Why is it that some people who seem to have everything don’t have happiness?
And why do those who seem to have nothing often have a broad, irrepressible smile?
Some time back, I was in the weekly market at Zaachila, a small town in Oaxaca, México.
Every Thursday, Zapotec villagers travel from nearby hills and valleys to sell their produce. One of these villagers was Juanito. Juanito wore baggy white cotton pants and shirt, leather sandals and a loosely woven straw hat.
He was close to 80 years old. His skin had a burnished glow to it, with deep furrows from years in the unrelenting sunshine. As he squatted in the markets, it was difficult to tell where Juanito’s feet ended and the earth began. He seemed to grow out of the dust, a living tree.
In front of him on a small mat were two bags of dried beans. I hadn’t seen beans like that anywhere else in México. They were grey and about the size of broad beans. Like many others in the area, Juanito didn’t speak Spanish, but only Zapotec. We had to converse through a woman sitting beside him who spoke both Spanish and Zapotec.
I asked what the beans were called. He said ‘frijolones’. Big beans. I bought a bag of his big beans for 10 pesos (about 70 cents at the time). He had brought 3 bags to the market and sold one before me. He had now sold 2 of the 3 bags he’d brought down from his village.
As we chatted through our interpreter, I was struck by the happiness and contentment that radiated from Juanito’s diminutive weathered body.
The next day I was talking with a professor of Zapotec culture. I told him about Juanito and asked him how he lived for a week on the 30 pesos he earnt at the market.
The answer was collaborative farming. If Juanito grew beans, he’d swap some with another villager who grew squash or tomatoes or corn. In this way, every villager put food on the table.
Juanito’s smile reminded me of something I had observed elsewhere. People in small villages, whether southern Italy or northern Thailand, with few material possessions, but in possession of happiness.
I started thinking about this. If Juanito craved the lifestyle we live in developed cities, he’d have good reason to be sad. But he wasn’t. He was clearly at peace.
With time, I began to understand.
Juanito has chosen to be happy.
One of the most common regrets of the dying is that they didn’t give themselves the chance to be happier.
Happiness eludes many of us because we have become trapped in our lifestyles. We fear change. We pretend to be content. We are burdened by habits and expectations. We have bought someone else’s idea of success.
What we really want is to be young again. To laugh as freely as we did as kids. To be content with what we have. To be happy.
Happiness is always close. A shadow that follows us, but can’t be seen until we step into the sunlight.
Happiness is a choice we make when we adjust our values.
We have one life. We have the power to choose how we live it.
Photo by Coley Christine