Most Saturday mornings, I wake up very early so that I can get ready for a personal growth workshop for homeless women I co-lead. It is held in a Presbyterian Church women’s shelter in mid-town Atlanta, a beautiful and stately building with an elegant foyer and brass plaques on the wall honoring its many influential and generous donors.
The shelter is on the fourth floor. I take an elevator up from the ground floor lobby and through the red doors. The women who stay there overnight are required to enter and leave by the back elevator so they do not “disturb” other people.
So, in this case, the “downstairs” is upstairs, with its rows of small rooms with two or three women, its common bathroom, its common kitchen, where groups of parishioners and other sincere well wishers and less sincere do-gooders bring in and warm nightly meals. The casseroles, the hot dogs, the boxes of store bought chicken.
It is here we gather for our ritual breakfast each week: sometimes from-scratch quiches and fresh fruit salads, sometimes sausage biscuits and tater tots in cardboard containers. But whatever is offered, we say a grace and sit at the table together.
Except those women whose mental illnesses or past experiences make it literally impossible for them to be that near anyone. Who sit at the edges of the room and eat their own microwave macaroni or food horded from the previous evening. Who won’t or can’t be looked at directly or be touched in any way.
While we eat and drink our coffee, we talk about small things. What our weeks have been like, mostly.
This is a peer support group, so my co-facilitator and I weigh in as well. How her baby can be left for a while with her two older children. How she found sixteen dollars in a shirt she had not been able to fit in since before she was pregnant.
I talk about how my son has finally quit wrestling. What movie my husband and I had seen on our Friday afternoon bargain matinee date.
Most of the time, the other women do not share as much detail in their daily lives. Some of them work at the nearby Kroger’s store, or other low-end retail jobs. Others look for work. Others haven’t worked for more than a decade: their various physical and mental illnesses prevent them from most work and they have had no access to the medications and other treatments that might have stabilized them and given them a semblance of a more regular life.
So, some of them who sit around or on the edges of what we call our community spend their days with the other homeless men and women who congregate around the downtown parks, or in doorways, or seek shelter in libraries and the underground mall.
I don’t probe them about what goes on for them there, but I ran into one of the women last summer by a large dried up fountain, sweat pouring down her aging face.
But still happy, she told me cheerfully, blissed out, as she often announces, on Jesus and her good God.
And, you know, it seems to work for her.
Last week, though, after the opening grace and usual chatter, one of the women, let’s call her Juanita, who had been looking stormy, burst out in a rage.
The student chaplain there, a middle-aged African-American woman, had chastised her for refusing to participate in one of the exercises we had done, and for declaring that she had not benefited at all from the weeks of meetings.
I’ve done this and done this, she said, and still no job, no money, and no house.
The chaplain retorted that she had faced some of the same things as Juanita and, while she didn’t yet have a real job, she had a car to drive and a place of her own to live. You have everything within you to get what I have.
You just need to apply yourself, to work at it.
Juanita’s rage only increased.
I sit around here and listen to you people bragging on your children — looking straight at me — and your trips — looking at a church volunteer who had talked about a science convention — and you tell me we are all the same.
I am a woman, a black woman in Atlanta, in America, and I don’t have nothing. No trips, no car, no home.
You know what would make me happy? She asked rhetorically.
Money. If I had money and things like you do. That’s all that makes me different.
Oh, I could have used the simplicity speech, the voluntary simplicity speech about how my husband and I had found that in most cases the less we fed into the consumer culture the better.
But I have come to know that this is not what she needs to hear, and a lie to boot. Sure, I go to thrift stores a lot of the time, and sure Richard lets it be known that he will drive his battered Hyundai until they take his license away.
But it is also true that I can also walk into a Chico’s store and out with a bright new jacket, and my spouse has a huge CD collection and we can go to any movie or any play we choose.
And that while we haven’t been doing big Christmases lately — in fact, have stopped buying trees, filling stockings, or worrying about how small the pile of comics wrapped gifts we exchange, this is a choice we have made.
