Happiness as Defiance in Bangladesh


According to the Happy Planet Index, Bangladesh ranks 8th among 140 countries. Just for comparison, the USA, where I live, ranks 108.  How is this possible that a place plagued by a high density of population, poverty, halting traffic, uncertainty and low life expectancy be so….happy? There seems to be no reason to be happy in the developing world. Afterall, most of my family chose to emigrate to the West. What did I miss?

Over my brief holiday stay in Dhaka, I caught glimpses from a fourth story veranda that might explain the high happiness factor.

Here’s my personal observation:

People seem to actively pursue small joys despite the inconvenience of crowds, traffic, workday, etc. No excuses. Morning walks by the lake, tea at the street corner with friends and strangers, wearing vibrant colors, music on the rooftops and streets and prayers on the street. Two things stand out:  socializing and eating. A lot. Everywhere. Based on the quantity and variety of food in the streets no one would believe hunger existed in Bangladesh.

New Year’s Eve there was a government ban on fireworks. Yet, I was woken up at midnight to the sound of fireworks shooting off the rooftops along with a steady stream of rising gentle glowing paper lanterns. Some caught on fire, some blew off to far away places to litter a different neighborhood the next day, there were explosive color and noise, alongside flickering floating lights, there was the sound of laughter, the smell of food cooking on the rooftops. People are willing to burn money for a good show of joy (fireworks are super expensive!) as a social service not mere personal luxury. It was the most private yet shared joy I experienced in any New Year’s Eve celebration ever,  as much a spectacle as a meditation. It was beautiful and unsafe. Whenever I need a moment of magic I’ll remember that dark night sky shot through with color, light, laughter and joyful defiance.  Thank you, Atiya for the photograph capturing the lanterns.

There is no reason to be happy. Like beauty, happiness is not efficient, clean, predictable, convenient or contained. In Bangladesh happiness doesn’t perch on your shoulder gently when you are not looking, as a side effect of ease. It is a  hard-fought battle against difficult circumstances and with considerable risk, along with others sharing tea and snacks.

Snack on and socialize everyone!

May you be happy,









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