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I’ve said it before, I will say it again: money DOES buy happiness. This is just true. Moreover, kids who live on dirt floors and have nothing aren’t happier than kids in the States, and if you really think that, your privilege is showing.
But I totally get why, based on anecdotal evidence and the biased samples you see during your week or month or year abroad, you might think that.
There is definitely something beautiful about a life where there’s nothing to do but get together and talk and cook and make music together. It’s beautiful to see people singing together, instead of staring at their phones all the time.
Not to mention close-knit social systems where there are people who want to see you every day, as opposed to every couple of weeks or months.
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When I think about the people I’m friends with at home, there are several I would consider “good friends” that I only see about five times per year. This is partly because people with money tend to use their money in anti-social, rather than pro-social, ways.
Like, I choose to spend more money on rent in order to live alone. Housemates are annoying. The only dirty dishes I want to see in the sink are my own. I don’t want to ever send out an email saying that/asking if I can host a little get-together in a shared space. And don’t even get me started on the horror stories I’ve heard from people who ended up with roommates from hell.
But this also means I don’t have casual, daily, informal conversations with people I don’t work with. In fact, since I'm also self-employed, there are days when I don’t speak to another human in person until 3pm — or even later.
The pay-off? "Work From Home" days like this one. From: The Best Advice EVER for People Who Fear Getting Lonely While Traveling Alone.
There’s also that pesky human instinct for idleness. From an evolutionary perspective, when you’re not hunting, gathering, building a shelter, or reproducing, it makes sense to try to conserve your energy for when you need to do these things — especially considering your access to calories and nutrients may be limited.
But in a modern world, this instinct causes boredom, loneliness, and depression. It makes us lazy and socially disconnected.
Even a form of “passive” entertainment, like watching a movie, can be done socially, or in a lazy, energy-conserving, anti-social manner.
Going out to see a movie costs money. You have to find parking. You have to put on your shoes and leave the house. It’s soooooo much harder than staying home and watching something for free on Netflix. (Even though the movie would have been infinitely better than almost anything you’ll find on Netflix, which has been churning out endless content that’s offensively bad. Do yourself a favor: read the spoilers, then move on from that show you're only kind of meh about.)
Meanwhile, people in the countries where white people go to do their poverty tourism also like movies… but they either don’t have a movie theater, or they don’t have a TV. Which is why people will go to restaurants to watch TV, or they’ll huddle around the TV one family owns that the community kind of shares.
Another frustrating fact: our instinct for idleness is exacerbated by the fact that there is so much passive technology available, and it has literally stunted our social and emotional skills.
As I wrote in These Specific Behaviors Will Make You More Charismatic, Starting RIGHT Now, humans are “the social animal,” but that’s not because we’re born knowing how to be social.
We learn it.
Danny Wallace even noted in his masterpiece, F You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness and What We Can Do About It, that part of the reason teenagers are seen as awkward and rude is simply because they haven’t run through the social script as many times as adults. We adults have no problem talking about the weather, because we’ve done it thousand of times before. Teenagers… they’re still learning.
Unless they’re not learning because they spend all their time in front of a screen, interacting in a carefully-edited, temporally flexible digital environment.
When your social skills are stunted, going out and making plans feels harder.
It’s a vicious cycle. In order to learn how to flirt, start a conversation, make new friends, etc., you need to practice. Until you get better, it’s hard and uncomfortable. The more you don’t practice, the harder and more awkward it gets.
(Which is why I kind of lose respect for people who say, “Oh, I’m soooo socially awkward!” or, “Oh, I’m soooo bad at small talk.” It’s like, Okay…. And I’m bad at playing the flute. Because I have never tried before.)
So, no. Empirically, people in developing countries are not happier than us.
This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from them.
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We don’t need to “simplify” and “minimize” to be happy. (Seriously, how does “minimalism” work, anyway? Do you just have no hobbies or interests?)
We don’t need to give away all out money to be happy. (Though research shows that spending as little as $5 on someone other than ourselves produces a lasting boost in our mood. Read more in Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.)
We just need… to maybe be a little more social sometimes. Almost as though the money we use to buy all those comforts and conveniences doesn’t exist.
For example, a few weeks ago, I rented a cabin in Tahoe with four friends — all of whom are 6’0 or taller. Taking two cars would have been much more comfortable than cramming five people, two guitars, and ski and snowboarding gear into one Subaru…
Riding with them was so much fun. We all got to talk together, catching up and sharing new ideas. And, probably, we bonded big time by suffering together.
Or, for another example, I just returned from a week on Mabul, where I dove (and posed in endless selfies for locals and Chinese tourists) by day… and jammed on my SX 1 Travel guitar every night.
Every. Single. Night.
Because, going back to one of my earlier points, for these people, there’s little else to do most of the time but make music. So they learn to play instruments, and how to drum, and how to sing incredibly well. And they get together and jam every night.
Instead of watching TV, zoning out, and sitting on their dirt floor homes with no furniture.
Sure, having a giant white girl in their midst probably made it more interesting. They got to add a new voice to the group. They got to hear new songs and stories. For friend groups who only had one guitar between them, it was nice for them to get to solo over someone playing chords. (See also: Travel Hack: Do What You Do At Home While You Travel.)
But this isn’t an activity they did because I was there. It’s what they would have been doing, anyway. (See also: Life Hack: Do What You Do When You Travel While You're At Home.)
And I couldn’t help but think about how much happier (and better at guitar) I would be at home if I got together with my friends to jam (or play cards, or watch the sunset or the moonrise) more regularly… instead of re-watching Desperate Housewives because it’s easy and convenient. (Confession: I definitely started re-watching Desperate Housewives during the college admissions scandal, when Felicity Huffman’s face was all over the news 24/7. See also: Hot Take: Olivia Jade Was a Asset to USC and Who Cares WHY You Got In? You Got In. Now Make The Most of It.)
Or just goof around. Why should this:
Only happen at birthday parties?
At the risk of sounding like a 20-year-old who is traveling for the first time... This trip has changed me. I sincerely hope to change my own life in a major way when I return home...
The tricky thing is, I'm going to have to get more friends on-board with this goal, because it literally takes a village.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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