As part of a wider journey for happiness I was on my bicycle in Peru for just over 2 months – I spent a lot of my time riding my bike through enchanting mountainous landscapes as well as down in the Amazon basin, either on boats on giant rivers or in the jungle. I spent much more time in Peru than I had anticipated and of course I wondered a lot about how happy people are there.
I wondered whether life living high up in the sierra was as rich and rewarding for Peruvians as it was for me riding through on my bike and camping as I went; whether what I saw on the faces of people sitting by the side of road or on long boat journeys was patience or boredom; whether large families I saw working together in fields were nourished through their relationships with one another; and whether the people held much in the way of pain and anguish in relation to the loss of links to their ancestral past.
I wondered a lot. And so I watched a lot – to understand, to learn, to appreciate. I also read a little about Peru and its history as I travelled through – about the birthplace of key civilisations in that region and their whole-scale destruction from the Spanish conquest, through to modern day struggles for democracy and social harmony. Sometimes, thanks in main to my bike and its ability to draw people into my world, I engaged in illuminating conversations with Peruvians – often in one of their many socially lubricating sunlit plazas or just by the side of the road as they waved me and my bike to a stop.
Yes, people that I spoke with seemed happy, as people often can be in conversation with others. The people I spoke with, a self-selected group of people open, curious, and patient enough to want to connect with me, told me they were mostly happy – as people might often do when asked directly.
People also warned me that Peru was also full of bad people and they expressed concern about what I was attempting to do alone. They stressed that I needed to take care. Their own fear and distrust of the world around them that they seemed to project onto me and my journey. But such fear and distrust was perhaps no surprise as each time I picked up a newspaper I read, except when the Pope came to Peru, of little other than attacks, deaths, and murders. Rather than indicating Peru was a particularly dangerous place it seemed to me to reflect a news agenda strongly biased toward the negative, typical of many countries including my own, which will almost inevitably have an effect on the national psyche.
However, as I rode through small villages, sat eating my lunch in plazas, drank fresh juices in busy local markets, or floated on boats, I observed tight-knit communities, united families, and a sense of togetherness. Things I don’t see as much as I would like in my own land where we seem to celebrate independence and freedom, above inter-dependence and support.
But at the same time people’s lives seemed difficult. Whether it was up in the mountains or down in the jungles people had very little and worked the land with the most rudimentary tools – little more than subsistence farming. Some appeared to relish this lifestyle – like the little boy I met high up in the mountains who loved his village of 100 people in which everyone knew everyone else by name, or the man I sat with and had a freshly squeezed orange juice who valued simplicity and his connection with nature. But many, worn down by their daily physical labour and perhaps unable to be open and curious that we might associate with happiness, I was unable to connect with and understand. I just had to look on and keep wondering.
In the cities life was chaotic – densely populated and sometimes visibly impoverished, with people doing what they could to just get through their day. There were often rows of identical yet mostly empty shops selling sugary goods and plastic toys, and there was a near constant noise of traffic and dogs.
What amazed me was that people seemed to have an abundance of patience and acceptance. I learnt from this. This was their world, a world that they had interacted with all their life, a world different from my own. A world that I sometimes struggled in as I looked through my biased subjective lens. How easy it is to see and value the things that are scarce in one’s own world, yet how difficult it is to appreciate the things that one has in abundance? How easy it was for me to see the togetherness of people and their smiles and laughter yet not perhaps see the pain and frustration of living with a large family in a two room house? How easy it is to see things that support one’s beliefs about the world rather than the things that dis-confirm them?
What the numbers say?
Numbers can sometimes help us to get behind subjectivity. When asked to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10 on average Peruvians score themselves 5.7, which according to the latest World Happiness Report puts Peru 65th out of 155 countries where comparable scores are available. This is much lower than Scandinavian countries, which generally top these tables with scores of around 7.5, but much higher than countries at the lower end of the of the table. The countries that neighbour Peru, such as Colombia (6.3, 37th), Ecuador (6.0, 48th), Bolivia (5.8, 62nd), Chile (6.5, 25th) and Brazil (6.4, 28th), all seem to have higher levels of well-being. However, well-being has been on the rise in Peru. Since 2008-2010, when Peru was 77th, this score has risen by 0.2.
Also if we take Peru’s well-being and multiply it by the country’s life expectancy (the number of happy life years), then weight this by the inequality of both of these outcomes, and then consider how much of the world’s resources Peru uses to obtain these outcomes, then Peru has a score that puts it 21st out of 140 countries in the World. This way of assessing a countries happiness was developed by the new economics foundation and is referred to as the Happy Planet Index. I like this metric because it incorporates an important sustainability component and rich world countries don’t do very well. For example, the United States ranks 108th and Luxembourg 139th. What is the point in having happy citizens if it costs the earth to do it? Peru does reasonably well because they obtain a life expectancy of 74.1 and a well-being of 5.8 without too much inequality in these, and they have a fairly low ecological footprint.
In all the numbers suggest that perhaps Peru is middling in the happiness stakes. Although happiness can mean many different things to different people, particularly when language and cultural differences are present, I’m inclined to agree with the numbers based on my limited personal observations. But perhaps Peru’s levels of happiness is no surprise given the country’s history – subjected to the rule of colonial powers and the subjugation and exploitation that goes with it, natural resources ravished by private interests, and in more recent history state conflict with people’s movements and the accompanying human rights abuses (I was deeply saddened and near tearful upon visiting the “Museo de la Memoria” in Ayacucho).
Finding personal happiness in Peru
Yet Peru is an attractive place for people to visit, or even move to and live. People are drawn to Peru. And from my perspective there appears to be something quite mysterious and mystical there. I mostly found myself cycling in places where non-Peruvians don’t seem to go, but when I did encounter non-Peruvians they often seemed to be in search of something – their own happiness it seemed. But the search was often for a different sense of happiness than the one found back home. Perhaps a deeper sense of happiness – more grounded; spiritual even – like me perhaps believing there to be something fundamental for their happiness they might find in Peru missing from their own part of the world. Perhaps to be filled with wonder at the visible and spectacular remnants of ancient civilisations. Or to feel awe in the abundance of nature there – mountains, lakes, and jungle. Or be dazzled at the colourful culture and wondrous traditions. Some I met came to work specifically with traditional healing practices, as a way of dealing spiritual malaise that is common in many materially minded societies.For my own part I did have some extremely inspiring experiences. I found happiness, support, and relaxation in what was for me one of the finest cities in the world. I camped on the side of mountains which took two days to climb on my bike but only an hour or two to descend. I was given gifts by many Peruvians that I met – of food, of shelter, of conversation, and much more. I woke up to the sounds of the Amazon jungle. I cycled along the highest lake in the world. I drank juices prepared from the freshest fruits while immersed in the hustle and bustle of a local market.
But Peru also brought great personal challenge. For each of these inspiring experiences I can offer more than a few counter experiences – ugly cities, personal exhaustion, loneliness and isolation, a struggle to find healthy and nutritious food, and vicious dogs. But happiness is not solely about a series of hedonic experiences – there will be challenge in life, inevitably – and it is through both deeply inspiring and challenging experiences that there is a chance for growth and flourishment as human beings. I felt deeply inspired and challenged by what I found in Peru – I am still processing the personal and I am still intrigued by what I observed outside of myself there.
I could live in Peru; I could be happy there.
Perhaps I need to return; perhaps someday I will.
***I have since written and published a book about the journey to Bhutan on a bicycle. If you like what you’ve read here then consider buying A Journey For Happiness: The Man Who Cycled to Bhutan today.