When my wife and I returned stateside after spending five years in South Africa, one of the most common questions we were asked went something along these lines—“How can those people that have so little, be so…. so…(agonizingly awkward pause)…happy?”
The prevailing logic behind the question implied that one has to have things in order to attain happiness. I would like to say I always had a pithy and poignant answer to these questions, but as it turns out I’m much more clever 15 minutes after a conversation is over than I ever am in real time.
Upon our return, we realized that the average American is under more stress than an elephant’s toenail. Neck deep in the rat race, many Americans are trying to make enough money to buy the house, yard, riding lawnmower, kiddie pool, Egyptian cotton sheets, and an entire kitchen directly out of a Pampered Chef catalogue.
But in order to have all of these wonderful toys, they are chained to a career choice that demands that they work like dogs in order to be thrown a bone once in a blue moon.
The kind of schedule that demands that we work with machine-like regularity for 50 weeks out of the year in order to delight in two weeks of vacation, is a perfect recipe for stress and depression. Having de-humanized ourselves, it’s no wonder that we’re unable to delight in our self made field of dreams, because the average day to day schedule has twisted into a nightmare of bills, debt, and relentless work.
And that, ladies and gentlemen is why Africans were so happy. They didn’t have the modern televisions and smartphones that we enjoy, but they also didn’t have the debt and pressure we bear. Having their basic necessities met, many of my friends were able to spend their time with family and friends instead of worrying about the plethora of “First World Problems” we all share.
The problem isn’t the possessions—they’re simply plastic, polycarbonates, and other such chemicals that have 17 different syllables. It’s our attitude towards these possessions that needs an adjustment, and a radical one at that.
One of the key differences between Africa and America is the excessive options at our fingertips. A quick search of “Peanut Butter” on Walmart’s website will reveal over 100 different options for the salty sandwich necessity. I tried counting them, but got bored after I exceeded triple digits. In Africa we had four to seven choices of PB, and that was when we were in a big city.
All of these options create an atmosphere of entitlement that is a cancerous sore to the soul of gratitude. To live a life of appreciative acknowledgement, we can’t expect to have it our way, right away. Some things in life require waiting, and are better because of the lack of immediate gratification involved, not in spite of it.
Tomatoes harvested in your own garden are always more exquisite than the most beautiful cherry red tomato that you could ever find at your local grocer. Objectively, they’re inferior to the purchased product, but you were personally involved in the process—and therefore appreciate the acidic treat all the more.
Pat Riley said it perfectly when he was talking about the super short shorts Showtime Lakers teams of the 80’s, stating that a second championship is always harder to win than the first, because of “The Disease of More.” He said that “success is often the first step towards disaster”—everyone wants more shots, more money, more, more more.
Few of us play a game for a living, and fewer still could ever be seen in public in those shorts—but we can all relate. The reason Africans are happy when they have so little, is that they have found contentment in the present moment, and are immune to the disease of more.
In 2015, I hope to learn a lesson from my African brothers and have more contentment and less of the disease of more in my life.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Andy Vaughn
Apprentice Editor: Melissa Scavetta / Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: John Atherton via Flickr