Words & Photography by Rob Henry
Design by Gary Parker

Just for a moment let’s consider the idea that emotions are like tasks; each requiring close attention and a devoted amount of time. So in a day you may spend 40% of your time being happy; 30% stressed or concerned; 15% contemplative; 10% frustrated, 3% angry and 2% unsure. Considering you are of course boss of which tasks you select to do, you decide to take a look at the specific circumstances that have lead you to spending 60% of your day anything other than happy. What are they? And at a guess you’ll most likely find these in some way relate back to the high pressures of the capitalist environment within which almost all of us now survive.

[W]hat if, just hypothetically, this capitalist system did not exist. If instead you lived in an environment where people worked as one to ensure the entire community can live equally. Where it’s actually impractical to take more than you need because as it stands there’s always enough for everybody. Where the values of compassion and selflessness are the focus of learning. Where you’ll never go without food or shelter for your family. And where, quite simply, if your children are raised the same way children have always been raised here, they’ll receive the same fortune: a self-sufficient and sustainable existence. A model allowing you to devote the bulk of your time to what you consider most important in life—like family, health and wellbeing. If this situation was yours, do you think the percentage of time you spend happy throughout the day would increase?

So does opting for a simpler life make a difference to a person’s general wellbeing? Well, in my opinion, based on a considerable amount of research studying the comparative behaviours and attitudes between an indigenous community still practicing the ancient traditions and survival methods of their native lifestyle and those who’ve now shifted toward tactics of a foreign means, is yes.

Granted it may be difficult for many of us to predict, or even conceive, an accurate outcome. Largely due to our being raised in an environment that renders the idea of being content with the repetition of a seemingly stagnant and risk-free lifestyle quite hard to settle upon. But it’s this, essentially, that is the foundations of indigenous culture. They understand the objective of their existence, of basic human need, and maintain the procedures they’ve developed to ensure they will achieve this. A system that, given these are societies that sustained survival for tens of thousands of years enduring some of the harshest climate changes and living conditions known to man, at the very least—particularly when considering sustainable development is now the greatest challenge of modern-day society—does warrant some respect.

So does opting for a simpler life make a difference to a person’s general wellbeing? Well, in my opinion, based on a considerable amount of research studying the comparative behaviours and attitudes between an indigenous community still practising the ancient traditions and survival methods of their native lifestyle and those who’ve now shifted toward tactics of a foreign means, is yes. In fact the findings, even at the most rudimental stages of this change, seem quite severe.

To give context as to how this initial transition toward a financially driven model relates to the current state of our own development, and its impact on how we now perceive reality, I’ll recall a conversation I had with a young native Mentawai friend I ran into whilst living out in the Mentawai Islands. Who, although he is the grandson of a practicing Sikerei (shaman), like the majority of people here who’ve been resettled, his life now requires he learn the ways of a foreign culture.

At the time he’d just returned from a trip where he’d been employed by a foreigner to help explore a small island for a potential business idea. It had not been a good trip he told me, “I got really sick. But not like normal sick. It was different. I’ve never had it before. I was so confused.” He then went on to tell me that his guest had not been happy with the modest conditions he’d provided and had become rude and disrespectful, before eventually asking to be taken back early. Which, strangely, he told me, also cured the disease.

After further inquiries I realised he’d experienced stress and, quite inappropriately, I almost laughed. Wondering what he’d think if I told him that a very large number of people in my country, by choice, spent a majority of their time in an environment that creates this very illness. And what would he have thought? Is it as ridiculous as it sounds? Or are we to be commended for having now built a resilience to cope with living in a state that is practically unhealthy.

Fact is there are loads of these types of incidents I could mention in support of this opinion—many that are far more serious than they’re experiencing—what we’d perhaps consider as being ‘a tough day’. In fact, for a large number of native Mentawai their struggle to survive here has become so great that, in total disregard for the cultural values and taboos that have protected their people for so long, they’re now surrendering themselves to activities that are downright dangerous; that they term ‘employment’. Instead though, let’s focus on the tiny community of Mentawai who have chosen to maintain their cultural beliefs and practices and who are still living at a pace similar to that of their ancestors.

This community of indigenous Mentawai, taking advantage of the systems and processes developed over thousands of years by their predecessors, possess knowledge of their local plant and animal species that, quite frankly, is beyond encyclopedic level. They share such an intimate connection with the natural ecosystems surrounding that—in stark contrast to those Mentawai raised without their indigenous education, whose time and energy is now spent hunting for an income to sustain their survival—the tribespeople here are able to gather enough food and resources from their backyard in just a few days to feed their (often very large) family for an entire month. Which I’d say is quite ‘convenient’ wouldn’t you?

If a measure were required to reflect the pace in which the Mentawai tribespeople live their lives it’d perhaps be something along the lines of a very lethargic snail. The concept of ‘urgency’ or being ‘in a rush’ just does not exist. Even in matters of life and death. I believe though that it’s this freedom of time, this comfort in knowing who they are and that they have everything they’ll need for a long and happy life right in front and around them, coupled with their expectations being set at a low enough level so as not to spoil it, that is responsible for a glow in their eyes I only otherwise see in the faces of young children.

Now it is of course easier said than done. Particularly when imbedded in the grind of a modern society, or attached to its expectations. But, when it is plain to see that the demands on our survival are becoming more and more, and the guaranteed sustainability of our future, together with our wellbeing, becoming less and less, perhaps it is time to make a change. And could there be a better system to base our ideas upon than that of the people who founded simple and sustainable living. We spend so much time, energy and money looking to the future for the right solution when perhaps all we need to do is take a look at our past. Need less. Work less. Allow more time to be happy.

Rob has spent over five years living with both resettled and non-resettled indigenous communities in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Throughout this period he has been working with the local people to develop a community-based indigenous education program designed to help them protect themselves against the ruinous impacts of displacement. As part of this project he is establishing a non-profit foundation together with a documentary film. To learn more and keep updated about the launch, check out www.asworldsdivide.com and follow www.facebook.com/asworldsdivide