By Eric Weiner
The search for the happiest country in the world. But what defines happiness? How do you measure happiness? Can you quantify happiness? Eric Weiner strives to find the happiest place in the world by traveling to different places to ask all of these questions and more in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
Weiner brings up a lot of great topics of discussion throughout this book including the idea of happiness, where it comes from, and how to measure happiness. He starts the book by opening the discussion about the concept that today everyone should be happy. When somebody asks you how you are, the first thing most people answer is that things are good, whether they are or are not.
Then there is another thing, the thought that their is a downward spiral of unhappiness. The thought that you should feel happy like everybody else, so when you are not happy this leads to more unhappiness at the thought of not being as happy as the rest. This is what begins Weiner’s search for happiness in the world.
The books in our book club will follow these three themes and work to help you live that lifestyle with your significant other.
Each month we will be featuring books that compliment our Travel Couple Podcast themes, which are:
A travel book club, relationship book club, and lifestyle book club all rolled into one.
What is the Happiest Country in the World?
This is the main question that Eric Weiner seeks to answer in this book. He travels to several different countries in order to try to find the happiest country in the world. What he finds is that each country sees happiness differently, measures it differently, and achieves happiness differently. In this sense, happiness is a cultural aspect of life. He sets off on a multi-country journey to find where to find happiness in travel.
So what does Weiner discover about these countries?
The Geography of Bliss Summary and Discussion
Great Britain Happiness
In the Netherlands, Weiner meets a man named Brute Veenhoven. He has created the worldwide database of happiness. In this case, he classifies as the Netherlands seeing happiness as a number. A quantification.
In this chapter, the author brings up the problem of asking people if they are happy. Most people will answer yes to this questions whether they are or not. They want to be validated by friends and family. Also the idea that happiness has a correlation with money, as the poorer countries seem to have a lower happiness score according to Veenhoven’s worldwide database of happiness, whereas Netherlands seems to rank high each year.
Could it be because of Dutch tolerance, such as the legalization of prostitution and soft drugs? Could this be part of the reason why Netherlands ranks high in happiness? Weiner writes about his experience trying hashish to see if this makes him happier. If, perhaps, you were always high, would you always be happy? The idea of constant pleasure, but is this happiness? Maybe not, as everything must come in moderation. Weiner concludes that Dutch tolerance was not where the author found his happiness.
The author closes this chapter by noting that the database created by Veenhoven does not take into factor happiness from the arts or family. However, what was learned from this database provided the foundation to the beginning of this book.
If everything was legal, would we be happier? Do you find happiness in substances? I used to think I did. I have since moved on from those days and look back on them thinking much differently today. I do not think happiness can be defined by those terms. Though I still do believe in moderation in anything you do to find happiness.
What do you think about Veenhoven’s worldwide database of happiness? What else did you find about Netherlands that was not discussed here when reading the book?
Weiner continues to discuss and relate what he sees from Veenhoven’s work throughout the remainder of the book. From the Netherlands he moves on to Switzerland where they are near the top of the happiness chart. The country is clean, efficient, and has low unemployment. The Swiss are known to be stingy on information as to not gloat about themselves, they do not joke, nor do they provoke envy in others. This is likely why they do not talk about money.
The author contrasts this to American life where gloating and creating envy in others is more common. The Swiss on the other hand live a satisfyingly life of boredom where “just okay” is the phrase used commonly to describe things. It is never awesome, everything is in the middle range. And maybe it is better to live in this middle range all of the time instead of having two many extremes of great to poor.
The Swiss are in the present, enjoying nature as their bliss with the wonderful Alps as their escape. They vote six or seven times a year and are very involved in government. Perhaps it is this sense of belonging and having the power to vote in government that provides happiness in their lives.
Weiner concludes that the Swiss are somewhere in between content and enjoyment on the scale of happiness.
