Biochemist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard in his TED Talk “The Habits of Happiness” says, “It seems that no one wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘May I suffer the whole day?’ Which means that somehow, consciously or not, directly or indirectly, in the short or the long term, whatever we do, whatever we hope, whatever we dream; somehow, is related to a deep, profound desire for wellbeing or happiness.” Ananda (Sanskrit), sa’dah (Arabic), khwaam sook (Thai), no matter what language you use, the pursuit of happiness seems to be at the core of the human condition.
Pointing toward happy
For those who dwell in a mindful search for happiness, it’s clear that the standard answers we received on our way to adulthood were neither correct nor adequate. Do I measure my happiness with a borrowed yardstick, or do I make my own? So many of us wonder why the things that make us happy are different from the things that are supposed to make us happy. It takes a quiet nudge or sometimes a shove to understand that our spirit and soul has a compass that always points to the north—the north of mindfulness and happiness.
Of the smiles I see floating through my life, the most earnest and exuberant ones are on the faces of those who live the hardest lives. And it seeps out of vessels cracked, broken, dirty and dented but still filled—to the brim—with happiness. Those less fortunate than we—we with our correct count of limbs, functionality of faculties—seem to hold a secret. It’s like the void leaves just enough room for happiness to creep in. Maybe we the adequate are too full. “Happiness is determined more by one's state of mind than by external events,” says the Dalai Lama in his book The Art of Happiness.
In the busy, bustling streets of Bangkok where I live, contentment lurks in late evenings in the multitude of food stalls, in the faces of people who flock to this Eastern metropolis to cook and plate happiness to the people who sit atop tiny, plastic stools and scoop it onto spoons. Yellow, 20-volt lightbulbs illuminate smiles against the backdrop of neon-splashed skyscrapers.
In the mornings, hope is placed in the alms bowls of monks who walk barefoot, taking the dreams and prayers of the many and delivering them into the sky through their mindful meditation. And I am reminded of the cool mornings of Nepal, where I come from, where happiness thunders downhill in the footsteps and laughter of children walking to school, hours away. And the joy of pride in those children that floats around mothers as they walk uphill with loads of firewood and farm produce. And in this fray of what was and what is, a samsara, or circle of giving and receiving, appears in my consciousness. We as humans seek it throughout our lives.
Usha (second from left), 25 years old, raises goats and grows maize and vegetables to sell by the highway. From a hill tribe in Nepal, Usha never went to school. Most girls in rural Nepal never go to school or are pulled out to be married when they reach puberty. Usha initiated and manages scholarships for young women in her village to complete school. “Nothing brings us more happiness than giving to others what we never had,” Usha says. “Because we know its value.”
Ali (not his real name), 57 years old, has been making fried flatbreads topped with condensed milk in the streets of Bangkok for 20 years. He is an illegal immigrant from Myanmar, one of the many Rohingya people who have been expelled from the country. “The source of my happiness is my faith,” he said. “The Quran teaches us that everything is a blessing. And we should be happy with what we have.” Ali speaks fondly of his 1-year-old daughter he calls Noor, the light.
Bew, 27 years old, is from Laos and makes noodles in the busy street side of Bangkok. He has been doing this for five years now and does it with the accuracy and efficiency of an assembly worker. Bew often sports a blonde Mohawk but dons a shiny silver hat in winter. “I work here because of the money. As for my style, I don’t think much about it,” Bew says with a smirk. “I like fashion. Dressing up for work makes me happy.”
Interviews interpreted from Thai to English by Riyad Sharaf. Puja Singh is a journalist living in Bangkok, Thailand.
To find out more about how happiness in expressed and lived around the world, see the April 2015 issue of Live Happy magazine.