Money, having it is better than the alternate, right?

If you haven’t got it you want it and if you’ve got it you usually want more. 

Money, when is enough enough and does it lead to happiness?  It may not lead you to happiness, but the journey towards it may be taken in greater levels of comfort than those that don’t have it. Is it the lack of money that makes people unhappy or it is how they are positioned against those in their society that have it?  It becomes relative doesn’t it. 

Your disposable level of income here in Australia might not see you living the high life, but in a developing country that same level of income may see you living like a king.  Perhaps it’s less about the quantum and more about what you can achieve with it, or more importantly what really makes you happy.

Let me share with you a story that comes from the most unlikely of places, where it wasn’t about money, it was about learning to sing.

It was on my second rotation to Thailand that I was made to realise the importance of valuing all contributions to a process, no matter how insignificant the role in that process may seem. 

I was on deployment following the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami that claimed the lives of between 250,000 and 300,000 people.  I was working in Thailand helping to identify the bodies of the 5395 souls who perish following the disaster.

I was leading a team of international forensic specialists at Tha Cha Chai, a site constructed for holding and processing the deceased bodies of tsunami victims. Bodies of the victims were stored on shelves in refrigerated shipping containers, where they remained until we could formally identify them before repatriating that person to their country of origin.

The work of my team was supported by the Thai army, whose role was to assist in the movement of the body bags from the shipping containers to the mortuary where we were conducting the post-mortem identification work.

The soldiers’ job was to retrieve a body from a container and carry it on a field trolley to the examination area for the forensic process to begin.  I have vivid memories of watching these strong men perform what must have felt to them like a thankless task.

These soldiers had been performing their duties for a couple of months, and understandably were losing their enthusiasm for the job at hand. It was no longer challenging them on any level, the heat was incredible and in the August when I was working with the daily temperature aired between thirty eight and forty two degrees Celsius, and there was no end in sight to the work they were performing.

We were told that the Swedish disaster victim identification team we had replaced after their rotation had noticed the drop in the soldiers’ enthusiasm levels also, and had attempted to lift those levels by way of offering cigarettes, sweets and other gifts, but to no avail.

It was becoming an increasing struggle to get the soldiers to work at the pace required, and I became acutely aware of the impact that this was having on the entire team, and in fact the whole process.  I saw this as a great example of people not valuing the contribution they make to an important process.  Their role of moving corpses from one part of the site to another was perhaps the least technically challenging job, but this didn’t mean their contribution to the end process was of any less value.  Identification and repatriation couldn’t be achieved without bodies to work on.

The soldiers’ waning enthusiasm was, however, in stark contrast to the passion they displayed when singing their national anthem each morning.  With great gusto they showed us what an incredibly patriotic race they are.  Their love of King and Queen is immediately obvious from the moment you arrive in their country. Each morning the soldiers would stand tall and proud to sing the national anthem as the Thai flag was raised to fly above the site at Tha Cha Chai.

What I did notice as each morning passed was an incredible level of passion and enthusiasm that was completely dissipating once the singing had stopped.  As the flag hit the top of the flag post, shoulders would slump, heads would go down and the soldiers would wander off.  It was beginning to become a chore to find them and re-direct them back to work.  As the leader of the International Disaster Victim Identification team at this site, I knew that we needed to inject some energy back into the soldiers again, but the question was how?

We then made one of our smartest decisions of the whole tour.  We decided that every Australian team member would learn to sing the Thai national anthem – in Thai.

We then had one of our staff Google the words and over the next few days, as we travelled the one and a half hour journey to and from the site, the Aussies learned to sing the Thai national anthem. 

One morning soon after, the Australians lined up behind the soldiers (as we did every morning) and as the Thais began singing, we joined in.  As one, every soldier swung around in amazement, with eyes as big as saucers and grins as wide as anyone will ever see. The expression on each of their faces will stay with me forever. They sang louder than ever before.

Did we sing the anthem well?  No.

Did that matter?  Not one bit.

Did our efforts have the desired effect?  Absolutely!

From that point on, the Thai soldiers were once again walking with a spring in their step, inspired to complete the task at hand, and never more so than when it was an Australian asking for their assistance.

This experience taught me the importance of motivation.  If you want to inspire a team toward a goal, you must find out what motivates them and seldom is it money.  When you buy into that with honesty and integrity you can achieve many things.  The Swedes who we had taken over from were buying the Thai soldiers cigarettes, did that motivate them? Yes it did, but only short term.  When the Australian’s learnt to sing the Thai national anthem in Thai, that was what they connected with. 

The experience also confirmed what many have known, I can’t sing!

These days, I no longer work in the forensic area identifying bodies, instead I spend a lot of my time leading Australians on charity bike rides through Thailand for the charity I established after the tsunami Hands Across the Water.  My favourite part of the rides is riding through the most remote areas of Thailand, seldom visited by tourists, even many Bangkokians will never travel to these areas.  What I get to see riding through some of the villages are families who have very little in the way of possessions or income, even by Thailand standards.  But as you ride past and you see them together in their communities, when you stop and speak with them, you get the sense that money is certainly not the source of happiness for them, it’s family, it’s community and it’s how they spend their time together wherein lies their richness.

Some say having money is better than the alternate, but riding through the villages and seeing the strength of community that exists I’m less convinced that more money leads to increased levels of happiness.