Book Review: The Geography of Bliss

<P>Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss is a wonderful book.</P>

Posted Jun 27, 2008

 

"I broke my nose in two places."
"Really? You should stay out of those places."

There must be a positive psychology analogue of this joke, although I could think of none, and my Internet searches for "happy place" jokes revealed only off-color humor. I must be more naïve that I thought because I had no idea that one's "happy place" had so many interesting meanings.

Be that as it may, the staid meaning of "happy place" seems to be an internal location to which one goes to be happy, serene, and untroubled. Happiness can no doubt be found in an internal place, but that has not stopped people from searching for literal happy places, settings--sometimes neighborhoods and cities but usually nations--where everyone is happy.

As you know, nowadays the popular media and many social scientists are fond of ranking different nations with respect to their overall happiness. Exact ranks differ across surveys and across time, but there is some consensus that Northern European countries have happier citizens than do Eastern European and African countries. Nations in South America have citizens who are more happy than one would expect given their relative poverty, whereas nations in East Asia have citizens who are less happy than one would expect given their relative wealth (see my earlier blog entry "Money and Happiness").

If one wants to understand the happiness of nations and their citizens, a more analytic approach is needed. Happiness is often studied in terms of subjective well-being, an amalgamation of positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction-the judgment that one's life has been lived well. Attention to these separate components of happiness results in different rankings of nations. For example, according to one recent study, people from Mexico reported the highest positive affect, whereas those from Canada reported the least negative affect (Kuppens, Ceulemans, Timmerman, Diener, & Kim-Prieto, 2006). Adults in Switzerland reported extremely high life satisfaction but neither particularly high positive affect nor particularly low negative affect.

Another approach that sheds light on the bases of national differences in happiness attempts to relate the average well-being of citizens in a nation to country-level features such as education, affluence and opportunity, mode of government, concern with human rights, and religiousness. In a future blog entry, I will discuss a soon-to-be-published study of this sort in which I had a hand.

Yet another way to understand the literal happy places that may exist on the world is contained in a recent book by Eric Weiner titled The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Mr. Weiner is not a social scientist, and he did not undertake his search armed with surveys and number two pencils. Weiner is a former correspondent for National Public Radio, and for a year, he traveled around the world year visiting places reputed to be happy--like Bhutan, Iceland, Denmark, and Qatar--and one place reputed not to be--Moldova--talking to residents, and making observations. His account of his travels has become a best-selling book.

Although organized geographically, one chapter per place, the book is less about the ten nations Weiner visited than it is about the people he met in each. This is a tried and true journalistic method, to tell a story by focusing on one particular person, and it is highly effective as Weiner uses it. Some of his people are natives, others American friends or acquaintances who happen to live abroad and thus have special perspectives. Weiner recounts their interactions and conversations, which center on happiness but usually go much further. He mixes in his own reactions and recollections.

I strongly recommend the book. Weiner is a good observer and really skilled with a phrase. I rarely laugh aloud while reading, but I came close when I encountered such observations as "Dutch sounds exactly like English spoken backward" and "Watching Brits shed their inhibitions is like watching elephants mate. You know it happens, it must, but ... is this something I really need to see?"

What about the book from a positive psychology perspective? Weiner knows his psychology. His journey started with an interview of Ruut Veenhoven in the Netherlands, the keeper of the World Database of Happiness (http://www.eur.nl/fsw/research/happiness). Weiner treats positive psychologists as he treats the other characters in the book-with skepticism but also respect, with humor but also affection. He sees the value of science--information from the World Database of Happiness helped provide his itinerary--but he also has an unconvinced attitude that would serve psychologists well, especially as we are tempted to urge our positive psychology interventions on the entire world.

So, Weiner describes the televised attempt to make fifty residents of Slough happy, by throwing at them over a twelve-week period all conceivable positive psychology techniques plus the kitchen sink. It supposedly worked, but Weiner's parting comment was, "Any overlap between TV and reality is purely coincidental ... Did these happiness experts really change the psychological climate of Slough, or did they just tickle fifty of its residents for a while?"

Here are some of other things I liked about the book. First, it showed over and over again, with each new interview, that the meaning of happiness is local, richly so. It is useful to ask people around the world to answer the same sorts of survey questions about life satisfaction, but so too is it useful to understand how residents from given cultures think about happiness in their own words and in their own worlds.

Second, Weiner talked to people in bars and restaurants and hotels, in their homes and on the street. If all one were to know of the human condition came from reading what psychology "studies" have to say, we would probably not know that there are bars and restaurants and hotels or for that matter homes and streets. It is one thing to say, as psychologists do in the abstract, that behavior must be placed in context. It is another thing to see that context in vivid detail, as in Weiner's tales.

Third, Weiner describes himself as a grump, but I think that is literary license. Even he admits that in England he is at best an amateur grump As I read the book and came to know the part of him that came through in the pages, I saw a man who was thoughtful and funny and not at all full of himself. He could-and did-tell a story at his own expense. I liked him, and I liked his book.

My own take on happy places is already familiar to you from my previous blog entries (e.g., "Other People Matter"). The happiest places on earth are not internal ones. They are not geographical ones. They are the places between us, and the closer they are and the more comfortable, the happier they are apt to be. Weiner apparently agrees. He ends his book by observing: "Our happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and the woman you hardly notice who cleans your office. Happiness is not a noun or verb. It's a conjunction."

References

Kuppens, P., Ceulemans, E., Timmerman, M. E., Diener, E., & Kim-Prieto, C. (2006). Universal intracultural and intercultural dimensions of the recalled frequency of emotional experience. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 491-515.

Weiner, E. (2008). The geography of bliss: One grump's search for the happiest places in the world. New York: Twelve.

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