Every now and then we get visitors from Svay Rieng, Sophie’s native province, or the little village of Kmeng Wat, near Virh Rieng, where the family lived for a long time. Both of them are poor, rural areas. Our visitors stay for a few days or a few weeks, but they always end up missing their home villages and eventually leave.
Sophie and her family, too, occasionally get fed up with the traffic and tourists in Sihanoukville and long to move back to the country. They get over it, though, because this is a better place to raise children in the new Cambodia, where having an education and knowledge of English are increasingly important.
We Westerners tend to equate happiness with wealth. If my experience and the results of a recent Gallup poll are anything to go by, we might be missing the point.
I first stumbled across the 2013 Positive Experience Index poll in the Cambodia daily. Poll Finds Cambodians Generally Happy With Life understandably focused more on Cambodia and other countries in SE Asia, but another article I found online, Poll: Syrians, Iraqis least positive, Latin Americans most positive was more global in scope. Here are some of the numbers I came up with after reading both articles. The percentages are the percentages of people who “experienced enjoyment a lot, felt respected, were well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and learned or did something interesting the previous day.”
- Cambodia: 72%
- Iraq: 47%
- United States: 77%
- Paraguay: 86%
In general, Cambodia scored slightly higher than Vietnam and Laos and slightly lower than Thailand and Malaysia, but all of Southeast Asia and China were in the same range as the United States. Paraguay topped the list, but South America in general also scored the highest, with every country in the 80 percent range.
The Cambodia Daily acknowledged that the accuracy of the poll could be called into question, but went on to say, “Gallup’s research follows a number of other surveys showing that Cambodians generally have a positive perception of their lives.” They also quoted 63 year old Ouch Sarin, who said, “I agree with the report because I always feel happy”. He qualified his statement slightly when he said that the recent dispute between the CPP and CNRP was making him feel “a little bit” less happy.
So why would one of the world’s poorest countries be a “land of smiles” alongside nearby Thailand and only 5 percentage points behind the world’s richest and most powerful country? It’s not that they don’t know they’re poor. In fact, in an earlier poll, 75% of Cambodians acknowledged they were “struggling” and 22% said they were “suffering,” yet the same poll came up with a 76% “positive experience” with life indicator.
Analysts came up with a variety of reasons why Cambodians could be struggling and happy at the same time. One said it was because of “lowered expectations” while another said it was because the country had been making so many positive economic gains. That was interesting because the two analysts contradicted each other. I’d like to offer another explanation.
When Sophie was just a girl, she spent over two years in the jungle alone. Sure she was going to die, she coped by telling herself, “Maybe I die today. Not dead yet, though” every morning when she set out to find food and “Maybe I die tonight” to allay her fears at night and allow herself to fall asleep. Although she was often lonely and sometimes went without food for days, she has a lot of fond memories of the time she spent “inside tree” as she puts it. In fact, sometimes she wants to go back to the simplicity of that life and the magnificent beauty of the jungle.
Since Ram Dass published Be Here Now in the 60s, “living in the moment” has been a multi-million dollar industry in the United States. It’s such a radical concept to us Westerners, we’ve elevated it to the status of a religion or spiritual practice. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Cambodia is the land of smiles because living in the moment is a way of life for Cambodians and they instinctively know what we have to learn from books and gurus — that happiness lies within.