the self-help industrial complex is so deeply ingrained as to be self-evident. There’s only one problem: It’s not true. Happiness is not inside of us but out there. Or, to be more precise, the line between out there and in here is not as sharply deﬁned as we think.
The late British-born philosopher Alan Watts, in one of his wonderful lectures on eastern philosophy, used this analogy: “If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say I have drawn a circle or a disc, or a ball. Very few people will say I’ve drawn a hole in the wall, because most people think of the inside ﬁrst, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together—you cannot have what is ‘in here’ unless you have what is ‘out there.’ ”
In other words, where we are is vital to who we are.
By “where,” I’m speaking not only of our physical environment but also of our cultural environment. Culture is the sea we swim in—so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it. It matters more than we think.
With our words, we subconsciously conﬂate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of ﬁ nding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills. Anyone who has taken a vacation to, say, some Caribbean island and had ﬂash through their mind the uninvited thought “I could be happy here” knows what I mean.
Lurking just behind the curtain is, of course, that tantalizing, slippery concept known as paradise. It has beguiled us humans for some time now. Plato imagined the Blessed Isles, a place where happiness ﬂowed like the warm Mediterranean waters. Until the eighteenth century, people believed that biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, was a real place. It appeared on maps—located, ironically, at the conﬂuence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now modern-day Iraq.
European explorers prepared for expeditions in search of paradise by learning Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. I set out on my journey, my search for paradise, speaking not Aramaic but another obscure language, the modern liturgy of bliss spoken by the new apostles of the emerging science of happiness. I brush up on terms like “positive affect” and “hedonic adaptation.” I carry no Bible, just a few Lonely Planet guides and a conviction that, as Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
And so, on a typically steamy day in Miami (itself some people’s concept of paradise), I pack my bags and depart my home on what I know full well is a fool’s errand, every bit as foolish as the one I tried to pull off as a peripatetic ﬁve-year-old. As the author Eric Hoffer put it, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” That’s okay. I’m already unhappy. I have nothing to lose.
New York Times Bestseller
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Washington Post ”Best of 2008″
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“The Geography of Bliss is the kind of book that makes you think of Scrooge in the tropics, chomping his cigar, bah-humbugging as marimbas are played, jotting notes even Richard Nixon would love. Oh wait-that’s P.J. O’Rourke. This is Eric Weiner, who’s infinitely less annoying . . . Solid enjoyable travel writing.
-Liz Spikol, Philadelphia Weekly
“While his own bliss may be elusive, Weiner, equal parts philosopher, travel guide, and self-help expert-and wholly hilarious-has written a book you can delight in.”
-Elissa Shappel, Vanity Fair
“While Weiner may indeed be a grump (I did find his obsessive collection of bags and admiration of Really Expensive Pens quite endearing), he’s the best kind of reading companion — sharply observant and sweetly self-deprecating, quick with the perfect literary allusion, and funny when it matters. You’ll find yourself haunted by little nuggets from his travels.”
-Susan Larson, New Orleans Times Picayune
“Weiner is a perceptive traveler, and he enlivens and deepens his narrative quest by seeking out knowledgeable locals and expats wherever he goes, allowing him to create an illuminating anecdotal topo map of each country’s psychographic landscape. I finished The Geography of Bliss feeling like I had just taken a whirlwind tour of the world with an engaging and well-informed guide, utilizing an important and too often overlooked compass: happiness.”
-Don George, National Geographic Traveler
“Weiner shows a remarkable capacity for translating analytic date into real-world insights. . . He proves a knowledgeable tour guide about radically dissimilar places and, despite calling himself a ‘grump,’ a very funny companion.”
-Andrea Walker, The Hartford Courant
“A charming, funny and illuminating travelogue . . . If you want to wag a politically correct finger in his direction, you’ll have to stop laughing first . . . One of the ineluctable laws of travel is that most companions are beguiling at the beginning and annoying by the end. Weiner’s company wears surprisingly well. It takes a chapter or two to decide you like him, and another to realize that you like him a lot, but by the time the trip is over, you find yourself hoping that you’ll hit the road together again someday. The Geography of Blissis a journey too good to be rare.”
-Daniel Gilbert, Washington Post Book World
“Grouchy or not, Weiner displays an openness to other cultures and a huge sense of humor in this absorbing, funny, and thoughtfullook at notions of bliss.”
“With one single book, Eric Weiner has flushed Bill Bryson down a proverbial toilet, and I say that lovingly. By turns hilarious and profound, this is the kind of book that could change your life. The relationship between place and contentment is an ineffable one, and Weiner cuts through the fog with a big, powerful light. The Geography of Bliss is no smiley-face emoticon, it’s a Winslow Homer.”
-Henry Alford, author of Municipal Bondage and Big Kiss
“Laugh. Think. Repeat. Repeatedly. If someone told me this book was this good, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
-Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do With My Life?
“Think Don Quixote with a dark sense of humor and a taste for hashishand you begin to grasp Eric Weiner, the modern knight-errant of this mad, sad, wise, and witty quest across four continents. I won’t spoil the fun by telling if his mission succeeds, except to say that happiness is reading a book as entertaining as this.”
-Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic
“Part travelogue, part personal-discovery memoir and all sustained delight, this wise, witty ramble reads like Paul Theroux channeling David Sedaris on a particularly good day…Fresh and beguiling.”
“In the end, Weiner’s travel tales-eating rotten shark meat in Iceland, smoking hashish in Rotterdam, trying to meditate at an Indian ashram-provide great happiness for his readers.”
–Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
Why Iceland is so happy
Why did you decide to write this book?
