The Most Contented People on Earth, But are they the Happiest?


Samburu Village Elders Talking About Village Matters
Samburu Village Elders talk about matters over a game

“They have no electricity, no running water and no mobile phones, but they are the happiest people in the world”, our guide insisted. I was intrigued and dubious. Bumping along a dirt track, I was in the Samburu district of Northern Kenya with my elder son, heading towards a village of 25 families.

Our first glimpse of the village was not encouraging. Behind a thick fence of thornbush, to keep out lions and other predators, were houses, made from sticks tied together, with cow dung covered walls and scrap cardboard and plastic sheeting on the roof to keep out the rain. The peak height of these houses was about 4 feet and each was around 100 square feet in area.

A bit of plastic sheeting enhances the roof of a traditional house
A bit of plastic sheeting enhances the roof of a traditional house


Inside -The hearth in the foreground, parent's sleeping area in the background and cow dung covered walls
Inside -The hearth in the foreground, parent’s sleeping area in the background and cow dung covered walls

We were welcomed at the entrance by Fred, the Chief’s son. For an entry price of $20 each, Fred, who spoke remarkably good English, gave us a tour of the tiny village. We met the elders who were intently playing a game, during which they also discussed any village problems. We were given a brief welcome of songs and dances, before examining the small village.

Fred - the well educated chief's son, content with the ancient livestock herding life
Fred – the well educated chief’s son, content
with the ancient livestock herding life

The villagers were livestock herders, tending to cattle, goats and sheep and mainly consuming milk, blood and a little meat. Everyone looked remarkably healthy despite such an unbalanced diet. Apart from the plastic sheeting for the roofs and some tin cooking pots, there were no signs of modernity. To a large extent the villagers were pursuing a semi-nomadic lifestyle of herders as it had been pursued for thousands of years. That said, all the children attended a nearby school run by Catholic missionaries and proudly showed off their ability to count and their knowledge of the alphabet. And they did use money.

Fred too had been to the school and clearly had the education to pursue a more ambitious career. At the end of the visit we were exposed to a line-up of village women selling colourful trinkets. Fred showed an extraordinary combination of IQ and EQ in suggesting that a reasonable price for a handful of these trinkets was around $500. Even when I bargained him down to $100, I knew I was paying about 5 times the price compared to a street vendor, but somehow he made me feel good about it in terms of the positive impact on the lives of the villagers.  I hope that my much better educated son picked up some valuable life skills from Fred.

Kenya has many slums in Nairobi and other towns. They are filled with people from rural areas hoping to make a better life in the city. Fred could have used one of these as a stepping stone to something materially better. But  Fred was proud,and loved his life, of looking after cattle in the middle of the bush, surrounded by wild animals and exposed to the elements. It was a not dissimilar life to Nelson Mandela’s early childhood. And the hour or so that my son and I spent sitting with Fred in his family’s hut, trying to see the world from his eyes, was a valuable education.

Fred said few people ever left the village, despite having the option to do so. Indeed just 5 kilometres from the village were other villages which had better housing, with electricity and all that goes with it.

But did all this mean that the villagers were truly happy? Thinking about this made me realise how complex the whole topic of happiness is. I have little doubt that the villagers would rank highly under standard wellbeing questionnaires. They loved their work and there was a strong sense of supportive relationships within the tight-knit village. Their modest needs and close cooperation gave them a sense of security and they were connected to the natural world.

Hanging out in the village - content, but is this thriving?
Hanging out in the village – content, but is this thriving?

They were not exposed to tv programs illustrating the opulent lives of the rich and famous or promoting the American dream as the ultimate lifestyle. Nor were they exposed to a diet of thousands of daily advertisements, using inane celebrities to convince them how life could not be perfect without the right watch, handbag or other material thing.

No, here was a group whose conscious decision to continue to pursue a simple lifestyle, combined with a strong sense of family and community relationships, resulted in relatively high contentment.

