Part travelogue, part personal-discovery memoir and all sustained delight, this wise, witty ramble reads like Paul Theroux channeling David Sedaris on a particularly good day.
Intent on finding the happiest places on Earth and learning what makes them that way, globe-trotting NPR correspondent Weiner discovers some surprises. Money helps, but only to a point; the happiest places tend to be racially homogenous (an unfortunate statistic for multiculturalists); the greatest obstacle to happiness is not poverty or oppression, but envy; breast-enhancement surgery appears to be a good investment, happiness-wise. The author vividly renders happily repressed Switzerland, determinedly tolerant and hedonistic Holland and culturally vibrant Iceland as models of happiness-encouraging environments. (Another surprise: Happiness flourishes in cold climates.) Excursions to Bhutan and India provide a spiritual perspective and underscore the wisdom of low expectations. For contrast, Weiner visits some decidedly unhappy spots: England’s dismal Slough (“a showpiece of quiet desperation”); newly rich Qatar, choking on cash but devoid of culture; and miserable Moldova, whose citizens live by an ethos of envy, corruption, vicious self-interest and pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Moldova chapter is the book’s funniest—nothing inspires comedy like misfortune and despair. But Weiner writes of the morose Moldovans with affectionate warmth and manages to find something positive to say about the country: The fruits and vegetables are fresh. Americans, despite their wealth and comfort, don’t make the top ranks of the world-happiness index—they think too much, work too hard and look for satisfaction in consumer goods. The author’s pronouncements on the nature of happiness are not exactly world-shaking: It depends on cooperative relationships and community; it has spiritual value; it can be attained as a conscious choice. But the author’s conclusions are hardly the point—as with all great journeys, getting there is at least half the fun.
Fresh and beguiling.