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

Geography of BlissOne 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.

8 Comments for The Road to Happiness

Kelsey 01.30.08 | 11:13 AM ET

Frank, I’m not very happy with you.  If you would have written this last week I probably wouldn’t have bought the book.  It should land on my doorstep today.

Frank 01.30.08 | 7:33 PM ET

Actually, Kelsey, I may have done you a favor. As the nyt noted in its review of the book, “According to a recent study, Denmark’s key to happiness is lowered expectations. With that in mind, readers will find pleasure, however fleeting, in these pages.”

Kelsey 01.31.08 | 8:19 AM ET

Lowered expectations - that’s the secret to my successful marriage!

John M. Edwards 01.31.08 | 1:15 PM ET

Hi Frank:

Your thumbs-down essay made me very unhappy.

Originally, I was going to pop over to Borders and buy this book on a lark, laughing in the sunshine just to hear what my own voice sounded like. But after reading your negative downer review, big salty tears of rage and frustration formed in my eyes, as I realized that that’s it for mankind: we were born to suffer and be unhappy.

Even the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, suggests that life is more something to overcome than be enjoyed. Anyway, thanks a lot for convincing me not to have a good time and waste my money on a subpar and obviously megalomaniacal attempt to force a bad bestseller into the hands of well-meaning, but naive, dirty backpackers and smelly hippies.

As travel writers, we all know it’s bad form to be upbeat. We want to read about other people’s disasters, not their idyllic sophomoric attempts to save the planet with purplish prose and beach cleanup parties, looking for every excuse to avoid coming back from their trips and trying on the ill-fitting clothes of gainful employment—when everyone else is working for The Man. The “happy smiley face” crew can get stuffed, have their passports filched, and act like crybabies on the pristine beaches of their own gullible travels.

Travel writers are all misanthropes, backstabbers, hacks, and finks. If Tarantino’s “Hostel” is any indicator of what we can expect when we travel wide-eyed and with a false sense of security to a new country, hoping to have a good time, I’m staying home and watching “Desperate Housewives.” The grumpy Poet Laureate summed up the feeling of longing and loss at missing out on life thus: “The sexual revolution began in 1963/Too late for me. . . .”

To reparaphrase Dickens, “The best of times is the worst of times.”

Beau 02.02.08 | 4:11 PM ET

It’s interesting that you mentioned the Thai smile thing. Just the other day I read something about this on another blog. See the link below. It seems that at least somebody else noticed this, though it was with the help of a local.

JohnD 02.03.08 | 4:28 PM ET

Thank you for this wonderful BLOG!!

Tim L. 02.05.08 | 10:58 AM ET

I don’t know Frank. I have to disagree. I just reviewed this for Perceptive Travel last month (link below) and really loved it. Maybe I’m just happier? Hee Hee.

I chuckled and liked the insights, plus I went in thinking he wouldn’t find “the meaning of happiness” anyway. That’s kind of the whole point of the book. Happiness is a fluid, dynamic thing influenced by circumstance and social structure. The conclusions he does reach that are universal (family and friends matter, money only to a point) seem pretty solid. As for swooping in and making grand pronouncements, what book with a chapter devoted to each country doesn’t do that? From Video Night in Kathmandu to The Devil’s Picnic, the writer learns what he can, gets as many opinions and quotes as he can, and extrapolates that into conclusions. It may not be fair, but it’s what journalists do, especially ones that are used to being radio reporters on assignment. You can’t live everywhere you writeabout. Otherwise it would have taken him half a lifetime to writethe thing!

George Leonard 02.12.08 | 10:27 PM ET

Tim L writes,
“You can’t live everywhere you writeabout. Otherwise it would have taken him half a lifetime to writethe thing!”

Yes! Oh, yes! If only it were restricted to people who had spent half a lifetime thinking before reducing a foreign culture to a quip. Tim, you’ve as good as said, “you can’t know about everything you writeabout.”
If you don’t know, don’t write. I’m with Frank.

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