Summer Guide: The Geography of Bliss is the one book about happiness you should read this summer
Once upon a time, people were allowed to be unhappy. Today, we have Deepak Chopra and Prozac and seminars that turn ordinary people into psychobabble-spouting Dr. Phil clones who say things like, "The way that you're showing up for me is as someone who's in denial about the trauma I've sourced in your life," when what they mean is, "Stop being pissed at me for sleeping with your sister." We have evolved into a race of people who pay others to tell them the acronym for why they're unhappy; to sit across from them and say, "You are miserable because you are suffering from ABCDEFG," or whatever.
I'm not interested in psychotherapy or self-improvement or clumps of letters that stand for the emotional disorder du jour. I don't need someone to tell me why I might be sad or angry. It's Phoenix, and it's summertime; I've just parked outside a Walgreens for 15 minutes and now it's 400 degrees inside my car and I'm driving with an oven mitt on because the steering wheel is hotter than the surface of the sun. What the fuck is there to be happy about?
People who know me know how I feel about Phoenix in the summertime. Right around this time every year, these folks start leaving books about how to be happy on my doorstep. "I'm already happy," I want to tell these people, but the truth is that at that moment, I'm always less than delighted to have found on my "Welcome" mat another pound of gift-wrapped offal.
I hate these "happy" books, which have been breeding like rabbits the past several years. What would make me truly happy is for people to stop writing about being happy. But if the shelves of bookstores nationwide are any indication, that won't happen anytime soon. We're apparently people obsessed with our own contentedness, and the publishing industry seems quite pleased to reflect that obsession with a long parade of books about why we're not in a constant state of bliss, and what we can do to change that. There's Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, $21.95). And Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, $25.95), the newest of the new Happy Books and the one with the most annoying title. And A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (Penguin, $14), the latest book by Eckhart Tolle, in which he explains that it's not enough to be personally happy; now we must learn to harness our happiness and train it on the world, like some super-powered cheerfulness weapon with which we can obliterate grumpiness and discontent. Each of these volumes is more buoyant than the last, and all of them are wrapped in relentlessly sunshiny covers, because yellow is, apparently, the color of happiness.
The cover of Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss (Twelve Books, $25.99) is blue. Weiner understands my angst; his is the Happy Book I wanted to read, and not just because it doesn't contain puke-inducing phrases like "victim thinking" and "anticipatory grief." Weiner offers no cures or therapies; instead, he sets off in search of happiness as a place, rather than simply a state of mind. He's not looking for his own happiness, or yours; he's looking instead into how different cultures address happiness, and the ways in which changing one's location can change one's way of defining joy.
It's a notion I find especially thrilling, this concept that place can have a real impact on one's happiness, because it's a theory I've tested in my own life. Exhausted with our relentless hot weather, I bought a summer home in a more temperate place. "You'll just find something else to be unhappy about," warned people who know me well. They were wrong. My summers, a good portion of which I now spend in a place where the mercury climbs no higher than 85, are no longer a stretch of time I spend the rest of the year dreading.
Weiner, an NPR correspondent and self-described mope ("My last name is pronounced 'whiner,'" he writes, "and I do my best to live up to the name"), devoted a year to visiting the world's most and least happy places. His trip to Iceland's long, dark winter turned up a communal culture that disdains envy, which Icelandics consider anathema to happiness. A stay in Thailand revealed a government so involved in equitably dispensing happiness that it's created something called the Gross Domestic Happiness Index to make sure every Thai is getting his fair share. A visit to the poverty-stricken in Bhutan revealed a maniacally cheerful people obsessed who are with archery and who feed marijuana to their pigs (the pigs are apparently happy, too).
I like that Weiner doesn't just drop in on these far-off places, but that he hangs with the shiny, happy people in each, looking to understand what makes them so content. What he discovers — that happiness thrives where we'd least expect it to — is sort of expected, but I liked knowing that someone had bothered to look into this notion at all, rather than just pinching off another stack of pages about how to find your bliss "from inside." Weiner knew going in that Americans are a bunch of worrywarts, trained to believe that our happiness is elusive and slippery; that we rely on things like weather to make us happy.
"I haven't been to Phoenix in a long time and, then, only briefly," Weiner told me when I called to talk about how our town might rate on the happy scale. "But really, the thing about judging happiness within the United States is that it's hard to come up with anything definitive about a state or a city that makes a difference, happiness-wise. It's all the same culture."
In other words, Americans are Americans are Americans, and folks in Rhode Island are likely to have the same notions about happiness as those of us sweating through another summer in Scottsdale. Although Weiner admits that he's seen some research indicating that the further west one travels in the U.S., the happier people get, his theory is that different cultures experience happiness differently; that while changing your location can improve your mood, you have to take it farther away than, say, Seattle.
"If you hate the rain and you're unhappy in Seattle, it's not necessarily about the weather," Weiner told me. "You can learn to love the rain; you can live happily in Phoenix even if you don't love strip malls. But I think geography and culture are the real co-factors in finding happiness. The differences within countries aren't as great as the difference between countries."
In other words, if I'm unhappy, it's not just because it's hot here. It's because I, an American, think my happiness is linked to the weather. To prove this point, Weiner ends his journey in Miami, after having visited countries far and wide, where more enlightened cultures bother to distinguish between climate and contentedness. Or do they?
"One man's paradise can be another's hell," Weiner writes, relating a story about European missionaries visiting Greenland several centuries ago in an effort to convert the natives to Christianity. The missionaries offered the pagans a choice: Either convert or spend all eternity in Hell, a place where it's very, very hot all of the time.
"The Greenlanders surveyed the frozen Arctic tundra that was their home," Weiner writes, "and replied, 'We'll take Hell, thank you.'"
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.