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“The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” by Eric Weiner

Bliss_2  Reviewed by Richard West.

Tramps there a traveler who, upon arriving at a delightful destination, hasn’t thought, lo!, I could happily live here? Bet they are rare as pinto flamingos. Kauai, Vancouver, Paris (who hasn’t?), New Zealand, Iceland (summer cottage only), Crestone, Co., and Vienna are a few of the places I’ve muttered those same wannabe words. However, after a few days, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a different context, "you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes."

But are the actual residents really happy in these seemingly pleasing places? In the current spate of books pondering what constitutes happiness (the April 3 "New York Review of Books" navel ponders five in one review), "The Geography of Bliss" differs: author Weiner is as much interested in where as why. So first stop, Rotterdam, to interview Ruut Veenhoven, Professor of Happiness Studies, at the World Database of Happiness (WDH).

The prof’s decades of study have yielded a few generalities: the happiest places are in Scandinavia/northern Europe; not so happy, Asia; the least jolly, Africa; also very low on the gleeometer, ex-Soviet republics and fascist countries. Happy countries tend to be in temperate-to-downright parky climates, not the stereotypical utopias under sunny cloudless skies and beaches. The lowest level of happiness ever recorded by the WDH: the Dominican Republic, 1.6 on a scale of ten.

Scrutineer Weiner begins in the Netherlands, which consistently ranks, happily, very high. Unfortunately, he follows a well-worn travel-writer gerbil trail, getting stoned in a marijuana/hashish café, instead of ferreting out why Europe’s most densely-populated country with recent immigration turmoil, is satisfied. He does come to (rather obvious) conclusions: the Dutch enjoy generous social benefits; more importantly, they are extremely tolerant, as well as hard workers and law-abiders, all important traits of pleased residents everywhere.

Then off Weiner goes to the other nine countries he selected to learn what does or doesn’t constitute what the Hopi people call "tuwanasaapi," the place where you belong. Or don’t:

…Switzerland: How could the Swiss be unhappy? Arguably the world’s most beautiful country, wealthy, no wars since 1848, runs like a, well, Swiss watch, efficient government, nonpareil chocolate creators, this we know. Weiner discovers other happiness ingredients here: a deep-rootedness (passports list ancestral town, not hometown), neighborly trust, strong family ties, love of nature. Yet we don’t think of the Swiss as heel-clickingly happy. Reserved, calm, yes. He concludes if not outwardly joyous, the Swiss certainly radiate contentment (or is it smugness?), thus his clever neologism, "conjoyment."

…Bhutan: Isolated, beautiful, the embodiment of James Hilton’s Shangri-La in "Lost Horizons," and the Asian exception, a happy country, perhaps because of its actual governmental policy of Gross National Happiness. More likely being the world’s only Buddhist kingdom helps, permeating the country with Buddha’s teachings of compassion, tolerance, low expectations, compromise. Practical reasons also: a low crime rate, free health care, the earth’s only capital with no traffic light. And the world’s only nation that has a male dress code and prohibits tobacco sales. Of course they’re happy.

…Qatar: Proof positive that money doesn’t guarantee happiness. Consider: no taxes, 50-cent-a-gallon gas, free health care-education-electricity-water, the entire nation "is like a good airport terminal: pleasantly air-conditioned, with lots of shopping, a wide selection of food, and people from all over the world," writes Weiner. Result: unhappy, disgruntled Qataris. Why? No history, no democracy, no culture, no outdoor beauty, too much religion (the happiest countries–Denmark, Iceland– are very secular), thus Qatar seems more a tribe with a flag than country.

…Iceland: Consistently rated very happy. The harsh climate is an important factor: it’s vital to cooperate, to get along with neighbors, else you might die outdoors; the long, dark, cold months foster reading, creating, imagination-stoking, socializing. Like Bhutan, Icelanders don’t expect much since nature always has the last word. Like citizens in other happy countries, they revere their culture and language (a formal Icelandic greeting is "komdu saell," come happy).

…Moldova: Officially, the world’s least happy country, this morose ex-Soviet republic brings to mind an old Peace Corps slogan: "Bad pay for long hours, but at least you’ll be hungry and in danger." Weiner’s account is a Tourettic shriek of dreadfulness: thin people and fat, mean cops (always a bad sign), corruption and nepotism, an alcocholeric, resigned population more dolorous than dollarous; again no national pride or culture, a fake nation that’s been salami-sliced by others for centuries. Touchingly, the place of pride in the crumbling Museum of Nature and Ethnography: different shades of soil. Moldovan dirt.

…Thailand: Unhappy, a place that has many words/phrases for smile, including the charming "im mai awk," the I’m-trying-to-smile-but-can’t-smile"? Hardly. Essential to Thai happiness: having fun and banishing seriousness, taking the long view of life, relying on instinct, personal cleanliness, tolerance of the bizarre like the "no hands" restaurant where waitresses feed customers like moms do babies. I remember a t-shirt slogan in Bangkok: "A Radiant Obstacle In The Path Of the Obvious." Optimism, another Thai happiness ingredient.

…Great Britain: Well, they’re trying; the culture of the stiff upper lip and "Carry On, Jeeves," has long been suspect of outward happiness conduct, not exactly embracing hugging, impromptu chatting, informal socializing; it’s more about getting by than being tickled pink. Thus the mother country rates fair-to-middling happy. Weiner found one place where happiness ruled: the pub. In the interest of more research, may I suggest The Grenadier (18 Wilton Row, London).

…India: Again, couldn’t Weiner avoid the visiting writer’s obligatory drop-in to the latest popular guru’s ashram where he learned only air-headed-isms? But perhaps like most of us, he found India simply overwhelming. Too much of everything, "incorrigibly plural" in the poet Louis MacNeice’s phrase. The most oft-mentioned reason for happiness? Unpredictability. No kidding.

…America: Weiner’s last stop, home. On most polls the U.S.A. rates a five or six at best. Americans expect too much, move too much (40 million yearly), divorce too much, envy too much, crave too much. Number one on the list of polled citizens on what constitutes happiness: money. Case closed, your honor.

A few quibbles: why no stop, or even mention, of Latin America? Is no African country happy? I found Botswana so. And personally, I wished Weiner had visited New Zealand, perhaps discovering unhappiness I’ve missed on those two bucolic islands.

No surprise, however, that "The Geography of Bliss" was that "New York Times" best-selling surprise, a travel narrative not authored by someone surnamed Mayle, Mayes, or Bryson. A fine, informative guide to the reader’s next fantasy move.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World
Eric Weiner (Twelve Books, 329 pgs., $25.99).

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