Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
– Marcus Aurelius Ceasar, the last great emperor of Rome | philosopher
Anyone who’s had a serious chat with me recently would have noticed a tendency to go on and on about Thailand.
Thailand happened at a crucial time for me. I was lost: I was falling out of love with what I was doing, losing my sense of who I was and what I wanted to be. Life seemed like giant balloon inflating inside my skull. William Blake had it easy: I was angry at the world, and though I told my wrath, my wrath never did end. I suppose it was my version of a quarter life crisis. A bit premature, but there you have it.
And so I packed my bags and went to Bangkok.
Here’s what I learned. Before we begin, a disclaimer: I am not a happiness guru. I have not found enlightenment. This is simply a record of what I learned from my journey there and back again.
IS IN OUR HEADS
“Money can’t buy happiness,” is an old saying. Like most things, it’s only half-true. Whoever designed it had clearly never been to the seedier parts of Bangkok.
But I digress. In a sense, happiness can be bought. Happiness is Chardonnay and a good dinner; happiness is a plane ticket to an exotic country; happiness is a good hotel room with a hot bath and a soft towel. You really can buy happiness; we do it all the time – we buy shoes; we eat out; we go clubbing; we travel to places far away. It’s very hard to be happy and poor. Not impossible; just so hard most of us can’t make it. Money buys you new experiences and beautiful moments.
At the same time, you have to want to be happy. No amount of money will suffice if you insist on being unsatisfied. The room will never be clean enough. The temperature will never be right. The food will always be too spicy. You will always find some fault with the world.
In truth, we need two things to be happy. The first is money. Money buys us the experience. But at some point, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kicks in; money becomes secondary, the means to an end; and everything else depends on how much you really want to enjoy what you have. This is the second need: the desire to be happy. This is what makes the night magical; this is what lets us see the good moments in life and scrub out the rest. Remember the pleasant buzz of wine working its way into your head? Remember the night sky; the smell of good coffee in the morning; the sun as it rises over the cityscape? This desire is what keeps the wine from being bitter, the coffee from being too hot, the glare of the sun being blinding. This is what makes these things more important than the litter on the pavement and the angle of your hairdo.
I took a long time to realise this second truth. I took a long time to want to enjoy the world. But there came a time when I could step outside, breathe in the air, watch the sunshine glint off the tall towers and just be happy. Money can buy the cake; it’s up to you to enjoy it.
EVERYONE NEEDS IT
If there’s one thing we all crave, it’s to be acknowledged. That little nod is more than a mere bending of neck muscles; it is a sign, one human being to another, that I have seen you; I understand.
We don’t do this enough.
Day in, day out, we pass each other on the roads, strangers with blank thoughts and stern faces. To smile and nod to a person becomes a complex calculation. Are they older? Is this appropriate to my social rank? Will this be misread? Will this be impolite? Flirtatious? We surround ourselves with so many directives and unseen social cues that to acknowledge someone else becomes social torture. To look a person in the eye becomes impossible. Better, then, to look past them; to look straight ahead and march on with purpose. We ignore everyone from street cleaners to businessmen to the waiters who bring us our food. Heck, we barely even smile at the friends of our friends when we meet; we usually hang around at a safe distance, waiting patiently for the conversation to be over, burning with curiosity but rarely daring to look up and smile. I wonder if this is a uniquely Sri Lankan thing.
I don’t know why we do this, but it’s pitiful.
Wherever we are, whoever we are, acknowledgement matters. It could be a smile. It could be a greeting. It could be a thank you for services rendered. It may be nothing more than a brief glance and a nod. And it makes such a huge difference. But doing this, for us, is often a lot harder than it should be.
I realized this when I was (temporarily) freed from the system; the society I lived and made my living in was miles away, and I was free to wander and interact with people without the inherent social blocks that become second nature to us. I realised it again when I came back and noticed myself falling into the old patterns.
Breaking free of this social conditioning is hard, but it’s not impossible. Do it.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH EXCELLENT PEOPLE
Not everyone is worth your friendship.
Opinions might differ as to the market value of your friendship, but at the end of the day, we, as humans, have limited time and a psychological limit on the number of meaningful connections we can have. (And yes, I’m throwing science at this sub-heading to make it more appealing). Find people who add value to your life. They may not be the prettiest, the kindest, or the most outgoing. That stuff is trivial.
Find people with ambition, with intelligence, and above all, a different perspective on life. What they will bring to your life is not the kind of thing that can be written about in a blog post. But try it: avoid people who subscribe to the same beliefs as everyone else; look for the mad ones.
Until then, you who read this far – I see you; you are part of my world; you matter.