On The Geography of Bliss

Image retrieved from http://www.ericweinerbooks.com

Positive psychology, freedom, self-help books, wealth, the American Dream. Just a few of the topics we cannot ignore when discussing the American understanding of one thing we all strive for, happiness. The United States treats happiness as a goal but an elusive one at best, the kind of thing we’re constantly reaching for but never quite able to grasp. And we’ll take any shortcut or quick fix available to get there. But while nearly everyone else is doing their damndest to secure happiness  for themselves, a wise few are giving happiness a little more thought, treating it as a serious and important matter of contemplation. Though Eric Weiner’s tone in The Geography of Bliss isn’t so serious, his commitment to uncovering the universal foundations of happiness certainly is.

As a self-professed grump and NPR foreign correspondent, Weiner decides to remove himself from the negativity of his demeanor and the unhappiness inherent in the stories he covers by embarking on an international quest for answers to his questions about happiness. Why do all those self-help books not add up to that much-promised sense of satisfaction? What makes some groups of people more happy than others? What are the conditions for ultimate happiness maximization? Where do we need to travel to find happiness in its most highly realized form?

Traveling to ten different countries to mingle with the natives, Weiner blends armchair philosophy with academic research from the social sciences and periodic bursts of pure Weiner brilliance, moments of our author’s enlightenment that are at turns wryly humorous, profound, alarmingly true, and hesitantly optimistic. As much as Weiner stays tethered to his central happiness theme, the book also stands as a fascinating exploration of national personalities, of the cultures that shape the attitudes and outlooks of an entire people. What makes the people of Moldova rate themselves as such an unhappy group? How do Icelanders retain their positive outlook through the winter days of total darkness? Is it really possible for Indians to achieve happiness when they’re constantly confronted with poverty and pollution, right next to decadence and spirituality? And what in the world do the Bhutanese mean when they talk about their nation’s Gross National Happiness?

For a topic that at first glance seems so lighthearted, if not frivolous, happiness proves a challenging topic to consider in The Geography of Bliss. My poor library copy of Weiner’s book was fattened with earmarks by the time I was done with it, the tops and bottoms of countless pages with particularly thought-provoking passages folded down for revisiting later. This book gave me so much grist for the mill of my mind, I was thinking about happiness for days and days – which isn’t such a bad way to achieve a certain kind of happiness. I’ve come to believe that just spending so much time with happiness on the brain is plain good for you, an exercise in personal philosophy building.

My own personal belief has long been that happiness isn’t some state of being we achieve and rest in peacefully forever after. Happiness requires constant effort and the experience of it is far from static. Presence is huge to happiness for me; focusing on the current moment, rather than dwelling in either the past or the future will yield much greater levels of joy and contentment than the alternative. Having a loving circle of people in your life, an occupation that provides a sense of fulfillment, basic feelings of safety and comfort – these are all necessary ingredients. But I’m also a white woman born living in one of the most powerful nations in the world during the 21st century. My understanding and experience of happiness may well be vastly different from that of people on other sides of the world, with cultures that place value and organize themselves in wildly different ways. By exploring happiness in those nether regions, Weiner provided me with an unprecedented feast of food for thought when it comes to my approach happiness, allowing me to see outside the box of the American happiness construction.

I won’t spoil too many of Weiner’s discoveries for you because it is just such a pleasure to delve into this book. But a few things ring true after unearthing the secrets to both happiness and sorrow across the globe. The happiest places seem to inspire a sense of life being bigger than just our own self, confined to our own personal histories and achievements. Connection to some larger group or idea grounds individuals in happier states of mind. You don’t need to move or even travel to find happiness, but you need to allow yourself to be moved by the places you go and the things you experience. Happiness is accessible in the most common of our relationships, in pure and joyful moments, no matter how humbly we pass the time. The Geography of Bliss emphasized for me how simple happiness can be. When we allow ourselves to realize that happiness doesn’t always come packaged in the same box, that what one culture dictates as the right form of happiness doesn’t hold true for all cultures, let alone all people that belong to that culture, we can truly open the doors to a more blissful life. And trying to write about this book has hit home Weiner’s excellent point that there just aren’t enough synonyms for happy in the English language.

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