Why do we want to have friends? Why do we want to make money? Why do we want to travel, or explore? A lot of these whys trace their beginnings at the quintessential human search for happiness. Happiness — the great motivation behind so many of our actions — who to call a friend, what to eat, where to go, what to read etc etc.
The Theme: Happiness — Where is it?
In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner explores the world to find the happiest places (if there is any such thing!) and further, the reasons behind their bliss. He travels to places like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, India, Britain, Thailand in his attempt to understand what makes a place more or less happy than others. The book offers quick snapshots of the cultures of these places, interspersed with the author’s timely and humorous references to psychological literature and philosophical insights.
The Stuff: Switzerland, Iceland, India and More…
I read the book with great excitement because it combined two of my main interests — travel, and understanding of human joy. The author traveled to some exciting places, and did a reasonable job to give a flavor of the culture that he saw. No place is all homogenous, but the author did not hesitate to provide generalizations. He picked up what he saw as common patterns of attitudes and threw them up for judgement. For instance,
The Swiss are as fond of attenuated lives. They hum along, satisfied, never dipping below a certain floor but never touching the ceiling, either. A Swiss could never describe something as awesome or super, but only c’est pas mal, not bad. Is that the secret to happiness, a life that is c’est pas mal?
And then, he talks about the Mai pen lai (never mind) attitude of Thai people. They do not give anything too much importance. Could that be a secret behind their happiness? India, the author finds (not surprisingly), is a land of contradictions. People are comfortable with allowing differing points of view to co-exist, both within the society and within themselves.
Iceland, where nights are unusually longer, is still a happy place according to Weiner.
The Icelandic way is: Everything in moderation, including moderation. It works for them.
The Icelandic people would not touch alcohol during the weekdays, but drink heavily over the weekends. The prolonged darkness has perhaps been made beautiful by the way they weave their lives around it.
Statement, and Limitations
Of course, each country is a confluence of people with different thoughts, however the author’s endeavors to identify common undercurrents and then reflect on them are the essence of the book. The book also has its limitations. In his efforts to travel to so many places in a fixed span of time, the author seems to have missed some important points. For instance, you cannot sum up a country by spending a couple of days in its hotel (he did it with Qatar). Similarly, India is not about an ashram or a conversation with Bangalore kids. India is much more about a closely-knit family system, uncountable festivals and rituals which form a strong force behind the Indian sense of belonging and happiness. But of course when a person is traveling to so many places over fixed amount of time, there is only so much that can be done.
I like how Weiner summarizes his lessons toward the end of the book. The humorous, objective tone of the book naturally evolves to a logical recognition of the little, subtle things that ultimately drive happiness.
I am no philosopher, so here goes: Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.
… Happiness requires livable conditions, but not paradise.
… mai pen lai on my lips. Never mind. Let it go. I am more aware of the corrosive nature of envy and try my best to squelch it before it grows. I don’t take my failures quite so hard anymore. I see beauty in a dark winter sky.
… Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective Tissue.