Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Secret to Happiness? Book Review: "The Geography of Bliss"

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@Barrie Summy

Are you happy?? It's hard to pick up a magazine these days without an article titled something like "10 Secrets to Happiness" or "Finding Your Inner Joy." Bookstore shelves are filled with books promoting ways to becoming a happier person. Even before the bad economy caused society's spirits to plummet, Americans have been obsessed with finding happiness in our lives. Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than focusing on the individual and helping him or her change his outlook on life, Weiner, a journalist, sets out to find what factors help to create a positive environment for happiness.

Weiner, a self-confessed curmudgeon, points out his name is--appropriately enough--pronounced Whin-er and that as a child his favorite character in Winnie-the-Pooh was Eeyore. He decides to spend a year traveling the globe in search of places where people are considered happy to find out the secret to this elusive feeling.

He visits places like Bhutan, very similar in appearance to the mythical Shangri-La, where the government places more importance on its policy of Gross National Happiness than on the GNP. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Thailand, Great Britain, and India are other stops in his quest. In each country Weiner finds some clues to that nation's general feeling of happiness, but no definitive answers and often contradictory ideas.

For example, in tiny Qatar, perhaps the wealthiest nation in the world, Weiner finds that money does not guarantee happiness. The oil-rich Qataris have everything they could possibly want--and then some--but their lives are filled with family squabbles and insecurity. When Weiner returns home to the U.S., he finds a similar situation. Despite the fact that we are the "wealthiest nation ever," the U.S. ranks, according to one study, as the 23rd happiest nation in the world.

On the other hand, poverty-stricken nations rank low on the happiness scale, as one might expect. Weiner visits one such nation purposely to contrast with happier states. The small nation of Moldova, once part of the Soviet Union, is a poor country with what appears to be a very depressed population. Yet, it isn't just the lack of money that causes this unhappiness, Weiner finds, but also the fact that Moldova seems to have no cultural identity.

One of the happiest nations surprisingly is the country of Iceland, which Weiner visits during the eternal darkness of winter. Here he finds some of the most novel ideas of his trip. Icelanders are proud of their language and their culture, two important factors in a nation's happiness, but they also demonstrate a lack of envy and have no fear of failure, both of which seem to promote contentment.

I enjoyed Weiner's humorous touches and his skepticism about many of the theories he found. He is a good sport, willing to try anything to experience local customs whether it is smoking Moroccan hash in a Dutch "coffee shop" or tasting the Icelandic delicacy of rotten shark. While he dives into the local culture, he doesn't necessarily embrace it. In India, for example, his experience in an ashram is disappointing; he feels no spiritual enlightenment, but is more concerned that he has to give up coffee for three days. As a fellow caffeine addict, I can empathize.

The Geography of Bliss is a book of substance, not pop psychology. Weiner includes quotes from philosophers and a great deal of evidence from various research studies on happiness to support or contradict the theories he encounters. One of my favorite excerpts is near the end of the book, when he realizes that there is no such thing as paradise on earth.

One man's paradise can be another's hell, and the converse holds true as
well. When European missionaries first landed in Greenland several centuries
ago, intent on converting the pagan natives to Christianity, they offered the
usual carrot-and stick approach: Convert and you get a shot at heaven; don't ,
and you will be condemned to an eternity in hell.

"What is this hell like?" asked the curious Greenlanders.

"Oh it is very, very hot," replied the missionaries. "It is hot all of
the time."

The Greenlanders surveyed the frozen Arctic tundra that was their home
and replied, "We'll take hell, thank you."

In the end, Weiner finds no definitive answers to the secret of happiness--though he does share some hypotheses--and isn't necessarily any happier than he was before he began his quest. Yet he does find that his attitude towards many things in life have changed for the better. In the same way, as I read his book I found myself contemplating my own life and whether I was happy. I have always thought of myself as a "glass half-empty" sort of person and once thought that only a big, new 3 1/2-bathroom house was necessary for my personal happiness. But I see things differently now than before: I will probably never live in that beautiful new house, but you know what? I don't care. I realize it is the simple things that bring me joy and make me happy. A good book, a fresh cup of strong coffee, and a little chocolate bring me pleasure. Beyond that there are the most important things in life:



A group of my high school classmates met for dinner last week, the first time many of us had seen each other in nearly 20 years. What fun to reminisce and catch up on each others' lives!

New Year's Eve was also special, as we ushered in the new year in our traditional way with a toast along with two dear friends.

Friends with four legs and unconditional love and devotion.

And, of course, my Garden!

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

All book reviews posted here are solely at the whim of this blogger. No remuneration of any kind was given for this review.


