From my experience, Westerners tend to complain about their lives and openly ‘seek’ happiness far more than those living in the developing world.
Am I happy today? Do I think I’m happier at this point in my life than I was when I was younger? Am I worried about how declining health as I age will affect my ability to be happy? What does happiness really mean to me anyway?
Ah, yes, happiness; that illusive commodity that we spend so much of our time pursuing by reading self-help books, attending workshops and seminars, going to private counseling/therapy sessions and in conversation with our closest friends.
Although many individuals and organizations have repeatedly tried to quantify this state of being by releasing an annual happiness index, the results have been unconvincing.
In her statistical analysis of happiness in various regions of the world, author Carol Graham sums up the difficulty of drawing conclusions about well-being based on Western points of reference in the title of her book “Happiness Around the World: the paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires.”
So, if happiness isn’t a product of prosperity, then what does create this much sought-after state of being?
The roots of happiness—causes—desire for it—perceived importance—individual vs collective goals can be viewed quite differently from one culture to another.
Western Hurdles to Happiness
In my opinion, the current worry in many Western cultures that we’re somehow not happy enough is closely connected to the American advertising industry which is constantly working on new ways to convince consumers they ‘need’ to buy new products.
The message conveyed by corporations is that you’re not attractive enough, smart enough, healthy enough or wealthy enough as you are at the moment, but that miraculously (and quickly) these problems can be fixed with the swipe of a credit card.
The subliminal message is often that a specific product will make you look or feel like someone else, someone who fits a stereotype that’s been perpetuated within the popular culture.
Of course, I wouldn’t mind being gorgeous, rich and having the IQ of an Einstein, but based on my past experiences in life, I don’t believe any of those things would necessarily make me happier.
From my readings, most psychologists would agree that whenever we begin comparing ourselves to others, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment since there will always be people smarter, more attractive, richer and seemingly happier than us somewhere on the planet.
The keeping up with the Jones’ syndrome (or the malady of ‘afluenza’ as it’s also been described) that’s been part of American culture for decades, appears to not be a sustainable platform for happiness.
In fact, I’d argue that just the reverse is true. The more strongly we believe that material possessions will bring happiness, the more dissatisfied we’re likely to be with our lives.
In America, even some ‘brands’ of Christianity have become closely linked to rampant materialism through ‘the gospel of prosperity.’
As Westerners, we’re also taught to think critically and look for problems or find fault since only by recognizing problems can one then focus on developing solutions–think manufacturing, business, science, medicine. While this concept can have great value when applied to our professional lives, it often becomes a problem when applied too rigidly to personal relationships.
While constructive criticism can bring a heightened sense of awareness and lead to personal growth, having a partner or friend who’s constantly looking for flaws and finding fault in others can easily lead to the destruction of a relationship.
While I believe it’s important to look critically at ourselves and our culture, it can open a Pandora’s Box of worries that can lead to, well–unhappiness. Plus, the act of observing the world with a critical eye isn’t a sentiment that’s necessarily shared by people in many parts of the world.
I’ve learned a great deal about the art of just ‘being’ by observing the locals in other cultures where I’ve lived and worked–most notably Southeast Asia, the Middle East and now Latin America.
My Thai and Omani friends always placed time with family and friends far above work duties. That kind of thinking may not always lead to the highest quality outcomes on an organizational level, but in my estimation, it does allow people to live in a way that’s less burdened by guilt and the trappings of materialism.
So, do people living in distant cultures appear to be happier than Americans and other Westerners? And if so, what aspects of their cultures could we seek to incorporate into our own in order to live happier and more fulfilling lives?
The collectivistic aspects of Arab culture, where each family member’s behavior is expected to benefit the unit rather than bestow fame or wealth in the name of an individual, seems to provide a level of emotional and financial security that’s almost completely absent in many Western cultures.
Mothers traditionally choose brides for their sons, and the entire family is often involved in approving a husband for a daughter. In addition, spouses are usually chosen from within the extended family (even a first cousin), so all parties will still remain part of the collective fold even if a divorce separates the couple legally.
The family also often determines a young adult’s profession in much of the Arab world. While we as Westerners may look on this practice negatively, there is something to be said for not having to sift through the bewildering number of choices we seem to have as young adults in a Western context. Sure, I want to consciously believe I have control over my life, but at times the thought of relinquishing that responsibility (and all the stress that goes along with it) to someone else seems very appealing.
