What we can learn from the definition of happiness in India

A country full of everything. People, smells, sounds, religions, spices. And cows. Lots and lots of cows. Where New York is the city that never sleeps, after spending a month in India we’d like to say that India is the country that never sleeps. Everyone is always busy doing something. Dogs have loud conversations with each other all the time, especially at night. And tuktuk drivers, or anyone who dares to participate in the crazy Indian traffic, won’t consider hitting the road without using their horn. How is happiness in India defined?

It’s ranked number 122 in the World Happiness Index, even lower than its neighbour Pakistan. And, the happiness score also decreased the last years. Life expectancy is not very high (68,35 years in 2015), nor do they perceive good social support. Yet, it’s also the country home to many spiritual teachers such as Gandhi, who explain happiness is “when what you think, what you say, and what you do, are in harmony”. So, the question is if India is indeed in complete disharmony?

All of this is making it an interesting destination to discover their definition of happiness. We take a full month to explore, and will also visit the supposedly oldest city in the world, Benares (or Varanasi).

Community. I belong to.  

India is well known for its caste system. So, we need to understand this for sure to be able to find out it’s relation to happiness. Luckily, we discovered the website India for dummies. to give us the basic insights. It’s a system that has, in our eyes, unnecessary restrictions and limitations, somewhat strange beliefs and impolite behaviour. And even though we sometimes witnessed some of our assumptions in real life, what we found out that it seems to be less ‘present’ or ‘disturbing’ for many people who live in India. At least, less than we expected it to be. Maybe they don’t show us their true colours, but they don’t seem to be bothered by how things work.

First, in many big cities it’s less prominent now-a-days. Everyone becomes more Westernized. In the more traditional villages, it’s still effective, mostly with respect to marriages. Whereas it imposes certain challenges sometimes, such as finding the right partner for your son or daughter (who needs to be of the same caste), it also creates a bond. Within a village, they often celebrate festivities together, and know everyone very well. Secondly, we’ve come to understand that they also know the rest of the village very well. It’s not like they exclude someone. Your village is more important than the caste system.

With regards to equal opportunities, it’s hard to find out what the impact of the caste system is. With a country so big, diverse and with extremes in both richness and poorness, we don’t feel like we are in the position to discuss this. What matters to us most however, is how locals perceive the differences in daily life due to their caste system.

For example, it quite often happens that waiters are being treated differently, a bit rude in our eyes, by some Indian guests. We have a talk with Rinzi, a waiter that we’ve come to know very well during our stay in Varkala, about this sensitive situation. He gives us a polite laugh. Sure, he often prefers Western customers as they are more open and friendly than the average Indian. But he explains that they aren’t really bothered or affected by the treatment of some Indians who, in our eyes, consider themselves superior. They seem to accept it.


What makes a big impact on us though, is how they deal with these situations. Our friend explains that he beliefs it’s all about perspective. He realises that they (the ones that behave impolite) don’t know any better, and are used to acting like this. They see others behaving similar.

And without trying to justify the behaviour or ignoring it, he has a point. And it’s the same point or awesome yoga teacher Riyas loves to make. We told Riyas that we are surprised and shocked by the amount of garbage you find everywhere in India. We shared the anecdote that during our travel in the Northern part of India, we were sitting in a taxi and suddenly, the taxi-driver threw his empty coffee cup out of the window, on the street. We explained to the taxi driver that in our country, it’s not appropriate to do this (we said it polite, even though words like idiot, crazy and unacceptable crossed our minds too) and then made a statement about how important taking care of the environment is. Our taxi driver wasn’t really impressed by our frustration and replied with a simple but clear said “sorry, that is not normal in your country, is it?”.

Riyas noticed that we got a bit irritated when telling the story, and then asked us the question: “Does he know what you know? Do you think he has been to other countries to see the differences?”. Well, we don’t think so… “Right, so can you really blame him?”. Hmmm … Just because we have a different reference scheme and we know how ridiculous it is to just throw something on the street, it doesn’t mean he or she knows this too. In fact, most of the Indians probably don’t. So instead of blaming and pinpointing, let’s help them. It’s a hell of a lot more positive.


happiness in indiaAnd it’s important, if you ask us. Looking at things from different perspectives is beneficial in all kinds of situations. But most importantly, it relates to happiness. Because if you can put things in perspective, you find yourself experiencing less negative emotions. It’s about knowing there are always multiple sides to a story. It’s one of the values many Indian Guru’s preaches to their followers. And it illustrates why we can’t easily jump to conclusions about a low level of happiness for Indian people who live in poverty.

As long as I live, so long do I learn Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Happiness is nothing material.

