Tim Urban spent 10 days in Nigeria and writes about what he observed. Despite all the chaos and poverty and corruption and hardship, Nigerians are, according to the World Values Survey, the happiest people on the planet.
First, I checked whether World Values Survey is legit—it is. Then, I started reading about why this would be the case, and supplementing that with my own attempt to figure it out when I was there. Here are two explanations:
1) Nigerians are super religious. Islam has played a large role in northern Nigerian life for centuries. Nigerian Christians were typically moderate Catholics for the most part up until the 1970s, but when the 80s and 90s were run by harsh military dictatorships and life was pretty dire, Christian missionaries had great success igniting a full-fledged Evangelical movement throughout the country, which is a huge part of the culture today. Religiousness seems like a necessary ingredient of a badly-suffering-but-also-super-happy country.
2) Nigerians have an unusual level of optimism. This isn’t just an observation. Consecutive Gallup polls in 2010 and 2011 found Nigeria to be the world’s most optimistic nation. Optimism has long beenlinked to happiness in psychology, and Nigerians tend to believe that though things may be bad, they’re looking up. My experiences corroborated this—everyone I got to know in Femi’s family had big ambitions and an excitement about the future.
Nigerians being epically happy is yet another piece of proof that happiness is completely about your mindset and not at all about the external world around you.
Read the whole thing — it’s pretty interesting all around.
This made me wonder about Louisiana, and its recent ranking as the happiest state in the USA, despite ranking near the bottom of many measures (economic, educational, etc.). We are religious, but it’s hard to describe us as “super-religious.” True, Louisiana has one of the highest churchgoing rates in the nation, which I guess would make us “super-religious” by American standards. But that piety is not in-your-face, at least not in south Louisiana, where I live. My sense is that it is more like the sort of thing that is simply assumed by the local culture. That is, people live in a world overseen by God, whether or not they are markedly pious in their public expression of it. That could easily be described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I suppose, but for our purposes, it could be described as an underlying faith that Life Has Ultimate Meaning. As for the optimistic thing, you don’t get the impression that south Louisiana is Disneyworld, but there’s a basic level of hope here that is discernible.
Maybe the answer is in this piece I wrote in 2013 for the Dallas Morning News about how my late sister Ruthie responded to her cancer. In the piece, I wrote about how she beat the odds dramatically in terms of the length of her survival with lung cancer, and how there is evidence to suggest that Ruthie, by being herself, met her cancer with exactly the kind of mindset medical science prescribes. Excerpt:
Over the past two decades, medical science has shown that the mind-body connection can have a profound effect on the healing process, chiefly through the brain’s action on the immune system. Generally speaking, stress weakens the body’s ability to fight disease. Ruthie based her own cancer fight on instinct and conviction, not medical advice. Yet after her death, I was astonished to learn from reading the scientific literature that from a mind-body viewpoint, Ruthie had been the ideal patient in at least four ways:
She prayed and had active faith. Ruthie’s Christianity was uncomplicated but deep. She prayed often during her illness, especially during long, sleepless nights, and read her Bible. It kept her calm and confident.
“If you’re a devout believer, you should pray. If you’re not a believer in a particular religion, you can meditate,” says Sternberg. “If you can get your brain into that relaxation state, there are a lot of brain chemicals and hormones that change the body’s immune response in a positive way.”
She retreated into nature. Ruthie grew up fishing on our father’s pond and regarded it all her life as a place to get away from daily stress. After her diagnosis, she went to the pond as often as she was physically able. In Sternberg’s 2010 book Healing
Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, she explores how modern science has begun to vindicate the ancient Greek belief that resting in a place of natural beauty can help our bodies resist disease and rebuild after sickness.
She had a strong social support network. Ruthie and her husband, Mike, her partner of more than 20 years, were intensely close. Oncologist Miletello says Mike was an unusually supportive spouse. “It almost makes you envious,” he says. “Not many people get that kind of relationship.”
What’s more, hundreds of people in Ruthie’s small town, St. Francisville, rallied to her family’s aid during the crisis. Ruthie had spent her entire life in this town, half of it teaching the town’s children in public school. The social bonds Ruthie built over the years helped hold her and her family together through cancer.
Scientists have documented that patients embedded in a strong network of emotional support thrive much better than others. Sternberg observes: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village to take care of a sick person.”
She found meaning in adversity. Ruthie believed firmly that God had a plan for her life. She looked for opportunities to be grateful, despite her suffering, and to help others. “Just think of all the wonderful people I’ve met because I have cancer,” Ruthie once told me. The nurses in Baton Rouge General’s chemotherapy unit often watched Ruthie, rail-thin and pitifully weak, comforting other chemo patients with a smile and a laugh.
Studies show that people who have a positive outlook, behave altruistically and have confidence that there is ultimate meaning in their experience prove more resilient than those who don’t. University of Texas at Austin psychologist James Pennebaker, for example, has found that people who write about a traumatic experience with the goal of finding meaning in their suffering stayed healthier than those in control groups.
“People shouldn’t feel bad if they can’t find meaning on their own,” Sternberg cautions. “It’s important to seek help from experienced professionals.”
And yet, despite all the strong medicine and all the strong faith, Ruthie died. How Ruthie died, though, was so life-affirming that I understand what Sternberg means when she says, “You can actually die healed.”
It seems logical to me to conclude that you can also live with much more resilience if you meet life in this way. Maybe that’s the secret to the happiness of the Nigerians, and of Louisianians: thick social networks, an active spiritual life, a hopeful mindset that finds meaning in adversity, and a love of nature.
What do you think?
[H/T: The Browser, to which I can’t subscribe for some reason; why u no take my credit card, oyinbo?]