4 Lessons on Happiness from Tanzania

What our friends on the other side of the world can teach us.

While living in east Africa, I frequently observed a sense of well-being in the Tanzanian’s around me that left me perplexed. I could only think of how unhappy resource rich American’s I knew were and felt unclear on how some in the most resource poor communities could be so happy. Overtime, the lessons they were teaching around happiness became clearer and proved that, as the rate of depression in the world is on the rise, we all have the opportunity to improve our mental health every step of the way.

Here are four ways I witnessed Tanzanian’s leading the way despite some of the most difficult circumstances I have ever lived in.

1) True wealth is simply in how rich you feel.

One day, I went hiking through a village and saw homes that my bias had led me to believe were where the poorest lived. I then saw my colleague walk out with her daughter. She was wearing a piece of fabric and for a moment I felt as if I had invaded her privacy. Her style was admired by everyone and I had assumed that she was wealthy. She saw me and waved me over. Afraid that she would be uncomfortable, I timidly walked over. She said “I’m so glad you came to my home!” I was shocked because I had believed she wouldn’t want me to know that she didn’t have water or electricity. She hugged me and after our conversation, said she would see me at work.

Later that day, she looked as though she had walked out of a magazine. I complimented her outfit and I could tell she sensed more. She said to me, “in our country, we all come from different places and my home isn’t what I dream of. That doesn’t mean I have to look disappointing too. I dress like a woman who knows she is rich because I am.” I thought often about this idea and began to notice that Tanzanian’s all around me had taken the time each day to show up fully in their lives, despite other circumstances beyond their reach.

2) “We have time, you have a watch”

I found “Swahili time” to be extremely frustrating in the beginning. I wanted to know when something was going to start and when it would end. There was certainty in time for me. One day, in frustration over feeling as if time meant nothing to my colleagues, I said to my Swahili teacher, “but this behavior is so rude. I have things to do and other places to go and I feel like no one cares about that at all.” He laughed and said, “we have time, you have a watch”.

The simplicity rang as truth. We spend our days running against a clock rather than realizing that we are each individually the source of our own time. I do not have to be anywhere but rather I am choosing to go or not. The pressure of time offers us amazing lessons and in Gay Hendricks book The Big Leap, readers are asked to consider where we are using time as an excuse to be a victim and not take ownership in our lives. Time is yours and when we begin to recognize this and fully live it, we begin to regain our lives and our mental health.

3) Not everything is “our will”

Western’s like to feel in charge as life feels less scary this way. The hospitals in Tanzania, where I spent hundreds of hours, taught me that we have the option to take action to improve a situation, but we have little, if any, control over the outcome. Many evenings were spent in tears and I was trying to understand why, until the one day when it all made sense. I had spent months with an abundance of eager students trying to manage lives and save someone. It was an uphill battle and I hadn’t yet realized my fight was actually with the powerless sense I felt.

After a day that left me completely drained, in the midst tears, I heard messages coming through my phone. I opened them to see that one student had sent me minute by minute documentation of everything we had done with this patient I was crying about and had also documented it in her chart. The light had come through. Documentation was a major issue that I had put on the back-burner because I felt the need to save these lives but in the end it was the answer. I realized that I had no control over the outcomes but there was always something greater going on around me. We have forgotten that if we don’t get the job or if we are vulnerable and tell someone how we feel that life goes on. But what if that was a no, because something better will be yes?

4) It really does take a village

In the developed world we tend to pride ourselves on independence. Letting people in, is viewed as a sign of weakness and asking for help has become uncomfortable. We have forgotten about the importance of community and the need for human connection. In Tanzania, everyone belongs to everyone. Community is the most important thing. Supporting and caring for one another is the top priority, no matter what. I had a minor meltdown and called a Tanzania friend for help one day. He responded by dropping everything he was doing and coming right to where I was.

After the crisis was averted, I remember feeling so much gratitude and saying I’m so glad you weren’t busy. He started laughing and said, “this is where you have forgotten that there is never anything more important than those we care about”. I later found out that he had left a meeting with the highest level nursing officer in the country because he prioritized his friend. After he returned, he was questioned about leaving abruptly. This minister felt the way he had shown such commitment to things that are important was evidence enough to believe he should lead the board. The truth is, a job or a date or an event will always be there if it is meant to be ours. But if we aren’t there for each other, at the end of the day, we have nothing.

We have the opportunity to learn from everyone we meet and these are just a few of the lessons the inspiring Tanzanian’s I know and love shared graciously.