Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Geography of Bliss: One Grumps Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

This is the first non-fiction book I have read in a long time and I think this is one I will go back to again and again. The premise of this book sold me immediately- Eric Weiner, a long time NPR foreign correspondent realized that he has spent the bulk of his career traveling to rather depressing, unhappy places and decided, for a change, to seek out the happiest places in the world. His journey first takes him to The Netherlands to meet with the world’s foremost happiness researcher and then on to Switzerland, Iceland, Qatar, Bhutan (where the government actually measures GNH – Gross National Happiness), Thailand, Great Brittan, Moldova, India and then back home again.

I bought this book over a year ago in hardcover (gasp!) because I just had to have it right this minute, but alas I got onto a big fiction kick and it sat on my shelf patiently waiting until now to find its way into my hands. However, I think my timing was serendipitous because it seemed that every time I picked it up, something I’d just been thinking about popped up in the pages. After my husband and I were watching Lost and discussing who the real Jeremy Bentham was (Jeremy Bentham was the name John Locke used after leaving the island) and who shows up in the book that very same night when I sat down to read? Yep, question answered. Bentham, incidentally, was famous for his utilitarian principle “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

One thing I loved about this book was that it was full of passages and observations that really gave me food for thought. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and lines I’ve gone back to and jotted down. My favorite section was the bit about Iceland entitled Iceland: Happiness is Failure where Eric explores the link between the act of creating and happiness. Apparently in Iceland there is not such a negative stigma attached to failure which encourages a culture rife with creativity. One Icelander quipped that they would probably erect a statue to the one person who in Iceland who had not written a novel or poem or song. Here’s a passage from that chapter that especially resonated with me:

“There’s no one on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write. One result of this freewheeling attitude is that the Icelandic artists produce a lot of crap. They’re the first to admit it. But crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It’s fertilizer. The crap allows the good stuff to grow.”

Imagine how much more we might achieve in America if we, as a culture, weren’t so afraid of the ramifications of failure. I could sure use some time in Iceland creative boot camp.

My one disappointment with this otherwise thought provoking and very well written book was that the section on America seemed a bit rushed. It offered stories only about Miami and Asheville, North Carolina which hardly seemed representative of our entire country. But then, I wondered if any city or state might have been able to capture the essence of America. Probably not.


bsmithhill said...

Just found your blog--I did a search for summaries/reviews of Love in the Time of Cholera to present to my book club tonight...(it is my favorite book). And now, after reading this post about Eric Weiner's book I think I'll suggest this one as well! I am officially a Wanderings follower now--I enjoy your writing.

Jessica said...

Thanks so much! The Geography of Bliss would be such a great book club book. There are tons of ideas that would make for good discussion. If your book club goes for it, I'd love to hear what everyone thinks about it.

Designed by Lena