Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Twelve, 2008) is an odd hybrid of a book. Part travelogue as stand-up routine, part self-help memoir, part pop sociology report, the tome chronicles Weiner’s travels to 10 countries—many of which he reported from as a foreign correspondent for NPR—and asks the question: Are you happy? For scientific support, Weiner relies heavily on the evolving discipline of happiness studies. The World Database of Happiness, located in—where else?—Amsterdam, tracks happiness country by country with life-satisfaction surveys. (In case you were wondering: Costa Rica is tops, happiness-wise, with Denmark and Iceland close behind. A number of nations in war-plagued Central Africa are at the bottom. The US ranks about 20th, slightly happier than the United Arab Emirates, slightly less happy than New Zealand.)
What Weiner finds is both surprising (monumental wealth has not made the population of Qatar blissful) and axiomatic (there’s more than one path to happiness). Weiner does notice some universal truths, but cautions against a paint-by-numbers approach. For those who won’t get a chance to read the book, here’s the distillation of Weiner’s findings on how to be happy, from the epilogue of The Geography of Bliss: “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.”
Eric Weiner will lecture on topics related to The Geography of Bliss at SUNY New Paltz’s Lecture Center, Room 102, on Thursday, November 5 at 7pm. (845) 257-3426; www.ericweinerbooks.com.
Do you think Americans put too much emphasis on happiness?
We spend too much effort pursuing it head on, when we really should be pursuing it at an angle. “Sideways like a crab” is how John Stuart Mill described how one should approach happiness. It’s one of those paradoxes: The more you try and pursue it directly, the more it eludes you.
I’m sure we spend more on self-help on a per capita basis than any other country in the world, and I don’t know if it’s made us any happier. It’s amazing how many books on happiness are published each year by the self-help industrial complex. I’ve bought lots of these books myself—my wife hides them down in the basement when guests come over. It’s the "self" part of the self-help movement that I have a problem with. It becomes so narcissistic and inward. “How can I improve my own happiness?”—as if it was totally disconnected from anyone else on the planet. We’re a very individualistic country. We use terms like personal happiness without being ironic. Happiness is not personal.
Have you revised any of your idea on happiness since the book came out?
The big event that happened since I wrote the book is the economic downturn, the collapse in some places. Economic difficulty does not equal misery, however. We place so much emphasis on money and wealth as a road to happiness, we assume that its lack makes people miserable. People feel like when they’re interviewed on TV or by a newspaper reporter, they almost have to say they are miserable because they’re worried about their job. It becomes the defining narrative.
The economic downturn hit Iceland especially hard. Are you still in touch with people in Iceland? Are they still as phenomenally happy as when you visited?
Yes. They’re obviously affected by things, and there’s obviously anxiety, but I don’t think they’re miserable. They say that people are pulling together. They have this strong culture to fall back on during difficult times because there’s such a sense of connection to the place. We tend to assume that if a country faces economic difficulty, even serious economic difficulty, as they have in Iceland, then everyone is miserable. There’s this concept of worried happiness, in which you can be anxious about your future yet happy at the same time. Worry and happiness are not mutually exclusive, and I think Icelanders are in a state of worried happiness.
What was the saddest place you visited?
It’s probably a toss-up between Moldova and Qatar, though I’ll give the nod to Qatar. Moldova I sort of expected to be sad, and my expectations were met. It ranks as the least happy country in the world. Qatar has all this wealth—it’s like the whole country won the lottery. You can see what’s it done to people, some of it good: Their health is very good, though obesity is a problem, along with car accidents, because they drive like maniacs.
Qatar is a tiny little country with about 150,000 citizens and 800,000 people living in the country, the rest being hired help. Qatar is a poster child for instant wealth and the problems it can cause, especially in a country that didn’t quite have its footing yet on the world stage. It’s is an example of the corrosive nature of rapid wealth.
But I don’t want to say bad things about the money and happiness, because Switzerland is very wealthy and very happy. It’s not the money per se, it’s what you do with it, your attitude toward it, and your ability to absorb it.
What’s one simple thing we all might do to be even slightly happier?
I met this woman the other day when I was giving a talk in Illinois. She said she tries to talk to five strangers every day. That’s her policy: Have a real conversation with five people she doesn’t know. I thought that was pretty cool. Most of us probably don’t have five real conversations with people we know.
So, read my book, get out of your own head, and lighten up a little.
- Eric Weiner will read and sign copies of his search-for-happiness travelogue, The Geography of Bliss, at SUNY New Paltz on November 5.