But the wellbeing movement has also developed the concept of thriving. Is simple contentment the same as thriving?  It would be hard to argue that the  full potential of the young villagers to develop creatively, intellectually, culturally or economically was even close to being fulfilled. Did their ignorance of this mean that it did not matter?

I will let the reader contemplate and come to their own conclusions on this matter.

For me,  my insatiable thirst for knowledge, innovation and restlessness for ‘improving’ things, means that I could not be happy pursuing the lifestyle these villagers pursue.

A visit to a traditional Kenya village is invaluable for reminding one that thriving needs to be built on some very basic foundations: loving what you do, being part of a community of supportive relationships and being connected to nature. The paradox of the Western world is that while having the opportunity to build on this foundation, we can completely lose it. And for that a visit to Sambura village was worthwhile. Even if I paid too much for the trinkets.



22 Responses

  1. Great stuff Arun. I’m continuing my own research / reading into this fascinating area. Eg, was interested to learn that MRI evidence shows that your brain lights up in delight just as much when you drink cheap red plonk as when you drink Grange —- as long as the plong is served from a Grange bottle! Turn out we really do deem our selves into happiness. Which reminds me of what Davidoff said, the best cigar in the world is the one you like.
    Otherwise, hope you’re well.

  2. Interesting experience. Is it really a conscious decision to lead a simple life as you put it or is it the difficulty of moving from where they are. Clearly these people are pretty isolated and no regular transport joining them with the outside world. I expected that education would make one want to broaden their horizon but it depends on the level of education they would get. Fred seems an interesting character and has some shrewdness in his dealings with outsiders. Perhaps a result of his exposure to western? Education?

    1. I cannot comment with great expertise on your questions, but I do note that the people do have access to transport and education, at least up to about year 8

  3. Dear Arun

    It was great to read your really interesting and thoughtful blog.
    As you know, I spent time in East Africa right after graduating,
    and it was an experience, living and working among people of
    entirely different cultural backgrounds, that changed my perspective
    on many things.

    I agree with you that ‘it would be hard to argue that the full potential of
    the young villagers to develop creatively, intellectually, culturally or economically
    was even close to being fulfilled’. There are striking parallels with Indigenous people
    in Australia’s remote communities. My father’s generation started to address these
    challenges in the 1950s and 60s in the Northern Territory, beginning with focusing on the
    health of babies and children, who can’t develop if they’re sick and undernourished.
    With the Menzies School of Health Research, which Dad was instrumental in founding,
    we’ve just set up a ‘research into action’ award in his name. The inaugural award has been won by an
    excellent young woman working in lung health with Indigenous kids.
    Please see


    1. Rare are men like your dad who took the wonderful venture to help the people of the world. Dina it is worth celebrating your dad’s work for humanity.

  4. Hi Arun,

    Good to hear from you again. Great post as usual. One of the powerful things for me is part of the question you pose in your title.

    People “On earth”.

    Wherever I travel around our country / world one thing sticks with me. Where communities do in fact live in contact with our earth (i.e. sitting, walking, sleeping on her as per your photos) there is so often a deeper connection to & understanding of the power of nature & the complex balance she weaves. Perhaps this alone provides connection or even contentment if you will.

    Reminds me of something Leunig once said in an interview I read. He was watching an Australian Aboriginal fella playing didge to a group of tourists in Darling Harbour Sydney. At the completion of the piece, one large American asked him for some advice. She wanted to know the best way to connect with Australia and the spirit of our land.

    His advice: take your shoes off and walk on the mother. And then go & sleep on her too. Great advice I think. For me there is much to be gained through this connection & real truth in the concept of less is more. Perhaps somewhere between simplicity & complexity lies happiness & contentment!

