“They are so poor, but they are so happy!” I hear it from returning short-term mission trippers as they report on their experience serving in poverty-stricken villages scattered about the underdeveloped world. They expected to find sad-faced people, severely deprived, toiling to barely survive. Why do these destitute people seem so joyous? Singing, clapping, smiling, dancing.
It must be that happiness is not dependent upon one’s standard of living, right? Or another way of interpreting it, possessions do not make people happy. That’s an important message for our materialistic teenagers to absorb. Adults too. That’s one of the reasons why the western church spends millions sending its members on mission trips.
The message is a good one. Indeed, amassing material things is not what produces happiness. But there is another issue here—one that is often overlooked. Just because poor people appear to be overjoyed when we have dug them a well or built them a church or handed out suitcases full of western clothes, it does not mean that they are living fulfilled lives. Momentary jubilation, though genuine, does little to relieve the persistent stress of survival.
When the celebration is over and the benevolent volunteers have departed, locals are left with the realities of insufficient food supplies, meager incomes, poor medical treatment and the other scarcities common to a life of poverty. Babies die young, children drop out of government schools to hustle goods on the street, men abandon their families in search of work in the big city. Poverty is no blissful state.
When visions for a brighter future are perpetually suppressed by the struggle to survive, hope eventually burns low. And low hope has a profound impact on human behavior. In an economic simulation game I once conducted with a group of affluent Junior League women in Atlanta, this point became strikingly obvious. Each of the women was randomly given a differing amount of assorted trading currencies and told to make deals with others to increase personal wealth. They were not told, however, that the trading rules were rigged.
As the bargaining began, some of the group easily accumulated a disproportionate amount of wealth, while others struggled to maintain the money they had. A third of the group lost most of their assets through no fault of their own. Like I said, the game was secretly rigged. As the exercise progressed and the distribution of wealth became increasingly stratified, the behaviors of each group began to noticeably change. The wealthy group isolated themselves from the less resourced members, conducting “business” primarily among their own wealthy group.
The “middle-class” group grew frustrated by their inability to move up economically but remained actively engaged in the trading process. The “poor” group eventually resigned themselves to their lower status, gave up trying to trade, and began losing interest in the game. During a scheduled break, the “poor” group left en-masse, went into the restroom, and re-emerged laughing and chanting with towel paper “feathers” taped to their foreheads. If they could not be winners in the game, they could at least create their own countercultural fun. These class behaviors that evolved spontaneously in the course of a two hour exercise, among affluent peers no less, proved strikingly similar to those lived out among the classes of the larger society.
My point is this. Just because the poor may be singing, clapping, smiling and dancing, it does not necessarily mean they are experiencing a fulfilled life. It may mean they have resigned themselves to a low-hope existence.
“So can the poor be really happy living in poverty, or are they destined to simply resign to the inevitable?” I asked Geralyn Sheehan, our community developer who has lived and served for the past decade among the poor in Nicaragua (the poorest of Central American countries).