For years, I was a foreign correspondent for NPR, a job that entailed traveling to the world’s least happy countries, identifying the least happy people in these countries and then spending a lot of time hanging out with them. This was rewarding work, yes, but also a real bummer. So one day I thought, “What if I sought out the world’s happiest places? What hidden wisdom might these happy people possess?” That’s how this admittedly harebrained idea got started.
So it’s a book about happy people?
In a way. But it’s really a book about happy places. There are many books out there that focus on the question “What is happiness?” I attempt to answer the question “Where is happiness?” I’ve always believed that we are creatures of geography, of place. By “place” I mean physical place, yes, but also cultural place. Culture is the sea we swim in. It matters a lot more than we think.
But can’t we be happy anywhere?
No, I don’t think so. Not any more than we could be happy married to just anyone. And that is one of the great shortcomings of the “self-help industrial complex.” We’re told, again and again, to look inward when much of our happiness depends on our environment. Change your environment and you can change your life. This isn’t running away from your problems but simply recognizing that where we are affects who we are.
The book’s subtitle is: “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.” Are you really grumpy?
Yes. When my editor and I sat down to write the subtitle, we considered a lot of words to describe me: curmudgeon, malcontent, crank. I’m all these things but ultimately, we decided on grump. I’m not particularly happy, and in that way I’m typical of my profession. Journalists are a sullen lot, perhaps understandably so, given the misery we’re exposed to on a regular basis. Still, I’ve always had a hidden buoyancy. I’m a closet optimist. Please don’t tell anyone.
Why are you so unhappy?
I’m not sure. I’m a perfectionist, and that is certainly a recipe for unhappiness. One friend called me a “sadness addict,” and I think that is about right. It’s better to feel sad than to feel nothing. For most of human history, I’d be considered normal. Happiness was reserved for the gods and the fortunate few. These days, happiness is not only possible for everyone, it’s expected, and that creates a lot of pressure—what historian Darrin McMahon calls “the unhappiness of not being happy.”
You’re a journalist. Is this a typical journalist’s book?
No. Despite my innate grumpiness, the pages are tinged with a sense of optimism. No self-respecting journalist would write a book like that. Basically, I view the world as a laboratory of ideas—hundreds of ideas about how to live a better life, a happier life. These ideas may not have been invented here but surely some can be transplanted here. It’s a different way of looking at the world.
How did you choose the countries that you visited?
Two ways: Scientifically—and not. There is data out there about the world’s happiest nations. Not perfect data, mind you, but reliable enough so that we can safely say that some countries are clearly happier than others. The second criteria I used was a bit more nuanced. Viewing the world again as a laboratory of ideas, I decided to travel to countries that possessed a certain “happiness ingredient” in spades. For instance, if you believe that money can buy happiness, then surely the residents of Qatar must be happy. The Persian Gulf nation is the wealthiest in the world—the perfect Petri dish for studying the connection between money and happiness.
Your first journey took you to someplace called The World Database of Happiness? Is that a real place?
Yes. It’s in the Netherlands. It contains mankind’s accumulated knowledge about what makes us happy and, even more important, where we are happy. Physically, it’s an unassuming, even ugly place, but it’s fascinating.
Can scientists really measure happiness?
Yes, though not as precisely as they measure, say, earthquakes. Basically, they ask people “Overall, how happy are you these days?” It turns out that we are surprisingly good judges of our own happiness.
Why did you go to Moldova? Is it a happy place?
No. In fact, it is, statistically, the least happy country in the world. I went there because, frankly, all of these chronically happy places were starting to bum me out. Also, what better way to study something (like happiness) than by examining its opposite?
What was your favorite country?
That’s hard to say. In a way, I liked them all (except Moldova). But Iceland and Bhutan were among my favorites. They are geographical outliers, places that are practically falling off the map yet possess an undeniable bliss. And for unexpected reasons. Icelanders manage to embrace both failure and darkness. Bhutan has an actual national policy of Gross National Happiness. Need I say more?
What about the U.S. chapter? That must have been relatively easy to write.
Actually, it was the most difficult chapter to write. It’s easier to see other cultures more clearly than your own. You’re too close to it.
Is America a happy place?
Yes, but not as happy as you’d think, given our great wealth and military muscle. There are many countries in the world that are happier than us. Yet we Americans, I think, believe deeply in this connection between place and happiness. The frontier spirit is probably the clearest manifestation of this. Every year, some 40 million Americans move. Why? Because they think they’ll be happier someplace else.
Is this a travel book?
Yes and no. Yes, because I do travel to some ten counties. I logged tens of thousands of miles. But it’s really a travelogue of ideas, and it is these ideas—about happiness, about the good life—that inform the book as much as the physical places themselves.
Who are your favorite writers?
Not surprisingly, they are writers who combine these two elements: place and ideas. Paul Theroux, P.J. O’Rourke, Jan Morris. Especially Jan Morris. I’d read anything she writes, including a grocery list.
When researching this book, how did you travel? First class?
No, except in Qatar, and that was done purely for research purposes (I swear). I tried to avoid luxury hotels. They are the worst ways to get to know a country. As often as possible, I stayed with friends and friends of friends. Not only was it cheaper, it also provided me a wonderful window into those particular countries.
Has the book changed you? Are you less grumpy?
Yes and yes. And, to be honest, I didn’t know it would turn out this way when I started my journey. But I realize now that during my travels I’ve accumulated morsels of wisdom. On of my favorites is the Thai notion of “mai pen lai.” It means basically, just let it go. You don’t have to solve every problem right now. A simple idea, but a tremendously liberating one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not exactly the Dalai Lama but I’m definitely less grumpy than I used to be.
So, what’s your conclusion? Where is the happiest place in the world?
That’s a tough one. I have some hunches, but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out.