Looking for Happiness in a Travel Book

Since Antonia started up a discussion on happy travel books versus disaster books (and Theroux’s premise that the best travel writing must come out of a survived disaster), I’d like to present exhibit A: The Geography of Bliss. I reviewed this already in Perceptive Travel’s book reviews, so I won’t repeat myself here.

With the tendencies of a manic depressant who can’t pick between highs and lows, the collective reviews for this book have been all over the place, to the point where it would be fair to wonder if people read the same title. World Hum went a bit bipolar on it as well, slamming it in a review and then running a lengthy interview with the author, Eric Weiner. But if it’s the readers that really matter, the book is a smashing success. It’s an odd kind of travel book to make the New York Times Bestseller list, but up there it is, top-10 in the non-fiction category. That just goes to show you that with the right kind of publicity attention, the unique will always win out over the also-rans.

One key aspect is that this is not just a travel book. It’s a quest for the meaning of happiness and an attempt to answer the question of why the people of some countries are blissfully happy overall and others are quite miserable. Being dirt poor doesn’t help. “The myth of the happy, noble savage is just that: a myth.” And democracy doesn’t bring happiness, but rather happy places are more likely to become democracies. “Which, of course, does not bode well for Iraq.”

There’s no easy answer to the meaning of happiness, which is what has seemed to irk some critics (hey, go get a self-help book if you want confident, black and white answers). That’s because it’s a complex issue. Money helps, but only to a point. Stuff is nice, until you have too much of it. Friends and family make a huge difference, as does turning off the office lights and joining them in the real physical world. But paradoxically, striving to reach goals makes some nations happier while others find bliss in setting the bar low—no unreasonable expectations.

My theory is that your personal opinion of this book will vary a lot depending on your personal view and state of happiness. The reasonably happy people who are reasonably content with the way their lives are going seem to like this book a lot. If you’re a grumpy curmudgeon like Paul Theroux, it’ll probably make you even grumpier—be warned. As the book finds, “Thinking about happiness makes us less happy.” If you aspire to be a writer though, read The Geography of Bliss as a great lesson in how to write well without lots of superfluous fluff, without showing off. Weiner is a radio correspondent, so he knows how to tell a story well without filling paragraphs with puffery. That made me happy, and perhaps you’ll be happy if I shut up now and end this post.

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