We average working class “westerners” are taught from a very young age that in order to be successful in our lives we must always plan for the future.

We must get into the best school so we can go to the best college and then get the best job. We must work hard and climb to the top of our chosen career ladder, earn as much money as we can to provide the best for our children and their futures, buy a nice house and a nice car and all the other things that are expected of us.

All the while we must plan for our retirement years, by which time we will hopefully have paid for our houses and have a nice “nest egg” in the bank and a pension that will see us through to our graves in relative comfort without being a burden on our children (but your insurance will pay for an old people’s home if necessary so our kids will never need to clean us up after we poop our pants).

Some people even buy their own burial plot in advance so their offspring only need to throw them in the hole and chuck in a handful of dirt before scooting down to the solicitor’s office to see how much they’ve inherited. The problem is, very often the “retired” bit at the end of that life is very much shorter than anyone likes to consider possible, so many people study and work and save for 40 or 50 years and then have no time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. If they do manage to live to a ripe old age they are often too weak or too sick to really enjoy the last part of their lives. This means many people shuffle off this mortal coil having done little more than work and sacrifice themselves for their children. And this would be considered a “successful” life by a large percentage of westerners and is of course admirable. The problem is, you won’t find out if you are one of these “successful” people until it’s too late.

It appears to me that the average Indonesian is not bound by the same rules and expectations. Indonesians don’t seem to think about success in a lifetime, rather they seem to think about success on an almost daily basis. If they have a decent place to live and enough food to eat today they consider that a success for today and hope and pray that they will succeed again the next day and every day. And when their parents get old they expect their children to take care of them and the children expect to have that honour. Of course, thanks in no small part to western influences, there are rapidly increasing numbers who strive to buy a nicer house and a nicer car, but thus far generally things seem to be financed and dealt with largely through the family. (I’m sure there are also rapidly increasing numbers who don’t want to wipe their parents’ butts.)

The 30+ year bank loan for a house which is so common in the more “developed” countries is pretty much unheard of in Indonesia but I’m sure it will come. So there are many happy Indonesians who get to experience the warm glow of success on an almost daily basis, whereas most westerners have to wait 50 years to experience the same feeling once if they are lucky. I know it is lower levels of income that cause the shorter term view of success, but this seems like a positive side effect to me.

So who has got it right? All I can say is the only way to judge that is to consider which group is happier. We’ve all seen Indonesian people on the side of the road in Jakarta who work for a week for less money than we have in our pockets at any given time and many of them look genuinely happy. We are grumbling about the traffic as we sit protected from the rain in our air-conditioned cars while they smile and chat with plastic bags on their heads as they wait for the first of several hot and crowded buses that will eventually get them home. Complaining is not something you hear very often. People seem to count their blessings and make the best of whatever life gives them. Of course there are regular and vocal protests demanding a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and that is precisely as it should be, but average Indonesian people seem to be much more focused on what they have than on what they want. Westerners generally are the complete opposite.

So which is better? Lower income, lower expectations and a greater appreciation for what you have leading to genuine happiness and the warm glow of success almost daily (with your kids wiping your butt at the end), or higher income, higher expectations, the constant yearning for more and better things and then the warm glow of success once after 50+ years if you’re lucky (with a stranger wiping your butt at the end)? The problem is, you couldn’t change it if you wanted to.