Part foreign affairs discourse, part humor, and part twisted self-help guide, this book takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author's case, moments of "un-unhappiness." The book uses a mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Singapore benefit psychologically by having their options limited by the government? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina, so darn happy? NPR correspondent Weiner answers those questions and many others, offering travelers of all moods some interesting new ideas for sunnier destinations and dispositions.--From publisher description.
In either case, I put this one off. I wish I hadn't.
This is most definitely NOT a self help book on how to be happy. It's a study of the world's happiest places, by country, and the author, a correspondent for NPR, explores the regions and tries to assess why these places are noted for their happiness (he also visits places that rank low on the happiness scale). He visits, in which must be the coolest job ever, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Qatar, Bhutan, India, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, the UK, and finally the US.
He goes out, meets people, explores their culture, and really gets into their real life. He doesn't stay in hotels, he tries to room with people he either knows or friends of friends. I have yet to find other books by this author, but I'm going to look. His style is breezy, sarcastic, and much of his research is backed by studies that he quotes extensively. Lots of insights on what makes people happy, and it's definitely not money.
He surmises from his experiences that it is the culture of a locale, the history that the residents exist in, that make their lives happier and more meaningful. Being aware of their place in history, the significance of their architecture and geography, and a pride in their language contributes much towards personal satisfaction (which he explains by the example of Qatar that has money but no culture to speak of). Interaction with each other rather than isolation accounts for much of the happiness they experience (again, so much for my hermit-like theory of happiness!). This is really a must read book, if not for the insights on joy, at least for this man's entertaining writing and wit.
One insight that he has is my favorite quote of the book, something he discovered in Switzerland: "Trusting your neighbors is especially important. Simply knowing them can make a real difference in your quality of life. One study found that, of all the factors that affect the crime rate for a given area, the one that made the biggest difference was not the number of police patrols or anything like that but, rather, how many people you know within a fifteen-minute walk of your house."
It's an entertaining travelogue, written with a lot of humor and a pleasant human touch. Weiner does, admittedly, generalize a lot about the places and cultures he visits, but that's sort of in the nature of the exercise. And his musings, both personal and scientifically based, about the nature of happiness are interesting. If, in the end, his conclusions aren't terribly surprising, they're also not nearly as glib or facile as they might have been, either.
He starts by visiting countries that (semi?-)scientifically rate high on the happiness scale. These include Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, and Iceland. Then, for balance, he has himself a miserable time in low-ranking Moldavia. He concludes that happiness can be found in relationships, money (but not too much), alcohol (ditto), lowered expectations, high hopes, beautiful weather, icy darkness...basically, he finds that when it comes to happiness, your mileage may vary.
But who cares? Weiner is an engaging self-described grump who digs up a lot of neat facts about the places he visits. Bhutan, for instance, has more monks than soldiers. College students in Qatar have so much money that they know they can insult and ignore the (foreign) professors and still be guaranteed a degree -- after all, they paid for it. The darkness in Iceland has many, many shades, and Moldavia has nothing at all to recommend it besides very fresh produce. Et cetera.
Americans like to follow Jefferson and pursue happiness, but after his long jaunt, Weiner wonders if it's best to bloom where you're planted. It's certainly easier to do that when we have roamy books like this to read.
Weiner sprinkles his narrative with social science, history, politics, economics, and even a bit of cultural anthropology. This makes for interesting reading. He not only observes but interacts with the locals and he often finds an expatriate to give the unique perspective of someone from the outside who is inside the culture. His unique perspective on what he observes is quirky and entertaining.
In truth, it sometimes tries a little too hard for laughs, but it was quite interesting and it had some dynamite quotes in it for a writing project I was working on. I'm a bit of a grump myself, I guess, but I would have liked the book better with a different sub-title.
While it does have funny moments and the reader may learn some interesting facts about the different locations visited, this is not the book for the reader genuinely interested in determining if location is a major contributing factor to one's overall happiness.
