Sunday, June 29, 2014

On “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner ****

This has been on my list for years, but our local library doesn't have it. Not long ago, a coworker of mine was talking about the book, and he had a copy, and he loaned it to me. The idea of the book is what drew me to it, and no doubt others, since it became a best-seller. Weiner travels to various countries to find out what makes the people in these places happy (or unhappy). I found the idea to be slightly more interesting than the execution. Weiner is an NPR reporter, and the chapters feel very much like a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek NPR report, the kind that's both engaging and annoying. I guess I was wanting something a bit more methodical; instead, Weiner sometimes often goes off on tangents--intriguing, but not necessarily germane to the point at hand.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It definitely got through it quickly and had, at times, a desire to read past my daily allotment of time and pages. The book also made me think a bit about my own happiness or lack thereof and the places that I have lived. Weiner says that happiness tends to hit highs in childhood and old age; I'd heard that happiness, rather, builds with age, which means I should be happier in my forties than my thirties than my twenties, and so on. The point of this is that when I think of California and my childhood, I do indeed think of those days with a great amount of pleasure. I also think highly of Mississippi and of Georgia. The only place I did not enjoy my life in was Texas, and even there, I look back on those harder times with a certain fondness for the very hardness of them.

But of those places, in which was I happiest, and where would I choose to live if I could be in any one of them? The latter is what should be used, Weiner says, to declare “home.” I'm not sure I agree with that. Right now, I'd choose to live in Georgia, as I do. But there are circumstances and reasons for such thinking. Were resources not an issue, California still holds a great appeal, but partly it holds appeal for my history with it. Would I really want to live there? I love the town I live in currently, and most of my friends are here. I can't go back to the California of my childhood. In fact, I'd return to something more like the California of my young adulthood, where I increasingly felt that I didn't fit in. That is not a place I'd want to live in.

Recently, I married. I still love the place I live, but I have come to see it in some ways as having less importance than it once did. No longer single, I'm not as dependent on my network of friends; in fact, I rarely see them anymore. The need for places to go by myself is no longer there. Were circumstances to work out, I could see moving again. I see such with trepidation, given how happy I have been here and how connected to the community I feel, but my bride and stepchildren do not have that same connection (yet) and that in turn affects, to an extent, my own feelings about my current abode (though I can't say I have much desire to move to the snowy northern Midwest either).

Weiner's tour of countries starts off with those near the top of a list of the happiest nations on Earth. The Netherlands, where the study/survey was/is tabulated, ranks as the happiest of all, and it is there that Weiner begins, interviewing the professor responsible for starting happiness studies. Why, Weiner asks, do the Dutch rank as so happy? Perhaps it is the permissiveness of the culture? But then he goes to Sweden, a more uptight country, and finds people there quite happy as well. A trip to Qatar shows that money isn't everything in terms of happiness, as does its opposite, Bhutan, a relatively poor country I'd barely heard of that ranks relatively well on the happiness scale. The key for the Bhutanese is to not desire too much. A trip to Moldova is a trip to a supposedly very unhappy place, where everyone feels poor (perhaps, the key with riches is not to feel poorer than those around you, and poor Moldova rests within a sphere of richer countries--it also had a recent period of relative ease that it's lost out on; indeed, it is easier, I think, to be happier never having had most of the time than to have had and lost, though not always, since sometimes having had an experience is enough to make us happy simply to have had it and allows us to move on). Iceland is a country of heavy drinking and little sun, but people there are happy. British mask their happiness in a quietness and ease. In India, Weiner goes to an ashram and an anti-ashram to see what exactly such things have to do with our happiness. And finally, he returns home, suggesting that Americans are perhaps less happy than they should be because they move around too much (ironically, he suggests that people's ability to move is what makes for happy people in his afterword). The epilogue does a nice summation of all that Weiner has presented, and if you don't want the colorful human interest tales, it might just be enough to show you all of Weiner's findings.

No comments: