Monday, February 11, 2008

The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss addresses a question that has been uppermost in my mind for many months. Can geography influence one’s level of happiness?

Although the premise of Weiner’s book, studying the influence of geography on happiness, sounds scientific, Bliss is much more a personal narrative or travelogue than scientific treatise.

That is not to say that Weiner, a correspondent for NPR, has not thoroughly researched the topic—he has—but the tone of the book is far from the neutral journalistic ideal. In fact, the word “snarky” comes to mind.

Weiner visits ten countries, all which claim different degrees of happiness, and recounts some of his experiences in these countries. As I said, Weiner’s tone is downright snarky, and he doesn’t seem to worry about offending anyone in the international community.

He boldly declares the Swiss “boring,” suggests the nation of Qatar lacks any culture, and remarks unashamedly on Moldovan women’s propensity to dress like “prostitutes.” He clearly approaches the subject with a heavy case of “cultural imperialism,” and I felt a bit offended on behalf of many nations.

Yet, I also found myself reading the book almost compulsively, as if it had been written specifically for me. I even reported several times a day—to anyone who would listen—about where I was visiting via Weiner: Iceland, Bhutan, India.

I have struggled for years with the geography-happiness question. I was raised to believe one must “bloom where she’s planted.” In other words, I should be happy regardless of my geographical location. But, try as I might, I simply could not feel content living among the cacti and roadrunners of southwest Arizona.

Geography truly has a significant influence on my happiness.

My family finds bliss on the beaches of San Diego, but I find little joy in the scratch of sand on my feet and the smell of saltwater in my nostrils.

Instead, I am what Weiner calls a “hedonic refugee” (179). Hedonic refugees, he explains, “seem to be more at home, happier, living in a country not of their birth” (179). My first day in Europe, wandering around Goteborg, Sweden, I had an overwhelming sense of peace and satisfaction. I knew, instinctively, that I could live there happily.

I’ve had similar experiences in almost every European country I’ve visited and felt complete contentment when I recently lived in Paris.

Weiner makes several suggestions but comes to no real conclusions about what makes one location happier than another. Ultimately, it is a matter of individual preferences. So, instead of blooming where we’re planted, as a true believer in the geography-happiness correlation, I can only recommend every individual find that location that brings the greatest bliss.


Blogger said...

I also wanted to mention that I really enjoyed Weiner’s section on Switzerland. My sister and brother-in-law lived there for several years, and my brother-in-law is convinced it is the greatest—most culturally and technologically advanced—country in the world. Although Switzerland has done nothing personally to offend me—and I’ve enjoyed all my visits there—I’ve been very turned off by his constant praise of all things Swiss (they are rich, they are clean, they are safe). When I discovered that Switzerland didn’t give women the right to vote until 1971 (1971!), I knew I was right to doubt my brother-in-laws claims.

Blogger said...

I also enjoyed reading about Thailand since my other brother-in-law lived there. Of course, many negative parts of Thailand really reflect badly on the Western visitors there (i.e., sex slavery). The Thai, according to Weiner, are happy because they can just let go of negativity. That is definitely a place I need to visit (see my previous comment for proof).