Thursday, January 20, 2011

Happiness: Something to think about…or not.

Thursday, January 20, 2011
8:55 PM

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately. There are so many conveniences that I don’t have here…and so I just don’t worry about them. In America, where “anything is possible,” we’re always worrying about how to achieve that “anything.” We can always get more money, more knowledge, more character, more friends, more fame, more stuff….more, more, more. It’s a land of opportunity….but of what opportunity? The opportunity to never be satisfied with what you have?

I tried to express this feeling to my friend, Steve, in an email the other day:
Hey, here's your update on the Thailand thing: I'm happier than I've been in a long time. It's a weird thing to realize that happiness doesn't depend on in door plumbing. My conditions were a shock that first day, but now , it's just how things are, and I can enjoy life without worrying too much about them. You know, in America, everything seems to be around the theme "Dream Big" But here....they don't seem to be too caught up in their dreams....they just live...and there is something about just living that I find very attractive. And for now, I'm just living too, and smiling a lot.
Thought you might want to know,

And my dad expressed similar thoughts in an email to me:

I can't help but wonder that the "simple life" your coworkers have sought out, is a piece of heaven. I wonder if that is why SURVIVOR appeals to me so. The thought of being concerned only about the basics of life. No distractions. No self-imposed deadlines.

When I came home tonight, I noticed a book sitting on our living room table entitled, The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner. I curiously picked it up to skim through the chapters and noticed one entitled Thailand. A large part of the chapter very accurately expresses exactly what it is about this country that has started me thinking along these lines. It’s a bit long, but I can’t help but include it here—and if I’m taking the time to type it, you can be sure it’s a good read. (I obviously haven’t read the whole book, and so can’t recommend it, but I find his writing very fun and would love to hear a review if anyone has read or decides to read the rest of this book.)

“I’ve always considered myself a thoughtful person. There’s virtually nothing I won’t think about, from the intensely profound to the astonishingly trivial. The only thing I haven’t given much thought to is…thinking.

Like most westerners, I’ve never felt the need to question the value of thinking. To me, that would make about as much sense as questioning the value of breathing. Just listen to our language. I think therefore I am. Think before you act. Think it over. Give it some thought. Let me think about it and get back to you. How thoughtful of you.

Some people think (there’s that word again) that our venal pop culture devalues thinking. That’s not true. Pop culture devalues a certain type of thinking—deep thinking—but it values another kind: the shallow variety. Shallow thinking is still thinking.

The examined life, we’re told is the good life. Psychotherapy is built on this assumption—cognitive therapy, in particular. If we can only fix our faulty thought patterns, our corrupted software, then happiness, or at least less misery, will ensue.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.

Until I traveled to Thailand. Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking. For the Thais, thinking is like running. Just because your legs are moving doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere. You might be running into a headwind. You might be running on a treadmill. You might even be running backward.

Thais do not buy self-help books or go to therapists or talk endlessly about their problems. They do not watch Woody Allen movies. When I ask…Thais if they are happy, they smile, of course, and answer politely, but I get the distinct impression that they find my question odd. The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.

Indeed, I find myself questioning where all these years of introspection have gotten me: a library of self-help books and an annoying tendency to say things like “I’m having issues” and “What do you think that means?”

A Thai person would never say things like that.

Thai culture, while rare in its distrust of thinking, is not unique. The Inuit frown upon thinking. It indicates someone is either crazy or fiercely stubborn, neither of which is desirable. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes one Inuit woman who was overheard to say in a righteous tone, “I never think.” Another woman complained to a friend about a third woman because she was trying to make her think and shorten her life. “Happy people have no reason to think; they live rather than question living,” concludes Tuan.

On this score, the new science of happiness has been largely silent, and I suppose that’s not surprising. An academic, after all, would no more question the value of thinking than a chef would question the value of cooking. Yet a few courageous psychologists have studied the relationship between introspection and happiness.

In one study, psychologists Tim Wilson and Jonathan Schooler had participants listen to a piece of music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Some were given no instructions before listening to the music. Others were told to monitor their happiness, and still others to “try to be happy” while listening. It was these latter two categories that derived the least amount of pleasure from the music. Those given no instructions at all found the music most enjoyable. The inevitable conclusion: Thinking about happiness makes us less happy.

The philosopher Alan Watts, were he alive today, would nod knowingly when told of that experiment. Watts once said, “Only bad music has any meaning.” Meaning necessarily entails words, symbols. They point to something other than themselves. Good music doesn’t point anywhere. It just is. Likewise, only unhappiness has meaning. That’s why we feel compelled to talk about it and have so many words to draw upon. Happiness doesn’t require words.

When you get down to it, there are basically three, and only three, ways to make yourself happier. You can increase the amount of positive affect (good feelings). You can decrease the amount of negative affect (bad feelings). Or you can change the subject. This third option is one we rarely consider or, if we do, dismiss it as a cop-out. Change the subject? That’s avoidance, we protest, that’s cowardly! No, we must wallow in our stuff, analyze it, taste it, swallow it, then spit it out, swallow it again, and talk about it, of course, always talk about it. I’ve always believed that the road to happiness is paved with words. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, if arranged in just the right constellation, would enable me to hopscotch to bliss. For Thais, this is an alien and quite silly approach to life. Thais don’t trust words. They view them as tools of deception, not truth.

The Thais have a different way, the way of mai pen lai [sic]. It means “never mind.” Not the “never mind” that we in the west often use angrily, as in “Oh , never mind, I’ll do it myself” but a realy, just-drop-it-and-get-on-with-life “never mind.” Foreigners living in Thailand either adopt the mai pen lai attitude or go insane.”

In conclusion, I’m posting a song that was written and recorded by my friend, Nik Day. I’ve always loved this song, but suddenly it means more now that I’m actually living in a third world country, without any money, in a house made of wood, and the blue sky is looking more interesting every day. Tell me, “How Could Life Get Any Better?”

You can find the link to the song in the upper right hand of this page. Enjoy!

P.S for those of you like Lols who love to read, I’m going to send an extra excerpt to my mom, so you can post your email address in the comments and request that I forward it on to you. I didn’t post it here simply because I want my blog to be appropriate for all ages, and this excerpt isn’t—but I found it hilarious.


  1. Kimber, have mom send it to me! I Love You!

  2. You are absolutely darling. Love your blog. I feel so happy thinking about you and all you're experiencing and realizing. I realize thinking doesn't necessarily make one happy, but my thinking at this moment does. You are lovely.

  3. Fun read!! I would like to read more. It's hard to not read everyone else's comments before I write mine. They taint my original impressions...

    You're very good--Impressive, even. But mostly alive.

    Thanks for sharing it:)

  4. Mom read the rated "R" excerpt to grandma and grandpa while I was in the room. AHHHH!!!! My ears were bleeding. But I love you anyway. :)

  5. Kimber-I want the rated "R" read! Send it to me please!

  6. I'm scared....