People often ask me what my favorite place in the world is, and having been to 24 countries in the last 17 months alone, that’s a big inquiry. I often respond by telling them that there are two different ways of traveling; vacationing and experiencing. If you want a holiday full of beautiful landscapes, feelings of ease and not a thought in the world, go to Bali or Thailand (I have, highly recommended). But if you want to experience a culture that is so vastly different from your own that it rocks you to the core, even though it’s a giant struggle every single day, I’d tell them to head to India.
They say India is a country most loved in hindsight, and in some ways I could see that as true. India is a country of beauty, spirituality and color, all veiled under a haze of poverty and garbage. The ground is India’s trash can. Open sewage gutters line the streets. The police are corrupt and a con is around every corner. People sleep in the streets and on the train station floor and inside their 2’x2’ roadside tobacco stands. It’s easy to imagine a population of tired, ragged, distraught people, but when you lug your baggage off the plane and walk into the wall of Indian heat and spice for the first time, that isn’t what you find. Instead, you find a smile on every face and, maybe not a sense of contentment, but a sense of sweet satisfaction that only comes from the relinquishing of one’s control.
In February 2012, Reuters reported that India had the second highest population of people (43%) who would describe themselves as ‘very happy’, despite living in conditions that most of us would find deplorable. Ipsos Global Research has been surveying more than 18,000 people in 24 countries since 2007 to try and measure the overall happiness of the people in our world, quite a task to undertake considering all the possible variables.
Happiness is pretty hard to measure if you think about it. It is intangible, and incredibly difficult to explain. Short term joy comes and goes, as we all know, we have good days and bad days, ups and downs; but what about our overall sense of well-being? Could anyone ever accurately assign a value to it, or measure ones happiness against another’s’? In the western world, we are taught to find happiness in achieving goals, successes at work or affording possessions. We experience joy in life’s milestones, often looking to the future for the next happiness high. But there are places in the world where happiness truly does come from within, partly because there aren’t many other places for it to come from. John Wright, senior vice president of Ipsos Global concluded that “sometimes the greatest happiness is a cooked meal or a roof over your head.” But for most Indian people, 70% of which are living under the poverty line, every day, every meal, every night under shelter is a fight. There are very few days in an Indian person’s life that are relaxed or easy without big worries. So, then, where does this happiness come from?
Something is still bothering me though, I really can’t decide: are Indians actually unhappy or was Reuter’s right? I will admit that like most westerners, before visiting India, when I thought about Indian people, images of Sally Struthers children that I could have saved from their eternal look of desperation for the price of a cup of coffee a day sprung to mind. Being here has seriously challenged that notion in my head. Sure I see pathetic looking children and people in serious distress, and there are times when I feel like the price of a Starbucks soy latte probably would make a viable difference in their lives, but to be honest people seem happy. This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting for some reason. I expected to feel guilty, which in turn makes me feel even guiltier for having previously thought so much of myself. What I actually found was that India is all about reveling in moments of celebration despite how hard things are, which to me is great design in its essence.
Enter: Holi. Holi, simply put, is a giant festival of color during which everyone “blesses” each other with pigmented powder in an attempt to wipe away the negative and bring the positive, or at least cover it up with hot pink. The kid in me who loves a good mud fight rejoiced when I heard about this festival years ago and put it on my bucket list straight away. It happens all over Northern India, in every city, town, village.
My mind is abuzz with thoughts of what the day might bring as I sit sipping hot chai at eight in the morning enjoying the last predictable moments of peace the day will bring. For all I know, Holi has become one giant tourist trap like so many of the “authentic” Indian experiences I expected to have (the camel safari was made less majestic when we camped next to a hotel parking lot); or it could be just what I am dreaming of, a beautiful sight of some of the worlds’ most unhappily portrayed people throwing caution to the wind, forgetting the days of trouble and strife and throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other in a frenetic pigmented chaos party.
I expected Holi to be a rather interesting cross section of Indian culture, particularly in the way the locals would interact with us foreigners. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden change in the caste system laden air; that day we were all equal and we were all thankful to be together and to be having fun. It wasn’t about asking for “one rupee” (the go to English phrase for all beggars) and it wasn’t about the white people and their money, the rich people and their houses or the politicians and their schemes.
It didn’t matter who we were that day, because after a few people had approached you with two handfuls of gulal (pigmented powder) and a smiley “Happy Holi!” we all looked the same anyways. Every person you saw was a mishmash of color with bright white smiles speckling the crowds. Everywhere you looked was a flurry of gulal and buckets of water being poured over heads, there was no discrimination. Pink, purple, green and yellow covered everything in a myriad of bright hues, from the walls to the floors, the babies to the grandmothers, we were all just canvases.
It occurred to me during the day that this was the perfect example of Indian happiness, maybe Reuters had taken their survey last Holi. If you looked around from a logical point of view (I’m not actually sure there is a translatable Hindi word for this), there didn’t seem to be much cause for celebration. People were still homeless, jobless and injured. There were still hungry children and medical care hadn’t become any more accessible. Most of the people I saw probably didn’t know where dinner would come from that night, but I’d bet 1000 rupees you’d never know they had a single trouble in their life that day.
As a kid I was taught to feel sorry for those unfortunate souls in third world countries, how closed their view of the world is, how small their list of opportunities. “Eat your dinner, Jenni Jane, there are starving people in China.” Now I am the minority in a sea of others, and I’m forced to reevaluate my own situation. Hell yeah I’m lucky and privileged and educated and free, but I lack the day to day appreciation and satisfaction that these “poor souls” have such a strong grasp on.
This is the key I’ve found in this crazy place; you can’t control it so why sweat the small stuff? Life is an ever moving, always changing, unstoppable force that we are all a part of, so the overall sense is to give up the fight and let life take you where it will. In India, any time spent worrying is time lost.
The biggest lesson I learned that fateful Holi day was that while my $3 cup of morning coffee might feed someone for a day, no amount of money in the world can provide happiness. You’ve either got it or you don’t. I also learned that some “authentic” Indian experiences can never be marketed, Holi was awesome.
Do you think accessing happiness can be affected by the country you live in? Comment below.