As for Norridah, listen to what she said when I asked her to rate her happiness on a scale of 1 to 10: "I'm a 9.5! I have a lot of friends from a wide variety of backgrounds." This was important for her, living in Singapore, because the government there strongly encourages harmony among the nation's three major ethnic groups: Chinese, Indians, and Malays such as Norridah. "Ever since my school days, I've mixed with Chinese and Indians and learned how to make friends with all of them," she said. "Maybe I talk most with my Malay friends on the phone, but when I go out—which I do every day—I meet my Indian friends at the market or play cards with Chinese friends. My children are the same way. They don't see color or race, they see people."

"How about your tudong?" I asked, using the Malay word for a head scarf. "You live in this modern city, your husband is an accountant, your kids listen to iPods. Your scarf seems so traditional. Do you feel you're free to take if off and show your hair, if you want?"

"That is my own choice," she said, gently passing her hand over the scarf. "It's part of our religion, and it is the way of our leaders. I choose to wear it. My daughter's generation might have different ideas. But it makes me comfortable, so I wear it."

"And how about this custom of kissing your husband's hand?" I asked.

"This is a form of respecting each other," she said. "It's part of being a good Muslim. Doing it every day makes sure you're purged of guilt and grudges. I do it from the bottom of my heart, not that I have necessarily done anything wrong. It's just a show of respect. My husband reciprocates, but in his own way."

Published with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner. Copyright© 2010 Dan Buettner. Available wherever books are sold.


Next Story