Six years ago, I moved from Massachusetts to a small town in Colombia, South America, with my husband, our three kids, and our cat.
The WIN/Gallup Poll regularly names Colombia as one of the happiest countries in the world, yet most people we know thought we were nuts to move to a war-torn land better known for drugs and violence than for happiness.
I saw it differently.
Before moving to Colombia, I was a harried mompreneur—stressed, sleep deprived, and basically exhausted by the demands of life in a fast-paced culture which seems to prioritize constant doing. This wasn’t the “dream” for which I had signed up.
Ironically, I was coaching and teaching courses on how to live with passion and purpose. I loved exploring how to live with more zest and mindfulness, but felt like a fraud because I wasn’t living my own dream.
I was way too exhausted.
I knew there was a different way to live. In my early 20s, I backpacked through Asia for a year and glimpsed a life of joy, discovery, and freedom from schedules and the grind. I desperately wanted to reconnect with the “adventurous and fun” me I used to be and create a slow-paced life for my family, while living in a culture that prioritized happiness and pleasure.
When we saw an opportunity for my husband to work in Colombia as I continued to run my business online, I was all in.
I can’t tell you that a move like this was easy. There were many challenges and many moments of “what have we done?” However, taking stock of it all today, I can honestly say that moving here has been an amazing experience for our family and the best thing I have ever done for myself.
Living in a country where people have suffered so much violence and loss, and still manage to be happy, has forced me to put under the microscope why it is that I—a person who was living an affluent lifestyle in a prosperous country—was rarely truly happy. And neither were most of the people I knew.
I share what I have learned about being happy over the past six years in the hope that it will help others reflect on the changes we can all make to be happier in our lives.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Family and relationships come first.
There is nothing more important to Colombians than family. Families here see each other daily, show up at each other’s houses unannounced, take vacations together, and basically, share their lives. They hug and kiss often, walk holding hands, and call each other mi amor (my love) and mi cielo lindo (my beautiful heaven).
Having been raised in a more individualistic culture, all this togetherness feels overbearing to me at times. Would I really want to see my extended family every single day? Yet, I can’t deny that this sense of belonging to a tribe gives the people here incredible comfort and makes them genuinely happy.
Our family of five has also benefited from this cultural tendency. We are closer, spend more time together, and our teenage girls know that Sunday is sacred family day. We also hug a lot and walk holding hands. My husband and I even kiss in public now, for no special reason—much to the embarrassment of our kids.
Trust in a higher power; learn to accept and surrender.
Most Colombians are religious or spiritual. They turn their problems over to God and have faith that all will work out for the best.
Sometimes, really difficult things happen—loved ones get sick, people die, horrible tragedies occur. This is when people here accept what is, trusting that a higher power is in control and will bring them inner peace.
Acceptance and surrender are really hard for me. I tend to want to bend life to my will. Yet, I look around and see people who have faced unimaginable hardship and still believe that there is a divine plan as they laugh and dance to celebrate life. This is when I realize that I still have a lot to learn.
There is a solution to every problem.
Perhaps one of the reasons Colombians have so much faith is that they believe that pretty much everything is “figureoutable.” Given their violent history and the corruption that still exists here, people generally expect things to go wrong and when they do, they don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the situation or figuring out who is to blame. They just get on with it and come up with a creative solution to the problem.
It took me several years to adopt this attitude as my own. I used to stress over every uncontrollable thing in my life. The other day, when our driving arrangement to get the kids to school and save me an hour and a half each morning unexpectedly fell through and I had a major work deadline the next day, I found myself panicking for a moment. Then I caught myself thinking, “There’s a way out of this. We will figure something out.” And we did.
Money is not the end all, be all.
Colombians definitely appreciate having money and what it can buy them. Yet, they don’t worship at the altar of the almighty peso. They prioritize family, fun, and rest. It is perfectly acceptable here to take the day off from work to accompany a loved one to the doctor. Or to quit your job because it doesn’t make you happy.
This has made me realize how often I prioritize money over my quality of life. I take on jobs or clients I don’t really want because it will bring in more money. I deny myself some luxury because I think it’s too expensive.
The funny thing is that we actually have the money. It’s just that in my immigrant upbringing, where money was always tight, I learned that more money in the bank for a rainy day is better than enjoying life now.
I can’t tell you that I am throwing caution to the wind now and spending with wild abandon, but I have learned to say “no” to the clients who drain me and indulge more in the things and experiences that bring me joy.
Happiness is a choice.
I remember asking a Colombian man why people here are so happy and he said, “Because we choose to be happy. You Americans have your pursuit of happiness, but how are you going to be happy if you are always looking for it? It’s right here, in front of you, right now. You just have to choose to see it.”
People here constantly look for things to appreciate and reasons to be happy. They are truly grateful for the smallest of pleasures. Time in nature, a beautiful sunset, or a cup of coffee with a friend can elicit genuine joy. Pull out a ripe avocado and you will get squeals of delight and exclamations of “how delicious!”
Colombians don’t dwell on the negative. They express their emotions freely and move on. They know that there’s always somebody who has it worse.
I will never forget the day my hairdresser said to me, “I have been lucky and have had a happy life. The only bad thing that has happened to me is that my father was killed walking home from work when I was 12 years old.”
I was speechless. If she can consider herself lucky after her father was violently murdered, how can I keep attributing some of my problems to a painful childhood?
Let go of perfectionism.
I am a recovering perfectionist and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in Colombia is that perfectionism really gets in the way of flowing with life and being happy. Colombians know that life is far from perfect. Who could have lived through their history and think that it is?
They also know that people aren’t perfect. Family members and friends accept and support each other no matter what because they know that we all make mistakes and have our individual quirks. Ultimately, loving ourselves and each other, with all of the beautiful imperfections that make us human, is all that matters.
Even after six years in this beautiful but complicated country, I am repeatedly humbled by the ability of the people around me to rise above the harshest of circumstances and find the joy, pleasure, and happiness in everyday life. I try to learn from them. Bit by bit, I am getting better at it. I am appreciating more, criticizing and judging less, and learning how to flow with life.
How would your life be different if you were to adopt these lessons as your own, even for one day? I encourage you to try it out and see for yourself.
Author: Natalie Matushenko
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton