I heard about this book in a bit unusual way. While I was at a Lean training in my corporate job, someone mentioned their friend reading it. The topic caught my interest: to travel the world in search of the happiest country an to understand what actually makes it so. Dutifully I acquired this book before my own vacation in August, which took me across five countries.
You know the premise, now a few words about the author. Eric Weiner for years was a foreign correspondent. As he himself says, he is not a happy person. As much as he enjoyed traveling, reporting consistently on the world’s dire state had an impact on his wellbeing. Not that he was a happy bunny, to begin with.
To change and shake things up he decided to find out what makes people happy. To do that he traveled to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, taking a brief detour in Moldova (the world’s least happy country), Thailand, the United Kingdom (pe-Brexit vote clearly) and India.
His method was relatively simple: to stay a few weeks in each place and to talk to as many people as he could asking them if they are happy and if so, why? He intersperses his tales with scientific research about happiness. Apparently, it is a quite young field of studies. Somehow for centuries studying happiness has not been considered serious enough to warrant pursuit.
Now, this review could go two ways, I’ll get the negative over first: you can argue the book is full of platitudes and oversimplifications. Rife with stereotypes. Teeming with baseless generalizations. And all that is true. Yet, my general feeling is the other way this review will go.
Weiner’s writing style, his skills in spinning an anecdote, his distance to himself and readiness to laugh and be sarcastic about himself make this a wonderful read. His openness and curiosity about people (despite posing as a grumpy old man) also help to add warmth to the humor. Yes, he makes fun of each country he visits, pointing out idiosyncrasies and absurdities, but he does that with almost childish amazement at the world’s diversity.
I won’t go over his perceptions of each country, as the next post will be a long list of quotes that will give you a good feel of his experiences and thoughts. Weiner’s general observations are all true. Like those that trust is the foundation of happiness; relationships are important; money helps, but doesn’t solve the problem; envy makes happiness utterly impossible; lowering one’s expectations is one way to achieve happiness; not caring too much is another; we do not pay enough attention to the present and hence chase the unattainable future, missing our chances for happiness in the present moment etc. I know, they feel like cliches. But maybe it is because they are so obvious and yet we continue to make the same mistakes.
The great thing about this book is that it doesn’t lecture. It won’t tell you how to find happiness, actually, it even questions if our current cultural imperative in the West of being happy is not inherently hindering our pursuit of that goal. What Weiner does, is what every good journalist should be doing – observe with curiosity. He then takes those observations and instead of serving us dry facts spins a fantastic tale of adventure and discovery.
It has been a few months since I read this book, but writing this review made me want to read it again. To travel with Weiner and listen to his ironic, but warm voice. It won’t solve my problems, but it will make me think and look at them differently.
What makes me happy, top 3: feeling safe, my family and developing my brain in any way possible. Geeky, I know.
What makes you happy? Share your top three in the comments.
Quotes from The Geography of Bliss