REVIEW – Two hundred and thirty-two years ago, as he placed the finishing touches on the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson made what might have been the most important editing decision in American history.
Rather than merely parroting John Locke’s assertion that mankind’s fundamental rights included those of “life, liberty and property,” Jefferson chose to drop the latter in favor of a far more elusive concept: “the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s no secret that modern Americans have taken Jefferson’s dictum to heart. Few, however, have taken it quite as far as author Eric Weiner. In The Geography of Bliss, the National Public Radio correspondent takes the pursuit to a global scale, launching out on a quest to find the world’s happiest places – and understand what makes them so.
Eric Weiner is by no means a happy man, and his book is by no means a roadmap to happiness. Unlike the members of what he calls “the self-help industrial complex,” Weiner promises no great enlightenments, no life-changing revelations that will illuminate the path to bliss. Instead, drawing on personal experience, the latest in happiness research and innumerable interviews with the natives of 10 different countries, Weiner offers a thoughtful investigation of what it is that makes us happy.
With its tales of Icelanders who applaud when their planes touch down on native soil, and Moldavians who can’t even abide happiness in other Moldavians, The Geography of Bliss manages to illuminate the characteristics that many happy (and unhappy) places seem to share.
“Money matters,” Weiner writes, “but less than we think and not in the way we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Weiner’s book is its apparent lack of purpose. To be sure, there’s the superficial explanation found in the subtitle: “One grump’s search for the happiest places in the world,” but at no point does Weiner actually explain what prompted him to make this pilgrimage, or what he hopes to gain by doing so. The pursuit of happiness, it seems, is reason enough in its own right. Perhaps it’s better that way: with no agenda to push, Weiner feels no pressure to jump to conclusions, to actually locate the happiest place on Earth. It’s enough to state – as Weiner does – that “paradise is a moving target.”
An enjoyable mix of travelogue, journalism and sociological study, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss offers something for everyone who still holds out hope that paradise really does exist, somewhere out there – even if that somewhere is Iceland.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.