On this Thanksgiving remember that happiness is the difference between our reality and our expectations.
Fifteen years ago I traveled with a team of physicians that had been invited to address some health care needs in Kenya. After a few days attending events to showcase Kenyan schools, culture and its health care system I asked a cabdriver to allow me to spend the day with him and take me to Kenya’s less glamorous side—the one’s that aren’t showcased by the Ministry of Tourism and Health.
At the time Kenya had a horrific HIV/AIDs epidemic that had been covered by several national news outlets including 60 Minutes. I walked into an “otherworldly” Nairobi and Kisumu where coffins were sold in the market place and –all too often—in the streets. Many coffins were no more than 3 feet long and served as a reminder of the innocent children that fell victim to the AIDs epidemic. The Minister of Heath met with us and explained how the amalgamation of religious beliefs, a patriarchal society, extreme poverty and widespread prostitution had beset this east African nation with some of the highest death rates from HIV/AIDs in the world.
I asked my cabdriver, Jon, if all of this was true and he assured me it was. But the poverty and lack of basic health care were really beyond my imagination. So he offered to enlighten me.
We drove for some 30 minutes to a rural area outside of Nairobi that was set along a railroad track. There I saw several hundred thousand Kenyans stretched out as far as I could see in nearly all directions. Many were housed in corrugated aluminum huts while others lodged in outsized shipping crates to keep them protected from the mid-day sun and late-afternoon rains. The living conditions—devoid of easy access to drinking water and sanitation–were simply appalling.
I couldn’t bear to stay very long–the sense of hopelessness, sadness left me feeling both powerless and overwhelmed. I needed to end the evening on a lighter note and asked Jon to suggest a place we might get a bite to eat and a beer. He took me to his favorite pub where we enjoyed some local music and a light dinner. I watched in wonder as the locals danced, laughed and partied and it occurred to me that in one of the poorest countries in the world the people seemed to be able to put their personal struggles aside and celebrate the evening. This wasn’t a special occasion, Jon explained, just men and women living life and perhaps celebrating the passage of another day.
In the days that followed I realized that there were many scenes of optimism in this land disfigured by disease and poverty. This seemed to be in sharp contrast to what I’d observed back home in Rochester where life was filled with material riches and spiritual poverty. How odd it seemed that despite our spacious homes, health care and abundant food our culture appeared—by comparison–emotionally cool and joyless. There seemed to be an almost inverse relationship between material wealth, security and joy.
Years later I remember someone explaining it to me– “happiness is the difference between our reality and our expectations.” And suddenly it all made sense. Life was difficult in Kenya but there were no illusions that life should be anything different. In our country—the United States–it seems we’re never quite satisfied. We constantly seeks to acquire something “new” –clothes, cars, cell phones along with the latest hardware and software. In our consumer-driven economy there’s a never-ending list of something “newer” and “better” promised by a never-ending stream of advertisements available everywhere. We pursue “Black Friday” ecstasies by gorging ourselves at retail establishments in a rush to get into the “Holiday Spirit” only to wake up on January 2nd wondering why all our euphoria vanished.
The truth about happiness is that can’t be bought. Happiness comes from appreciating what we have rather than lusting for more. Happiness doesn’t exist “out there” in a new car, iPhone or tablet. Happiness comes from “in here”–from longstanding friendships and relationships. Happiness comes from a sense of accomplishment that we did our job well or that we supported a friend, a child, a mother, a spouse or a cause. Happiness is not the result of aspiring to be someone we’re never going to be but from the fatigue and pain caused by being all we can be.
And so on Thanksgiving we need to take a moment and reflect on who we are and not who we wish we might be. Thanksgiving is not the time to live in the past or the future but to live in the present. It is a time to be thankful for everyday gifts—the ones of friendship, love, health and safety. When we can be thankful of what life is rather than what we believe it should be then we can truly be thankful.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!