Changing One’s Spots

Eric Weiner, an inquisitive grump, is a reporter who successfully made the transition from journalism to best-selling book author. His first book-length effort, The Geography of Bliss, is brilliantly conceived travel book brimming with philosophy and wry observation. Funny and profound, the work spans the globe while asking an important question: if happiness is around the corner, where is that corner?

Weiner’s quest takes him to the Netherlands, Iceland, Switzerland, Thailand, Qatar, Moldova (one of the least happy places on earth), India, and the good old United States, his home. Along the way he talks with experts, officials, writers, and everyday people. He eats local foods, questions folks about what makes them happy – or unhappy – and tells us stories. Woven in the narrative are scientific studies, scholarly references, and data. Weiner’s idiosyncrasies – he is obsessed with bags – and predilections give the journey extra flavor. It’s first-person writing with an eye on the local and big-picture questions.

Happy places, it turns out, are slippery. They work for some people and not for others. They depend greatly upon expectations. Weiner learns that most happy places do have something in common: they refresh the soul and they connect us with something larger. Makes me wonder if my happy places – Coney Island, anyone – fits the bill. Weiner also realizes that he can learn more from the unhappy spots.

This is a book with some important insights nestled among jokes and asides. Weiner is smart enough to have made it a more thoughtful book. Hints of that are everywhere. However, that was not his aim. Clearly, too, he was plenty smart in finding the right tone. It’s a perennial best seller and he’s replicated the formula.

I thought of the Wizard of Oz when reading The Geography of Bliss. Home is where the heart is, though it often takes us a lot of time and travel to come to that realization.

David Potash