  1. I love that NH quote at the end of your piece. I am so glad to read that you have found happiness in the things that count. Everyone would feel happier if they did so.

  2. I agree with all your ingredients to happiness--four-legged friends are just as much comfort as two-legged ones! :) Not really happiness related, but one of the researchers I worked with at the Transportation Institute branched out a few years back and investigated other topics. One was the cost of heating/cooling in different cities in the world... and he found that it costs less to live in warm climates, because air conditioning is less expensive than heating. Um, because I thought you'd want to know.

  3. Hi Rose! Your post gave me several minutes of happinness, thank you!

  4. Lovely post on happiness and it so true to relish the things we have in our lives; which is of itself a happy thing.

  5. You have a great attitude! I think we all got warped as children with Barbie's Dream House and all her great clothes and her fantastic car. I'll never live in the Dream House, I'll never look as good in clothes as that freakish doll - so what? I think the key to happiness is that envy factor. If we can 86 the envy, we'll all be a lot happier.

  6. Love your review. Splendid how you wove his physical journey into your own reflective one. I can tell you true, that money does not buy happiness. However, joy begets more joy. Here's to friend, faith and family.~~dee

  7. I love the way you tie this book in with your own life. Great review! And, as always, thanks for joining in.

  8. Any book you recommend must be wonderful, Rose. Your reviews are so articulate and well thought out. This sounds fabulous, the subject matter intriguing. I just want you to know, I had that giant house that I thought was the answer to happiness, it wasn't. Our small house, close to the grands and offspring is so much better, in every way. With age comes wisdom. :-)

  9. I have a small plaque with the Hawthorne quote on it. Love that quote and the deeper searching behind it.

  10. A friend of mine reviewed this book for my library readers group and I've wanted to read it ever since. I do have to wonder if Weiner would find the Icelanders as happy if he revisited the country now. I suspect he was there before their economy crashed. Love the Hawthorne quote and the Greenlander heaven-hell story. I've added this one to my Kindle Wish List. Great review.

  11. Yay! You are back to book reviewing. I love the reverse premise of this book, its title and how you set it up in your review with ties to your own life. Who would have guessed Iceland? I guess I should have since I’m so happy in Maine. A winter full of snow and even limited sunshine is bliss, but I’ll skip the rotten shark…. You are right about the good things in life. Fabulous post!

  12. What a wonderful post, Rose! I've been on a lot of airplanes lately and when I fly I read the latest rags, all of which talk about finding happiness as you mentioned. I've wondered about that, too.

    Now here's a goodie for you: In my last job I got a negative review because I 'laugh and giggle' too much.

    Which is what prompted me to become a happy, giggling freelancer! :)))

  13. I am so with you...I love the simple things in life and have found my true moments of happiness there and not in things! Loved your thoughts on this one!

  14. You have it so right....where would we be without the most important things in life. My family are so important to me and do help me in the garden. My 4-legged friends keep me company while I garden :-)

  15. Thanks for visiting my review!

    Funny we both talked about happiness!
    And, yes, if you try another Barr book, begin with the first one. She gets progressively darker and darker, so the early ones are more about nature and Anna Pigeon's love for it, and deep respect for the environment. I don't mind the gore by the end, but, funnily enough it bothered hubby, too!

  16. Rose this is a wonderful post. The book sounds interesting but I think happiness begins in each and every one of us. No two of us are alike so therefore what makes one happy doesn't necessarily for the other.

    I like your idea of chocolate, coffee and a good book. Very simple but so nice.

    Glad you got to see your high school friends. I bet ya'll had a wonderful time.

  17. Rose, this was a great post. Very interesting-sounding book. Of course your priorities would be family first, friends and loyal friends! ;-) Happy New Year! Will you be receiving more snow tonight??

  18. It sounds like this was a really interesting book, and your own outlook on happiness is wonderful!

  19. I was thinking about happiness just this morning when I shared an intensely happy time with of all things my pet chicken, "Little." With everything frozen outside I took her into the greenhouse and set her down in an unplanted bed where she proceeded to have the most ecstatic dust bath, kicking and scratching the dirt in all directions, even rolling on her back with feet in the air. I laughed out loud at her so obvious enjoyment. City people would maybe think I'm nuts...

  20. That Hawthorne quote is fabulous. And so true. A friend of mine told me about that book. There are so many of that type of book out there. And I think there always will be. Family, friends, and garden - the best.

  21. Who wants to clean 3-1/2 bathrooms, anyway?! (Great review, thanks.)

  22. I'm heading out to buy a one way ticket to Bhuton. Better pick up a learn to speak Bhutonese CD on the way.

  23. Yes....... its the simple things in life that make me happy.
    Family,friends, little gestures that people make and of course all you lovely bloggers who comment and leave such good things for me to read.

