17 December 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldThis is another book group book. I didn't need it read it till February, but I put it on hold because there were about 50 people ahead of me. I don't know what happened, but it came in the next week and now I have to return it on Friday because someone else wants it. Hopefully I'll remember enough to make a contribution to the discussion.

Anyway, I can't say I was very impressed with this book. I got nervous about this book when I read Po Bronson's recommendation on the back cover because I didn't much like the only Bronson book I've read. It was also too long; I was tired of it by page 200 out of over 300 pages. Wiener has a very readable style, but a little goes a long way.

I don't see why Weiner thought he could jet off to all these countries for a couple of weeks at a time and find out why they were happy or not when he didn't even speak the languages of many of them. Iceland and the UK were fine, obviously, but I felt that Qatar and Moldova especially were simplified and over-generalized. And I think he dismissed differences within countries much too easily.

Why did he choose Qatar for his super-wealthy example? Yes, it's wealthy, but it's all new wealth, and new changes don't often make people really happy. Countries with older wealth would have been more interesting.

As for Moldova, I absolutely do not think you can travel to many post-Soviet country without speaking the languages there and not spending much time there and come away with a positive feeling about the country. I thought Kyrgyzstan was pretty depressing until I got to know some people and visit them in their homes and speak Russian to them, and then I saw that there were many happy people in Kyrgyzstan. But two weeks in Kyrgyzstan just brushing over the surface of the country? No thanks. Even though the fruits and vegetables are very fresh.

I also thought it was interesting how much emphasis he placed on culture. I disagree that Qatar and Moldova are without culture; instead, they have undergone huge changes in the last 20 years and it's hardly fair to expect those countries to have worked things out yet. And what about cultures that cross borders or immigrate to other places? Like the Hmong? Part of that culture is in China known as the Miao and many Hmong have emigrated. If culture is so important, are they as happy wherever they are? That would have been interesting.

Weiner also LOVES statistics. I was so tired of all his studies by the end of the book.

Weiner travels to 5 European countries and 4 Asian. A little more geographpic diversity would have been nice, although Europe was obviously easier to get to since Weiner doesn't speak any other languages, apparently.

The chapters about Bhutan and Iceland were the best out of the book. His writing about Iceland gave me a new look at the word naive.

A couple of interesting though obvious ideas:

Trust and tolerance are necessary for democracy
Happiness is a choice and relative
Ambition and money might not bring happiness
Some money is necessary for happiness for most people, but it's a different amount in different places

There were some good quotes, but, as usual, I can't find them now.


  1. Wow, that was a long post. And thoughtful. Makes me curious about the book... I'm sure I'll get to it soon enough. :)

  2. I figured I'd better dump it all here so I'd remember what I thought.