Happiness in Unexpected Places

As I’m traveling this week I’m reminded of an experience Chris and I had while vacationing in Egypt last year.  We were so excited to get a Living Social trip (what a deal!) that included a multi-stop cruise down the Nile in this fancy-schmancy riverboat, complete with all you can eat, sumptuous Egyptian food, marble foyer and bathrooms, not to mention a view to die for.

In retrospect, I’m even more grateful for the opportunity and timing of our trip.  The revolution had been in a peaceful phase for some time, and elections were still pending.  There were smatterings of incidents in Tahrir Square, but they had not reached the intensity of the recent past. It was still safe for Americans to travel to Egypt, and it’s unclear now when Americans will have that opportunity again.

Modern, clean and sophisticated, Cairo has every technological advantage of the Western world.  Not surprising really given the scope and grandeur of the achievements of the ancient world are still awe-inspiring, millennia later.

The contrast between the modernity of Cairo and the countryside was striking.  Camel- or donkey-based transport, dirt roads, primitive housing, minimal plumbing and electricity, the countryside was as backward as the ancient world marveled.  As with every instance that I have traveled to a developing country, I felt so profoundly grateful for the modern amenities and advantages we have in the Western world.

One day on the Nile cruise, Chris and I had some down time between our many tours to take a walk in the area surrounding the dock.  We were moored outside of Luxor, and the vicinity was countryside, though it was a short trip into town.  The village had about one block of commercial district (if we were to use the term generously).

The locals were very friendly but curious of the wandering Americans.  One gentleman, a taxi driver by trade, spoke very good English and approached us to chat.  We asked if he lived in the village, and he replied in the affirmative and said that he’s lived here all his life.  I felt a bit sad for him, that his life was confined to dirt roads, Spartan housing and little chance for advancement or improvement.

Then he added, “and I would not want to live anywhere else in the whole world.  This is my home and I love it here.”

Foolish, foolish me, equating materialism, chance for advancement and economic improvement as the equivalent of happiness.  Has our stuff and money really made us happy?  For all our education, can I speak more than a word or two of Arabic?  I can’t even speak the native language of my parents to communicate with my few relatives should I have the opportunity to travel to China again.

When did we Americans start to equate wealth with happiness?

While recently purging my house of 20 years of accumulation, I felt lightness and relief rather than sadness for offloading a truckload of stuff that I don’t need.  Graham Hill believes that our stuff actually makes us unhappy.

I’m not sure, really, whether the existence of my stuff in my life changes my happiness. I think that expecting or needing stuff does, in the sense that the more I am attached to things, the less I am focused on just appreciating my life.  I mean that in that most literal sense, my life which involves me breathing, sitting, eating, seeing, smelling, being. In this moment, what is more important or even profoundly satisfying than being completely in tune with being alive?