While it’s difficult to understate the importance of family ties in the Arab world, Islam is a religion that binds its followers together within a very similar structure of daily life. It sets out specific guidelines for the duties that a Muslim must perform which as I see it takes away a lot of the guesswork we do when choosing right from wrong behaviors as Westerners. Making what’s later determined to be a bad choice in a Western context often leads to feelings of guilt. If I’ve checked off my daily duties, then I’m less likely to feel like I haven’t done enough.
The teachings of Islam also appear to provide a level of assuredness and trust that acts as a balance to counter the forces of doubt and insecurity that often plague modern humans. During my years of teaching in Oman, I had multiple students tell me that Islam (and the Holy Quran) contained all the answers to life’s questions.
I must admit that during the course of a stressful work day, such assurances must be comforting indeed. Perhaps the Muslim practice of praying five times per day works as a form of meditation that brings the believer back to a centered state of being where happiness and contentment are most likely to be found.
Regardless of where the essence of their calm demeanor originates, I found Omanis to be some of the most peaceful and worry-free people I’ve ever encountered.
Religion is also a factor in maintaining a state of happiness in the lives of residents of SE Asian countries. The tolerant, relaxed form of Theravada Buddhism that’s practiced in this region seems to have few hard and fast rules to govern behavior, although showing kindness, compassion and respect to others in general is a central tenant.
The concept of karma is also a key factor in determining levels of contentment in these cultures, because it allows a person to recognize and perform specific actions that are believed to bring about happier or more fortunate lives in the future. Making merit–giving money or performing a compassionate act–is seen as the best way to improve one’s current circumstances as well as future incarnations.
Thais often mention ‘sanook’, which roughly translates as ‘fun’, as being one of the most important aspects of life. As a teacher, I quickly found out that my lessons were more effective if they contained an element of sanook.
Alongside sanook in Thai culture, comes a reluctance to discuss politics or other subjects that might prove unpleasant. In practice, it seemed that Thais had worked out a way to avoid or even ignore outside events that might disrupt their happiness.
Accepting One’s Fate
Another (and perhaps darker) aspect of Theravadin Buddhist culture is the belief in fatalism. If one’s current life has been determined by past actions, then there is little one can do to improve their current circumstances. Again, this can give the believer a sense that they don’t have to worry about making difficult decisions or strive to bring about change since their lot in this life is set.
This belief in fatalism (and the status quo) appears to originate in Hinduism and could also help explain how the poor, uneducated SE Asian laborers, who keep the Arabian Gulf’s largest economies humming, can bear the difficult lives they’ve been given. They must maintain grueling schedules, are paid low wages and sometimes spend their entire lives away from their home countries in order to provide the bare necessities for their families.
Even though I would have an extremely difficult time accepting that I had no control over my fate, when it has been experienced as a part of one’s culture, I can understand how the duality of happiness vs unhappiness might cease to exist.
Latin American Culture
In Mexico and Colombia where I’ve lived, the locals tend to focus on the positive aspects of their lives at the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Maintaining a festive atmosphere and the pursuit of fun also seems to be extremely important as evidenced by the music that’s played everywhere (and at all hours).
As is true in both Thai and Arab cultures, the family also plays a pivotal role in supplying emotional and financial security. Perhaps due to their Colonial history of subjugation and the civil unrest that prevailed through much of the 20th century as well, Latin American peoples have had to depend on the family to fill the role that’s provided by the state in much of the West.
What the West Can Learn
In much of the developing world outside the obvious extremes of a war zone, stress-related illnesses are almost unknown. Compare that to the number of Americans taking antidepressants, sleep aids and suffering from autoimmune diseases, and it seems clear we’re living our lives in a rather unnatural way.
Instead of looking to medical science and technology for answers, perhaps we could benefit from studying the causes of well-being in the developing world and seek their guidance on how to live happier and more fulfilling lives.
From my experience, Westerners tend to complain about their lives and openly ‘seek’ happiness far more than folks in the developing world.
In many ways, this is a first world luxury; a frivolous action that many of the world’s poorer populations just don’t have time for.
In my memory, I can still visualize those South Asian laborers going about their duties. On any given (stressful) day during my 8 years in Oman, all I had to do to adjust my attitude was to look out the window. During those moments, I was always made aware that their concept of happiness was very different from mine.