I like talking about money. I do not have a lot of it, but I do believe that money should be talked about openly. Not talking about how much you make, but what you should be doing with it to prepare for your future and how much percentage you save. Things like that are important things to share with friends and family to help financialy literacy. There is some need for transparency in a society.
What do you feel about what the offer talked about with the Swiss view of what happiness is? Did you find something else when you read the book that was not pointed out? Is it better to just be in the middle as opposed to the extremes?
In Bhutan, Eric Weiner finds compassion. The Buddhist practicing country believes that everything is insignificant and will be forgotten years down the road. In Buthan, happiness has been made a policy. Where most countries measure their Gross Domestic Product as what the country produces which situates them economically and then many may think countries with higher Gross Domestic Product may have higher happiness levels considering they are in general much better off.
However, in Bhutan they believe in Gross National Happiness. They do not seek out tourism to help increase Gross Domestic Product. They do not seek to increase Gross Domestic Product because it encompasses everything including negative things like weapon sales. Though what it does not consider is the enjoyment one gets out of things like the arts or compassion.
An interesting story that Weiner shares is when he meets an American couple in the country that think if the Bhutanese experienced the Western world, they would actually know what they were missing out on. Weiner shares with them that 90% of the Bhutanese that do study abroad return to Bhutan. Perhaps because they were unable to solidify permanent residency after their studies or maybe because they enjoyed life in Bhutan more. It would be interesting to know how this stat compares to other countries.
The author concludes that Bhutan is still on the upward on the happiness curve. The people believe in Karma, as part of Buddhist belief. They believe that money does not bring happiness itself, but relationships do. Money brings some happiness, but only a little bit is needed. After that little bit, there is no longer any effect.
I like the idea of the Gross National Happiness that Bhutan has. I do agree that Gross Domestic Product does not measure the negative things that are sold in a country, it also does not reflect the black market, and it also does not show the joy that people get from culture. These are really important concepts to keep in mind in the happiness of a society.
What do you think about the findings on happiness in Bhutan? Do you like the Buddhist belief? What else did you find from this chapter that was not discussed here?
What about a country with no culture? Where Bhutan believes in enjoying the arts and their culture as part of their Gross National Happiness, Qatar has very little culture as described by the author.
To the people of Qatar, comfort is happiness and maybe that is why they have servants from other companies including Nepal, India, and Pakistan. The country has become incredibly wealthy very quickly. In the country, the founding of oil was like winning the lottery. The country became extremely wealthy very quickly. However, studies show that people who win the lottery have a sudden surge of happiness, but eventually they return to normal happiness levels.
I agree that quickly becoming rich is not the best way to find happiness. Wealth needs to be earned in my opinion. If you do not work for it, you have this sense of entitlement that you feel it belongs to you. At least this is what I have seen in other people. Happiness is more of a journey to fulfill what you want in life. If that comes to you without the journey then your happiness levels will zero out.
So, can money really buy happiness? Was there anything else that you found from this chapter on Qatar that was interesting?
Iceland is near the top of the Veenhoven studies. It is a small island with a small population of about 300,000 and where everybody seems to know everybody. With this small of a population and tight knit community, it is more likely that the government will care that the unemployment goes up. If they know the people that are without work, it is more likely that they will take action. However, they are less likely to care about things like inflation where everybody is effected equally. Everything is expensive in Iceland.
When it comes to having things, they flaunt it and help each other. Very different than their Swiss counterparts. There are more artists and creators per capita here. Failure does not seem to matter here, what matters is the attempt. Maybe, Weiner thinks, maybe this naive belief is what leads to success. The belief that they can all just try again.
I like the idea of embracing failure. I have really learned a lot from my failures and it makes me a better person for it. As long as you are learning from your mistakes and applying what you have learned to the future, I say embrace as many failures as possible. Keep on failing, as long as you are not taking the same path over and over again and continually failing in the same way.
What did you think of this belief that failure does not matter? If you did not worry about failure, would you be happier? Was there anything else that interested you in this chapter that was not discussed here?
