05/01/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Defining Happiness

This article in the Atlantic titled "Maslow 2.0 A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness" reminded me of a long ago viewed TED talks from Chip Conley, posted below. At the time of my first watching Conley's talk, I was working in an environment in which most of the staff constantly lamented being "really unhappy." The disgruntled nature of our work environment seeped into the personal lives for all of us, and led me to dive into trying to understand the idea of happiness (which also led me to try to better understand this thing called love). How, I wondered, could we be so unhappy when we had so much?

What I came to believe was that Togo, as a country, was not happy. (Don't send hate mail, those who love Togo! Read on...) Togo is led by a governing body who shows little interest in meeting the needs of the people and so the conditions for happiness are in no way being created. Despite a playful air, when asked if they were happy, many of the Togolese with whom I interacted would say something that amounted to this: How can we as a people be happy when our government behaves as it does?

This is the very idea that made the government of Bhutan decide to measure Gross National Happiness. Gross National Happiness, it is argued, will lead to a more productive, thriving nation, thus higher GNP, and is therefore worth striving to attain. But what is happiness? And how is it that the people of Bhutan, who have so little, seem to be some of the happiest people in the world?

In Chip Conley's talk he introduces an emotional equation based on Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel's idea that Happiness is not about having what you want, but wanting what you have. The equation is based on observances of the Bhutanese lifestyle: Happiness=having what you want (gratitude) /wanting what you have (gratification). Simple. And yet a concept so very difficult for many of us from the western world to grasp. At least, it was a concept difficult for me to grasp until I lived and worked on a refugee camp in West Africa.

Living in squalid conditions after having survived atrocities that made me feel like crawling under covers and giving in just for having heard the recount, I was amazed by the resilience of the Liberian people who inhabited the camp. Laughter, joy and love could still be found. People with nothing were still eager to share what they had with me, the girl who came from a world where I had all of my basic needs met 1,000 times over. So amazed was I by the spirit of the people who surrounded me, that I started to record their stories so that I might be able to hold onto (and share) their spirit when I traveled back to my life of abundance.

In one of my interviews with an endearing elder, I commented that he still had an amazing sparkle in his eye despite all that he had been through, and how little he possessed. After a weighted pause, he said that he knew he had two choices: curl up and let the outcome of his life steal his spirit, or be happy that he was alive, and had as much as he did. Happiness, he said, was the more joyful choice. His attitude was not rare; it was what permeated in the camp.

Don't get me wrong, people were disgruntled and had every reason in the world to be miserable. For the most part, though, the choice was made not to give in to unhappiness. Amidst the sorrow and sickness, lack and anxiety, the happy essence of these proud people still held root. Laughter was still heard,voices still raised in song, and love still found and celebrated.

I draw on the memory of the Liberian happiness on a regular basis, and know that while I set out to the camp to have a positive impact, the reality is that a positive impact was made on me: I learned what it means to be happy with what you have, rather than always thinking that happiness was somewhere in the distance.

I am finding a similar spirit in the people of Bali. The Balinese, despite having significantly less than we in the western world have, seem to be happy to the core. The smiles, laughter, and gratitude of these warm, lovely people has yet again reminded me to take a step back and evaluate my own definition of happiness. More to the point, I am forced to examine my values and what I claim to need in order to feel deeply happy. I am also taking a look at the part I can play in contributing to another's well being so that the conditions for happiness might be in place for those who surround me.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to ponder these questions, and to find some answers in what seems like unlikely places. When I set out from the western world into the developing world, I never imagined that it was I who would be learning so much from the people I was led to believe had so much to learn. Like Conley, I find myself learning some of the most valuable life lessons from the least likely teachers. Take a look at Conley's talk and see what lingers with you.

Yours in Love and Happiness,