There’s definitely definitely definitely no logic to human behavior

A Sunday book review:
I’ve had some free time to read in the past few days; upping my paltry book a month average to one book a week. Last night, I finished reading a new one called “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner. The book’s concept is that some countries have happier inhabitants than others, and the author would travel to the happiest places in the world to discern what made them so. Weiner, a foreign correspondent for NPR, has made a career out of reporting from some of the unhappiest places on Earth, such as Iraq. Because of so much time focusing on all that unhappiness, and because of his own demeanor, he’s become a self-proclaimed grump.

I was drawn to read this book because on a personal level, I’ve noted that despite some small occasional setbacks, I’ve been generally happy here. Not just happy, but content. I’ve chalked it up to having a regular 8-5 schedule that allows me to plan my free time, being so close to the outdoors in my otherwise flawed cottage (I can see a deer through my window right now,) feeling secure in my relationships and job, and having just enough money to do most of the things I want to do. According to Weiner and his studies, these are some of the elements that make people happy, although there is no formula for guaranteeing success. Here’s some of what he found on his travels:

The Swiss are not known for their sense of humor. They rarely break out in a laugh, or even a smile. However, when it comes to contentment, they rate quite high on the happiness index. After visiting the locals, it becomes apparent to the author that the Swiss trust their neighbors, have a say in their democracy (they vote eight times a year,) and when all else fails, they have the world’s best chocolate to keep them warm on the inside. In Thailand, however, it’s a lack of inhibitions and constant smiling that keep the people happy. Where it is uncommon to the point of being insane to smile while alone in any other country, Thai folks smile all the time, even when they’re angry. They have almost as many words for different kinds of smiles and the Inuit do for snow.

So what makes the Thai happy is different from what makes the Swiss happy, but they’re both happy places. Other happy places chronicled in the book include the Netherlands (any stoner can tell you why,) Bhutan (poor but happy,) Qatar (going from zero to filthy rich in one century doesn’t hurt,) Iceland (it may be dark, but they know how to party like a community,) India (happy and sad co-exist,) America (happiness is being at home and being able to re-invent yourself,) and my personal favorite chapter, Great Britain. While the British are known for exporting some great humor, they are not known for being warm and friendly and happy. In fact, the unhappiest place in the country was identified as Slough, the Scranton of England and also the location of the original “The Office.” The BBC was inspired by the doldrums of the town, and created a program called “Making Slough Happy” where they found 50 local volunteers to make happy in order to have their happiness spread to the rest of the town. Happiness activities included yoga, counting blessings, hugging, and dancing in the aisles of the supermarkets. The great thing is that even though those Slough residents were forced to act like Americans, they actually became happier, and many of the “Slough 50” kept in touch with each other, discovering that community connections indeed bring happiness. Today, Slough hasn’t ceased to be a national joke, but the residents are a little prouder and walk with their heads a little higher.

And of course, no book about the happiest places on Earth would be complete without a chapter about the most miserable place on Earth: Moldova. This former part of the USSR has all the alcohol and cold of Iceland, but it has none of money, culture, or trust among neighbors to make Moldovans come anywhere near the joy of the Icelandic. Just reading the chapter on Moldova and its corruption, poverty, and inequality is depressing. Knowing that they were happier under the Soviets than they are as a democracy is a little unnerving, and even worse: there is no clear way to make these people happy without a massive tectonic shake-up.

So if I’ve made you interested in this book, the sort of bad news is that I just reviewed an advance reading copy, and you can’t buy it until January 2008. However, if you’re really interested, I could send you my copy… It made me happy, and now I know a little bit more about why. After having a bit of a sad night on Friday when I was alone with nowhere to go, I’m thinking about booking a trip to Iceland. Right now.


14 responses to this post.

  1. Dude’s name is Weiner. That’s making me happy.

    Whatever, I’m twelve.

    Yeah, except that he keeps saying it’s pronounced “whiner.” Nice try, author.

  2. I’ve heard Iceland is amazing. I’d totally do that trip too.

    Let’s go together!

  3. I’ve been to Iceland twice. It is amazing. Definitely worth a trip, and if you do get to go sometime, I’d be happy to give you a long “must-see” list. They are very very happy people, despite the fact that they live in darkness for a large part of the year. The government takes care of the people — you have a baby, you get money, you get sick, you get money, you get married, etc. . . but they say, “A penny saved is a penny wasted” because saved money is taxed so high. It’s really interesting. They also seem to be encouraged to follow their interests in their career, no matter how obscure or unprofitable those interests may seem. It’s wonderful.
    And Bjork pretty much rocks (I love that song).

    Oh, they also have no sense of time. If you say you’re going to meet someone at 3, it’s not odd to have that person show up at 5. I don’t quite understand how anyone ever actually gets together or has a meeting. But I guess they don’t have stress about being late.

    Anyway, that is my essay on Iceland. That book sounds amazing.

    That’s great! I really want to go now, but not try and meet up with anyone.

  4. Great review! adding to my list.


  5. Sounds like a fascinating book. There are all sorts of fascinating books that I mean to read and never do, though, so I very much thank you for the brief review. (Now I don’t HAVE to read it!) πŸ˜‰

    It’s a good in-between book when you feel the need for some non-fiction.

  6. I never get around to the books I want to read until a couple of months after I hear about them anyway. Sounds like a good one.

    You just have to remember come January…

  7. Thanks for sharing! It sounds like a fabulous book that I will add to my “to read” list!


  8. It sounds very interesting! I’ve always been kind of stymied by the question “are you happy?” I mean, I’m happy sometimes, of course, but not ALL the time. When people describe themselves as “happy,” what percentage of happiness are they using to make that call? I’ve given way too much thought to this, probably.

    The Thai would say that if you think about happiness then you’ve lost it, but Americans tend to be more introspective.

  9. how did you get to review an advance copy? if this is your job, I WANT ONE JUST LIKE IT! Please instruct me on how to do this. πŸ™‚

    allie, please post your list of must see and do while in iceland. the travel bug bit me last week and why not consider iceland?


    Almost anyone who works with books gets ARCs. If you work with multiple publishers (a wholesaler, retailer, reviewer, etc.) you can get most anything.

  10. Posted by EvilKate on November 19, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Mr MET!!!! You could take him to Iceland. I can knit him a little cap.

    That would take about 10 inches of yarn, I think.

  11. This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the tip! I will try to find a local bookseller to buy this from in January!

    I had an interview a few years ago in which the interviewer’s last name was Weiner. It was awesome.

    I know a good one in Minneapolis. A bookstore, not a Weiner, I mean.

  12. I actually know two people from Moldova. They’re graduate students at the university I attend. I’ve seen them smile, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard either one of them laugh.

    Interesting. I wonder if they ever want to go back.

  13. Posted by Jamie on November 21, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I have a close, personal friend living in Switzerland. After my brief visit this summer, I’d like to say that while they may be happy- they do not pass that happiness along. I encountered very rude people who definitely did not smile. That being said, I’m heading there tomorrow for Thanksgiving. Maybe I’ll encounter some smiles along the way…

    According to the writer, their happiness is in being content, not in being smiley. Tell Flo I said hi! I totally feel her pain. Literally. I hope her leg is doing better!

  14. You should do more book reviews. Aren’t you like…a book expert working in the book industry? Share the knowledge!

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