It’s always, always worth questioning assumptions.
They’re built into our society and embedded into the human psyche more than is healthy and taking the time to step back and ask ‘is that really true?’ is an essential step to take if we’re to move forward as a flourishing species.
A fascinating study looked at the levels of happiness amongst a group of people deemed by their surroundings, as well as ours, to work in a trade of disgust and low class. The members of this study live under persistent cultural stigma.
They are trash pickers. They live in extreme poverty, sometimes not having enough to meet the basic human needs.
The surprise? They aren’t unhappy. Quite the opposite. And the reason why is most definitely a wake up call.
The study took place Leon, Nicaragua. It’s one of the countries in Latin America with the lowest levels of development and Leon – the second most important city in Nicaragua – inhabits population where (at the time of this writing) over 50% of it’s members live below the national poverty line, with a considerable number of people living in extreme poverty.
Due to the depleted systems in the country and the consequent poverty prevalent throughout the city, many people have been forced to make a living as trash pickers. Amongst selecting and storing scrap pieces of card, plastic, metal and others, many workers would collect items for they own usage, such as items of clothing and functional objects, to be used for day-to-day activities.
In the study the researchers asked the participants which name they would like to be referred to as, to minimize any negative connotations. So for the remainder of this article, as noted in the study, the members of this occupation – the participants of the study – will be referred to as ‘collectors’.
99 collectors were asked, simply:
“Which of the following faces best represents your overall happiness?”
7 options were given to the participants to answer from:
1. Very unhappy
2. Quite unhappy
3. A little unhappy
4. Not happy or unhappy
5. A little happy
6. Quite happy
7. Very happy
The results are shown below:
Expectation of Future
In addition, participants were also asked what their expectations for their future was, in their perception. They were asked to reports what they believed their ‘outlook for the future’ would be, from one of three options: 1. Better than the present 2. The same as the present 3. Worse than the present The answers of this question were then correlated with the happiness of the collector. The results are shown below:
Participation in Activities
Another area of enquiry the study went into, amongst others, was how happiness was correlated with participation in activities. A wide variety of activities were put into question, namely:
1. Listen to radio
2. Take part in sport activities
5. Watch films at home
6. Do sport
7. Care for plants
8. Go shopping
9. Attend public events
10. Do manual jobs
11. Do practical jobs
12. Eat out or dine out
13. Go the the cinema
14. Go to the bars
15. Go to nightclubs or disco-bars
16. Play parlor games
17. Play board games
18. Paint, carve wood or make pottery
19. Drink alcohol in the street
20. Do theatre or dance
21. Play a musical instrument
22. Attend musical concerts or shows
23. Use the internet
24. Do other activities
The chart below gives a breakdown of what percentage of the sample group participated in which activities:
Fascinatingly, there were only 2 activities that produces a statistically significant correlation toe happiness; reading and sports.
A statically significant correlation means the the data is strong enough to rule out the possibility that the effect of something was due to chance alone.
What the Data Shows
Essentially, the data is showing 4 key findings:
1. Most of the collectors in Leon are happy.
Even amidst extremely harsh economic conditions and poor access to basic requirements, the members of the study generally say they are happy.
2. Income level does not have a significant impact on happiness.
As the author of the study concluded;
“ …the collectors seem to adapt well to their economic situation, to the extent that once they have covered their most basic substance needs (such as food), access to other consumer goods has no major effect on their happiness.
However, it should be noted that most of the collectors who do not even have enough resources to feed themselves properly (71.2%) report that they are happy.”
3. Sport activities and relationships are important factors in happiness.
There were many activities the respondents were observed participating in, but it was only the playing of sports where there were the combined beneficial effects of exercise – already well documented to enhance wellbeing – along with the benefit of interpersonal interaction.
The author remarks;
“Among the collectors, the negative effects that low income could exert on their overall happiness could be offset by the positive effect of the strong social relationships that they appear to hand.
…Since the sporting activities mainly performed by the collectors are team sports… those engaging in them add the positive effects on social relations of these activities to the positive effects of exercise on health and mood.”
4. Optimism plays a vital role in happiness
It would be easy to assume people who live in Leon and make their living collecting rubbish from the dumps of the city would not be optimistic about the future. However in this case this group generally feels positive about what’s coming next, which evidently plays a considerable amount in their experience of wellbeing;
“Among the respondents, who are heavily stigmatized and live in extreme poverty, the sense of overall happiness appears to lead to more optimistic cognitions, and better expectations for the future.
Their optimistic expectations for the future may in turn positively influence their feeling of overall happiness.”
5. Perceived health is strongly related to happiness
It has been previously found that biological markers of health, if good, are associated with happiness. However a stronger correlation has been found between perceived health and happiness.
We find in this study that those who perceive themselves to have good health are also happy, and may likely be linked to their participation in physical activities such as sport.
What We Can Learn from the Collectors of Leon
1. Don’t forget the simple pleasures of life.
As displayed above, we can see that the activities of reading and participation in sporting activities had a significant impact on the collector’s happiness.
These are two of the most basic and easily accessible activities we can engage in.
Sports enhances our physical and mental wellbeing as well as being a place for social interaction.
Reading is sport for the mind. It engages us, informs and entertains us and feels like a worthwhile activity. It contributes to our development as a human being, and is unfortunately a lost art in todays society.
Reading and sports are two activities we can begin today which will impact on our real and perceived wellbeing both immediately and enormously.
2. Stay positive
Wherever and whenever possible, practice optimism.
See the glass half full, look at the bright side, see the greener half.
We have the privilege of consciously choosing our perception of tomorrow. And yes, it will never come, but if we are to think about it, why not see it going well?
3. Always question assumptions.
This is one of many beautiful studies that have put our notions of happiness to the test.
The assumption that money = happiness.
The assumption that consumption of products = happiness
The assumption that we can not be happy under social scrutiny and stigma.
Even with data we must always be conscious, curious and challenging of our beliefs. In doing so we can move forward to greater and greater clarity and, in time, could help move us into a smarter, wiser world.
Header image via shutterstock/YanLev