Waiting for Happiness
Is Happiness the new Godot?
Posted October 7, 2010
When I first decided to translate my experiences living and working in Africa, all my advisors, editors and friends warned me not to tell people that those villagers were ‘happy'. I was told that people are tired of hearing glorified stories about the supposed ‘happiness' of those aboriginal or traditional cultures. They don't buy into it. They can't believe that while these people are starving, have no jobs, and live day to day in tiny corrugated iron shacks....they are still ‘happy'.
I have learned the hard way that people don't buy into this idea very easily. In all honesty I have been met with reactions that range from a blank stare, to an angry (borderline hostile) talking to, to outright laughter.
My challenge has been to figure out how to translate the fact that what I actually saw and experienced contradicts all the images of depressed children with flies crawling all over them. I found vibrant communities, filled with near constant laughter, and yes I found happiness.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that living in that village was all rainbows and ice cream. In fact it was quite the opposite, fighting with cows over the only remaining source of water after the town tap broke, friends becoming infected with HIV/AIDS, the struggle to find accessible food whenever gas prices raised too much for the taxis to town to run. All of that was there. Day to day life was difficult and frustrating.
Would having more money, a better infrastructure, access to jobs, medical treatment and adequate education make the life of those people living in the villages easier? I have no doubt that it would. But the question of whether it would make them happier? I'm not so sure. Sure it may marginally increase their Subjective Well Being, but the one key thing that I learned from these people, is that happiness is a choice. You don't have to wait for all those things to happen BEFORE you become happy.
Why is this concept so hard for people in North America to grasp?
I think it has a lot to do with a phenomenon I would like to classify as the ‘Waiting for Godot syndrome'.
In Beckett's literary classic the two main characters spend two days waiting for the mystical Godot. Both of the characters claim to know Godot, but truthfully wouldn't know if he was standing right in front of them. While they are waiting for Godot they occupy themselves with conversing, eating, sleeping, arguing, singing, playing games, contemplating suicide, anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay".
How similar is this to how we choose to live our lives? We talk constantly about the ‘important' things in life, about how all we really need to make us happy is our family and friends. Why then do we continuously make decisions and choices that seem to counteract those purported values?
Why do we work 80-hour workweeks, just to get a promotion that will take up even more of our free time? Time that could be spent with friends and family. Sure we might not have the biggest house, the newest car, or the coolest gadgets from Apple; but those things are secondary to our friends and family...right?
Everyday I hear people tell me about how they would be happy ‘if'...
If they win the lottery, if they find the lover or partner of their dreams, if the moon was 3 degrees further to the left each evening.
Why do we all seem to be waiting for happiness?
This is the most important lesson that I learned from the Xhosa people that I lived with in that tiny little village in South Africa.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO WAIT TO BE HAPPY.
I watched them every day for a year. I watched them experience loss, death, disappointment, hope raised and then crushed by a system that is unfair. I joined with them in their daily struggle for food, jobs, and a better life.
Yet each and every day I awoke to the sound of laughter and music. Children playing, and a community that; while it was physically starving, it was spiritually thriving.
I heard my host mama talk constantly about her future plans. She even had a place mapped out in her home for when the village got the plumbing and sewer system that had been promised by a government in 1994.
In reality that infrastructure is unlikely to ever come. There simply isn't enough water in South Africa to provide running water for all the villages and informal settlements.
I never once heard mama say that she would be happy WHEN that happened. She was happy each and every day of her life, despite that fact.
She chose to not wait for her own personal Godot to arrive. Instead she chose to enjoy her life, as difficult as it was. Godot or no Godot.
That doesn't seem so crazy to me.
What DOES seem crazy is that for some reason we in North America seem content to wait.