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Living around the world

The Pursuit of Happiness – Japanese Style

Strolling the late night streets of Tokyo last week I couldn't help noticing the high volumes of suit-clad local businessmen still out and about and very much in work mode.  Whether busying away in their brightly lit offices, or discussing the days events with their colleagues in a nearby restaurant, work was their primary focus.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The Japanese work ethic is no secret and it's not unusual for businessmen and women -although predominantly men- to work 60+ hours a week.

This got me thinking.  Over the past 18 months I have been relentlessly researching what makes people tick.  Not only what gets people out of bed in the morning, but what makes leap out with a smile on their face.

Expand Horizons

My experience however has so far been confined to the countries with which I am most familiar -namely the UK, Australia and North America.  What about other leading nations?  Does the same recipe apply in other countries with cultures very different from our own, such as the quirky island nation of Japan?

Well, I’m here for 6 weeks so what better time to dig deeper into what drives this curious country and learn more of their approach to pursuing happiness.

The Facts

Lets start with some context.  Japan is the world's 3rd largest economy.  Its population of 127m has the world's highest life expectancy, the 3rd lowest infant mortality rate, a bunch of the world's top tech and auto companies and is one of the most educated in the world.

So all rosy then?  Let’s look a little further.

Childhood - The Happiest Times Of Our Lives?

The culture in Japan is both clearly defined and relatively unique.  In a shrinking world characterized by overlapping cultures and a blurring of the geographic lines, Japan remains relatively steadfast in it’s customs and long-standing beliefs.

From an early age children are taught the values of hard work, pride, loyalty and honour.  Expectations to achieve are high and the associated pressures from family, friends and society are great.  

Clearly defined visions and intense discipline bring benefits and risk in equal measure.  As most of us know, in a natural world, children and structure are seldom found hand-in-hand.  It is commonly accepted in the west that a child’s happiness is achieved through freedom of expression and the acceptance of trial and error as an inevitable aspect of learning.

In the main, both concepts seem to be conspicuous by their absence in Japan and by the time children reach young adulthood, a definitive path for their life has already been paved.  Trial and, more tellingly, it's partner in crime, error, are not part of the narrative.

A stark illustration of the pressures placed on young people here the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 10-19.  Expand that to include adults and the figures are frightening.  In 2014, 25,000 people took their own lives.  That's 60% above the global average! School and work related pressures were attributed to the majority of cases.

What about Careers?

As was the case with western nations only a generation ago, albeit a less clear-cut version, there is a well known career hierarchy.  Big corporations are still very much the holy grail, followed by a career as a bureaucrat and then teaching. (http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-entrepreneurs-20150329-story.html).

Also, as with the western world in a bygone era, job mobility here is low.  Unless something drastic happens, you have a job for life -in the middle to upper echelons at least.  Loyalty to the company is everything and jumping between roles is neither easy or socially acceptable.

But what if your interests or circumstances change a few years in?  Surely being bound to one company in a role you may no longer enjoy must impact your happiness?

To add insult to injury, if discontent does set it -and let’s face it, in most cases it’s a matter of when, not if- one cannot simply pass the time, taking the path of least resistance until retirement. 

No, company loyalty and pride in ones work are too strong a pulls for this to be allowed.

I must add, this approach does have it’s benefits.  Never before have I been anywhere with such insanely high standards of customer service, cleanliness or quality.  Everything is done with impeccable care and attention and even the act of buying a snack from a convenience store is a lesson in etiquette and service.  It puts the UK to shame on this front.

Back to my point, loyalty in Japan is most commonly demonstrated by working all hours, socialising with colleagues after work and not using up holiday allowances.

For those of you who don’t see anything abnormal in this approach to a job, be aware, you are most likely more driven and proactive than the average Joe.  In Japan however, this approach is the rule, not the exception. 

Entrepreneurship

My particular vehicle for the pursuit of happiness, amongst other things, is through entrepreneurship.  For me, entrepreneurship provides the greatest flexibility to engage ones passions regularly whilst simultaneously leading a life of purpose and riches.

When the figures are assessed, this theory seems to hold water.  Upon comparing the UN’s 2017 World Happiness Report (http://worldhappiness.report/) and Virgin’s 2016 study into the worlds most entrepreneurial countries (https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/most-entrepreneurial-nations-2016-revealed), the same 6 countries appear in the top 10 on both lists!*

According to the Virgin study, and many similar, one of the key characteristics of a country with high levels of entrepreneurship is freedom of opportunity.

