Home > book reviews > Book Review: The Geography of Bliss (via Eat Pray Love)

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss (via Eat Pray Love)

A few years ago, a coworker of mine handed me a copy of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and said to me, “Oh, you’re just going to love this!” I assume she thought that because she had loved it and it has Italy in it. For some reason, people assume that if something is slightly Italy-related that I’m already an expert on it or that it will automatically titillate my senses.

Unfortunately, when I handed the book back to my coworker a few weeks later, the best I could do was say, “Well, she is a good writer” and luckily, that was enough to pacify her.

Let me see if I can explain what I found so repulsive…the book starts off with Gilbert having gone through some sort of existential crisis that involves her crying on the floor of her bathroom while her mean, awful husband sleeps the Sleep of the Ages in the next room, blissfully unaware that his soon-to-be-ex-wife is miserably huddled in a ball, her face pressed against cool tile. Her life is one big pile of suck and it is all his fault, so she insists upon a divorce and ends up giving him EVERYTHING just so she can escape the marriage. She moves in with her sister, then gets an idea to go travelling for a year–to Italy, India and Indonesia–in order to rediscover and reground herself.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “But Amadei, you just said that she gave her ex everything. How will she ever afford to spend a year not working?”

Easy peasy, she’s going to use the money she got as an advance for writing a book about her journey to self-discovery.

Record scratch.

And that’s the short story of how she lost me less than a chapter into the book. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The entire book felt disingenuous. How could she take money for a book about her own personal discovery without having first had the discovery? What if she had gone on this yearlong trip and learned absolutely nothing about herself?

I spent the entire time wondering, “Did she really learn anything about herself or did she just write the book she thought people would want to read?”

Why am I bringing up Eat Pray Love now after reading it so many moons ago? Because, as I was going through the books on my wishlist, seeing which ones I could get from the library, I came across The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. I just finished it and it kinda reminded me of Eat Pray Love in the way that seeing a ball of yarn might remind you of a scarf, but actually having the scarf is so much better than just having a ball of yarn (unless you’re a knitter in which case you make a scarf out of the yarn, so you get to have your cake and eat it too and I’m digressing again, aren’t I?).

For one thing, Weiner doesn’t go on a vision quest to find his own happiness, though that is part of what prompts his journey. He knows he’s a grump. He knows he’s generally sad and dissatisfied. He’s not looking to change that, exactly, but maybe to discover why he’s that way…if he happens to find that answer as he goes along.

He started by looking at different places and what makes the people in those places happy (or unhappy in the case of Moldova). At the start, he went to Rotterdam where the World Database of Happiness (no, really) exists. He interviewed the scientist responsible for the WDH and spent some time examining the results, smoking a little Moroccan hash, and deciding that even though the Dutch are very happy, but it’s not the type of happiness for him.

From there he examines happiness in Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, and India before finally coming back to America, all the time trying to examine what those places have in common.

What I liked best about it is that he didn’t have any overarching epiphany about how he should live his life to be happier. Ultimately, he decides that there are no concrete rules to what makes people happy:

Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

To venture any further, though, is to enter treacherous waters. (322)

So he asks a happiness researcher (again: no, really; that’s someone’s job) for an explanation and is told that there’s more than one way to be happy. “Of course,” writes Weiner and you can almost imagine him smacking his forehead. “How could I have missed it? Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own ways” (322).

Because there was no pressure to have an epiphany, the whole exercise in searching for happiness felt more genuine. He researched happiness. He didn’t necessarily get the answer he wanted, but he did figure out a small part of it–that it really does depend on the path that you chose, one of the many to happiness or one of the many to sadness.

As for me, my huge takeaway was to skip over Italy, India, and Indonesia and head to Iceland, cold but happy.

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