NPR foreign correspondent and self-professed grump Eric Weiner takes a journey to nine global destinations, with one simple goal in mind -- to find happiness. From smoking hash in the Netherlands to enduring a caffeine fast in an ashram in India, Weiner's journey is filled with both the laughable and the deep. His quest to find if happiness is linked to geography and culture takes him to the usual happiness seeking destinations like Thailand, but also to the obscure, like Bhutan and Moldova. Don't go to Moldova, by the way. It's not a happy place.
His adventure begins at the World Database of Happiness, a place where there are actual researchers collecting real data on happiness in the world's population. Weiner questions the science but observes, "The contemplation of happiness, of course, is not new... Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and others sweated over the eternal questions. What is the good life? Is pleasure the same as happiness? When are we going to invent indoor plumbing?" Some destinations seem happier, some seem sadder, and some are stranger. The parting gift bestowed to Weiner in Bhutan, for instance, could raise a few eyebrows. "In any other country, if my guide bought me a giant wooden phallus as a souvenir i would be concerned. In Bhutan, I am touched."
From the very rich to the very poor, the independent to the interdependent, the scope of the book is wide, and Weiner's observations are moving and astute. In contemplating relationships and our reliance on one another, he notes that at first we help each other for selfish reasons, we cooperate to get something in return. But eventually, we just cooperate. "We help because we can, or because it makes us feel good, not because we're counting on some future payback. There is a word for this. Love."
Light read and lighthearted banter are on the surface of this venture through happiness and misery. And just below that is a mild plea for more. For each of us to ask the same questions. Are we happy? What makes us truly happy? How far are we willing to go to find happiness? And, if we believe Weiner's conclusions, it seems it's not too far away.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS
One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
By Eric Weiner.
329 pp. Twelve. $25.99.