As I sat down to write this column about Thanksgiving, my body was in Forest Park but my mind was still in Thailand.
I had returned the day before from the Mission Encounter Trip to Thailand sponsored by my church and which I help lead every year. With the help of twelve hours of sleep and two mugs of strong coffee I was able to rise above the fog of jet lag enough to begin writing. Because my mind was still in the “land of smiles,” I found myself writing about this very American holiday from the perspective ten trips to Thailand have given me.
Even though the median annual income in Thailand is around $8,000 compared to about $24,000 in our country, a recent Gallup poll revealed that Thailand ranked seventh on the list of the happiest nations in the world while our country came in at 33rd! Now, happiness is not exactly the same thing as thankfulness, but given the fact that I couldn’t find a poll on gratitude, how happy we are is a significant indicator of how thankful we Americans really are.
What makes the average Thai more likely to feel real gratitude than those of us who live in the richest, most powerful nation in the world? Following are some characteristics of Thai culture which I’ve observed and which many commentators have confirmed.
Don’t think too much. Thais don’t go to psychotherapists or read self-help books. They don’t over analyze everything. Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss wrote, “The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.” Weiner concludes, “Thinking about happiness makes us less happy.”
Mai pen rai. “Mai pen rai” is kind of like us saying “No problem,” or “You win some, you lose some,” or “That’s the way it goes.” It reveals a deep appreciation of the fact that we humans are not in control of everything that happens to us. It results in an approach to life that doesn’t “sweat the details.” While mai pen rai can drive punctuality oriented Westerners who are obsessed with control crazy, it enables Thais to adapt to change with a minimum of inner turmoil.
Jai yen. It means cool heart and comes from the Buddhist conviction that detachment is the way to reduce suffering in life. Weiner quoted an ex-pat friend of his who said, “In thirty years [of living in Thailand] I can recall maybe a dozen times that someone has lost their cool in the office.”
“Wow,” wrote Weiner. “In an American office, people lose their cool twelve times a day.”
The relationship comes first. “It [a relationship] is more important,” wrote Weiner quoting a Thai friend, “than the problem.” How many times have we damaged relationships by this need many Americans have to win every argument, to always be right?
“We in the West,” Weiner observed, “usually put problem solving ahead of relationships. In our search for answers, for the truth, we will gladly jettison friends and even family overboard.”
Krengchai. “Krengchai,” wrote Niels Mulder in Inside Thai Society, “reflects awareness and anticipation of the feelings of others. Krengchai behavior … is considerate of others and puts much thought and effort into maintain a smooth social atmosphere.”
“All of that is fine if you’re living in Thailand,” you might object. “But that approach to life wouldn’t work in our individualistic, competitive society. You’d get eaten alive if you put krengchai into practice. If you put relationships before business in corporate America, you’d never get anywhere on the corporate ladder, and our wives want us to share our feelings with them rather than maintain cool hearts.”
There’s some truth to those objections, of course, but still the fact is that Thailand came in at number seven on the happiness scale and our society 33rd. One reason I love bringing Americans over to Thailand is because bumping up against Thai culture gives those on the tour a chance to see themselves and our culture in a new way. None of us are influential enough to change our culture in major ways, but simply being able to see ourselves from other perspectives can give us the chance to make healthier choices as we travel the road of life.
And for that opportunity, I am very thankful.
n Keep up with new postings on my blog at oakpark.com/spiritualityethicsreligion
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.