    Nuts in May

  24. I don't think we can find happiness elsewhere; unless we have the right outlook it's - what's the word? just out of reach ... im-something

    The wise find happiness in the small things - and the really important things - just like your list!

  25. Lisa, I think that is the source of happiness--being content with what you have. Maybe I should write a book?:)

    Monica, LOL, your mind works like mine:) I never met a digression I didn't like:)

    Tatyana, I'm so glad!

    Tina, I think the Hawthorne quote says it all.

    MMD, I'm older, so I just missed the Barbie craze. But yes, I think that's at the heart of American dissatisfaction--and something Weiner mentions--we think we should have it all.

    Dee, I like that notion that "joy begets joy." A positive attitude rubs off on others.

    Barrie, Thanks for hosting and for keeping me in the loop even when I wasn't participating.

    Frances, Thank you for the kind words and for assuring me that that big house isn't all it appears to be. Of course, nowadays I wouldn't want to clean anything bigger than what I have either:)

    Scott, Thanks for visiting! And, yes, the minute I found that quote, I knew it expressed just how I felt.

    Linda, I'd never even heard of this book until I found it on a list of recommended books on the Barnes and Noble website. I don't know about the Icelanders--the way they are described in this book, I think they might just shrug off an economic crisis and go on with their lives.

    Sarah, Yes, I would have thought a tropical island would be the source of the most happiness. But then those of us who suffer through these long winters do appreciate spring and summer so much more, don't we?

    Kate, Enjoyed your comment! I would love to meet you in person--I'm a giggler, too:)

    Staci, Thank you; as I've gotten older, I've realized Thoreau had it right.

    Noelle, Gardening has really helped me change my perspective. The oneness with nature has given me such joy that I've come to realize how important these small moments are.

    Jenn, I will definitely try one of the earlier Barr books. Funny, I've noticed many of my favorite mystery writers have gotten darker in recent years. Are they caving into some kind of pressure, do you think?

    Susie, That's an excellent point! Happiness is not a generalization that can apply to everyone. Yes, it was great to see my old--er, long-lost-- friends!

  26. Shady, Thanks, and yes, we have had more than our fair share of snow--but probably not as much as Iowa has had.

    Rose, This book was out of my normal "comfort zone" but I did enjoy it.

    Kathi, I loved this little story--it illustrates exactly how I feel, too. Those small moments mean the most. Who cares what "city people" think:)

    Jean, Ironically, I turned on Oprah yesterday and it was a repeat episode of the "Happiest Cities in the World." We Americans seem to be obsessed with this.

    Sarahlynn, Good point!:)

    Marnie, Bhutan does sound better than Iceland right now:)

    Maggie, You are living proof of what's important in life! And your friend who came to visit recently is the type of person who creates happiness.

    Liz, I know what you mean, but I can't think of the word either. Weiner didn't discuss religion much in this book, but I've read that faith in some more powerful being is an ingredient to happiness as well.

  27. I loved this book. I read it a couple years ago. Some things literally cracked me up. Thanks for reminding me of it's greatness.

  28. How lovely, Rose. I've always sensed inner happiness within you :) If only more myopic eyes could see ...

  29. A lovely post Rose and perfect for me to read...I've been grousing for days wondering if I might be ready to move to a warmer, sunnier climate!

    I loved the photos of your beautiful family, celebrating friends and delightful companion. gail

  30. Rose, that was a well-written adventure into the secret of happiness. I enjoyed reading your book review (think I'll skip the rotten shark, and hashish, if you don't mind) and liked the way you've expressed your own happiness as well.

    Your family, friends, pets, and that heavenly shot of your garden say it all. Oh, and please pass the coffee and chocolate! Yummmm!

  31. Dear Rose,
    It is the little things that bring much happiness into my life too.
    I am thrilled to see a bee or a butterfly. In the winter it is the birds and the trees that bring happiness.
    Thanks for the book review.
    I shall go get another cup of coffee and a chocolate...perfect for this cold January day.

  32. Rose, happiness is what we make it, is it not? It must start from within. Our family and friends (including those wonderful 4-legged ones)add to that.

    I was just thinking about a post on Iceland several days ago while looking through some photos. It is a beautiful country, but unfortunately bankrupt at the moment. Sure hope the folks there can keep their positive attitude.

  33. love the quote from hawthorne.
    sometimes i truly believe being happy is a decision we make. life is so wonderful if we are looking for the wonder in it. happiness is the way we look at things that are common to everyman.
    enjoyed your review.
    happy january.

  34. I like the NH quote too, and remember a wise friend saying that happiness happened when you were busy doing something else.


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