    Merry Xmas to you & yours Arun,


    1. Love your expansion of the points on the importance of physical connection to the land/Mother Nature Brett. Most thought provoking for me. Best wishes to you and yours as well for 2015

  5. This is a true adventure into the lives of the people of the world. I can relate to your experience as I lived such life in my early age in rural Kenya and yearn to return, if I could, and hope some day. It is just a fair bit of Africa’s melting pot of cultures. At least they live their lives as they choose to, no slavery of the mind and work to pay bills that can be dictated by ‘others’. The Samburu are close Nilotic relatives of the Masai, who claim to have ‘come from the sky with their cattle’. Next time visit the Boni community in Boni forest near Lamu, a MORE content society than any other, are hunters and gatherers with barely any contacts with people. Unlike the Samuburu they have no animals to depend on. Cheers

  6. Hi Arun how nice to hear from you. You were missed at my PhD graduation but that only means we get to celebrate it again at some date! Your travels are indeed interesting and it’s great that you are keeping a blog.

    Happiness is a wonderful thing that we all seek. It is a basic human aspiration. Now what makes us happy I feel is never quite contemplated by most of us. I think that when we strip all the layers that individuals, countries and cultures place on the meaning of happiness, it comes down to our sense of interconnectedness,; our individual selves feeling and experiencing being part of a community of sentient beings rather than a holding onto personal things.

    For me personally, happiness is not a sense of euphoria ; of ecstatic bliss. It is more the knowledge that I am at peace with whatever comes my way and I don’t get thrown off the rails by life events either into euphoria nor into wild panic. There is a sense of equilibrium and a sense that there is a lot of learning and a getting of wisdom.

    The joys and wonder of international travel is that it connects us with others who are living life on the same planet in unique representations of lifestyle and happiness. I often feel so grounded and humbled when I visit other countries and experience different ways of being. I often have to remind myself that the lens I use to make sense of my experiences in my travels is based on a western capitalist model. As you so rightly point out in the west we are slaves to consumerism. How often do you hear the phrase ” it will be good when” or ” I will be happy when”. The mindful present moment is often lost as we live with such future orientation. Whether it is the latest trend in jeans, suits, bathroom design, lounges etc we must have it. It is our test that we have made it. Our status is in tact. In the end we all become individually the same as all our bathrooms have that beige and white combination, or we all wear the latest trend in designer jeans.

    On our recent 3 month stay in Spain I was once again humbled by the Spanish way of life. There is the splendour and grandeur of its history and culture of music, dance and food and incredible architecture. This is juxtaposed by the day to day furniture of the average Spanish household. Most people live with the same furniture they have had all their lives. It is timeless, simple and familiar.

    When I returned to Australia people asked me how the poor Spanish economy affected my holiday. Well it sure did! It was inspirational. People looked after each other. I never felt safer and more cared for. I was simply amazed by the kindness of people towards each other.

    I constantly see this in many ways in many places. In Sri Lanka, I am so humbled by the simple similes of the people. Children make their own fun from making their own toys, often out of boxes and they get hours of entertainment from this. When there is a public holiday in Sri Lanka you don’t see the endless pilgrimage to the bottle shop and supermarkets to stock up on alcohol and food that we see in OZ. People in Sri Lanka take the time to congregate and enjoy just being.

    The story of Kenya that you highlight is a wonderful one. Herding cattle or working in London or New York? Worlds apart. I recall a friend/ colleague who completed her clinical masters with me. A very stylish, elegant, beautiful woman from Botswana . She was well travelled, well educated, and wore clothing as though she was on a Paris catwalk. She became good friends with Angel and me. One day she informed us that she was gong back to Botswana to get engaged. She then told us about the ritual of the engagement. It involved the family of the groom visiting the family of the bride and negotiating how many cattle they would offer for her. What?!!! My elegant stunning educated worldly friend was going to be sold for cattle!! Yes. This is the most valuable commodity in their community. The more cattle you offered the better your chance of success. So the man choosing to herd cattle instead of an Oxford education or a Wall Street career is a perfect choice when viewed from an African tribal lens. From our western lens it appears rather pedestrian and basic.

