There was a man who used to sell newspapers on the side of the street. I used to pass him every morning on my way to class as early as 6.45am (yes, for a student that is a morbid time to be up and driving) – and he stood there everyday from about 4am every morning.
He would stand there waving as people passed him in their cars, smiling and blowing kisses to them. People would respond by honking their horns, waving and smiling back at him. His energy was contagious, and I found myself looking forward to seeing his smiling and happy face every morning. It was always a great start to an early day.
One day I had the opportunity to ask him, “What is the secret to your happiness?”
He said: “I have a job, a roof over my head, food in my belly – why wouldn’t I be happy? I thank God for all of my blessings!”
Let’s take a moment to reflect on that.
He had a job selling newspapers on the side of the road during the early hours of the morning in the freezing cold – probably earning less than a dollar an hour – but it was a job, and he had a roof over his head and food in his belly. Furthermore, he thanked God for this and saw these things as blessings.
Most of us consider having a job, a home and food to be basic rights and basic human needs that need to be met. When they are met, we do not consider them ‘blessings’ but rather think of them as our right. Yes, it should be every persons right to have food, shelter and a form of income – and I do not believe that any person should be exempt from those basic needs – but encountering this man made me realize something: Our attitudes have changed.
It often intrigues me how people who have the ‘least’ are often the happiest. I remember going to Tijuana, Mexico on an outreach program a couple of years ago. The people there had literally nothing. We trudged through the muddy ‘streets’ and spent time with people in their homes and churches constructed out of metal sheets thrown together with little to no plumbing and electricity.
Yet, these people were some of the most joyous, faith-filled and loving people I have encountered in my life. I went there to bless them, but I left being the one who felt blessed because of the encouragement and kindness they showed me.
I could say a similar thing about the people in South Africa. The large majority of the population live in ‘shacks’ which are constructed from various inexpensive and ‘scrap’ materials. Despite their dire living conditions, these people are some of the most vibrant, happy and friendly people you will meet.
Contrast this with my trips to First World nations, where the majority of people have more than enough (they have jobs, shelter and food with a bit of excess money to spend), yet the suicide rates are increasing and depression is as common to the culture as MacDonald’s is to every street corner. I’ve counseled and ministered to people all over the world and have observed that in the First World countries, where people have more to be thankful for, the complaints and ungratefulness are higher than those in Third World countries who have next to nothing.
From my experience and observation, people in the fully-developed west seemed to find life more difficult and unfulfilling than those who resided in undeveloped and poverty-stricken countries.
This leads me to question why this is so.
Statistics have shown that suicide rates are higher in countries with sustained or perpetual cloud coverage and rain (most of what we consider First World or fully-developed countries have this kind of weather). They attribute this to the lack of vitamin D, and have labeled it Seasonal Affective Disorder – or more commonly known as the ‘Winter Blues’. Is it the climate? Can we honestly blame the weather for our unhappiness?
Of course, to some degree this probably does contribute to general emotional well-being, but it cannot be the entire reason why most fully-developed nations suffer from a depression epidemic.
Another reason why suicide and depression are considered to be so high in First World countries is because of the unrealistic expectations placed on people in an ever-quickening, fast-paced world. Single working mothers rank as one of the highest on the most vulnerable list, finding the pressure to work full time and generate enough income to survive (usually women are paid lower wages than men on the classic assumption that their ‘wages’ are additional ‘pocket money’ to that of their working husbands pay), be a mother, as well as keeping house and providing home-cooked meals to be overwhelming.With this in mind, would a simpler lifestyle with fewer expenses and responsibility lead to a higher level of international happiness? Perhaps it could be a factor, but again- I doubt it is the only reason.
Furthermore, studies in social psychology have found that those who practice religion or who believe in a higher power are generally happier and feel more fulfilled in life than those who do not. Could the rise of Atheism be contributing to the international rise of unhappiness? Does faith in a higher being help us to alleviate some of the pressures and depressions of life?
Back in 2012, I was experiencing a bout of depression myself. I was frustrated with my life and the world in general, and found myself in that downward spiral of unhappiness. It seemed no matter what I did or tried, my joy levels continued to plummet and I was unable to pull myself out of the ‘hole’ I had created. I somehow stumbled across an Oprah magazine and, being bored one afternoon, found myself reading a message to her readers at the back of it titled ‘What I Know For Sure’.
In it, she explained how she had discovered an old journal of hers where she had written down 5 things she had been thankful for every day. They were seemingly silly things like a cool breeze on a hot day, ice cream, and funny conversations. She realized as she read through the journal how she no longer felt the joy of simple moments like she used to.
“Since 1996 I had accumulated more wealth, responsibility and possessions. Everything, it seemed, had grown exponentially – except my happiness. How had I, with all my options and opportunities, become one of those people who never has time to feel delight? I was stretched in so many directions that I wasn’t feeling much of anything. Too busy doing.
But the truth is, I was busy in 1996 too. I just made gratitude a daily priority. I went through the day looking for things to be grateful for and something always showed up…
…I’ve learnt from experience that if you pull the lever of gratitude every day, you’ll be amazed at the results.” – Oprah
As I read that, I realized my problem; I had been so busy trying to be happy and striving to ‘fix’ the things that were keeping me from happiness, while still blaming all the external factors such as business and the weather and my location, that I had lost my attitude of thankfulness.
My focus had been – although unintentionally – entirely on myself and my own problems. I had failed to recognize the incredible and overwhelming number of blessings that surrounded me in my life, and instead had focused all of my attention on one or two areas that I was unhappy with, allowing them to consume me.
So I began my daily ‘thankfulness’ journal. Every day I wrote down 5 things I was thankful for. Sometimes they were big things, other times they were specific friends or moments – or even food I had eaten that day. Because I am spiritual, I dedicated all of my thankfulness to God. I personally believe that in order to be truly thankful, you need to be thankful to someone for giving you the blessings in the first place.But even if you are not particularly spiritual, I still believe the principle of thankfulness and a heart of gratitude has the same effect and applies to everyone.
It took some focus and dedication at first, and an adjustment of my previously narrow-minded and pessimistic mindset that I had developed, but the results showed. I felt my heart beginning to de-ice itself, and my open, happy and smiley self returned.
Apon reflection on my experiences, observations and encounters with people, I would have to suggest that we as a society can try to blame our unhappiness on situations, external factors, personal problems, or other people – but that won’t leave us any happier or solve any of our problems.
If I have learnt any one thing about happiness during my 25 years of living on this earth, it is this: Happy people make a choice to have a grateful attitude and do not spend their time obsessing over the things that aren’t perfect in their lives, but rather choose to notice and delight in all the small and wonderful things and people around them and in their lives.
People still talk about the man who sold papers on the side of the road. He’s not there anymore, and I don’t know what happened to him, but he has left a lasting legacy and impression on the people who drove past him daily.
He has left an impact on me.
I don’t even know his name, but I thank God for him and for his beautiful attitude, because it helped me adjust my attitude and allowed me to begin to live a life of gratitude and happiness.
Happiness does not happen to you. It does not come with a new TV or a better body or a prettier face. Happiness comes by choice.
So today, I choose happiness. And just like the man who sold newspapers on the side of the street, I choose a heart of gratitude and to see everything in my life as a blessing, giving constant thanks to God for it…
…No matter how basic the blessing may seem.