Happiness in Bali seems to come easily. At least that’s the way you feel after you’ve spent a little time here.
For starters, there just seems to be a different slant on life. The people who live here take a simple approach to existence based on a kind of selective optimism. It’s a simple idea that involves choosing to focus on the positive rather than the negative in each situation.
In essence, this approach to living is based upon deciding how you perceive daily events. Either you see your world for its problems or try to focus on everything that’s good in life. Essentially, given the choice, why on earth would you think about all the bad stuff?
Simple in theory, trickier in practice, this buoyant attitude is a prevailing one in Bali. The island seems to have a secret formula for happiness. A feel-good factor seems to permeate daily events. And the longer you spend here, the more you begin to feel the effects.
The art of happiness
In particular, Ubud seems to have the art of happiness pretty much mastered. And when you come to visit, you quickly begin to feel it change your state of mind.
Part of it is down to the town’s languid pace of life. Mornings begin with a stretch and a yawn. Quiet streets, hushed voices, roosters crowing in the dawn.
As you wander around Ubud’s slumbering streets, you feel like you’re being told a story of how the world once was.
At breakfast, the smell of fresh turmeric smoothies wafts out of organic cafes, soothing panpipe music spills out of family guesthouses and women delicately place banana leaf baskets filled with flowers and incense beside temples and shopfronts.
By the time the town has wiped the sleep from its eyes, the streets are sprinkled with tiny boxes of beauty.
Crumbling walls of century-old temples are everywhere, hiding secret worlds. Push aside their creaking doors and you enter secluded flower-filled courtyards where moss-covered gargoyles silently stand watch. Front and centre, a statue of Ganesh greets you, a garland of freshly plucked marigolds hanging around his neck.
Beyond the temples, there are yoga retreats, meditation centres and luxury Balinese spas that advertise countless routes to find a state of chilled-out bliss. Go for a Good Karma body massage at Sang Spa Ubud, which specialises in full-body treatment packages. Or try seven chakra crystal healing at The Yoga Barn. Situated in the heart of Ubud, The Yoga Barn has its own dedicated holistic healing centre that offers this body cleansing experience.
Finding yourself in such a relaxed world inevitably makes you feel happier. It also slows you down. Shoulders slouch a little, thoughts feel less heavy, and that once exhausting thing called walking is replaced by carefree strolling. The trade-off is it takes longer to get places, but you suddenly won’t care so much.
While Ubud is something of a hippie enclave and can get a bit touristy, it’s easy to slip away and have it pretty much all to yourself.
Just off the main drag, the town’s crumbling temples and hip art galleries thin out and you come across a sun-baked walking trail that winds its way between an endless vision of rice paddies.
You can pick up the trail on the main road – Jl. Raya Ubud. First, follow the signs to Ibah Hotel and then look out for signs to Sari Organik. Take a short two-minute hike up a steep access road and you’re on the trail.
This quick uphill exertion is worth the effort.
Palm trees laden with ripe coconuts arch lazily over a luscious blanket of emerald green. Red-winged dragonflies zip and hover in the warm, still air. And beyond, the dark peaks of brooding volcanoes loom on the horizon – a reminder that vengeful demons stir in the midst of Bali’s near-constant serenity.
Along these dusty trails, life moves slowly. In between organic farms and thatched-roofed guesthouses, farmers tend to their bounteous crop while local artists sit beside rice paddies, painting scenes of village life in vivid watercolours. If energy levels are flagging, it’s worth stopping en route at Sari Organik for their cooling fruit juices and tasty organic dishes.
A few hours of this, surrounded by what literally feels like heaven on earth, and your world feels a brighter, happier place. Nature lifts your soul.
But while Ubud’s days are bright and filled with colour, the evening darkness pulls close. In the dimly lit streets, temple grounds become the scene for firelit cultural performances.
A culture of celebration
One such example is the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance performed by Taman Kaja Community. A hundred men in loincloths sit in a circle and begin to chant a hypnotic mantra, looping over and over, barely pausing for the entire performance. With the tempo building, two young maidens in flowing white robes enter the circle to find themselves pursued by a cackling young imp and demonic masked creatures.
The show ends to great spectacle: a man riding a puppet horse marches into the arena and dances around a fire set ablaze with diesel fuel and coconut husks. He proceeds to kick and stomp the glowing embers, sending up white-hot sparks into the darkness, scorching his feet black to winces from the crowd.
While many of these performances are adapted for tourist entertainment, they represent something integral to the Balinese state of mind. Through the art of storytelling and dance, ancient traditions are kept alive and communities are bound together.
In fact, cultural ceremonies are integral to Bali’s overall sense of happiness. As well as celebrating significant life events such as births and marriages, the whole community come together for Tumpek (religious days of honour). These days are all about paying homage to physical objects such as animals and plants. There’s even a Tumpek dedicated to paying reverence to metal objects such as vehicles and sacred weapons.
This constant togetherness, this culture of giving thanks and displaying gratitude for everything positive in life feels integral to the island’s unmistakable sense of happiness.
You’ve probably never considered thanking your car. Or getting together with a neighbour to celebrate the floral diversity of the local park. Maybe it’s worth a thought?
Taking happiness home
There’s also something else that strikes a chord when you visit Ubud. The lack of apparent stress. People aren’t racing around at breakneck speed, rushing to the office, or chasing career success.
And people don’t seem to be overly ambitious. There’s a feeling of contentment for the here and now, rather than a desire to constantly try and make things better for the future.
When you come from a world where so much emphasis is placed on goals and striving and self-improvement, the idea of enjoying what you have and not constantly looking for the next thing that will make you happy seems almost alien. But that’s what Bali teaches you. Slow down. Be grateful for what you have. Spend more time with the people you love.
Sure, you can’t take the scenery with you. You can’t bottle the innate tranquility that the island seems to possess, either. But you can take with you a simple lesson from the people who live here — a lesson that feels like the first step towards finding a new kind of happiness.
Everyday events are neither good nor bad. There’s only your perspective. And when you suddenly realise happiness can be a choice, life feels a whole lot lighter.