The Happiness Paradox

Guest blog by YungAh Lee

Every morning I had something to look forward to as I biked to the ASRI hospital.


A small boy greeted me like a happy sunflower, shouting a big hello with his hand stretched out. I can't remember what he looks like because every time I biked past him I was often distracted by his mother’s pop-up stand selling pineapples, bananas, other tropical fruits that I cannot name. But I do remember his lively voice, launching off my day with a fortissimo.

He was one of many children I met in Sukadana, a small rural village nested at the western shore of Borneo, the biggest, and arguably the wildest, island of the Indonesian archipelago. The scenery of the village is dominated by the famous Gunung Palung National Park, which orchestrates various bird songs and monkey howls to anyone who is willing to pay attention and listen past the rooster crows and motorbike growls.

While the rain forest thrives under the careful supervision of the National Park Office, NGOs, and research institutions, many Sukadanans and nearby villagers still make less than $2 a day. You are lucky if you can find corn in the market on good days. Lights flicker on and off with numerous power outages throughout the week. Water does not always run, even during the rainy season. Ants threaten anything you leave on the table. When you get sick there is no guarantee that there will be medicine to help you.

Despite all this scarcity and insufficiency, I was exceedingly happy. Perhaps, I should say, because of this scarcity and insufficiency, I was exceedingly happy. Stripped away from the excess and noise of former life, my eyes were freed to see things that I could not see, and my ears were tuned to hear things that I could not hear.

I was never alone in Sukadana. We worked together at the ASRI hospital. Almost every day after work, we biked to the beach to enjoy coconut drinks and watch the sunset. Each night we ate dinner together. On weekends we ventured out to other seashores and swam until our skin roasted. We baked cupcakes from scratch and filled them with coffee peanut butter cream using otoscope tips. We threw surprise birthday parties and tossed flour over the head of the lucky birthday person. We cheered for the win of our soccer and volleyball teams. We sang and danced to karaoke. We prayed together. We lay down by the sea at night, meditated on the sounds of rolling waves, and awed at the expanding universe above, studded with innumerable stars and constellations. We were the ASRI community.

Stay tuned for more information about our training program, launching in 2018!


About YungAh Lee

Dr. YungAh Lee is a Johnson and Johnson Global Health Scholar from Yale University. She visited our partner ASRI in the fall of 2016.


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