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Notes on happiness

Let’s start with a few observations about Cambodia:

  1. The Cambodian language lacks intonation and inflection. Everything is spoken in a relative monotone.

  2. Nobody really honks their car horn in Cambodia. I would know, because for seven days I was the annoying cyclist on the side of the road who people had to avoid.

  3. There is very little crime in Cambodia, despite the fact that it is a developing country with extreme poverty.

  4. Several times, locals told me that “Covid time was good.” Good!? I’ve heard this from people who quite literally live in shacks. And those shacks are in villages where one Covid case could ravage an entire community without the ability to properly quarantine.

  5. In Cambodia, it is extremely common to have 5+ kids. The reasoning goes that the more kids you have, the better taken care of the parents will be, and those kids will be repaid in old age by their kids.

  6. Never have I consistently been met with more kindness and generosity by people who, in quantitative terms, have so little.

So, why is this? Why do Cambodians seem, at least compared to Americans, significantly more content, more generous, and kinder, despite often living in poverty?

I don’t have the “real” answers–it would take a lot of demographic research. But, I did just bike 150 miles, so I had plenty of time to come up with some theories:

  1. Perhaps they’re happier because of their ironclad family and community ties.

  2. 90-95% of the country is Buddhist, a religion that preaches loving kindness and the consistency of change and suffering. That must positively influence their attitudes.

  3. Lack of upward mobility is baked into Cambodian culture. Whether that’s good or bad, let’s see how this might manifest: If you know from an early age that you will take care of your parents, and your kids will take care of you, then you have no expectations about a better “later” to aspire to. And if happiness is the difference between expectation and reality, and expectation and reality continually align, then you will be reasonably happy. This is the exact opposite of how we view life in the United States, where every second is spent trying to progress to the next promotion, vacation, etc.

  4. Finally, because Cambodian lacks intonation, do Cambodians think more calmly than, say, an English speaker, where words are drawn out and exaggerated? Does that calm thought translate to a more peaceful outlook on life? This may be a stretch, but I like to think it’s true.

Whatever the reason, there are two lessons here. First, while Cambodians have less material possessions than the average American, they might have more from the standpoint of community (think about what we learned during the pandemic about how isolated Americans really are). After all, most Cambodians live near their family and friends for their entire lives. So, while Americans are out chasing fame and yachts, perhaps we should be seeking connection.

Second, happiness is both relative and under our control. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search For Meaning, wrote that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Now, I’m fully aware that you can’t tell someone who is depressed to “cheer up,” and that escaping negative thought patterns is genuinely difficult. But let’s see an example of how choice in hard situations is applied:

We saw a floating village on our tour, which is a collection of houses on enormous stilts. During the rainy season, you can only access each house by boat. As you can guess, these houses are at serious risk of flooding–and they do flood, all the time.

I asked our guide what happens when houses flood, and he told us, with the nonchalance of telling us the weather, that people simply “go to a neighbor or family member’s house.” He said that this is a part of life, that people don’t feel very fussed about it. I don’t know about you, but I would find it hard to pick up and leave if my entire house flooded year after year.

Therefore, our task is to recognize that if someone in much worse conditions has the capacity to overcome suffering with such joy, you also have that capacity.

It’s not that we should diminish our own problems–if you get fired in the United States, it won’t make you feel better to know that someone’s house flooded in Asia–but it might make you realize that you are capable of overcoming the problem in the first place.

So if I’m feeling stressed or upset, it is invigorating to know that there are people here who are far stronger, and far more resilient, than I am.




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