The Meaning of Life is… Thailand?
How I learned the key to happiness by traveling the world
Somehow, although I didn’t know it at first, I was seeking an answer; an answer to the meaning of life, or rather, the meaning of my life. Having always been highly introspective, I had the idea from a young age, that the only way to understand my purpose here on Earth, was to see the world.
Luckily I grew up in a country which has a relatively good passport, and in a social class where most people are encouraged to go to college. So while sinking deep into student debt, I thought I might as well make take advantage of my privileges by doing internships and academic programs abroad.
Now, at 27, after having spent a cumulative 5 years away from home, switching places every half a year, more or less, I’m happy to say that I’ve discovered the answer to the meaning of life: Thailand.
But as you know if you’ve read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the answer is useless, if we don’t know the question to the answer to the meaning of life?
I think we can agree that it has something to do with happiness, so let’s go down that route to find the question.
What is happiness? Happiness, I’d say (and you might agree), is a balance between short-term gratification, and long-term sustained fulfillment. It includes healthy relationships, a sustainable lifestyle, and a healthy body.
With that definition, let’s look at the opposite of each of those, by asking: what are the impediments to happiness, the things that make unhappy?
- A**holes (unhealthy relationships),
- Stress and overwork (an unsustainable lifestyle), and
- Sickness/disease (an unhealthy body)
Now, these three impediments can be tied together by a single concept, and that is: mindfulness, or an ability to regulate your emotional responses to external factors. If this sounds like some spiritual mumbo jumbo to you, don’t worry, it is. In English, it basically translates to how good you are at NOT getting irritated — the skill of unirritability.
But what does that have to do with happiness?
Mindfulness is the key principle of almost all practices of meditation, and has recently been validated by research as contributing to better overall happiness and a reduction of depression.
Now let’s translate that into a real-world scenario. The last time somebody cut you off on the highway (causing no collisions), what did you do:
A) Give them the finger and curse through your window at them
B) Honk your horn and get red in the face with anger
C) A combination of the above
D) Acknowledge that that was an inconsiderate move, do nothing, and get on with your day
Many people, at least in American society, would probably do C.
But getting angry probably doesn’t teach that person a lesson. It just puts you, the person who got angry, in a bad mood, adding stress to your day. That stress, on top of whatever difficulties might be going through, could then cause you to be unpleasant with other people you interact with that day — maybe even subconsciously — causing tension in relationships. That stress could also cause fatigue and distraction, making you less efficient, and more tired. And finally, it could cause you to get out of shape, or even be the starting point for disease in your old age.
From all these side-effects of stress, we can now see that controlling our emotional reactions to inconveniences — unirritability — is exactly how we can eliminate all of the impediments to happiness…
And it’s also how I came to determine my favorite place in the world to travel.
Humans are social creatures. Because of that, we tend to be highly influenced by the people around us, in our mood, and stress levels. When you are surrounded by irritable people, you feel entitled to shout and curse when they cut you off. When people around you are happy, you’d probably tend to be happy as well, and let the thing they did to annoy you, just slide.
Now, considering that impediments to happiness can be circumvented through mindfulness, and that we are highly influenced by the people around us, we can determine that the happiest place in the world is the place where people are most likely to practice unirritability in their day to day life.
When people around us are happy, we usually feel happy, too.
So now the question to the answer to the meaning of life (sustained happiness): where is the place where people are most happy (i.e. least irritable)?
While we in the US are now catching onto things like yoga and meditation, people in certain countries somehow seem to be more inclined to that way of life without having to think too much about it.
From my experience, that place is Thailand.
This does not necessarily mean Thailand is the best, or even happiest country in the world. I simply have not been to every country in the world. But people living in Thailand, from my personal interactions and observations, seem to exhibit the highest amount of unirritability, of all the places I’ve been. I’ve never seen any reaction the equivalent to a typical Americans response to being cut-off on the highway.
(I should clarify, so that I am not assumed to be a person who has a disproportionately high chance of getting involved in confrontations with people all over the world, that people who know me do not consider me an irritating person; to the contrary, I am highly introverted and generally pretty reserved, especially when in a foreign country.)
Ironically, some of the places we’d be prone to consider chaotic are also high on my list of unirritability: Manila, Vietnam, Beijing, India — whereas some places which many people consider developed and civilized are very far down (lower threshold for inconvenience, higher irritability): Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong.
I should specify that I do not attribute the quality of mindfulness to any national or ethnic advantage, because two places very close to each other, sometimes even in the same country, could have a completely different vibe. Instead, it is probably a combination of things (if somebody could derive a formula for this, I’d be willing to bet they’d be a top contender for a Nobel Peace Prize), including climate, wealth, religious tradition, legal system, pop culture, terrain (oceans, mountains, desert), biodiversity, diet, political influences, war, and plenty of other factors I haven’t even begun to think of.
But why am I telling you this?
The purpose of sharing my discovery that Thailand is my favorite place is not: to encourage everyone reading this to go to Thailand, nor is it even to go traveling the world in search of your favorite place (although by all means, if you have the time and budget for it, please do). In fact, the place itself doesn’t matter at all!
My purpose in sharing this is: simply to encourage us all (including as a reminder to myself) to think about how to lead happier day-to-day lives. To reflect on those things that make us unhappy, and see that we if we eliminate those things (which it is in our power to do), we could become superhumanly unirritable — while we cannot change the reckless driving behavior of other people, we can choose to moderate our own reaction to those reckless drivers, or any other inconvenience that we may experience which does not cause physical harm.
In doing so, we may start to see that:
- our relationships are getting stronger,
- we will be more content in out professional lives and work more efficiently,
- we get sick less often and lower our risk of disease later in life.
So next time you get on that highway and somebody cuts you off, take a deep breath, let it roll off, and continue your day full of imperturbable happiness. ✌️
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