He didn't spend much time in each country, and met only a handful of residents in each, asking them to tell him if they were happy and why. These not very interesting or helpful anecdotes are supplemented by his own mildly amusing but not very helpful observations. His snap judgments about a country after so little time and exposure reminded me of when I went to Europe right after college (one of those twelve countries in twelve days excursions). Afterwards I thought I knew everything there was to know about each country I visited, and was not shy about expounding on my “insights.” Similar to my behavior back then, Weiner is prone to make over-sweeping generalizations, does not seem to have done much homework on the countries he visits, and thinks that his brief encounters with natives in coffee shops and bars have conferred enlightenment upon him.
Unfortunately, I quickly grew tired of hearing not very interesting or amusing commentary about not very well-researched subjects. After one gratuitous misquote of Cole Porter and one egregious mispronunciation (he said hyperbole as if it were pronounced “hyper-bowl”) (an NPR correspondent, no less!), that was it for me.
I listened to only half of the disks on this unabridged audiobook. I didn’t learn about much of anything except my tolerance for banality. Some of the vignettes may be worthy of a few two-minute essay spots on one of NPR’s shows like “All Things Considered.” But eleven disks? I had to stop; it was making me too unhappy.
Eric Weiner, a foreign correspondent for NPR, traveled the world visiting places indexed by a Dutch researcher as “the happiest places on earth.” For control, he visits one country near the bottom of the list. At each place he stopped, he gathered some clues as to what makes those inhabitants feel a certain level of euphoria about their country. One interesting feature of this journey concerns the wide variety of terms he uses to express happiness. Needless to say, he comes to some rather unusual conclusions. For example, Eric must have some personal bias toward chocolate, since it pops up over and over.
The delightful style of Weiner’s (pronounced “Whiner” he tells us) reminds me of so many detailed stories on NPR, although some of these might be rated PG-13. This wonderful book will make you want to pack up and head off to your idea of a happy place. Also, have your PC warmed up and ready to Google many of the places, food, restaurants, coffee houses, and museums he mentions. One member of our book club said Weiner needed pictures. She then proceeded to pass around a dozen or so images associated with the book. “Bliss” will give your reading group as much fun as ours had last night. 6 stars out of 5
Weiner travels to a variety of places and cultures trying to evaluate their "happiness." It's a silly enough idea that it should put the reader off guard, expecting nonsense, then pleasantly surprise the reader when Weiner gets intelligent and into interesting philosophies, and opens ours eyes a bit. Weiner keeps it entertaining, filling in space with clever lines and ideas, and asking (but not answering) some more difficult questions like is there more to life than happiness and should we be even asking about happiness. But, Weiner really only wants to know what makes some cultures happier than others and why.
One mixed aspect: He keeps the point-of-view American by mixing in American references and relating back to an American mindset. But, when he finally gets to the US, in what could be a great conclusive chapter, he doesn't cover all that much ground.
(originally written 04/22/08; edited 05/09/08)
Makes Bhutan and Thailand sound fascinating, but doesn't dig deep into the violence that sprouts up in Thailand.
Eric Weiner is a former correspondant for National Public Radio who is no stranger to traveling to exotic spots around the globe. In this book he attempts to answer the question “does where we live actually affect how happy we are?” by traveling to those places purported to be the happiest in the world. Thus the book is a travelogue of his journeys, filled with Weiner’s musings on the nature of happiness and wry comments about the people and places he encounters. For example, when he travels to Switzerland he asks a Swissman why he thinks people in his country are so happy. “Have you seen our toilets?” the man replies, and goes on to explain that the state of cleanliness in Swiss public restrooms is a great contributor to their happiness. Scenes like this make me laugh aloud while I am listening, prompting any people nearby to ask what has me so amused.
I also enjoyed encountering some of the most exotic places in the world through his words, such as Bhutan, Qatar, and Moldova (included for contrast as one of the unhappiest places in the world). I am 99% sure I will never travel to those places, but his descriptions of them gave me a taste of what it must be like to visit these remote locales. Weiner’s background as a radio announcer also serves him admirably in the professionalism with which he narrates his own words—and hearing the stories in his own voice adds to the charm of this delightful book. Weiner’s sense of humor, wry observations and amusing metaphors definitely make this one a worthwhile listen—especially for those who like to travel or who like to learn about other countries. But be warned—if it makes you laugh aloud as much as I did you may have some explaining to do to anyone who is around while you are listening to it.