Whilst volunteering in Tanzania in November 2014, I was asked to give a talk to school leavers. The talk was to be an inspirational speech, but that was the only guidance provided. Having thought about what to talk about for a while, I finally came upon the idea of talking about happiness. What subject could be more inspiring? Surely happiness is the defining goal of every person on the planet.
I have done voluntary work for the Samaritans for the past few years, so talk to people suffering despair and trauma on a regular basis. You quickly realise that everyone’s feelings are unique when relating to life experiences. Positive emotions of happiness and well being will be equally individual as the reaction to traumatic events. What makes one person happy may make somebody else miserable. Is it possible to provide even the broadest framework for happiness that would apply to the majority of people?
Although not a Buddhist myself, a lot of their philosophies seemed like a good starting place for inspiration. The Dalai Lama’s book ‘The Art of Happiness’ discusses how practising kindness can be a great source of personal happiness and well being. The Dalai Lama also toured the UK recently and his teachings provide a sound basis for guiding people towards behaviours which will promote a happy and contented life.
It was intriguing to discover other people’s views about what made them happy. I asked my friends what made them happy and was surprised by the variety of responses. It seems most people seem to view happiness in terms of short term elation or pleasure. Most people say that things like food,
drink, drugs, money, victories for their sporting teams or sex makes them happy. Although this short term elation will certainly bring extreme happiness this is only likely to be a transient emotion lasting for days, hours, minutes or even seconds.
One of the responses was extremely interesting. One friend said they had given up on the pursuit of happiness and settled for being content. Someone who is content must be a person who has a feeling of well being. In contrast to people who are seeking happiness from short term gratification someone who is content is a truly happy person most of the time. It seemed strange that somebody who had found happiness had found it by giving up on the search for it.
Thinking about my own experiences it was easy to see how joy and happiness can so easily be confused. There were a number of things that didn’t seem to make sense though which needed to be addressed:
- Having visited several developing countries around the world people who have much less material wealth are happier than people who have more material wealth.
- People in media footage of the UK from the first half of the 20th century appear happier than similar current photos. This is also corroborated with chats and discussions from people who lived in the period. Living standards have improved, but this doesn't seem to have fed through to individual happiness.
- On a more personal note why do I feel happier in middle age than when I was younger?
- After finishing a shift at the Samaritans why should volunteers feel happy? We have just spent several hours talking to people in emotional turmoil and hearing distressing accounts, so you would expect to go home feeling sad.
By the time of the presentation, I’d spent a few weeks in Iringa which is in the central part of Tanzania. Iringa has very few tourists who mostly head for the northern part of the country. The lifestyle of the people is very simple compared with western cultures. After previous experiences in other parts of the world it came as no surprise that the Tanzanian people are extremely friendly.
Everyone has a very wide circle of friends who all help each other out on a day to day basis. People acknowledge each other in the streets and kindness is shown towards elder members of the community and control applied to younger people. The ‘dala dala’ buses are normally crammed, but a child normally volunteers to give up their seats if an elder is standing. If this doesn't happen somebody will tell them to give up their seat. Some household items are shared between neighbours and everybody helps each other out. There is a real sense of community spirit which is in sharp contrast to many communities within the UK where many people do not even know their neighbours.
There is undoubtedly some people living in poverty in Tanzania and social welfare has limited funding. The Tanzanian people that are above the poverty line are happier than people from the UK even though they will be significantly less wealthy. One of the people I was volunteering with came up with a very concise way of explaining the difference. People in the UK are materially richer and people in Tanzania are socially richer. This realisation provided a challenge for the presentation. The people of Tanzania understand more about happiness than people from the UK!
The talk itself was at Ifunda Technical Secondary School. The main language spoken in Tanzania is
Swahili, but English is increasingly taught as a second language. To make matters worse my broad Northern accent is fairly difficult to understand, so an interpreter was on hand to make things a little easier for the students attending.
The main focus of the talk was therefore an attempt to make the students appreciate what they already have. The students leaving a Tanzanian school are far better equipped for adult life than students leaving a western school because of the community spirit. They are used to interacting with a lot of diverse people whereas school leavers from the UK are more likely to have interacted with a much smaller group of people. Over the coming years Tanzania will become progressively wealthier and the challenge laid down to the students was to improve the wealth of the society without reducing the happiness of the community. It will be interesting to see if the developing countries fair better at this than the developed countries have done.
The talk went well and was well received. All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as we joined the students in celebrations for their graduation from school. There was a nagging doubt in my mind that something was missing from the talk.
After returning from Tanzania my mind went back to the talk and it felt right to do further research on happiness. Although everything that was included in the talk was a good basis for leading a happy life, it didn’t really explain the ‘why’. Without the why it felt like unfinished business and some of the things that confused me about happiness were still unexplained.
Further research on the web finally answered the ‘why’. It all comes down to what people want out of life. Every individual’s goals can be categorised as intrinsic or extrinsic. An intrinsic goal is a goal that is validated by the self. Examples of intrinsic goals are relationships, helping the community and self development. Intrinsic goals are things that you want to do. An extrinsic goal is validated against or by others. Examples of extrinsic goals are money, attractiveness and popularity. Extrinsic goals are goals that you have to do.
Everybody will sit on a scale where their goals lie somewhere between completely intrinsic or completely extrinsic. As an example the degree of vanity varies vastly from person to person. Thinking from your own personal experiences it is likely you will know people who are very conscious about their looks. Regardless of how attractive they are it is unlikely you would categorise them as being happy. They will seek and need repeated compliments about their appearance.
All of a sudden everything made sense! The things that didn't make sense about happiness were now completely logical. Beyond a reasonable living amount money doesn't make you happy. In developing countries (and early 20th Century UK) everybody is happy if they have enough money to live a healthy life. The pleasure they gain from a community spirit far exceeds the pleasure the wealthier have from material possessions and a more isolated lifestyle. When I was younger I was also much more driven by extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. Money and Vanity were the driving motivators for me after leaving school. By the time I went into the 40’s friendships and helping others were far more important. There are a number of studies that make the same conclusion about people becoming happier with age and it seems likely that most people undergo a similar change in their goals.
For myself focusing on intrinsic goals of friendship, helping others and developing new skills has made me a far happier person than I used to be. Obviously nobody can be happy all of the time, but returning to a norm after suffering a painful event is also much shorter when you focus on intrinsic goals. I don’t have any formal qualification in anthropology or psychology, so this is all written from a novice’s viewpoint. Hopefully you've found something in this article of interest and useful in the search for a happiness. Even if you disagree with most of what’s written at least you’ll benefit from spending a little time thinking about what makes you happy! Good luck with your search for
happiness and hopefully this may have unlocked a few keys.
By Guy Marshall