Living in poverty doesn’t guarantee unhappiness. Every single person we’ve spoken with stresses that money is not the key to happiness. Like it’s one of the mantra’s they learned when growing up. In fact, our Ayurvedic doctor Mr Deeksha Bhargava in Udaipur even claims that money challenges your happiness. Sure, you need to have some money to fulfil your basic needs, but it also makes life more complicated. And in the end, we all leave the earth with nothing. Just like we came with nothing. Something we aren’t hearing for the first time.

Being in one of the oldest cities in the world, Benares, we are exposed to the strong beliefs and rituals many Indians hold. From the daily prayers and sacrifices they make for their Hindu gods, to the (costly) cremation ceremony of deceased people, it all gives them strength and fulfilment. And this feeling, if you ask many Indians, is priceless. And it’s happiness.

happiness in indiaIn our plane from India to New York we meet Romil. Born in India and now studying in New York. He says that for the Indians, happiness is being close to the country’s culture. To the family and the traditions. Live how you are supposed to live.

The strong belief in having a good Karma, by doing good to your gods and the people around you, brings you happiness. And so, during our month in India, we’ve met many people who scored a bunch of Karma points. We’ve been invited to the homes of multiple Indian families. Families we barely know. Invited by kind-hearted people who are touched by our story (you know the one about searching for secrets to happiness).

We have enjoyed some outstanding Indian lunches and very inspiring conversations. It became clear that hospitality and kind-heartedness, is something that increases the happiness of many Indians. And it for sure boosts our happiness level too. We feel so grateful and can’t thank all these people enough.

A famous Indian saying is ‘ atti devo bhava’  meaning ‘treat your guests as gods’. This is what the Indian people live by and something we could learn from them as we couldn’t remember the last time we invited a stranger in our house for lunch.

Like a hotel trainee in Agra quoted: “My advice is being friendly. It is the secret to happiness. When you are friendly it makes others happy and yourself”. So, share your friendliness, just like you share your selfies. And so we did.

happiness in indiaPresence. Energy.

As said before, happiness is nothing material. It’s living according to beliefs and rituals, creating fulfilment, and achieving good karma. And according to the family Ratore, that invited us for lunch in Jodhpur, profound art of living teachers from Jodhpur, happiness is presence. They explain to us that it is the tendency of the mind to be in the past or future. Yet that’s also where stress is. Stress is only in past and future. It’s not here. Not RIGHT NOW. What’s present, is your breath. To be happy, be with your breath, be present is their advice.

We totally agree, because everything makes sense. Yet simultaneously we are at the edge of feeling too woolly, too untouchable. But then, they make it very concrete again.

The professor explains that in the end, happiness equals energy. When do you feel happy? When you feel a lot of energy. And, he makes it even more practical by explaining that there are four sources to derive energy from: food, sleep, a calm mind, and your breath. Whereas the first two are quite known and profound to us, the latter two often don’t get the same amount of attention. Yet it could be key to our happiness.

So, in challenging circumstances, the professor confirms, make sure you create enough energy. And the most important way to create this energy is to strengthen your breath and create a calm mind. To focus on what you are now. Let go of when and then.

Let go of the assumption that when you do X, then you will be happy. Focus on what you are NOW. It is what you will always be.

And again, our very wise yoga teacher Riyas supports this belief. He calls it mindfulness, and explains that key to being more here, more mindful, is to increase the use of your senses and decrease the use of your mind. India is an amazing country with an overload of smells, sounds and visuals every day. Our senses have been working overtime, that’s for sure. And we must admit that we’ve been very present the past weeks. We’ve been questioning ourselves whether the Indians crave silence, less chaos and less smelly cow dump on the streets. But maybe this is their secret ingredient to live in the present, to be mindful and therefore be happy.

Happiness in India…

Happiness in India is hard to define. Does being friendly to strangers and being mindful bring real happiness? Ranked at the bottom of the world happiness index, we expected a lot of unhappiness. Yet we can’t draw this conclusion. In a country with more differences than we could have ever imagined, the definition of happiness is really a matter of perspective. And that’s exactly the key to happiness in India: to approach happiness in a way that suits you. That is aligned to how your conditioned, to the way you are born and raised and the beliefs you have. Many seem to be happy. Maybe they don’t walk around with the biggest smile 24/7, or seem (and drive) busy and a little stressed, most of the people we’ve spoken with consider themselves relatively happy. And their neighbours too.

Whether you live in the desolated desert of Jaisalmer, are part of the craziness in a big city like Mumbai, or you live a more laidback life in the tropical South, everyone finds happiness in his or her own way. For the majority, it’s nothing material. It’s about your approach to life, the sense of fulfilment and meaning you derive from your daily behaviour. Many see a good karma as a prerequisite for happiness, and find it through living according to their religion, through their hospitality and their friendliness. And one of the most important lessons to us is to realise that happiness is being in the present. It’s right here, right now. And it’s simply your breath that helps you to be in the present and increase your energy level. And luckily, we all possess the gift of breathing.

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