Directly or indirectly, we’re all searching for it. Whether it be found in a brand new car, a trip to Argentina or meeting the right guy or girl, we’re all on the hunt for happiness. But which country is doing it best? In The Geography of Bliss, self-confessed grumpy man Eric Weiner is on a mission to find out. After spending years reporting in war zones, he decides that it’s about time he visit some happy places. He journeys to Iceland, Bhutan, Thailand and many others, learning in each place what it is that makes the country tick and the reasons behind each being ‘The Happiest Country in the World’.
But he ends his mission very confused; everywhere in the world seems to have a different way of being happy, how? Then it hits him; something that we should all realise at some point in our lives, there is more than one route to happiness.
Eric travels through Europe and Asia to reach this conclusion. Starting his quest in the Netherlands, where he first investigates the science behind happiness and then decided to put this science into action by smoking some fine Moroccan has. He then seeks to decipher why the Swiss are so content with boredom interspersed by ungodly chocolate consumption, and travels to the barely visited mystical kingdom of Bhutan; where the ruler is hugely respected and the country’s progress is measured in Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Eric Weiner then hops over to Qatar where he buys a Ridiculously Expensive Pen and ponders the age-old question ‘can money ever buy you happiness?’ Without really resolving this, he flies up to sub-Arctic Iceland to drink himself into happiness, yet realise that it is still possible to be merry in complete darkness.
Moldova serves as a contrast to every happy country, as it is commonly discerned as the most miserable nation in the world; it appears to be the only ex-Soviet state that has not benefited from the end of the Soviet Union. When searching for something to be happy about in Moldova, the only thing that is repeated to him again and again is the vegetables are very fresh.
When he journeys to Thailand, he is advised that he’s been searching for happiness in the complete wrong way; he must just stop thinking about happiness for it to come. He encounters Mai Pen Lai; the idea that you don’t have to know all the answers, but can just let things be as they are.
But in the United Kingdom, it’s all about change. An incredibly happiness-conscious nation, he investigates one TV crew’s attempts to make thirty inhabitants of Slough (a drab town west of London) happy. In India he encounters an ashram, where he meditates his way to a form of bliss and then travels to 1 Shanti Road, an ‘anti-ashram’. But he quickly learns that he can find contentment in both places, which are both places where nothing is expected of you, where you can just ‘be’.
Finally he returns home to the United States, travelling first to polished Miami and after to up-and-coming Asheville; which is a small city with a thriving arts scene, close to mountains and wildlife and with all four seasons, and offers ‘a variety of feta cheeses’– all which have been attributed to happiness (the feta cheeses might be a personal requirement). He wonders if happiness can be found at home. Is home really where the heart is?
It’s a fun and exciting travelogue, told with Eric Weiner’s dry, doesn’t-take-himself-too-seriously humour. The accounts of each country are intriguing; for those keen on anthropology, the ten nations described in the book are constantly paralleled. At times, it’s got a bit of an ‘idiot abroad’ feel, as Eric tries to navigate each foreign culture, perplexed at the vast range of customs and traditions. This is undoubtedly a feeling which every amateur traveller has had in their lifetime!
As well as honest accounts from a variety of countries, it provides some valuable insights to human psychology and the science behind happiness. And it does leave the reader feeling slightly more content and enlightened on how to lead a more positive life. Eric concludes that there is no singular route to happiness; instead we must follow the path best suited for us to achieve what we want in this life; whether it be happiness, success or fulfilment. He leaves the experiment not quite happy but much more content. For the world’s grumpiest man, that’s a step in the right direction.