Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Happiness is...

So, here's my nonfiction selection for the year: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. An interview with the author on The Daily Show, recent reports on "the world's happiest countries," and other books Ickie has read on happiness research peaked my interest. As I began The Geography of Bliss, I told Ickie I was initially disappointed by the lack of specific information and statistics--in other words, the book was less academic than I had expected. However, I came to understand that Weiner's book is simply a different (and not at all poor) concept; it's a travelogue with a running theme--the author's search for and musings about the nature of happiness.

Weiner visits multiple countries, some which scored high on the happiness scale (e.g., Switzerland, Iceland), some which scored mid-range (e.g., Great Britain, the US), and the most depressing place on earth: Moldova. Actually, the chapter on Moldova was the funniest. Each time Weiner interviewed anyone in Moldova (either natives or expats), they were hard pressed to think of anything positive about the place until each person finally conceded "the fruits and vegetables here are very fresh."

In each chapter, we get a clear feel for Weiner's impression (he didn't much enjoy Qatar, but he adored Iceland). Rather than simply ranking these countries on a happiness scale, Weiner contrasts each culture's understanding of happiness. The Qataris actually seemed offended when asked if they were happy, the Thais told Weiner not to think so much, the British felt that talking about happiness was "cloyingly American," and the Swiss dubbed envy as the greatest enemy to happiness. Weiner touches on all kinds of interesting concepts that spark deeper consideration but still manages to produce a book that is light, personal, and amusing.

Do I believe happiness can be a geographic location? It's certainly true that I'm more content in some climates and cultures than in others, and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. For example, those of you who know of my disgust for hot, muggy weather will understand my affinity for this quotation:

"Ibn Khaldoun, the great Arab intellectual of the fourteenth century...believed that the great curse of civilization is not war or famine but humidity: 'When the moisture, with its evil vapors ascends to the brain, the mind and body and the ability to think are dulled. The result is stupidity, carelessness, and a general intemperance."

Attacks on humidity aside, Weiner's book was a pleasant impetus for me to meditate on my own outlook on life and what influences it. His concluding advice is simple but affecting:

"Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude."


Sammy'sDot said...

This is not about the "Happiness is..." post - just the Conscience Pudding blog in general. I found it by mistake, then stayed to browse through a year's posts and loved it.

If you run out of young people's fiction, try Jeanne du Prau's The City of Ember

Thank you for an enjoyable visit :-)

Watoosa said...

Thanks, sammy'sdot. I've added The City of Ember to my to-read list!

Sammy'sDot said...

And I yesterday picked up The Geography of Bliss...