What if you went to a series of countries, made vast generalizations about them based on the information from local expats (not actual locals), and tried to figure out what would make you in particular happier based on these uneducated generalizations? Then you would be the author of “The Geography of Bliss,” who at different times claimed things like “Qatar has no culture,” “all Swiss people hate envy,” and “Moldovans do not complain.” This in spite of the fact that 1. He could find almost no Qataris to talk to (I’m sure that the prevalence of migrant workers was irrelevant), and when he did he pinned everything on their religion, 2. He barely talked to actual Swiss people, and 3. a huge percentage of Moldova is living abroad in other countries as migrant workers, leaving an age-skewed society behind.
He ignores history in the vast majority of cases. On the rare occasions that he does pay attention to history, he claims that it is because a particular culture–Qatar and Bhutan, for instance–has been totally unable to develop beyond their recent history. Which is ridiculous. Apparently, it makes sense that Qatar is a cultural desert because a generation ago all Qataris were desert people. However, even though a generation and a half ago Iceland was dirt poor, their history is largely irrelevant to their current cultural flowering.
But I didn’t read this book hoping for a history lesson. I read it hoping to hear about what people in other countries were doing that improved their quality of life so that they were happier than the average American. I wanted to know about the psychology, the worldviews, the daily practices of other people. Instead, I found out a lot about the expatriate experience in other countries. The greatest lesson I learned from this book is that expatriates make terrible cultural informants.