After a 730 km journey from Istanbul, I stepped off the bus on Turkey’s northern coast where the forest reached the Black Sea. My first breath in Sinop was fresh air and the signs of ozone.
On July morning, I was on a journey to find out why the people of Sinop are the happiest in the world
Sinop – the peaceful view
“Everyone knows each other here. The atmosphere is very peaceful. And no one interferes with other people’s affairs,” Bekir Balcı, my taxi driver, explained to me as we ran from The bus station is directed east towards Sinop city, capital of the province.
The path runs through gentle hills and fields with scattered cows. Looking through the car window, one side is pine trees and the other side is narrow beaches stretching parallel to the road. I sat comfortably on the seat to relax in the landscape.
The car suddenly vibrated as it passed a pothole. “only one thing is that the roads here are not very good,” Balci shrugged his shoulder.
Sinop province ranks low compared to other provinces in the country in terms of health and infrastructure, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics. Yet, Sinop ranked first in the happiness index according to the results of the Institute’s Life Satisfaction survey conducted for many consecutive years. So what is the secret?
The Cradle of Cynicism
Sinop famously is the birthplace of ancient Greek sage Diogenes, who lived the life of a beggar on the streets around 300 BC. Due to such a life, he was known by the world as “Cynic”, a word derived from the ancient Greek word which means ‘dog’. Diogenes is often credited with founding Cynicism – the theory that social conventions hinder individual freedom from coming to a good life while living by the laws of nature is the fastest way to achieve happiness.
“Diogenes found happiness in a simple life in harmony with nature – a life that challenges the people he meets to enjoy what they have and care nothing that they don’t have,” professor Stephen Voss of the Department of Philosophy of Boğaziçi University said.
He used his sense of humor to criticize religious practices, political leaders, and those who followed in what he believed was unnatural social order.
According to local legends, Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes and found him sitting on the street. When he asked if Diogenes wanted something from the king, the sage replied, “Can you stand aside and stop blocking the sun.”
Leisure rhythm of life
The 15-minute taxi ride took me to the heart of Sinop city, which occupies the narrowest part of the land on the smallest peninsula stretching out into the Black Sea. A statue of Diogenes in the heart of the city – erected in 2006 – evidence that his views on life are not forgotten here.
There are no traffic lights here, but compared to the chaotic streets of Istanbul, the cars here flow in an orderly way. The sidewalk is crowded with people who prefer to walking than driving. People don’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere even if it’s a working morning of the week. It is even said that no one in the public apparatus in Sinop worked after Wednesday. (I didn’t even find an official who admitted to working very little although it’s more likely that Diogenes would compliment them if it was true.)
Balcı’s taxi circled a corner and disappeared from my sight, and I realized I was in the middle of a small square where there was a mosque next to a pub. The fact that two places are so close together appears to be contrary to a 100m alcohol ban near the Turkish government mosque back in 2013, but no one seems to mind about it. It seems that the city government has its way of doing things on religious and cultural issues.
“As a woman, you can wear shorts on the street without anyone bothering,” said Aylin Tok, manager of Teyze’nin Yeri, which is famous for mantı, a mix of dough and meat boiled with topped walnuts, “you can go out at 3 a.m. and nobody says anything.”
The Secret of Happiness
When I asked Tok the secret to happiness in Sinop, her answer sounded very pessimistic whether she was so intentional or not.
“There is no feeling here that someone is rich and others are poor,” she said. “People from different sections of life go to the same place to eat Simit or Turkish sesame-coated bread and drink tea or coffee.
Time has not stopped at Sinop since Diogenes’ time. The Turks came and the Greeks left. Although there is a series of modern houses around the Old Quarter, there are no skyscrapers and people here like to live a simple life. Neighbors leaned out the window to chat and shop at local bakeries and vegetable shops. It seems that the people of Sinop are not as extreme as Diogenes and the crucial tenets of Cynicism – especially its focus on living a good life – still echo throughout the city.
When it was getting dark, I made my way to the Castle Tower Café located in a tower along the ancient city wall of Sinop. The sunset behind the clouds, bathing harbors and tree-lined streets. Small fishing boats brought their catch to the shore and couples walk hand in hand along the seaside promenade. In the distance, the pine-covered hills are where the peninsula joins the mainland.
As I sat there holding a cold beer bottle, the happy reputation of this place didn’t seem to be mysterious anymore.