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Archive for the ‘Eric Weiner’ Category

In The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, Weiner, a chronic pessimist and veteran NPR journalist, travels the world seeking out some of its happiest (and, for contrast, unhappiest) places.  From Iceland to Qatar, the Netherlands to India, Switzerland to America, Weiner visits a handful of countries that are either proven to be happy (by the statistically minded Dutch, who track such things) or have made happiness a priority (such as Bhutan, with its measurement of Gross National Happiness).  For a surprisingly delightful contrast, he visits the very unhappy people of Moldova, proving that a pessimist like Weiner is at his best when given much to grumble about.  

For me, the book was perhaps too personal, too subjective.  I would have loved to have been showered with data and statistics where Weiner only briefly alluded to a few studies and instead relies on his own limited observations and experiences in the countries he visits.  For a trivia geek like me, this was no where near sufficient.  I loved when, early on, Weiner visits Ruut Veenhoven, who runs the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands.  Here were trivia-worthy tidbits :

The happiest places, he explains, don’t necessarily fit our preconceived notions.  Some of the happiest countries in the world –Iceland and Denmark, for instance – are homogenous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness, in diversity.  One finding, which Veenhoven just uncovered, has made him very unpopular with his fellow sociologists.  He found that income distribution does not predict happiness.  Countries with wide gaps between the rich and poor are no less happy than countries where the wealth is distributed more equally.  Sometimes, they are happier. 

Of all the places Weiner profiles, I was most fascinated byIceland.  I am not completely sold that it is a happy place to live (there is much made of its binge drinking culture) but its commitment to writers certainly made it sound appealing:

In Iceland, being a writer is pretty much the best thing you can be.  Successful, struggling, published in books or only in your mind, it matters not.  Icelanders adore their writers.  Partly, this represents a kind of narcissism, since just about everyone isIcelandis writer or poet.  Taxi drivers, college professors, hotel clerks, fishermen.  Everyone.  Icelanders joke that one day they will erect a statue in the center of Reykjavik to honour the one Icelander who never wrote a poem.  They’re still waiting for that person to be born. 

Iceland may have sounded fascinating, but if I had to choose any of the Weiner’s profiled countries as a home, I think it would come down to either the Netherlands or Switzerland.  Probably Switzerland, when I think about it seriously.  ‘Happiness is boring’ is how Weiner describes the contentedness of the Swiss and that has great appeal for me.  Order and structure, no extreme highs and no extreme lows, seems to fit my own personal definition of bliss.

Part of the discussion in the book, particularly the section aboutAmerica, is on the ability of people to relocate to happier places.  Obviously for most of the six billion odd people on earth, this isn’t a practical solution but for many of us in the Western world, it is.  But the measure of what makes a place happy, though to a large extent quantifiable (it’s difficult to be happy without political stability and proper infrastructure, for instance) is, in the end, subjective.  I love being by the ocean and surrounded by forests, with access to major cultural events.  Though I lived in Calgary for more than two years, a city consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to live, I hated it because what it offers had very little in common with what I need.  We each have our own criteria, which will hopefully lead us to where we want to be.      

This book wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be but it was still interesting enough, if a bit plodding at times.  Weiner’s humour can be laboured – an issue since this is meant to be a humourous book – but the countries he visits offering intriguing contrasts to one another and through them he offers an excellent cross section of many different kinds of happiness.

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