If you read my previous article about traveling, you’ll know that I ended it by saying that traveling can teach you not just about how other people live, but also grant you a different lens from which you can examine your own life. In this article, I will be dealing with one of the nuggets of wisdom (at least I hope it’s wisdom) I’ve gleaned from my travels.
The country I live in, Singapore, has the third highest population density in the world (Macau and Monaco and #1 and #2 respectively). When so many people are crammed into such a tiny space, the level of competition naturally increases. Like animals who live together in a tight pack, human nature dictates that we must undergo rigorous testing to determine who the alpha is. Just as brute strength was normally the deciding factor in winning battles, so in today’s more civilized society we determine success by someone’s net worth and how luxurious his life is.
Luxury, of course, is expensive. Bearing the above Battle for Alpha in mind, is it any wonder that the highest earning professions (doctors, lawyers and bankers) are also the hardest to enter? And not only are they hard to enter, they are hard to remain in, for getting your foot in the door is to clear only the first round of the competition. To win the whole thing, you will have to climb the corporate ladder ruthlessly, putting up with working late into the night and on weekends, sucking up to your bosses and eagerly networking with everyone you meet whom you think can give you an extra edge.
I’m not just talking about those in the so-called top professions. Everyone in Singapore is in this competition.Wind back the clock of life, and you’ll see that to get to the top (and stay there), one would need to jump through many hoops: the best preschools, the best tuition, the best piano/violin lessons, joining Toastmasters to know how to sell yourself, a degree from the best university, the best internships. And so on.
And what is all this effort and toil for? The good life, of course. Why? Because why not? Isn’t that what everyone wants? A powerful, prestigious high-paying job, which will net you a snazzy car (or cars) and a house (once again, or houses) renovated and furnished to the height of class. And let’s not begin to talk about the clothes, bags and shoes.
What I want to know is this, though: When did we decide that this is what we needed to be happy? Why exactly do we need all these accolades and material possessions before we can be content?
I’ll tell you why: Other than increasing the level of competition, a high population density produces a second side effect that is subtler but no more desirable: It makes people more self-centred.
This is completely natural. In a crowd of everyone jostling to be heard, the person who screams “ME” the loudest wins. We are subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) encouraged from young to distinguish ourselves. It doesn’t matter in what: arts, science, sports, music, whatever. What matters is that we feel that we must be different from everyone else in order to succeed. Tragically, in this pursuit of “success” we have made ourselves like everyone else simply because we all have the same goal: Success.
When was the last time you took the time to stand still? To stop striving for that promotion, for that new higher-paying job, for that house you want to upgrade into in a few year’s time? When was the last time you looked at the sky or ocean and thought that life is so much bigger than you and your wants? When was the last time you took a long walk in the woods? (Fine, we only have nature reserves, but you know what I mean.)
Singapore is a place where nothing ever stops. You work the bulk of your day to earn the money you need for your successful life a few years down (if material possessions and net worth are the measure of one’s success, you can never truly consider yourself successful right now because there’s always a higher echelon you can reach, a higher tier you can achieve), and you spend the remainder of that day being bombarded with ways to spend that money. Ask the average Singaporean what he or she does on the weekend and the answer will be: Hanging out at the mall. The mall has a supermarket, a cinema, a department store, a food court – everything you could possibly want at your fingertips.
Everything… except perhaps what we really need.
It is not easy to realize this, though. Not when everyone around you is striving for it. In fact, it would never have occurred to me had I not traveled and encountered people who were living far, far simpler lives and were happier for it.
I met a landlady who grows her own garden and goes into the nearby woods to pick berries (her homemade jams and baked bread are excellent). Everyday she would visit the woods, tend her garden and feed her three alpacas. For her to be able to give her guests an unforgettable home-stay experience was her own definition of success.
I had the good fortune to talk to a church tour guide who shared not only her extensive knowledge regarding the history of the church and the surrounding land, but also her view that places of historical and cultural significance should receive the highest level of support from the government of the day. This was someone who didn’t care about her own advancement, but only that precious pieces of the past be properly cared for for the benefit of future generations.
I went on a hike guided by a young man who enthusiastically made us endure the cold spray of water underneath the glacier, until we saw a large chunk of it break off into the flowing river. Even when he wasn’t regaling us with the geography of the area, I could tell he really loved being there – in the midst of nature.
I looked through the telescope of an astronomer and his team in the middle of the night in a small mountainous town. They must have taken countless tourists up to that spot, but even then it was readily apparent that the sheer beauty of the night sky still enthralled them as much as it did us.
All of these people could be said to be in the tourism industry and it can be argued that they were merely very professional and good in doing their jobs. But their sincerity and graciousness touched me, and I began to wonder if perhaps it was not a direct result of the simplicity of their lives.
And so we must ask ourselves: Do we really need to get swept along in the fast-paced life we live in, chasing material possessions and luxury? Is this really how we want to live the one life we’re given?
If you believe that the answer is no, then take the time to stand still. Smell the roses. Go for a walk. Live a simpler, slower life.
And be happy.
The most simple things can bring the most happiness.
– Izabella Scorupco