“I’ve always believed that happiness was just around the corner. The trick is finding the right corner.”
The Geography of Bliss is one man’s attempt to see if location really can make you happy. Isn’t that one reason people go on vacations? Will being in the Virgin Islands or at Grandma’s house make a difference in our happiness? Surely life would be better if only we were in a better place! Is Paradise on earth a possibility? Resisting all the self-help books that told him that happiness is inside of a person, Weiner made a semi-scientific attempt to see if happiness could actually be “out there” instead of “in here.”
This volume is in the best tradition of travelogues. It is funny. It takes you places you have never been before. And it doesn’t take itself or the places it goes too seriously. It’s a good ride.
Weiner begins his narrative with a trip to Amsterdam where there really is such a thing as the World Database of Happiness, an academic effort to determine “subjective well-being.” You can Google it. But with or without the WDH, he likes Amsterdam:
“No wonder most of the world’s great philosophers came from Europe. They hung out at cafes and let their minds wander until some radically new school of philosophy—existentialism, say—popped into their heads.”
This Database of Happiness could, in theory, point us to the world’s happiest countries (Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands are examples). Would that it were as simple as that! Weiner also feels the need to visit some of the world’s least happy places, so he also goes to Moldova. Along the way, he also attempts to answer such timeless questions as whether or not religion makes people happier.
There is enough laughter and wisdom collected between these covers to make the read worthwhile:
- “We humans are creatures of the last five minutes. In one study, people who found a dime on the pavement a few minutes before being queried on the happiness question reported higher levels of satisfaction with their overall lives than those who did not find a dime.”
- “Extreme poverty is not conducive to happiness. The myth of the happy, noble savage is just that: a myth. If our basic needs are not met, we’re not likely to be happy.”
- “Envy is the great enemy of happiness.”
- “Consider this statement: ‘In general, people can be trusted.’ Studies have found that people who agree with this are happier than those who do not.”
- “Several studies, in fact, have found that trust—more than income or even health—is the biggest factor in determining our happiness.”
- “There is some credible evidence that chocolate makes us happier.” Amen to that.
- “’Attention’ is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the …well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love and happiness and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.”
- “Social scientists estimate that about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships, both quantity and quality, with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. During life’s difficult patches, camaraderie blunts our misery; during the good times, it boosts our happiness.”
- “People who say they agree with the statement ‘God is important in my life’ report being significantly happier than people who disagree with that statement, irrespective of their participation in organized religion.”
- “Studies have found that materialistic people are less happy than people who are not. It’s their attitude toward money, not their bank balance, that matters.”
- “The connection between food and happiness is well documented. The good people at McDonald’s know this. That’s why they call their burger-and-fries combo the Happy Meal, not the Worthwhile Meal or the Existential Meal.”
- “The former Soviet republics are, overall, the least happy places on the planet.” Weiner asks someone why Moldovans are so unhappy and the answer given to him is Powerlessness.
- “I may sound a bit Sunday school-ish, but helping others makes us feel good.”
So, there it is: A book about bliss, about happiness. The theme of this volume is not greatly different than what every major religion teaches in some fashion: Happy, contented people are not the ones who get what they always want, but are the ones who are able to embrace the circumstances in which they find themselves. St. Paul said, “In whatever state I find myself, there I am content.”