“Most folk are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” -Abraham Lincoln
Last night I gave a short speech at our Toastmasters club, it had to be a speech to inspire the audience. After preparing and delivering the speech, I realised that it could be of interest to you.
There are many references to our ability to survive extreme adversity and tolerate unpleasant, uncomfortable and dangerous conditions for long periods of time if we adopt the right attitude. Victor Frankl’s experiences in WW2 from his book “Man’s search for meaning” and the “Stockdale Paradox” about James Stockdale surviving long periods of torture and solitary confinement during the Vietnam war are two important examples.
There is considerable research showing that long-term happiness is found and nurtured by attitude more than affluence.
The Happiness Index compiled by Columbia University attempted to calculate a satisfaction or happiness index by asking people in different countries a set of questions related to: income, security, corruption and other factors affecting quality of life.
Researchers then used the data to rate countries according to the levels of satisfaction with life. Northern European countries came out on top and people in Africa were most miserable which is not surprising since most of the countries experiencing extreme poverty are found on that continent.
What is surprising is that the USA, the richest country in the world, did not make the top 10. Canada did make it into that group.
The project did find that richer people are generally happier than poor people, but that after a point, an increase in average income or per capita GDP, did not translate into a significant increase in happiness in the population.
That is not a new revelation, there are plenty of examples of unhappy wealthy people and happier people in lower-income groups.
An example of Maslows hierarchy of needs at work, a relatively small increase in an individuals income satisfies the basic, physiological, safety and belonging needs. However, without the right attitude, a much bigger increase is needed to address the higher level needs of self-esteem and self actualisation – and that is often only temporary.
Three factors governing happiness:
- We have sole responsibility to choose to be happy or not, whatever our circumstances.
- We should search for happiness with our minds not our wallets.
- It’s not what happens to us in life, but what we do about it that counts.
I remember a conversation with an African farmer back in the 1970s when I was on an army call up during the terrorist war in Rhodesia. Our section was patrolling through the Chesa Native Purchase area in the North East of the country. An area of good farmland reserved for exclusive purchase by Black farmers. They enjoyed the full title to their land, could sell it or leave it to their heirs, but could not sell or lease it to a White farmer. (This provision for Black ownership of land was never acknowledged by all those Western Nations condemning us and trying to force us to hand over our country to terrorists.)
Although by Southern African standards, the farms at around 300 acres, were small, the owners were infinitely better off than their counterparts in the traditional tribal areas where use of a piece of land was at the mercy of a chief or headman.
This particular man was a retired policeman who had wisely saved money over the years and had a pension which helped his cash flow.
He had a single room brick house with an asbestos-cement roof and a number of traditional round mud and thatch huts. Not luxurious accommodation by any standard but again better than he would have had in a tribal area.
I asked him why he only cultivated a small part of his farm, why he only had a few cattle, why most of his farm remained virgin bush.
He replied that his 20 acres of corn (maize) and few cattle gave him enough income to live quite well, to afford 3 wives and sit in the sun and drink beer when he felt like it.
I tried to explain that if he doubled his acreage and raised more cattle, he could increase his income substantially. A higher income would let him buy a car, a generator so that he could use electrical appliances – TV, refrigerator, install a pump to provide running water and an indoor toilet.
His response was that acquiring any or all of those things would create more problems than enjoyment. A car would mean that all his family and neighbours would expect him to provide them with free transport whenever they demanded it. His bicycle was perfectly adequate to get him to the local beer hall or bus stop if he wanted to go to the nearest town. His battery-powered transistor radio was all he needed, a TV would mean a house full of visitors every night.
He didn’t need a bigger house or a bigger bank account, both of these would signal wealth and lead to demands for financial assistance. He had a senior wife and two younger wives to cook, clean, carry water and with many children, till his 20 acres without a tractor.
My last argument was that if he produced more, he would have better reserves of both cash and food in the event of a drought. He assured me that he could survive a drought in one year and that if the drought persisted for a second, it would be a national disaster and the government would provide food.
There was a man who by our first world standards was living in poverty, but to him he was far better off than his fellow rural people and very happy with life. I couldn’t fault that line of thinking. He was living proof that happiness does not depend on extreme wealth or “things” but on how we choose to think about it.
A good example that more is not always better.
The other side of being happy is how we handle difficulties, from minor inconveniences to life-threatening catastrophes.
I published a post about An Extreme Lesson in Overcoming Adversity on 25 October. The story of how my mother dealt with her crippling injuries and the murder of my father in two terrorist ambushes. Her example is why I believe that “It is not what happens to you in life but what you do about it that counts.”
How do you score on the Happiness Index? Do you choose to be happy?
Wishing you success – and happiness.
Maslows Hierarchy graphic – Wikipedia Creative Commons