18 August 2014

how to lose 90% of your income and be happy.

Last fall, as part of our orientation program, we watched a documentary called "I AM" by Tom Shadyac about the world's growing addiction to materialism. The key moment comes when Tom moves into a much larger house, the movers leave, and he realizes something profound...he is no happier. Despite being in a beautifully large home, his measure of happiness had not changed one bit. So he made a film about it.

Recently, I had a similar revelation during a conversation with Ashley. We both left behind good jobs in the United States, moved to Tanzania in East Africa, and watched our household income decline by 90%. Yet, despite the precipitous drop off in our income, we are no less happy. But if we are earning way less money, shouldn't life be far less enjoyable?


Okay, an important caveat. Overall cost of living in Tanzania is much lower** than the United States and, despite our significant reduction in household income, by Tanzanian standards we are no means the poorest of the poor (though we do live next door to them).

But that doesn't mean it's business as usual. We have to be far more conscious of our spending than ever before, and seek the low-cost route even when it is far less convenient. Enjoying a soda has become a special treat, and an ice-cold beer a rare luxury. Ashley recently wrote about the highlights of our trip to Dar es Salaam. Awesome as it was, there were several things we just could not do (or eat) because they were cost prohibitive.

But it didn't matter. We had an amazing time. And the same is true for our life here in Mwanza. Our life is much simpler than ever before, yet our measure of happiness is just as full.

I am reminded of the parable of the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew. In it, Jesus tells his disciples, "It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." Personally I have never liked that line…maybe because deep down I knew he was talking to me. But now I think I am beginning to make a bit more sense of it.

Living in Tanzania has exposed me to the generous hospitality bestowed by Tanzanians on their guests. But it also shed light on just how unwilling I am to bestow that same kind of spontaneous hospitality - the kind that does not count the cost, or place conditions, or weigh alternative scenarios. What's going on here?

Suspicion, mistrust and fear of losing privacy have been ingrained in me, perhaps in large part due to my American culture. If we welcome the stranger into our home, they will see our possessions and plot to steal them, right? Or bother us incessantly for money? In other words, I am instantly suspicious of the motivations of others. I do not trust them, and I fear the consequences for having let down my guard to personal privacy.

The poor, on the other hand, seem to have far less hesitation to welcoming the guest. After all, they have little to lose. Or is it the other way around? If one item is stolen or if mere coins disappeared from the home of the poor, they might very well lose everything. Rather, it is I who have little to lose, because most material goods, should they disappear, could be replaced immediately.

On top of all of that, my culture has taught me to plan ahead, and plenty of good comes from that. But it also, I think, causes me to be overly protective of what is mine. "If I use money for this, then I cannot use it for that. If I spend too much now, I won't have enough later." The idea of planning ahead is decidedly absent from Tanzanian culture. And I think that causes some problems, but one benefit, I believe, is manifested in the use of personal resources: you take care of those in front of you in the very moment without over thinking the personal consequences, because that money is not mine, but ours to be shared.

So, to wrap this up, I have to come to find that my disposable income and personal happiness are not so linked. They neither positively nor negatively correlate. They aren't even on the same graph. And, the very nature of having less is liberating, freeing me up to be less concerned with protecting my stuff and instead focused on the human life around me.

**Of course there are a few noteworthy, glaring exceptions. For example, a container of ice cream is about $20.

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