How to be happy — lessons from an Amazonian tribe

One month ago I returned back from an adventure in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Myself and a friend spent 5 days learning from and living with the Waorani people: an indigenous tribe who have dwelled in the depths of the jungle for nearly a thousand years — only being discovered by the outside world in the 1950s.

I went into the Amazon with the intention of learning more about the happiness of the Waorani tribe. I wanted to gain insights and coping mechanisms that might be able to help those feel happier here in busy London, and I anticipated that the Waorani tribe would have plenty to teach us. I expected it would be a simple and quick conversation, one I could scribble down into a short 500-word piece.

But this is not at all how it played out. In fact, a conversation about happiness was actually very difficult to hold with the Waorani tribe. Don’t get me wrong, they are very happy people, always laughing and joking about. But when I asked them what it meant to them to be happy, and what we could learn from their ability to be happy, they seemed a little confused and unable to answer. This was pretty frustrating for me and I was worried our translator was miscommunicating. I mean, how on earth could they not articulate what happiness meant to them!?

But by the end of our time with the tribe it became very clear to me why this was such a foreign concept for them. For the Waorani people, ‘happy’ is a constant way of being. It’s their baseline mood. While things might happen that upset them — like the big oil companies or illegal logging initiatives that are digging and destroying their land — the idea of them having to explain what makes them happy was like asking the Harpy Eagle why she has wings: it just does, and they just are.

As it turned out the thing I learnt most from this tribe was not really about happiness. Rather the thing I learnt most that I feel is hugely relevant for all of us, was about their innate sense of purpose.

Why is this important?

At Escape the City many come to us deeply unhappy in their jobs and looking to lead more purpose driven lives. There’s a lot that contributes to someone wanting to escape an unfulfilling career into something more meaningful, but I’ve tried to narrow it down to three major areas…

· Authenticity: escapees struggle to identify with their work and feel like they aren’t being true to themselves:

I don’t fit in.
I’m a completely different person at work to the person I am with friends.
I’m not fulfilling my potential.
I’m not using all my strengths to contribute my best self.

· Freedom: escapees don’t feel as though they are in control of their lives:

I don’t just want to be a cog in a machine.
I don’t want to feel numb anymore.
I don’t want to be drifting through life, void of feeling.

· Purpose: escapees don’t believe they are contributing to positive change:

I’m not not contributing to the bigger picture.
I feel exhausted over something that makes no difference.
If I died tomorrow, I will have left no legacy, nothing in the world will have changed.

I recently watched a TED talk By Rick Warren titled ‘A Life of Purpose’. In this, Rick very eloquently explains what he believes is missing from the lives of many (and in this case, from the typical escapee).

He says, “spiritual emptiness is a universal disease. I think inside at some point we put our heads down on the pillow and think, there’s gotta be more to life than this.” When we reach adulthood many of us accidentally fall into this routine: wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. Repeat. We start living for our weekend instead of feeling alive every single day of the week.

But why do we wake up suddenly one day feeling lost and without purpose? What’s causing this spiritual emptiness? Ipsos MORI, a British market research organisation, conducted a study a few years ago that showed just how great our shift away from religion has been in the last few decades — and it continues to decline.

The proportion of the total population in the 1980s who saw themselves as belonging to a particular religion was around 65%. By 2011, this had decreased to just over half with 53%. Are we losing our sense of purpose because we no longer identify with religion? Are we trying to find our spiritual selves through our work and then when we can’t, experience a profound existential crisis?

Though when Rick talks about spiritual emptiness he is quick to distinguish this from religion.

“It comes down to this issue of meaning, of significance, of purpose. I think it comes down to this issue of why am I here? What am I here for? Where am I going? These are not religious issues — they’re human issues.”

Perhaps for too long we’ve only identified these questions as religious ones and as a result, have attempted to block them from our minds, not wanting to get caught up in that ‘wishy-washy, hippy, Jesus-loving’ talk? Maybe this type of thing makes us feel soft, when actually it’s the foundation for making us strong?

What can we learn from the Waorani tribe?

This is the main thing that stood out so intensely to me with the Waorani people. Their innate sense of purpose came from their deep connection with spirituality. They don’t belong to a particular religion but they do believe in a greater being and they do believe in an afterlife. Most importantly, the Waorani tribe believe that spirit and nature are one and the same, and their purpose is to protect and nurture the world they live in. Regardless of whether you’re religious or spiritual or not, there is something incredibly valuable in this.

The Waorani’s believe in being their best selves. They are competitive in nature, always pushing themselves to be braver, stronger and better at what they do; whether that’s climbing trees to forage for food, or walking great distances to learn more about the many species who live amongst them in the jungle. But they aren’t doing this for themselves — they believe they are doing this for a purpose far greater. It is this which allows them to feel happy and at peace within themselves.

You might be thinking, “this is all well and good, but finding my purpose is the trickiest part,” and you’re right, it is. But this is when allowing yourself to start answering those big questions really serves you. Rick justifies why this is so important in his talk:

“You need to understand your world view. The problem is most people don’t usually think this through. Your world view determines everything else in your life because it determines your decisions, it determines your relationships, it determines your level of confidence. What we believe determines our behaviour and our behaviour determines what we become in life.”

Answering those questions will help you better understand your worldview. It will help you identify what you stand for, and what you don’t, which will then guide all other decisions you need to make in your life.

When I think of people who are unhappy in their jobs and looking for purpose in their lives I can’t help but think of the Waorani tribe. Their way of being in this world is something we can all learn from. When we serve and contribute our best selves to a gre…

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This post was originally published on the Happy Melly blog.