I believe that the yearning to travel to find oneself, to find meaning in life, to find happiness, is a ripe field of exploration in positive psychology. I first became interested in the idea that we can learn from places after reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Burnt out and desperate to change her life, Gilbert immerses herself in Italy, India, and Bali to learn the arts of pleasure, devotion, and balance. As different people have different strengths, perhaps different cultures have different strengths. And just like implanting yourself amidst native speakers is the best way to learn a new language, why not learn a new hedonic strength by cultural immersion?
I loved this idea, and was recently thrilled to have the opportunity to travel for nearly a month in India with wonderful friends from the MAPP program. To many, including Gilbert, India has a happiness-boosting niche in spirituality, conjuring images of ashrams, yogis, and soul-searching hippies. Although we did visit the old abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh yogi, where the Beatles stayed and wrote the White Album, given more time I would have loved to stay at and “look for God as a man with his head on fire looks for water,” as Gilbert did during her four month stay (156).
It was a difficult trip for me, physically – for a first time backpacker and clean freak, India was a nightmare of dirty hostels and extremely long and cold transits. But I’m happy to report that the “worst” experiences stand out in my mind as the most memorable, and in hindsight, enjoyable. I wouldn’t even know how to begin describing the myriad impressions and experiences I had, so I was happy to find a chapter about India in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.
A former NPR correspondent who had built a career writing sad stories about sad situations and sad people, Weiner decided to spend a year traveling, “seeking out not the world’s well-trodden trouble spots but, rather, its unheralded happy places” (2). In preparation, Weiner armed himself with “the modern liturgy of bliss spoken by the new apostles of the emerging science of happiness,” and “brush[ed] up on terms like ‘positive affect’ and ‘hedonic adaptation.’” Weiner’s theme for India is contradiction—I’ve heard the description before but it does ring true, along with his claim that “India does not disappoint. It captivates, infuriates, and, occasionally, contaminates. It never disappoints” (275).
To complement standard travel writing, Weiner ties in positive psychology, citing a study by Robert Biswas-Diener that compared the homeless in Calcutta to those in California. “Calcutta’s destitute, it turns out, are significantly happier than those in California, even though the Californian homeless had better access to food, shelter, and health services. Biswas-Diener attributed the surprising result to the fact that Calcutta’s street people may have little in the way of material wealth, but they do have strong social ties…There’s another reason, I think, why Calcutta’s poor are happier than America’s. If an Indian person is poor, it is because of fate, the gods, or some negative karma accumulated in a previous lifetime. In other words, they are not to blame. If an American is poor, it is seen as a personal failure, a flawed character” (303). He concludes that we can boost our happiness by becoming more comfortable with un-predictability; that Indians are happy in large part because they can live with and enjoy craziness and contradictions.
For me, my last day in Delhi put this theory to the test. Trying to fly standby out of Delhi, we didn’t get out our flight and had to unexpectedly stay an extra day. I can’t adequately describe the nightmare and hell that is Indira Gandhi International Airport at 11 pm, when you’re trying to get out of the airport while hundreds of people and their carts of luggage are trying to get in. The next day, exhausted, broke, and unable to carry our backpacks any longer, we decided to pass the time in the Radisson hotel lobby, pretending to be guests in order to escape the noise, dust, and clamor outside.
Before leaving for the airport, I ate my last meal alone while my sick friend rested back at the hotel, trying not to throw up. I picked a crowded restaurant with lots of local people, different from the more touristy places we had frequented on our trip in efforts to not get sick. I ordered the special and happily ate it all – raw vegetables and everything. The contrast from the Radisson, all marble and golden shine, to this dingy restaurant was remarkable. But that meal was one of my highlights of the whole trip. I was so happy, because the food was delicious, plentiful, less than $2, and I didn’t get sick from eating all the raw vegetables. Back at home, I read Weiner’s chapter on India and found a description of what I was feeling that night, as I picked up a 4 rupee cup of chai from a street vendor to top off my amazing meal: “It’s unpredictable, but in a good way. Time feels expansive. This, I realize, is what I love about India. The hidden gems amid the grubbiness and the squalor and the greed…I am relieved to be leaving this craziness behind. I want to stay. A contradiction? Yes, but one I can live with and even learn to enjoy” (306).
Gilbert, E. (2006). Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia New York: Viking.
Weiner, E. (2009). The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. New York: Twelve.