The hustle for happiness

It was roughly this time last year that I waited an hour for a train in Ninh Bình, Vietnam. The delay didn’t bother me at all, though, as I was in pretty high spirits: I had a few belongings in a backpack, enough Vietnamese Dong for a bowl of Pho, the company of my sister and some friends we’d made along the way, no deadlines to meet or appointments to keep and I had found a stranger with enough extravagant anecdotes to keep me entertained. What more could I possibly want?

In that moment, I was happy. The life I was living then was transient and each town offered new excitement; even the journeys in between brought new discoveries. Living out of a bag and sharing a dormitory with 13 other travellers may not be to everyone’s taste but there’s no denying it’s a simpler way of life.

Da Nang
Da Nang, Vietnam

Someone once told me about a man who packed up all his belongings as if he were about to move house and, over the course of a year, unpacked each item as and when it was required. By the end of the 12 months, he got rid of the boxes which remained unopened, declaring their contents surplus and unnecessary. While I’m attracted to the idea of keeping things ‘just in case’ because ‘you never know when you might need them’, I’m definitely far more inclined to be ruthless when it comes to clutter.

I don’t know if this extreme experiment led to a happier life for the protagonist and his sparsely-filled residence, however I do know that I experienced a sense of liberation from carrying only my essentials with me.

My backpack felt heavy but it made me feel lighter.

The stranger sitting beside me in the blue plastic chairs at Ninh Bình train station was called Adrian Belic. Among many other interesting facts, he told me that he and his brother had travelled all over the world making a documentary called ‘Happy’ which looks at the way different cultures view and value happiness.

Living in a corrugated iron lean-to with his family is the very smiley and hard-working Indian rickshaw-wallah who provides the opening subject for the documentary. His unhampered happiness is compared with the apathy of wealthy, First World success stories. The simple pleasures of sharing meals with friends are aligned with the community spirit of remote tribes. It begs the question, are some cultures happier than others? Have some people mastered the formula for finding felicity?

The documentary also suggests that an increase in wealth does not signify an increase in happiness, and yet many of us strive for prosperity in our pursuit of happiness, subconsciously or consciously connecting the two. Equally, many people might incorporate the love of a partner in their definition of happiness, but it is not the responsibility of our partners to make us happy. We, alone, are accountable for that.

What is happiness?

If you subtract ‘wealth’ and ‘love’ from the picture, what is happiness? This abstract concept we all understand but not all of us experience. When an external event makes you happy, how long does the feeling last? Is it proportional to the event or is it affected by your mental state at the time?

There has been an increased focus, in recent years, on mental health. The government is funnelling more money into increasing awareness and improving care, while social media is hoisting the flag for community support with generic posts such as ‘if you ever need to talk, I’m here for you’. It’s concerning how quickly and (seemingly) thoughtlessly antidepressants are prescribed when there are more natural ways to tap into the ever-elusive ‘happiness’. Exercise, for example, allows the release of endorphins, giving your body a dose of happiness similar to that of getting high, while laughter is scientifically proven to improve your mood.

It can feel, at times, like happiness is so far out of reach that the world seems seriously bleak, but there are means of permitting a little energy into the vacuum which can lift that metaphorical suffocation. You don’t have to go backpacking in Vietnam to learn which methods work for you, but it’s certainly a fantastic place to visit.

Personally, I turn to fresh air, a change of scenery, social interaction, physical contact, netball, chocolate, sex, drugs and rock n roll.


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