THE BLOG

Well-Being in the World

02/05/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

On these dark and dreary February days the news has been hard to stomach. The brutality of videotaped ISIS executions has been gut-wrenching. In the Ukraine there's no end in sight for a desolate war. In the U.S. the ongoing distrust of medicine (the vaccination controversies), and climate science (human-instigated climate change is a hoax) is dispiriting, especially as we hear more and more dire predictions about our bleak environmental future. In the social arena, income inequality continues to increase.

It is increasingly clear that our social and political ignorance is pushing us closer and closer to despoiling our planet. Chances are that we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a hellish world of droughts, floods, super storms, epidemics and massive social dislocation.

What is this world coming to?

Despite the sweep of doom and gloom news, I sometimes wake up on cold and dark February mornings and think about well-being. The conventional approach to studies of well-being is one that seeks to measure factors that create the infrastructural context for a well lived life. United Nations Human Development Index researchers use a matrix of objective well-being measurements, like per-capita income and life expectancy, to rate the "livability" of nations. These ratings, however, appear to have limited applicability. In an Associated Press report of Dec. 19, 2012, Michael Weisserman wrote about an intriguing Gallup survey on happiness in the world.

The world's happiest people aren't in Qatar, the richest country by most measures. They aren't in Japan, the nation with the highest life expectancy. Canada, with its chart-topping percentage of college graduates, doesn't make the top 10.

A poll released Wednesday of nearly 150,000 people around the world says seven of the world's 10 countries with the most upbeat attitudes are in Latin America...

Many of the seven do poorly in traditional measures of well-being, like Guatemala, a country torn by decades of civil war followed by waves of gang-driven criminality that give it one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Guatemala sits just above Iraq on the United Nations' Human Development Index, a composite of life expectancy, education and per capita income. But it ranks seventh in positive emotions...

Prosperous nations can be deeply unhappy ones. And poverty-stricken ones are often awash in positivity, or at least a close approximation of it.

This finding suggests what anthropologists have long known: Human well-being emerges less from objective economic or sociological indicators than from the quality of our social relations -- the texture of social life.

I've learned most of what I know about well-being from people we'd least expect to experience it, the Songhay of the Republic of Niger, the poorest nation in the world. How can it be that people who usually earn less than one dollar a day and live in ramshackle mudbrick houses most of which lack electricity, running water and indoor plumbing, know something about well-being? How can people who must struggle everyday to feed their frail children look forward to a new day during which they will greet their friends and manage to laugh with their neighbors? Considering the monumental challenges they face, many Songhay people, I have come to realize, have become masters of practical wisdom.

Here's some of what I've learned from my Songhay friends in Niger.

1. Well-being is social. If your central mission in life is the establish and maintain good social relations in your family, neighborhood and community, you will experience the well-being of knowing that no matter the circumstance you are not alone in the world.

2. Well-being is fleeting. We are always seeking the pleasurable and complete feeling that is associated with well-being, but such moments are fleeting. Sweet moments of contentment should be savored and appreciated, but are over in a flash. Because those moments are so wonderful our quest for them never ends..

3. Well-being is limited. No one can live a perfect life. If you accept some of the limitations that life has presented, as, for example, living in rural Niger, you can live well within those limits and extract from them profound moments of well-being.

These ideas are more than quaint expressions of an esoteric scholarly exercise. They can be applied to our personal and social lives. They can certainly be applied to the politics of the public sphere which is in dire need of periodic infusions of well-being.

The anthropological record is filled with this kind of important knowledge. A small slice of practical wisdom from an isolated and impoverished corner of the world is no panacea for our social, environmental and political problems. Even so, this wisdom can bring to us those brief moments of sweetness that make life, no matter how challenged, worth living.