    Where does all this leave the concept of happiness? I think that if you can do good, be a good person, act with kindness and abundant compassion then the road to happiness is being paved for you. Understanding that the things we surround ourselves with are just that ……things. They are not me, not mine, should not be taken as me as I. They do not define who we are. Holding onto such things as Buddha stated was suffering. Letting go of such things was true happiness. The man and his tribe in Kenya, the Sri Lankan family, the Spanish family, the people of Bhutan rated as the happiest people in the world based not on GDP but on the National Happiness Index. They are truly happy simply for the fact that they do not attach such importance to things.

  7. Very interesting post Arun.

    My first thoughts were that why wouldn’t they be content:after all they have every thing they need to live,and every one seems to enjoy the same standard of living so feelings of envy,or coveting what your neighbors have are redundant.Every ones houses are roughly the same and so on.That,combined with a strong sense of community would be a great start to feeling happy would it not?
    Except then I wondered if life really is that simple?
    Surely some one has more goats than another?Or their house in a better position than another?
    Isn’t part of what makes us human a competitive streak?
    Competition for scarce resources is what drives all species to strive,and in most cases fight.
    It is that striving for a ‘better life’ that has delivered man kind to where it is today,for better and for worse.
    Perhaps it can be argued that our species has taken an evolutionary wrong turn.

    Evolutionary theory does not talk much about happiness does it?

    Adapting to a changing enviroment,re-production,that is all nature really cares about rewarding those species that do adapt and discarding those that do not.

    I struggle to find a logical answer to the question of Happiness within a Darwinian framework,and feel that every attempt to answer the question is a forced fit.

    That said it is a question that does need to be thought about,by us all;and I trust that in time,every question that we ask is capable of an answer.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Thank you for your stimulating comments Andrew. As you say, there is not a simple way of incorporating Happiness research into Darwinian theory. However, one useful research idea I have seen from evolutionary biology is that natural selection favoured humans who at least had some orienatation towards co-operation/generosity. This ability to co-operate within communities gave us an advantage against otherwise physically stronger species. Accepting this theory, human evolution has involved a fine balance between cooperation and competition, something that we see amongst friends and indeed families.

  8. Hi Arun,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts, I think the discussion is best had over a good bottle of wine but …..

    I think striving to find a universal truth to a highly individual and personal state is extremely complicated so I will only share my perspective and personal experience.

    I think happiness will always be elusive if linked it to the attainment of an external objective, regardless of what that might be. Career success, possessions, world peace, “an insatiable thirst for knowledge, innovation and restlessness for ‘improving’ things” included. To be clear I am not suggesting that one cannot be happy pursuing an objective nor am I making any form of judgment call on the competitive spirit or wealth accumulation, two things I fully support! I simply believe that linking the two is a recipe for failure.

    For me happiness is knowing that all is right with my world (not perfect but right) – hard to explain now that I find myself trying to and do agree that it has something to do with connectivity, but not to what is happening at any one point in time or even to specific people around me, but rather to the amazing potential of life.

    I think the phrase you wrote that answers the question as to whether Fred is happy is “Fred loves his life”.

    For me it doesn’t matter what is going on around me at any moment or even how it makes me feel at the time – my happiness comes from knowing that whatever happens, I’ll be ok. Sometimes it is the worst possible circumstances that allow this sense to come to the fore – that feeling when things are going haywire and not as planned, when I was held up at gun point, scared and alone in a new country, when my folks were is a serious car accident and I was devastated – but happy came from the internal knowledge that I would be fine.

    I am not fatalistic – I know that I create my existence every day by my reaction to events; maybe it is this sense of empowerment – knowing that it’s all in my hands. Fundamentally I think it comes down to my belief that my happiness is not linked to how I fair in comparison to something (yesterday, tomorrow, another person, a different life) or to the attainment of something that allows it to be. I’m not suggesting it’s easy and I do often “fall off the wagon” when distracted, particularly by an Aston Martin driving past!

