Monday, January 7, 2013

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World / Eric Weiner -- N.Y.: Twelve, 2008

The Geography of Bliss is built on a couple interesting questions: what are the happiest countries in the world like and why are they so happy?  Of course, one might begin by wondering how is happiness to be defined and how can it be measured?  The work's author, Eric Weiner, relies on research compiled by the World Database of Happiness.  The research is being produced by the budding field of happiness studies.  Much of the work in this field relies on surveys in which people are simply asked, "On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you?"  As pedestrian (an problematic) as this seems, it's hard to image a more valid method to get at answers to the question.  The results of these data are then compared with other social, political, and economic facts to try to determine what makes people happy.

Based on a ranking developed by the World Database of Happiness, Weiner travels to ten countries (including the U.S.).  Most rank high on the happiness scale, but one at least does not:  Moldova.  Indeed, Moldova ranks last among all countries.  Unfortunately, Weiner's investigation generates nothing of importance to the study of happiness and provide the reader with little insight into the research and tentative conclusions drawn by the psychologists and anthropologists seriously examining the topic.  Even as a frivolous beach-reading book, The Geography of Bliss could have afforded one chapter giving the reader a systematic review of happiness research. 

Weiner's work is, instead, a simple journal of his travels and his conversations with people he meets along the way.  Some are citizens of the country he is visiting, but about as many are ex-patriots.  He meets most of them through sheer happenstance, and very few have any special insight into the culture or the concept of happiness.  Consequently, The Geography of Bliss is little more than an idiosyncratic and quite superficial travelogue written by someone frequenting cafes and bars around the world.  It has little more substance than the postings of a compulsive blogger.  On the plus side, Weiner's writing style is polished and often entertaining.

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