If you have ever visited countries like Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines, in SouthEast Asia, then it’s likely you have witnessed people living in extreme poverty. The interesting dichotomy here is that you often find they are some of the happiest people you’ll ever meet, especially the kids.
When I was in Davao City, one of the largest cities in the southern Philippines, I was introduced to a lovely woman named Lelia. She was a tiny 4’11” Filipino woman, mother to five wonderful kids. She lived in a wooden shack with no electricity or running water. The lights ran off rechargeable batteries and she cooked on the floor with a gas stove.
This might sound like hell-on-earth, compared to your cushy studio apartment in the city. But even though she didn’t have much, Lelia was happy. Her kids were bouncing around, laughing, smiling and joking together. She didn’t define herself by how much money she had. Instead, she enjoyed her life just the way it was.
For a Westerner, who’s used to chasing money to buy the latest smartphone or fancy new car, this kind of situation begs the question, “Why?” How can people living on next-to-nothing, without all the modern comforts we take for granted, truly be happy?
The Power Of Simplicity
One of the common themes I’ve seen all over Asia, especially in rural areas, is the concept of simplicity, as applied to daily life. Many people who live outside the city live off the land. If they can feed their family and make a little extra money or obtain bartered goods to ease their day-to-day living, they are happy. They have no goals or ambitions to become the biggest supplier of bananas in the country or to own a fast sports car.
It was glaringly obvious to me that these people had figured out that constantly wanting more and more, actually makes you unhappy. You create a huge gap, in your mind, between where you are in life and where you think you should to be. This generates feelings of lack because you don’t have what you think you want, or what you should have.
Many Asian people, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam, are Buddhist. One of the key teachings of Buddhism is that desire, or the attachment to desire, is the root of all suffering. The antidote to suffering is to be grateful for all the people and things you have in your life right now. Being thankful for what you already have allows you to be happy in the present moment, giving rise to feelings of abundance.
I think this is one of the biggest issues in the West. We have developed a great sense of entitlement to what we consider the essentials of life, such as running water, electricity and a roof over our heads. We often forget that there are many, many people around the world who don’t have even their basic needs met. Stressing out because your Amazon delivery is a day late really does seem ridiculous, in contrast.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the desire for more wealth or material things is inherently bad. What’s important is the intention behind your desire, and remembering not to define your self-worth by your net worth. You must be able to detach from your desires so that, if they don’t happen or if things turn out differently than what you had expected, you will still be happy, whatever the outcome.
Is Technology Making Us Unhappy?
Technological advances, such as the internet and smartphones, are incredibly useful tools, when used intelligently. Like with all tools, however, they can be misused and abused. It’s possible to use a hammer to build that new bookcase or to bludgeon someone over the head.
While social media platforms, such as Facebook, offer some benefit, using them too frequently can make you feel increasingly unhappy and isolated in the long run. A study, carried out by the University of Pittsburgh, found that people who visit social networks more than 58 times a week are three times more likely to feel lonely than those who use social networking sites less than nine times per week.
The constant barrage of perfectly-filtered photos that appear on Instagram are bound to deflate many people’s self-esteem. You could even start to believe that what you’re seeing on social media is an accurate representation of real-life, concluding that your life is boring and meaningless, by comparison.
Herein lies the problem. I wrote about the dangers of comparison on Instagram here, but it’s inherent across all social media platforms. You see people living what you believe is a better life than yours, with their shiny new car and supermodel girlfriend. You want to live that kind of life, too. If you latch onto that type of desire and spend your time and resources trying to develop it, you will be creating a deep void inside. This void is based on the perception of lack that you have chosen to create within yourself.
These feelings of lack are almost non-existent in rural parts of Asia. They hardly ever use the internet, so they don’t get bombarded with photos of a perfect life and convincing advertisements telling them that some new product will make their lives feel more complete or fulfilling.
What Matters Most
You can’t take money or material possessions with you when you die. So, why do we routinely sacrifice so much of our lives chasing these things? We let our health and relationships suffer just so we can work more, earn more and acquire more shit that we don’t need. This is absolute madness in my eyes.
If you’re stuck on the hamster wheel of making money and spending money, but not really feeling happy and fulfilled, you should really consider a trip to Asia. There’s a reason why so many Westerners visit Asia and return with a completely new perspective on life. They come to realize that happiness has nothing to do with how big their house is or how many followers they have on Instagram.
The simple life seems to be focused around food and family. Some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had in Asia were family dinners. I would often get invited to eat with the family who owned the condo or bungalow I was renting. Just the simple act of sitting around a table with a bunch of people who can barely speak English, sipping a bottle of local beer with a belly full of rice, is one of the greatest pleasures of life. Truly, it is.
You Can’t Buy Happiness
Happiness is a state of mind, not something that you can buy. Unfortunately, the constant exposure to social media, Hollywood movies, TV series and advertisements has led people to believe that once they get the hot girlfriend or new promotion, then they’ll be happy. I think most of us know that no amount of money can make us happy in the long run. Why, then, do so many people sacrifice everything to chase that unattainable carrot?
You’ve probably heard about the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses,” where neighbours silently compete over who has the most well-kept lawn, the fanciest car or the biggest house. This is just another form of comparison that keeps people trapped in the loop of constantly wanting more. It also brings up a much deeper issue, namely, that people are defining themselves by identifying with the stuff they have, instead of focusing on what’s really important, like feeling happy and content with their lives as they are, right this moment.
It’s important that we examine the desires we have stashed away in our brains to ensure we are not creating any feelings of lack in our lives from not having achieved unrealistic, unattainable desires. Like I mentioned earlier, desiring something is not inherently bad. Just make sure you’re not attaching your happiness to any particular desire becoming manifest. To feel happy in the present moment, you must let go of any expectation that your desire is going to be fulfilled. Instead, shift into feelings of gratitude, with the understanding that your desire already is manifest, on some level, and you’re just waiting for it to show up in your present reality.