In a recent story in the Guardian – Nigeria: The happiest place on earth – reporter Bim Adewunmi examines what makes Nigerians some of the happiest, most optimistic people in the world (according to a recent global survey). In a huge country plagued by corruption and sectarian violence, on the world’s poorest continent, what reason is there for such steadfast optimism and contentedness?
Adewunmi, a dual citizen of both Britain and Nigeria, thinks that happiness has everything to do with surviving adversity: “I had a comfortable life, and could avoid the abject poverty, crime, social inequality and the legacy of political instability. It seems natural to conclude that all these factors would put a damper on Nigerian cheerfulness. Instead, the optimism is an almost tangible thing, the joie de vivre obvious. Daily life is hardly one glorious Technicolor dance sequence, but I have never lived in such a happy place – and I once lived in hippyville California. I can’t give a definite answer, but I think the joy comes from seeing and living through the worst that life can offer; it is an optimism born of hope…There’s a spirit of entrepreneurship – people seem bewildered if you admit a lack of ambition. Nigerians want to go places and believe – rightly or wrongly – that they can. That drive and ambition fuels their optimism; they’re working towards happiness, so they’re happy.”
In other words, sometimes having a taste of adversity – or simply proximity to it – can make you more appreciative of what you do have and fill you with a sense that better things are yet to come. It’s a matter of perspective. On days when I’m enraged by something mundane – like having to wait too long for a streetcar when I’m already late for an appointment – I try to take deep breaths and think about how lucky I am that the worst part of my day is a delayed streetcar. And then I think about how grateful I might be for this simple inconvenience if my life was struck by real tragedy. Sometimes having been unlucky can make you feel like the luckiest – and happiest – person in the world when things are actually going your way.