“Perhaps the true road to happiness is not to seek it, but to let it find you,” says a rare nugget of Internet wisdom. Perchance true, but definitely not what Eric Weiner had in mind for The Geography of Bliss. The title tells all. In this project, Weiner sought to map out the happiest places in the world, and to find out exactly what makes them tick. He justifies his journey thus: “With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of finding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills.” And so the self-declared grump travels to Bhutan, Iceland, Qatar, and many other countries—even making a detour to unhappy Moldova—to probe the depths of their happiness and solve the puzzle of bliss.
Happiness is a tricky topic. There’s a reason why it’s not found in most literature, why it’s often relegated to the self-help section. For most people, happiness is elusive, abstract; misery is always more interesting. But Weiner handles the question of happiness delicately. He does not presume anything, always backs up his claims with evidence. His ubiquitous use of facts and quotes makes you marvel at how much he knows, or at least the amount of research he’s done. True, his essays exhibit a slightly annoying “it dawned on me” pattern, and some mild manipulation—and yes, even the humor becomes predictable sometimes—but overall Weiner did a marvelous job. I haven’t been to most countries he visited, but somehow I think he presented an honest picture of them.
Despite everything, Weiner presents no certainty about happiness. His conclusions are often followed by a cautionary “Or is it?” It gets a bit frustrating, but it does leave you with a lot of room for contemplation. Once, after reading a chapter, I spent a whole drive home just pondering happiness, and now I find myself rating my own happiness level. Even without the promise of certainty, the author offers insights by the bundle. Of happiness and geography, he says, “By relocating ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be different people.” Reading this, I thought of that one summer I spent in South Korea, and realized I couldn’t agree more.
For me, a place unvisited is like an unrequited love. A dull ache that—try as you might to think it away, to convince yourself that she really wasn’t the right country for you—just won’t leave you in peace.
How amazing, I think, that in this age of broadband and satellite TV, places can still engulf us so thoroughly that they make their world our world.
‘Some people don’t want to be happy, and that’s okay. They want meaningful lives, and those are not always the same as happy lives.’
‘Life is a combination of freedom and destiny, and the beauty is you don’t know which is which.’
Maybe this is how enlightenment happens. Not with a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning but as a steady drip, drip, drip until one day you realize your bucket is full.