The Road to Happiness
Travel Books: Frank Bures gets lost in Eric Weiner's "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Place in the World"
01.29.08 | 11:41 AM ET
One day a few years ago, when my wife and I were living in Bangkok, I stepped out of our apartment into the hallway. There, naked except for his bath towel, stood our neighbor Randy, smoking a cigarette. I said hello. He said hello. Then he launched into something that seemed to have been on his mind.
“Man,” he said, as I turned to lock my door, “I don’t know about you, but I’m loving the shit out of this place.”
Randy was from the U.S. and played piano at several big hotel bars in town. He was well-fed (I could see), was always friendly and had a face swollen from a life of hard living. His booming voice echoed down the hall as he went on.
“I wouldn’t go back to the States for nothing,” he said, then added, “I mean, I could. I’m not in exile or anything. But that hurrying everywhere, that running around, you can keep it. Here, that sabai, sabai thing, it’s for real, man. It’s taken me—shit—four years to get it. But now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Randy took a drag and let this sentiment hang between us. Finally, I agreed that Thailand was a really nice place, then said goodbye and headed off, leaving Randy to his thoughts and his smoke.
From time to time, I think back to that conversation, because it was a feeling I knew well. In all my years of travel, I’ve had similar thoughts, not only in Thailand, but in almost every place I’d been. And I’ve always felt this was one of the great gifts travel has to offer: It gives you a sense not only of how the world works, but of how the world can work. Every place you see is different, and the people in it see the world from all angles. Some places are happier. Some less so. Some laugh more. Some not so much. But as we move through these places, if our minds are open in the right way, we can try to find out why, and even try on these new ways of seeing things. In this way, we discover new, better, richer ways to be in the world. In this way, I think travel can make us happier and more fulfilled than before we left home.
That’s why I was excited when I heard about a new book: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Finally, I thought, here was someone who was going to take this question and run with it. Finally, here was someone who was going to look hard into the cultures that have done it better, and uncover what they have to teach us. Finally, here was someone who was going take a serious look at how traveling to happy places can make us happier, too.
Happiness is a huge industry right now. Everyone is trying to figure it out. Sociologists, psychologists, economists, politicians, priests are all busy sorting the evidence, examining the data, expounding their theories about how we can get there. It was only a matter of time before a travel writer jumped on the bandwagon.
That writer is Eric Weiner, a correspondent for NPR who has reported from across the world. His idea was simple: Load up on all the happiness research he could stomach, head off for a few countries on the happy list, chat with locals, then put the country on the couch to see what it had to teach us.
Weiner first lands in a relatively happy place: the Netherlands. He’s there to meet one of the world’s foremost happiness experts, and thus to to bring us up to speed on the state of this research. He also hangs out in Rotterdam cafes, smokes Moroccan hashish and maps out his “atlas of bliss” based on the research and his own hunches.
With that, Weiner is off and running. He hits Bhutan. He coasts through Switzerland. He huddles in Iceland. He sweats in Qatar. He gets his fortune read in Thailand. He even stops in the unhappiest place on earth: Moldova.
All the while, Weiner has a breezy tone, and his writing is accessible, if not refined. He’s also a serial jokester: “I order a beer, which costs as much as a college education in some countries,” he writes, and, “If food is a window to a nation’s soul, then Moldova’s soul is bland and mushy.” I tried to laugh at these. I wanted to like them. But I just ended up feeling like I was stuck next to a bad comedian in coach class and couldn’t quite get to sleep.
Weiner’s research was interesting. For example, he tells us that making more than $15,000 doesn’t make any difference in happiness. He tells us that people in helping professions are happier. He notes that colder climates are, in general, happier than warmer climates. The greatest source of happiness, he tells us, is other people.
But the deeper I got into the book, the less and less happy I felt. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the more I read, the more things seemed to ring hollow. Weiner would swoop into a place, talk to a few expats, interview locals, then make some sort of vast pronouncement. In Thailand, he says, “Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking.” In Moldova, he says, “The seeds of Moldovan unhappiness are planted in their culture.” In Qatar, he concludes that the country has no culture, and then, in an epiphany, says, “No wonder people here feel so rootless. The ground—the sand—is literally shifting beneath their feet.”
To me, these kinds of revelations just didn’t ring true. Take this one about Thailand: “Just as the Inuits have many words for snow, the Thais have many words for smile. There is yim cheun chom, the I-admire-you smile. There is yim thak thaan, the I-disagree-with-you-but go-ahead-propose-your-bad-idea smile. There is yim sao, the sad smile. And my favorite: yim mai awk, the I’m trying-to-smile-but-can’t smile.”
Weiner doesn’t say where he got this information, but goes on:
“It’s all fascinating, but I also find the Thais’ variety-pack of smiles disconcerting. It has undermined my belief that a smile, at its core, signifies happiness, contentment. I don’t trust the Thai smile any more. I don’t trust any smile. I see deceit and misdirection everywhere….”
What? He was only in Thailand for a few weeks at most, staying with an expat and his ex-dancer girlfriend. I spent almost a year in Thailand and I couldn’t tell you the difference between Thai smiles any more that between Thai language tones. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or flip. I couldn’t tell if he was actually on a quest to find what made people happy, or if he was going through the motions to fill in the blanks for his book.
The latter conclusion seems to be given weight by the vast stretches of banal conversation with people in the service industries (from which grandiose conclusions are drawn) and more details than you usually want in a travelogue—(“I order the raspberry sorbet. She gets a fudge waffle with low-fat vanilla ice cream on top.”)—which feel like unedited journal entries. And his jokes began to grate on my nerves. (“Can a family be overextended? And, if so, is this just as painful as overextending your knee?”)
But these were not really the reasons why I was so unhappy with this book. I just didn’t find what I’d hoped to find. Maybe it was a hopeless task, looking for happiness across the world, let a alone in a book. Maybe these kind of insights are just something you need to feel for yourself in the course of your own travels. Or maybe they are simply more hard-won and take much longer to even begin to recognize than I thought.
After all, it took Randy—shit—four years.