To me, freedom of opportunity demonstrates a power of choice and the ability to pursue a life tailored to you and your interests.  It goes beyond metrics like availability of capital and access to markets, into less tangible social aspects such as societal acceptance, attitudes towards failure and family support that together creates an environment conducive to leading a life on your own terms.

So where does Japan rank on both fronts?  It doesn’t look good I'm afraid.  In 2012 the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor put Japan in last place out of 24 developed nations for entrepreneurial activity. 

Additionally, in the U.S. and Britain, one in ten companies is a start-up; in Japan it's one in twenty (http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-entrepreneurs-20150329-story.html).  These are just two out of many stats painting the same picture. 

And happiness?  It gets worse.  Japan came in a lowly 51st position out of the 155 surveyed.  To put it into context, that’s lower than Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Nicaragua!

I guess I’m not alone in thinking that living by the rules and expectations of others is no way to truly enjoy life?  That by diligently following a pre-determined route, carved out by social norms and family expectations, does not lead to contentment?

Not Environment Again?

There is of course more to life than work.  What about holidays?  If you’re aspiring to reach the top, forget it.  Japan is second only to the USA in it’s stinginess towards holiday allowances (10 days annually).  If you take them all however, you can forget about that promotion.

Silver lining?  They do have 16 public holidays…but none of them are paid.

What about my old favourite -environment?  Family, friends and social interactions are crucial in determinants of happiness. 

According to the co-author of the aforementioned UN study, the common thread linking the happy countries is their sense of community.  That oh-so-important human factor I discussed in a previous blog post

When things aren’t going right on an individual, local, or even national level, having a supportive environment with common interests, is key. 

It appears this is sorely missing in Japan.  A culture of reticence has pervaded Japan for hundreds of years.  Raising issues and bringing problems, such as unhappiness, to light would show weakness and is something to be avoided.

Time To Loosen Up?

So what of the future?  Will the country embrace the increasingly popular western approach towards educational, professional and entrepreneurial freedom?  Will it discard the antiquated career hierarchy that passively, yet powerfully, dictates the course of a persons life?  And will it realize the value in just letting people do what the hell they like and enjoy themselves?  After all, taking risks and breaking the mould is what transformed the country from a small island nation, defeated in WWII, to a world powerhouse in a few short years!

Ultimately I am not here to suggest how an entire nation should approach life, nor am I qualified.  There are people far better placed to pass comment.

No, I just want to learn everything I can about living a fun life, filled with purpose and passion.

Whilst Japan has both taught and humbled me in equal measure, simultaneously displaying incredible generosity and intelligence, I can’t help feeling they could all benefit from loosening up a little. 

By removing the shackles and doing what they really love, not what others think they should do…they might just be happier for it!

*The 6 countries are: Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Australia and Switzerland.

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Live the life of my dreams

Wealth Does Not Equal Happiness – The Benefit of Hindsight

No Shit Sherlock

I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before, I can hear you’re ironic cries from here. 

Please hear me out.  This is not just some re-hashed article about a theory that has been publicized ad-nauseam in self development circles…OK well maybe it is but please read on.  I feel I am better qualified than most to discuss this topic -not that that usually stops me!

One Town - One Enormous Disparity

The handful of people who have read the ‘About Me’ section on my website will know that I used to live in Whistler.   

For those unaware, Whistler is a ski resort in British Columbia, Canada.  It is where I cut my teeth as a properly independent adult once my University ‘studies’ were over.  It is also like few other places on earth…for many reasons.

As usual however, for this Ramble I will discuss only one…the disparity of wealth between the local and the tourist; the helpers and the helped; the risk takers and the Risk Managers.

A financial gap between tourist and local is nothing new -we’ve all been on holiday and seen first hand the contrasting fortunes of the two.  However, in the western world this is a far less common occurrence, not least in such a concentrated way.

I must point out right now, that in no way am I suggesting the difference in overall well-being of a college educated Whistler ski-bum and the tourist they are serving beer to is comparable to that of a local worker in the developing world and the western traveller.

Why Is It So?

