Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Geography of Bliss

The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner
$11.19 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 978-0446698894
Travel memoirs are my favorite kind of book: it's fun to visit exotic locations without having to deal with all the harrowing inconveniences the author had to put up with. As an added bonus, The Geography of Bliss considers a thought-provoking question: what makes people happy?
As a war correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner spent time in Irag, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. Not very happy places. In this book, he travels the world visiting several countries known for hosting some of the happiest people alive, investigating the true global secret of happiness.
He begins in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, home to the World Database of Happiness. The Netherlands also features legalized pot and prostitution: not a guarantee for happiness, but definitely a good start.
At the Database, Weiner learns that every language has a word for happiness, and all cultures value it, but not to the same degree. The happiest places don't necessarily fit our preconceived notions of what happiness is.
Consider, for example, the Swiss. Every part of life in Switzerland is governed by a series of rules: no toilet flushing after 10PM, no lawn mowing on Sundays. Most people would find this kind of order oppressive, but the Swiss seem to love it. It's also incredibly clean. There are never any potholes on Swiss roads. This is a kind of humorless happiness.
Contrast this with Bhutan, a remote nation in the Himalayas. Isolation has made Bhutan what it is: the first nation to challenge the notion that money alone is absolutely good. It enjoys a super low crime rate, and murder is almost completely unheard of. Many Bhutanese men spend three years meditating, not speaking. The King of Bhutan measures, not the Gross Domestic Product as western nations do, but Gross National Happiness.
So what's the key to bliss? It's certainly not good weather: bleak Iceland and Denmark are among the happiest in the world. It's not democracy either: Thailand, Qatar, and Bhutan are all monarchies.
Obviously, there is no simple answer, but it's still a thrill to contemplate while enjoying the author's extensive travels to dozens of places I'll probably never visit myself. The Geography of Bliss is also a finalist for Barnes & Noble's prestigious Discover Great New Writers Award. It's easy to get into, occasionally makes you think, and laced with just the right amount of humor.

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