Happiness for Juanita is not a warm puppy, or a warm gun. Happiness for her is not walking through the dewy summer grass barefoot, or the fresh scent of a soft spring rain. She might be picked up for stepping on a public or private lawn, and rain just leaves her wet and miserable because she can’t towel off or change clothes if she gets drenched.
Happiness for her is not giving unselfishly of herself or seeking the betterment of others. She says that all she is ever asked to do is to give, to give herself over to the power of others.
For her, the way out from powerlessness, from subjection, and the way in to happiness, is money and stuff. The stuff she sees as she presses her nose against the over-stuffed windows of what we now generically call the holidays. The money and stuff that is available to others and not to her.
Some of the stuff she might be given by the well wishers and do-gooders in a Christmas charity box. But the stuff she cannot buy herself, or the family she has not seen in many years.
From what she knows, from what she sees, money does buy happiness.
And if she had it — money — she would never be unhappy, angry, frustrated, or unfulfilled anymore.
In this country, in this culture, at this time.
Why do I say this?
Because there are people, lots of people, who study not only what makes people happy, but why.
The folks who bring us the World Data Base of Happiness tell us that happiness is a highly valued matter. When people are asked what they value most, happiness is right up there.
Most people, they say, agree that it is better to enjoy life than to suffer, and endorse public policies that aim at creating greater happiness for a greater number of people.
Efforts to understand human happiness has absorbed a lot of time, killed a lot of trees. Earlier in Greek philosophy and other, later philosophical schools. In many social indicators and related research.
While it is hard to pin down the definition of, and ways of being, happy philosophically, new methods of empirical research — testing theories of happiness and identifying conditions for happiness inductively — have flourished. In the last decade, we are told, there have been some 3,000 of these studies, which began in relationship to the investigations of aging and health, and now is a main subject on its own.
Which has led to the release of a comparative study of countries on the indicator of happiness. Which country has the happiest and unhappiest people?
Some of the findings by sociologists and economists may surprise you. I know it surprised me.
One economic study asserted that the number of persons who call themselves happy or unhappy over time is not correlated to rise in Gross National Product, or GDP, and, therefore, is not correlated to rises in incomes.
Countries’ happiness is not correlated to income once income is over $15,000 per person.
But within, country incomes are positively correlated to happiness. Therefore, it is higher status that makes the higher income earners happier and not their level of income.
Lower status makes people sad (even if they have historically high incomes). And in lots of countries, especially Western countries, it is not the length of holidays or accomplishments in jobs that provide status. It is the amount of pay.
You make more, you have more, and you have more standing.
But it is relative, relative to what people see around them. How much money is desirable, enviable? By whose standards?
Because if it is all about money and status, than the results of the most recent World Values survey results are completely nonsensical.
In fact, it is hard to correlate these findings on happiness with any of the usual ways we rank quality of life.
An article in last month’s issue of New Scientist Magazine in Britain revealed that neither civil strife nor skyrocketing fuel prices can keep Nigerians from being happy. Nor, it seems, can freedom and the promise of Dracula-themed amusement parks make Romanians happy.
Nigerians, you see, ranked at the top and Romanians at the bottom in a happiness study conducted in more than 65 countries.
In a study over a two-year period, Nigeria had the highest percentage of people declaring that they were very happy, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, and El Salvador.
At the other end, Russia, Armenia, and Romania had the lowest percentages.
Nigeria, our happiest country, has a gross national income per capita of less than $500 US dollars per year and an average life expectancy of 52. There is a high rate of illiteracy; large numbers of AIDS cases and other health indicators are very poor.
Just looking at the money issue, according to this index, the ability to purchase and desire for material goods is a “happiness suppressant.” Happiness levels have remained virtually the same in industrialized countries since the Second World War, although incomes have risen considerably.
The United States ranked only 16th in the happiness list, and Great Britain was 24th.
In our country, only about one-third of the people say they are very happy.
What makes for happiness then, on a country-by-country basis?
If not money and things, if not rain drops and sunny skies, then what do we know, if there is any real knowing at all?
Among the reasons for happiness, the researchers say, are a genetic propensity to happiness — a kind of wired optimism — marriage or partnership, friendship, faith, and acceptance of one’s life the way it is.
What is your definition of happiness?
How do you pursue it?
Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.
May it be so.