It’s a new year again. Among all the gifts given and received this Christmastide, the one thing that most people want, at least according to the National Institute of Health – is happiness, joy.
And why not? The first gift of the nativity given by the heavenly hosts to the shepherds was the “good news of great joy” because “a savior has been born for you, who is Messiah and Lord.”
That is good news, and yet during the Christmastide so many of us fall into depression, a dark rabbit hole from which some of us cannot escape.
After almost tens years of working around the word (often in the month of December), I’ve noticed something about happiness and joy: In some of the poorest, most war wracked places in the world, despite all the hardships and troubles that people were enduring, they were, for the most part, happy. Some of them even joyful. I have often wondered why this is.
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(Above: Smile: The Smiling Man, whose name I unfortunately did not get, was the difference between a good day’s work and a failed afternoon. Copyright © Jeff Gardner, 2014)
“The Smiling Man realized this, that joy comes from what we do, especially for those who are near to us.”
If you Google something like “Are people in the developing world happy/happier?” you will see a number of studies and survey which claim that those in poor countries are as happy, if not happier, than those of us in the West.
I am not quite sure what to make of these studies and hesitate (a lot) to cite them. First, and on a personal level, I am always careful about giving the impression that poverty equals misery, and that poor people, like children, do not have enough sense to be bothered (or not) by their circumstance. On the other side of the same coin, I carefully avoid any romantic notions that being poor and leading a “simple” life in the developing world ennobles someone. Though I am no cultural relativist, I believe that people more or less know what they are doing when comes to how they feel about their own lives, be they rich or poor.
Secondly, on a professional note, most of the organizations that I work with are in the developing world not to effect some short term pleasure (or happiness, for that matter) but to bring about long, slow change, often benefiting generations who are as of yet unborn.
But nonetheless, I have found it to be true – many in the developing world are happy.
I encountered one such person back in 2014 while working on the West African coast in Accra, Ghana. I was photographing in the Agbogbloshie market, a place where thousand of tons of vegetables (notably onions) are exported to buyers all over the world. Adjacent to the market is the Agbogbloshie slum, a wretched home for some 40,000 people, many of whom scratch out a living by picking through the world’s largest e-waste dump.
The day was stifling hot, humid, and mixed with the smell of onions and burning plastic (from the dump), almost overwhelming. How anyone could work or live in such conditions amazed me.
There was a man begging near the market whose portrait I wanted to take, but who spoke a language that I had never heard before. As I tried to communicate with him, running through the languages that I did speak (all five of them) and fragments of those that I really did not speak, up stepped the Smiling Man (see above) and offered to help me. The begging man, the Smiling Man explained to me in French, spoke Dangme, one of the languages of northern Ghana. And, the Smiling Man went on to say, that though he did not speak Dangme, he had a friend who did. After giving me instructions to stay put (and where would I go anyway?), he promised to be right back.
After about 15 to 20 minutes, the Smiling Man returned with his friend who, he informed me, spoke Dangme, but did not speak French or English, but Twi, one of the principal languages of Ghana.
So, I began by speaking French to the Smiling Man, who then spoke to his friend in Twi, who in turn spoke to the begging man in Dangme, and all back again in the reverse order. Surprisingly, once introductions were made and my request explained, we four, I, the Smiling Man, his friend and the begging man were talking and laughing through three languages as if we had known each other for years instead of minutes.
After I had taken all the photographs that I needed and gotten all the information I wanted, I thanked the Smiling Man profusely, and offered him 10 US dollars for his help. With a deep, heartfelt grin that spread across his whole face his refused the money saying that it had been his pleasure, in the fullest sense of the phrase, to help me.
Over the years I have thought lots about that hot afternoon and about the Smiling Man who, compared to me, had nothing – whose teeth were mostly falling out of his mouth and who was dressed in rags and yet was so happy, so joyful. And yes, I have also thoughts lots about how, or perhaps better why, he was so happy – especially during times when I have been so unhappy, so (frankly) depressed.
At the risk of declaring the obvious I suspect that the Smiling Man, on some level, understood something that many of us, including myself at times, do not: The opportunity to be happy and joyful is always with us, regardless of where we are or what we are doing.
This opportunity, this closeness of joy is also (ironically) its greatest challenge. Among the things that we can or cannot have in life, joy is something that each person must give to his or her self. It is a state of being that comes from how we feel about who we are and what we are doing – not about what we have or what we want.
The Smiling Man realized this, that joy comes from what we do, especially for those who are near to us.
And two years ago, on a West African costal road, next to an open air onion market and a slum, that a smiling man helped me do my job and made both of us happy was, even now, cause enough for joy.