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Where are all the happy people?


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Part philosophy, part psychoanalysis, part cultural studies lesson, Eric Weiner's "Geography of Bliss" searches out the "where" of the happiness question.


His premise: to travel to the spots that rank highest and lowest regarding happiness and see for himself what on earth is causing all this joy, or lack of joy as the case may be.


Weiner, a correspondent for National Public Radio and a self-described grumpy person, begins his head-spinning, ambitious search in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, with Ruut Veenhoven, who runs the World Database of Happiness and is the "godfather of happiness research." Based on the information in this extensive database, Weiner locates the countries with the highest and lowest overall ranking, pulls out his credit card and starts traveling.


He begins in Switzerland which ranks high on the happiness scale for reasons undoubtedly related to, but not necessarily caused by, chocolate. Efficiency rules: Toilets cannot be flushed after 10 p.m., and jokes are, well, there are no jokes.


He moves on to Bhutan, where the king boldly declared Gross National Happiness more important than Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness? According to Weiner, the best explanation came from a Bhutanese hotel owner who defined it as "knowing your limitation; knowing how much is enough." Weiner warms to this idea, warms to Bhutan's notions of compromise and feels slightly happy.


He then heads to blisteringly hot Qatar, where money takes center stage, and money, surely, is a path to happiness. The Qataris have tall buildings, world-class air conditioning, luxury cars, servants and a surfeit of wealth. However, as an unhappy Weiner found when visiting the not-so-well-airconditioned Qatar National Museum, no culture.


OK, so maybe it's not efficiency, compromise or money alone, but culture that creates a happy place. Weiner hops a plane to Iceland, a country where even on its darkest, coldest day has an abundance of culture. And the people are happy. They are drunk and isolated and happy. Why? Because, among other things, failure is an option.


Weiner tries Thailand, where happiness is having a "cool heart," remaining calm and not thinking too much; the former Soviet republic Moldova, where poverty and distrust drown out any speck of happiness. Great Britain, where happiness is a "work in progress" and, if found, will most likely appear in a pub.


In India, happiness is contradiction ? aggravation mixed with epiphany, discovery of the "little gems amid the grubbiness." And in the United States, happiness seems to be in the search for happiness.


Weiner warns throughout that the things we think make us happy ? choices, for example ? may actually make us less happy. How can America be a truly happy place if Americans never commit, if they are always looking for something better? And being happy all the time, living the Thai life, sounds great, but don't we need a little discomfort? Isn't it boredom, impatience and discontent that breeds creativity and change?


So, we may be sad to learn that the happiest places on Earth do not typically include white sandy beaches, palm trees or clear tropical water. Nor do the reasons for happiness include raw ambition, material desire or envy of any sort. With help from the Happiness database, academics and his own entertaining experiences, Weiner makes the obvious yet epiphanic discovery that in the happiest places, the things we think important ? money, compromise, trust, culture, among others ? are, but not in the ways we may think.


I want to read this!

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