This Is What I’ve Learned About Real Happiness After Leaving Everything I’ve Ever Known

Tim Gouw

One month. One month is how long I’ve been away from everything I’ve ever known. One month ago, I was in downtown Philly, complaining about the cold and eating as much Philly cheesesteaks as I could get my hands on. One month ago, I left the comfort of my plush comforpedic bed, my family, my friends, my dog, my car, air-conditioning, drinkable tap water, SHOWERS, and CHEESE; I left all of that for a $120 a month, temperatures that hit 95F by 10am, bucket baths, and some government-sanctioned friends. And one month is how long it has taken me to realize that this was the best decision that I could have ever made.

One month is all it took for me to realize that ‘things’ aren’t what make the world go ’round (of course we all know it’s fat bottom girls, but for this post well try and be a little less crude). One month, surrounded by people not of the same nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or language, for me to realize the most valuable lessons that anyone can learn. Lessons that will stick with me forever, lessons that I try to live by each and every day: Be Kind and Live Within Your Means.

Be Kind

The Ghanaian culture is unlike anything I’ve ever been privy too. Not to say that Americans aren’t nice, but hey I come from New York, and let’s face it, if I were to go around and greet everyone I passed in the morning on the way to school or work, I would be seen as a madwoman. But here, in Ghana, you would be seen as a madwoman if you didn’t greet everyone you crossed paths with. Here in Ghana, you must greet the old, greet the young and especially everyone in between. It’s to show respect, acknowledgment, and most of all to show kindness and compassion.

Ghanaians genuinely want to know how you’re doing, where you’re going and where you’ve been. They are genuinely interested in your well-being. I’ve never been privy to this calibre of kindness. To say it’s been a shock and a little overwhelming at times would be an understatement.

All I could think for the first week or so was: ‘How annoying, why do they even care so much?’ And now four weeks in, I’m ashamed of my first week- self: I mean how trivial, how self-centred of me to think like that. As the weeks progressed, I found myself starting to like the fact that everyone cared. I liked being stopped on my way to class by school children wishing me a good morning, and waving to the little old lady at the bottom of the hill, I liked that I could see that people actually cared.

I could also feel myself becoming frustrated when others wouldn’t wave back or wish me a good afternoon. ‘What they’re not going to bid me a goodnight, how rude’, would flash in my mind. This fourth week of being in Ghana and having those types of thoughts, is when I started to realize the people of Ghana, their culture, their traditions, were teaching me a lesson without me even realizing it. All their actions pointed to one phrase: Be Kind.

I mean it’s not a crazy statement, everyone knows it, it’s basically the ‘golden rule’: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ So why is it so hard for many of us to grasp this concept? Why does it seem like now-a-days we are going out of our way to be cruel, instead of living a life of genuine joy. I mean don’t get me wrong, we all have bad days, days where we don’t care about how people are doing or where they are going, but why can’t we make those days the exception, instead of the rule?

Why does it seem like in this day and age, what many of us forget is that kindness is free and we should spread more of it. Is it because society has taught us that helping others can be a burden? Or maybe it’s because we believe that there is no reason to go out of our way for someone if there is nothing to be obtained in return.

Well excuse my French but that’s bullshit. Its bullshit that we live in a world where asking someone how their day was is seen as cumbersome, a burden not worth baring. Would it really kill you to take 2 minutes out of your day to stop and talk to those school kids, to wish the old lady down at the bottom of the hill a good morning?

Live Within Your Means

Language class takes up 6 hours of our 9-hour structure day, so to say that I tend to get a bit off track sometimes is an understatement (poor Ryan & my LCF Osman who have to put up with me, woops!). And of course, yesterday, just like every other day, my one-track mind was no exception.

In the middle of learning about adjectives, I just interjected without any pretext ‘Osman, do people in Ghana ever get depressed?’ and without any hesitation he responded out of confusion (not because I asked a question that had nothing to do with the lesson, but because of the nature of what I had asked): ‘No, why would they be? What could possibly make them depressed?’

This answer shocked me more than my inability to save my question until after class, or a more appropriate time. The answer sparked something inside of me, something that wanted to say back:

‘Well because I know people who have everything, the newest IPhone, the fanciest car, a 3-story house, a lake house, a beach house, I mean the list goes on and on and they’re miserable. But in Ghana people have less than even what my mom had while she was living on food stamps, and I mean that would make anyone depressed—wouldn’t it?’ To my surprise though, I refrained from answering his question at all and let him continue, and his answer was just another lesson for me to learn.

He went on to explain that happiness and money, at least in Ghana—but should really be for the rest of the world too—is inversely related. The poorest people in Ghana are the happiest, he exclaimed. They have each other. They don’t need much, just the bare essentials to be happy. They work hard for everything they have and this makes them as happy as they could ever imagine. Their strong and unwavering work ethic, community connections, and family bond is more than they could ever ask for.

The example he gave to explain this chain of simply living within their means was this: ‘If they want a car and can’t afford it, they’ll settle for a motorbike, if they can’t afford that they’ll buy a bicycle, and if that’s still too costly, they’ll just walk and to them it’s all the same. It’s all the same because what only truly matters is family and the bare essentials.’ It’s nothing to stress about and nothing to frantically borrow money for. They live within their means and to them this is all they need to live a full and happy life. 

It’s taken me a month to learn what I think I’ve known all along, but refused to put into words. What this last month, the Ghanaians, have showed me, not only in their actions but also with just a simple smile, is that doing something kind for someone else takes the same amount of effortless energy that doing nothing does.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is we all need to stop making excuses up of why we can’t offer our help. But most importantly, we need to start being kind to the ones that make us happy, the ones that make us mad, the ones who challenge us, to the ones who are mere strangers, and even to the ones which try and bring you down. Because at the end of the day that one act of kindness could make all the difference.

Living within your means and being kind—this is all the Ghanaians need. And to think how simple all this is and yet most of us still don’t do it. What if to fix most of your problems, your worries, your qualms—all you had to do was be kind and live within your means —would you do it? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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