Sumeba Miyako?

The Japanese have a saying, sumeba miyako, which means “wherever you live is paradise.” For me, this epitomizes a Japanese way of thinking – we should accept our lot in life and make the best of the hand we’re dealt. This attitude is also present in another Japanese phrase – “happy resignation” – which refers to the widespread cultural practice of women quitting their jobs after they get married or have their first child.

I’ve been thinking about these ideas lately as I once again tussle with the choice of living in Australia versus living in Japan. This is an internal debate I’ve been having with myself ever since I first came to Japan to live in 2003 (almost 10 years ago!) It’s a choice that has become increasingly complicated over the years as I’m now married to a Japanese man and the more time I spend here, the more the cultural values of this country dig their claws in and become an intrinsic part of who I am.

According to sumeba miyako, it really shouldn’t matter where I live as we theoretically have the potential to be happy wherever we are. However, I wonder if this only implies to situations where the choice didn’t exist in the first place? I wonder if, when faced with the choice of one “paradise” versus another, we’d always feel torn between the two, as I inevitably do between Australia and Japan.

This relationship between choice and happiness is the focus of studies by two prominent American psychologists – Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz. Dan Gilbert theorizes that people are great at making the best of bad situations but poor at making decisions about what will make them happy. He also believes that people are happier with their choices when they can’t undo them. Barry Schwartz takes this idea one step further by proposing that more choice actually leads to less satisfaction. (Both of their TED talks – Dan Gilbert’s Why are we happy? and Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice – are fascinating and I highly recommend watching them when you have 40 minutes or so to spare.)

What they have to say is initially shocking but after reflecting on my own experiences, it makes sense to me. Choice of country aside, I can think of numerous situations where I have felt overwhelmed by the abundance of choice. Choosing a career is one I’ve struggled with for years. Deciding when to have kids is another biggie. While I can’t imagine a life where these choices don’t exist or propose a return to a time when they didn’t, Gilbert and Schwartz do lead me to wonder if all this choice is an entirely good thing.

After moving back and forth between Japan and Australia over the past decade, with no more than 3 years spent in either country consecutively, we’re finally starting to feel that it’s time to settle down. If possible, we’d also like to have kids soon and we won’t be able to continue zigzagging across the Pacific for monetary reasons, if no other. We’ll have to pick a country and whatever we pick will be our home for the foreseeable future.

It’s a big decision with many important implications but after listening to Schwartz and Gilbert, I’m convinced that the tricky part is not choosing but living with the choice. So, when we’ve finally put our bags down and feet up, and those familiar feelings of doubt and uncertainty slowly start creeping in, I’ll try to:

  • Remember that the grass may seem greener but it’s really just the same old grass;
  • Remind myself that humans have an amazing capacity to adapt and make the best out of bad situations;
  • Focus on the now and not what might have been.

Any other tips, ideas, or suggestions? I’m all ears!

Photos from jasoneppink

5 comments

  1. Isabelle says:

    Natalia – thanks for sharing your personal story reflecting about choosing a home. I can relate to feeling torn between places… but I agree with you on living with the choice and recognizing that “the grass may seem greener but it’s the same old grass.” Great post!

  2. Cindy says:

    Thanks Natalia for this post. It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, as I felt like I had many choices growing up (between living in USA and Indonesia, for example) and those choices have made me feel anxious more than anything else because I was always doubting whether I had picked the right thing. For me, I personally think happiness is also a choice, and not a result of the choices I’ve made. So no matter where I am, what I do, or who I’m with, I can choose to be happy (to a certain extent, of course–I don’t suggest getting stuck in a bad relationship because you “choose” to be happy in it).

  3. Natalia says:

    Thanks Isabelle and Cindy! I like the idea of choosing happiness. It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend the other day. He was speaking about his relationship with his wife and how, during a rough patch, he made the decision to love her and in actively doing so, things between them improved. I agree that this kind of “creative visualization” approach can’t be applied to all situations but I think we have a lot more power to influence our own happiness than we often give ourselves credit for.

  4. Luisa says:

    Hi Natalia, I just came across your website while trying to process the decision that we have made (that you are still debating). My family have decided to leave Japan after 13 years here and are moving back to Melbourne next month. It took a long time to come to this decision, and even now I have some doubts but we always have to look forward and make every situation the best it can be for us, right?

  5. Natalia says:

    Hi Luisa, I think that’s right. I recently discovered another great Japanese saying about this – 石の上にも三年 = 3 years on a rock. It means if you sit on a rock for 3 years, it’ll become warm :) All the best with your move back to Melbourne – I’m sure you’ll love it (it’s still my favorite city). N

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