Moldova was an interesting next choice. This was the lowest country on the Veenhoven scale of happiness. This old Soviet Union country has low income, described as no culture, and no pride in their language where even the ministers in government speak Russian instead of Moldovan.
Their nationald dish, Mamalika, is bland and mushy as described by the author. The lousy service that Weiner describes throughout the chapter seems to come from the Soviet era when having a customer was more of an interruption than anything else. There is a lack of trust between people in the country. There seems to be a correlation between trust and happiness in this case.
This opens the question as to whether a democracy is happier. A blogger that Weiner meets talks about the Soviet Union and how it provided jobs, but now there are no jobs. A lot of former Soviet Union countries are now unhappy, perhaps showing that the move to democracy does not provide happiness. But, maybe those countries were unhappy before the Soviet Union and maybe during. Or maybe happy people are more likely to create a democracy.
A saying that is popular in Moldova is, “Not my problem.” The people seem unwilling to help one another. When it comes to being envious of one another, Moldovans seem to enjoy their neighbors failure over their own success. A sad reality that the author witnesses during his stay in the country.
In a society, other people’s problems are your problems as well. The quality of the society is more important than the quality of your own within the society.
I do agree with this. I think keeping the society happy is in turn better for my happiness. However, I do also feel that in order for a society to work that everyone needs to do their part and not all the time are people willing to do theirs. This is what makes a society difficult. Especially when other people see that some people do not do their part and they start to think that they do not have to do their part. This is where a society fails.
Do you agree with this thought? What did you think of the author’s view of Moldova in this chapter? Is there anything else we may have missed that was interesting to you about Moldova?
For Eric Weiner’s time in Thailand, he found that happiness comes to the people of Thailand through not thinking. It is a culture of not concerning yourself with thinking. There is no concern as to thinking of living. If it is not fun, it is not worth doing.
Within the country it seems that everything is casual. The belief is that if something does not work out in this life, then it will work out in the next life. This creates a very relaxed environment and the people try not to blame the government or others which was evident during the most recent natural disaster.
I can definitely feel that overthinking things can really lead to a more stressful life. There are times when I get caught up in something and it is always on my mind until it passes. Sometimes you just need to let go and let things take their course. On the other hand, I do feel that life cannot be just carefree and relaxed otherwise you are not challenging yourself enough. There is a balance between these two things that need to be struck in one’s life. I do not think I have hit that balance quite yet.
What do you think of Thailand’s approach to happiness? Do you feel overthinking things can lead to less happiness? What else stood out to you in this chapter?
In Great Britain, Weiner sees the country as not a static place on the happiness scale, but a move towards happiness. As the title suggests, happiness is a work in progress. Understanding that the British do not do happiness, this is backed up by the various people he meets while in the country.
Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, thought pleasure to be simply pleasure whether it was negative or positive. Though to him a poor man getting a $10 bill got more pleasure than a rich man getting the same. He also thought it was better for the majority of people to have pleasure if it meant that the minority of people did not get the same pleasure.
The author compares the society of Britain since an influx of foreigners coming to the country and how this has effected happiness. Though they have improved the bland cuisine of the British and they bring about a change in the lives, there is also the other end of the spectrum where this has caused an increase in radical Islam and terrorism in the country. Comparing this dissatisfaction with that of a homogeneous society like Iceland where they are high on the happiness index is something interesting to look at.
Weiner visits Slough, a British city known for being dreary and featured as the setting for the popular TV show The Office. There had been an experiment by the BBC to take fifty individuals from the city and to try to improve their happiness through a variety of exercises. What was found is that happiness cannot be taught. However, you can find some sort of happiness somewhere from your life even within the unhappiness of your life.
What did you think of the author’s thoughts on British happiness? Do you agree with Bentham’s philosophy of happiness? What about the comparison between British and Icelandic peoples happiness in terms of their population?
