How the essence of our humanity also has the seed of national contentment.
She was weeping on TV news when she recounted the traumatic events of November the 16th. Her name is Thea. She is my sister. My trachea cramped shut as she made all watching the news clip, relive that experience with her: when an armed gang of six, having hi-jacked an ambulance at Eikenhof in Gauteng, tried to break into her home for abandoned children, taking two security guards hostage and kidnapping three of her boys. This within a week of having a gun slammed into her mouth and an amount of cash held for repairs to a water system, being stolen.
Only those that know Thea well, can appreciate the tight maternal bond that she has for all of her 60 adopted and fostered children, equal in intensity and care to that for her own blood offspring. All of them came to her haven – The Love of Christ Children’s Home -- at birth, abandoned and left to die. A total of 800 children have been adopted by others, but a good number have stayed on into early adulthood and Thea has adopted 19 herself.
The most remarkable thing about her is the huge reservoir of indiscriminate empathy she has for her fellow human beings. In an interchange within hours of the trauma, her first words were to ask after the condition of my life partner, who had undergone a hip operation. A week earlier, she had even offered to come and help if we needed her. One simply has to marvel at such a capacity to form so many deeply sincere attachments with others: attachments that inevitably bring much pain – constantly and repetitively.
Yet there is an indefinable power in that state, which places self-interest secondary to others and loses those debilitating and self-destructive egocentricities. Perhaps it is so elusive because it is counter-intuitive to everything we are taught about transaction, about our natural, instinctive state, and the self-gain motive as a key ingredient for success, or the “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach to all interactions. Relationships founded on those criteria will always be strained and distrustful. And we are only beginning to understand that relationships themselves are at the heart of social accord or discord itself.
If the pursuit of happiness, or social contentment is a fundamental state that all societies aspire to; that all systems, policies, institutions and social constructs should have as a primary aim, we are clearly sadly lacking in much of the world, and particularly at home. All of our actions are mostly geared to improving the material well-being of people on the assumption that it automatically creates individual life satisfaction. At the same time we create unintended consequences not only on economic balances, but on expectations. These can have a far greater negative impact on life satisfaction than the measures alone could ever hope to achieve.
It is a subject that has been raised by many, including myself (see article here), and new research and surveys are constantly being added to the many that already exist. There has been a clear shift from the Easterlin Paradox of decades ago which denied the link between individual happiness and prosperity. Today, the latter is not so easily discounted, although one explanation could be the extent to which society has become more conditioned to assume that link through advertising and more intensive consumerism. But the question remains whether national prosperity guarantees life satisfaction and poverty guarantees national misery. Or simply, does money buy happiness? And are national policies too skewed towards reliance on prosperity?
This year’s United Nations World Happiness report confirms that despite some correlation, there is no absolute link between prosperity and happiness. While socialist Nordic countries, with Denmark at the top, still feature strongly, others, such a Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, rank well above much wealthier countries. South Africa ranks 116th. On the strength of the report, the World Economic forum noted: “In the European study, well-being was seen to consist of three distinct elements: 1) life satisfaction, 2) the presence of positive feelings and absence of negative feelings, and 3) “eudaimonics”, the sense that one’s life has meaning.”
These studies will remain less convincing until one can determine a broad common denominator for contentment at an individual level. One comprehensive 78 years-long study by Harvard (see video here) came to a simple yet profound conclusion that good relationships keep us healthier and happier. As Research Director, Robert Waldinger put it: “People who are socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, physically healthier and live longer.” This cuts right across status, wealth, and living circumstances.
Clearly we would do far better in lifting national contentment by focusing on fostering good relationships, rather than by an exclusive obsession with material well-being. That’s not to deny the latter’s importance, particularly where there is great inequality, but an absence of the former will not only render these efforts useless, but indeed could even make them more divisive and counterproductive. In the economic arena specifically, we have tragically come to view that construct as a functional one, and not a social one. On top of that, transaction itself, the most common form of interaction between members of society, is seen primarily as a means of extraction rather than contribution.
If sound relationships have to extend from the personal to the communal and social, then that understanding has to change. It is one mainly of perception, and not a huge leap to reverse. In the nature of things dating back centuries, supply exists because it serves demand, and transaction gives expression to the cliché that business is nothing more than people serving people – through our employment, tasks, work and companies.
In that understanding it adds an essential ingredient that underpins personal happiness – a sense of meaning.