I put this gap down to a few reasons:

  1. The proliferation of gap years and world travel for pre or post University graduates means that resort towns everywhere are being inundated by low net worth youths in search of fun and frolics on an epic scale. 
  2. Tourism/service jobs in the main, do not command high pay.  Factor in the high labour supply mentioned above and there’s no reason why employers would pay more than they need to for their staff. 
  3. Whistler is a long way to travel.  Unlike skiing in Europe where over 700m people are a two hour flight away,  anything less than a 10 day trip for those outside North America in unviable.  This rules out many financially conscious travellers.
  4. Whistler is very expensive -for both the tourists and the locals.  This does two things.  It cripples the locals and, as with the point above, leaves only the financially fit tourist in attendance.
  5. Whistler is so much fun, workers don’t give a shit what they get paid and tourists don’t care what they get charged.

This theory is backed up by the fact that visitors to Whistler account for 85% of consumer spending despite only representing 50% of the towns’ population on a given day (https://www.whistler.ca/business/economic-development-whistler).

A Smile and a G’day

OK, I think I’ve made my point.  Whistler is full of poor workers servicing rich visitors. 

It is safe to assume then that the holiday maker on a two week break from funding hedges would be greeted upon arrival with disdain by an embittered millennial with long hair and no money. 

Not true, well not in one aspect at least…in actual fact, the shaggy haired Australian is delighted to see them and welcomes them with a smile and a chipper tone.  Why?  Because he knows that within 12 hours he will be enjoying the best lines of his life...whatever form those lines come in!

The place is the ultimate playground for the Untamed adventurer.  Passion and energy course through the veins of all who inhabit.  Who cares about sharing a room with four others when the powder is so good? (Snow I mean).   Who cares that the daily wage just about covers a crate of Wild Cat and some pasta and pesto, when awesome parties are on tap every night of the week!

Everyone is living their passion and are damn pleased to do so!

Two Weeks To Unwind 50

And what of the stock broker?  The $300k a year earner who can afford to treat their family to a posh hotel and private ski lessons every day?  Are they as happy as the lifty standing in -10 earning $10/hour? 

In any other world, this wouldn’t even be a question but in the perverse universe that is a ski resort, especially Whistler, the answer generally is no.

Superficially of course they’re delighted to be there.  Delighted to finally enjoy their only holiday of the year.  A break from 15 hour days and the chance to unwind in plush, activity-rich surroundings. 

Dig deeper however and reality is very different.

If You Want To Get To Know Someone, Get Them Pissed

As a ski instructor, I was different from the rest.  Rather than hanging up my boots and spending the night with my peers discussing the best type of ski’s, I preferred the company of the interesting folk I had been teaching all day. 

Once the class was complete I would willingly spend all my wages -and a tiny portion of theirs- in the bar, getting to know them better, sharing stories.

This was the time the truth came out.  3 pitchers of Kokanee in and the tales of stress, overwork and a lack of time off began to surface.  “I wish I had the chance to do what you’re doing” and “it must be great living out here, doing what you love everyday?!” were both common admissions when the lowering of inhibitions allowed it.

Hindsight is 20/20…When You're a Ski Instructor

These daily reminders of the two contrasting life paths served me in two ways.  Firstly it ensured I never took my amazing position for granted: there was not a chance I would leave this lifestyle behind having not made the absolute most of the abundance around me -an abundance that people from all over the world paid thousands to see.

Secondly it provided 20/20 vision as to what might be should I pursue a career based on salary, social status or family pressure. 

Rather than yearning to earn their salaries and be able to afford trips to Whistler two weeks of the year, -as I no doubt would have done in different circumstances- my life was their holiday and I lived it to the fullest, all the while appreciating the relationship between wealth and happiness.

For this I will forever be grateful to the place and all the interesting people I got to meet.

A Viable Life Choice or Merely a Cue?

Hopefully by now you have both realized the theory I am proposing here. 

Whilst living on the ragged edge, both financially and physically, is not sustainable (I lasted five years before the full time shakes set in) there are valuable lessons to be learnt.

Whether you're an entrepreneur relentlessly pursuing growth, or an employee in pursuit of that promotion, think of this tale.  Consider the real reason behind your desires and the possible outcomes.

Will the extra money bring you happiness by affording you more time to engage in your passions?  Will it enable you to spend more time with your family or buy your dream car?  Or will it bring added responsibility, social pressures, stress and workload, taking you further away from genuine happiness than ever before?

There are many drunk holiday makers in Whistler well qualified to answer this one.