One question that Weiner asks early on in this chapter is why Westerners specifically leave their functional and wealthy nations behind to travel to less functional and wealthy countries like that of India. He notes that the country is not a happy place according to Veerhoven’s happiness index.
In this chapter he visits an Ashram for a weekend to help improve his happiness through various exercises. He leaves the place feeling better than when he entered. He tells the people there about his book, the search for happiness, and the happiness index. They respond with asking him why somebody would want to quantify happiness. He also asks them in return why they stay or come back to India after working or studying abroad. For them it is because of the unpredictability, something that Western countries prefer not to have in their lives.
From the Ashram, Weiner goes to a salon where the people there speak differently about the gurus that teach people how to better themselves. To them these people teach momentary exercises that keep people feeling good immediately, but eventually that disappears. Even some of them practice the breathing methods and other exercises every morning just to get that feeling.
In India, happiness is in the family. They take care of their inner circle which is evident with the way they take care of their household as opposed to the outside of the household where their inner circle is not. Also, if someone has a lack of wealth in India it is because of fate or the gods and not their fault as opposed to America where a lack of wealth is seen as failure.
There were a lot of interesting concepts discussed in this chapter. Have you ever traveled to India and visited an Ashram? What were your thoughts on what was discussed in this chapter about India?
In America happiness is home. Paradise is finding the right spot for you to live as discussed by Weiner throughout various examples of people he has met. They tend to find the right spot in the country for them, whether that is in Miami for the sun and beaches or Ashville for the nature and seclusion in comparison to a larger city.
Happiness is less present than ever today in the country even though they are wealthier than ever. Perhaps this is because of rising expectations. Ask somebody in America what would bring them more happiness and the number one answer you will get in return is money.
Maybe time would be more valuable. Time to spend with friends and family, but America is the country that commutes the longest to work in the world.
Though I am not an American, Canada shares a lot of similarities with our southern neighbors so this chapter hit close to home.
What stood out to you in this chapter? Have you moved to find happiness?
Weiner has an interesting epilogue that offers one answer to the question of the happiest country. Really, there is no happiest country. Every country has different paths to happiness. No one country has it all right. It is striking that balance within the society that provides the most happiness.
Some things in one country would not be understood in another country and therefore would not be happiness to them. There is a balance within a society and that same balance would not exist in happiness in another country.
A very interesting thought. There is more than one path to happiness.
Eric Weiner’s journey to discover the happiest country on earth is original and engaging. From the introduction where he explains his current state of mind and the reasoning to his adventure to the conclusion of his findings, Weiner brings you along on his travels to explore new cultures and find the truth of happiness.
His curiosity fuels his desire to understand each country he visits and where their happiness, or lack thereof, is rooted in their culture. This could have been a book on trying different substances or indulging in a lavish lifestyle in each country he visits in order to find happiness. However, Eric Weiner strives to dive to the bottom of the root of happiness in each country and what they define as happiness.
Weiner opens a discussion on happiness in our world and how each country engages, embraces, and practices it in their everyday lives. It is an important conversation to have in the present day where mental health is becoming an increasingly important subject.
It almost seems like it is an impossible question that Weiner seeks to answer. Can you find the happiest country on earth? Does it actually exist? How do you measure happiness? It is this that makes Weiner’s book so interesting, especially in the present day as mental health becomes discussed increasingly. Where to find happiness in travel . . . Maybe it is less about the place then it is the people you are surrounded by.
I want to conclude this with some questions for you to think about. We would love to hear your response by leaving a comment below, commenting on the Facebook post for this book review, or replying to the email we sent out to our book club subscribers.
- Are you happy?
- What does happiness mean to you?
- What is most important to people in your country?
- Did you enjoy Weiner’s journey to find the happiest country in the world?
- What other countries would you have visited that he did not?
- What is the happiest place you have visited in your travels?
If you are interested in any other Eric Weiner books check out these two:
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