Lessons from Africa, #2 Happiness is Mostly Free

I don’t have any formal research to back this up, but based on the trip from Africa fresh on my mind as I’m halfway across the Atlantic tapping these thoughts into my iPad, I think happiness is pretty cheap…even free.

I seem to remember a quote I’ve heard attributed to Benjamin Franklin that goes something like this: “Most people are about as happy as they decide to be.”

From what I saw on a trip that covered over 20,000 miles and required passport stamps from 7 countries, all crammed into 15 days, I can suggest that not only is happiness a decision, I think happiness is mostly free.

Our church does relief work in Swaziland and Zambia, Africa. In these countries, a majority of the populations live on $1 and $2 a day, respectively. I meet many happy people, young and old, in absolute poverty.

For example, this trip included a community visit to a group of 12 adults who are experimenting with arid condition gardening techniques. They are obviously as “dirt-poor” as the dirt we sat on as we listened to them teach us what they were discovering.

But talk about happy! The women danced and sang their way to our van just to greet us! Smiles beamed from their faces as we got acquainted, and they were still smiling, happy, with faces full of joy when we shook hands and said goodbye.

Go to the homesteads that are scattered across the countryside. As you approach, and call ahead, asking for the customary permission to enter the cluster of huts, you’ll hear children laughing as they play. I am no world traveler, but based on my limited exposure, I believe it is universal…kids like to smile, laugh and play. Interestingly, the abundance of childhood African smiles we saw didn’t belong to anyone holding a video game controller.

Instead, their happiness was bound up in play that required only imagination, perhaps a stick or a worn out soccer ball or some other hand-me-down.  (Yes, I smiled as I realized a donated “Horton Hears a Who” made it to rural Swaziland, and was enjoyed by the children there.)

It seems that happiness isn’t dependent upon stuff, and it doesn’t require ideal situations. The happiness I’ve seen in rural Africa doesn’t cost much…if it “costs” at all. I’ve seen happy Go-Go’s (village grandmothers), youth, men and children. Based on my observations, happy people don’t require electricity (or all the things that run on it) or running water. I’ve found happy people can live in hand-made huts with almost NO personal possessions.

What’s up with that? I’ve been bombarded by a culture that tries to convince me that the key to my happiness is “just a little bit more.” Whenever I’ve bought into that, happiness becomes an elusive longing perpetually out of reach. Life becomes a collection of now-disappointing, once-happiness-promising stuff and pursuits.

From what I’ve seen, smiles are contagious, and independent of personal income level…I’ve seen them on some of the poorest people on earth. Happy people seem to have at least two common characteristics. First, happiness comes from the inside out…and the happiest people I know (whether they live in Africa or America) have an inside-out happiness because they know God loves them.

Second, happy people learn to be content. I’ve visited people outside stick-and-mud huts who seemed happier, and who smiled more than me and the comparatively wealthy people I live around. (Note: If your combined household income is over $24,000 a year, you are among the top 12% of wage earners in the world…just a thought…worth smiling about?)

This contentment that happy people learn to have “keeps” them, whether they have a lot, or a little. Ben (Franklin) was right, happiness really is more of a choice, than a result.