Engrained in the American dream is the all-American pursuit of happiness. It drives us; we have been taught toil our lives away in pursuit of this ever-alluding sensation. We seek it in recreation, relaxation and self-expression. Some seek it in money, in substance, in people.
Once in my life, I witnessed true happiness. I could feel it, but it wasn’t as much a feeling as it was the radiation of warm contentment from a satisfied soul. Happiness rested in eyes thatbore the weight of a thousand stories never told, a thousand horrors undeserved. We met two years ago in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, where one summer reversed a life’s worth of blindness to a world outside my own.
I can’t ever forget the war-drawn faces of children who should still have been called innocent. Their eyes had seen East Timor, Indonesia ravaged and burned, parents and family members killed, and those eyes were some of the sole survivors. These had lived lives in physical poverty to the point that one meal was a joyous occasion. Seventy five children surviving without biological families, now rejoiced over the family they had found in each other and over the soccer ball we made out of used painters tape. These eyes knew true joy and they found it in the smallest of things.
I won’t claim to understand why their suffering bred contentment, but I invite you to consider one possibility: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a model of human needs and motivation. One must achieve a “chronic” state of each level before they can attain the next. Based on his model, life begins at the bottom of the pyramid, and peak experiences only unfold when all of our basic physical and psychological needs are met regularly.
Is it possible that when at the lowest level of the pyramid, a person has the most to anticipate from their future? Could it be that by scaling down our excess and striving to live a minimallife, that anything beyond the basics would be a joy? What if a cup of cold water on a hot day is a reason to smile?
All I can tell you is that the seventy five pairs of eyes that had seen the deepest suffering I can imagine also experienced the greatest, most tangible joy I have ever felt. Their knowingeyes taught me the secret to happiness: contentment—to have nothing but the clothes on your back, food in your stomach, and breath in your lungs. Contentment to be.