Bursting the Happiness Bubble in Poor Countries

I was listening to a podcast recently and the host was talking about visiting Guatemala. He said he noticed how even though the kids he saw were extremely poor, they were happy. I thought, “How does he know that? Who is he to say if someone else is happy?”

Just because someone appears to be happy on the surface doesn’t mean they are. I’ve found that even if you think you know a person, there may be times where the person is unhappy but not vocalize it. For me personally, I’ve pretended to be happy around other people for different reasons. For example, there have been times when I didn’t want to burden others with my problems or I was embarrassed that my husband and I weren’t getting along so I pretended everything was fine.

I noticed when I was in Peru, some of the people from our group during our trek to Machu Picchu would comment how “happy” the people we encountered in the remote villages were. When we visited school children and gave them food we had previously bought for them and their families at a market on our first day of the trek, some people from our group noted smugly what a great thing it was that we were helping the children and their families. One person even later told others that he had “taught” the children English. We spent about an hour with these children. Any English that was spoken had undoubtedly already been taught to the children by their teacher, not some stranger that had spoken a few words to them.

“Happy” children in Peru

Afterwards, I thought about our encounter with these Peruvian people. Who were we to pat ourselves on the back and say what a great influence we were on these people? So what if they were given some trinkets picked up by Americans that they would likely never use? Yes, I’m sure they appreciated the food we had brought them but just bringing them a bag of food doesn’t mean we had performed some life-changing event for these children. Just because they would smile back at us doesn’t mean they were happy. Maybe they were happy and maybe they weren’t. My point is it wasn’t up to any of us to come to any conclusion about other people’s happiness, then nor ever.

You hear Americans, who are well-known to be some of the most superficial people in the world and who place a high value on having “things” proclaim that people living in third-world conditions often seem happy and they will inevitably tack on “despite being poor,” as if you can’t be happy and poor. They will go on a weeklong vacation to Mexico and return telling everyone they meet how happy Mexicans are despite being so poor. Do they honestly believe they know if a stranger is happy just from a brief encounter with them? And what business is it of theirs anyway? When did Americans make it their business to determine who is happy?

It seems that doesn’t stop with just Americans, however. There are also lists that rank the happiest people based on the country they live in; some are people’s opinions are others are more formal. An example of a more formal report is the World Happiness Report that the United Nations releases annually and is based largely on the Gallop World Poll. People are asked about GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, trust and corruption, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity.

Apparently those things determine how happy a person is. Here’s a link to the latest report: https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/. In case you’re curious, Finland has landed the top spot for the past four years in a row. The United States was 14th based on 2020 surveys. As you might imagine based on the GDP per capita criteria, wealthy countries make up the vast majority of the top spots on this list.

What is my point to all of this? There are a few. First, don’t assume you know how a person feels. If you really want to know how a person is feeling, you not only have to ask them, but that person has to trust you enough to answer with the truth, and you have to be willing to take the time to listen. Too many Americans greet another person with, “Hi! How are you?” only to get a curt response along the lines of, “Fine!” even if the person who answered by saying “Fine!” didn’t sleep well the previous night, has a headache, and their child is sick. If you get a nondescript response like that, you can either try to pursue it further, proceeding gently, especially if you aren’t acquainted with the person, or you can assume the person doesn’t want to give you the details and drop it.

We also shouldn’t place ourselves on a pedestal if we provide gifts, money, or assistance to another person or group. If you want to donate your time, money, or gifts, it should be simply from the kindness of your heart, with absolutely nothing expected in return. I’ve always admired people who have donated large amounts of money to a person or group anonymously, rather than having their names on a plaque or some other form of recognition. I know it’s not always up to you if you’re recognized by a group, but I admire those who manage to keep their donations completely anonymous and expect nothing in return, not even a thanks.

Finally, don’t assume someone else wants something from you. Just because someone doesn’t have as much money as you do (again an assumption, unless you have access to their bank statement) doesn’t mean they want anything from you. If you want to give something to someone else, ask them what they would like or figure it out in advance. I know that’s not always possible to do but if at all possible, try to do research online to determine what people in the area you will be traveling to are in need of before you go there.

Also, I don’t mean to imply that most people don’t have good intentions in cases like this. If someone gives someone else a gift usually they hope the other person likes it and will use it. People want others to be happy so by proclaiming that, they honestly hope they are indeed happy. I’m not saying it’s wrong to give someone else a gift, just try to put some thought behind it.

I don’t often get on my “soap box,” but I felt a need in this case. If I offended anyone, feel free to speak your opinion below. Does anyone else feel like I do? Have you encountered arrogant Americans who think they know what’s best for others when they’ve travelled to other countries?

Happy travels!


Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

11 thoughts on “Bursting the Happiness Bubble in Poor Countries”

  1. Great post.

    I visit Kursk, Russia three times. I stayed with a family and visited schools.

    They were happy… with very little. Teachers wore the same clothes each day. The girl I stayed with slept on a couch. And all they wanted to do is share things with us. It was tempting to give them things…. but their needs and our needs (we are sooo spoiled) are so different.

    It was a life changing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wow! I’ll bet that was quite the experience. You’re right, the needs of people in other countries are often things like food and water or electricity while our “needs” as Americans tend to be much more shallow.


  2. Not in the least offended, I think this is a great, thought provoking post.

    I’ve really only visited a very poor place once. It was on our honeymoon. It was a Caribbean cruise, with mostly normal stops & one in the Dominican Republic, which was very different back then than it is now.

    There were kids trying to sell us these ships made of shells.

    Attachments & materialism can cause a lot suffering — I am just as guilty as the next there. But so can gang violence, losing children due to starvation, war . . . the list goes on & on.

    I have never really wanted to visit India, for instance, because of the extreme poverty & crowds there. My brothers eldest married an Indian girl (he lived in India quite a few years, although they married here). She was their “tour guide” when they went to India & it was a very special trip for them all (they weren’t engaged yet).

    It’s so hard to wrestle with these things & make sense from them. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Judy. I debated about whether or not to post it, honestly, but I like the idea of posting the good along with the bad since life isn’t always wonderful and perfect.
      You bring up some great points. So many terrible things go on in other countries that can contribute to poverty. We as Americans are so spoiled we often don’t see that for ourselves even if we go to a place where it exists. For example, if someone takes a cruise to Mexico they’ll only see the “good” parts and are sheltered by their guides as far as what they see and do.
      I’m with you on going to India. I’ve heard it’s heart-wrenching to see just how extremely poor so many people are there. I have some friends and former co-workers from India and they’ve told me some horror stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Someone in our extended family gives very publicly, with lots of fanfare and I confess it drives me nuts. I can’t help but wonder if he’d ever be as generous if the giving were done anonymously.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna, thank you for this post. I never got to Peru, but the trip we were supposed to go on had a visit to a local family. My reaction was “Why? What could we possibly have to talk about?” I don’t say that because I don’t want to meet the locals, but because it seems so very artificial. As you point out.

    An interesting side effect of the pandemic is that I’ve bought fewer things lately, and to my surprise it hasn’t made me unhappy. So maybe there is something there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments. That’s a whole other conversation about buying fewer things, and another one that could be a bit controversial, depending on your point of view and who you’re buying the products from (if you’re buying handmade products made by locals vs. junk that’s exported from other countries, for example). In general, especially as Americans though, buying less is usually a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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