I'm teaching another travel writing class for Catapult, starting Feb 29

Geography of Bliss

Over a jerk kosher chicken dinner at a friend’s place last night, a book came up in a discussion about travel. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World is written by Eric Weiner, a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). I haven’t read it yet so can’t talk about it with any authority but I’m intrigued by its premise.

According to the synopsis, “The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Singapore benefit psychologically by having their options limited by the government? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina so damn happy?”

Interesting questions. It was fascinating to hear Switzerland was on the list of ‘the happy places’, as most of my Swiss friends claim it’s an utterly miserable place. But maybe familiarity breeds contempt in this case. All these questions certainly spawned an engaging conversation last night. For travelers and self-professed nomads, do journeys come with an inherent need and instinct to compare places? That certainly happens to me on a regular basis. On a Buenos Aires street, I’m often reminded of Paris or Sevilla (especially in San Telmo). Walking the streets of Havana, I think of Hanoi. Riding along the narrow winding roads of Jamaica’s interior echoes Bolivia and the precipitous road from high-altitude La Paz to the steamy tropical town of Coroico. Yet isn’t every place utterly singular and idiosyncratic? If so, why do we judge one place against another? Why do we compare what cannot be equated? Eric Weiner’s quest for happiness seems ambitious and captivating, especially with happiness being such an elusive and culturally specific concept. I’ll probably have a different set of questions after I read the book but for now these are the thoughts running around my head. Off to LA now…

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