    I do know that I acknowledge my happiness most in places where distractions do not get in the way like sitting in my garden, watching the sun go down on the side of a mountain or my favourite place, the Transkei, so much like the village (no electricity, no roads, no shops or TV). It is the place where I most get to spend time with me and I like me and that is happy.

    Take care and be happy

    1. Heidl, I agree with what you said, complicated is an understatement.

      Stephen Covey (the late) advocates “carrying your own weather”. The reality is that this is insanely difficult for most of us living in a complex modern world. Happiness is a result of [specific] brain chemistry, but the triggers that constantly change the cocktail of chemicals in your brain and your reaction to them is complex. The modern world sends a large number of inputs and we also create internally generated inputs that affect our state, including btw our response to a well tuned exhaust coming from mobile art :-).

      What I have found personally is that regular exercise, healthy eating and enough sleep does balance the chemicals in my brain and provides my foundation. I can’t help but think that Fred’s simpler life enables him to get all of that relatively easily, something which I only achieve with great effort.

      Personally I support the premise that the simpler ones life, the easier it is to create a solid foundation and respond to the much lower volume of inputs.


  9. Greetings Arun

    Thanks for sharing you and your son’s experiences in Kenya. I think it makes sense (particularly from a Western perspective) that you might not consider pursuing the lifestyle of these Samburu villagers would make you “happy”.

    I’m inclined to consider Ashley and Heidl might be on the money in that happiness might be more related to how an individual creates meaning for themselves with their life in their world. This necessarily involves interconnectedness with a greater whole, whether this be people or animals or planet or all of the above.

    What might lead an individual to a personal understanding of happiness is in itself personal, although the common indicia or interconnectedness and meaning derived from that seems to be a common thread that remains universal. The Buddhists seem to understand that in its purest form.

    Thanks for continuing to provoke the discussion.

    Kind regards John

    1. Hi John – as you say, these pieces are all about provoking a discussion. Hopefully they get us occasionally to take a few minutes out of our very busy lives to ponder the deeper sources of wellbeing. Thank you for adding to the discussion. Kind regards Arun

  10. Dear Arun,

    Insightful and inspiring observations, as always! Thank you for making us think…. The link to nature and a supportive community is particularly on the money and someone really should research this properly.

    As you might know, I have spent substantial time in the forests over the last 17 years, observing subatomic interactions on a moment-to-moment basis. The general term for this practice is meditation; the technical term is paticcasamuppada.

    I started out searching for “happiness”. Eventually, I discovered that “happiness” is merely a specific subatomic frequency, let’s say x. “Love” is frequency y, hate is frequency k and so on. Profound contentedness is the most basic frequency; it underlies infinite layers of other frequencies.

    One day in the far future, our conventional sciences will have methods to “measure” these!

    The 2 points I’m trying to make are: 1) the frequencies generated by nature and supportive people are quite similar to x (happiness) and 2) one can learn to generate this frequency under nearly every condition.

    I have seen Tibetans do it constantly. Under Chinese rule, things are bad for Tibetans to put it politely. Yet, I discern the happiness frequency more of the time in Tibetans than I do in people with freedoms and luxuries we take for granted.

    Why? My guess is it’s because Tibetans incorporate the following practices into their daily lives (all of which are very near frequency x): compassion and lovingkindness for the entire world. These form the central premise of their lives. If we examine the central premise of our lives, what do we find?

    The subject is far more complex, so I’m afraid I’ve oversimplified things for the sake of discussion. But I hope I’ve added a useful dimension!

    I’m looking forward to reading your next thoughtful blog, Arun. And I wish you a richly rewarding year.


    1. Thank you Bee – as usual you have added another and very thoughtful dimension to the discussion. As you say, in our Western lifestyles we spend little time contemplating things which may create a greater sense of what some Buddhists/Hindus may label ‘bliss’. Hopefully my occasional pieces together with the many insights that readers add, get people to spend a bit of time occasionally contemplating what is important, rather than merely urgent.

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