Saturday, January 22, 2011

my poverty prejudice

I've debated posting this as my own thoughts aren't fully formed yet.  However, it is coloring my experience and the journey so it's only fair to post.

As we drove from Golfito to Pavones, we saw some of areas of absolute extreme poverty.  While that wasn't unexpected, I kept thinking "How could these possibly be the happiest people in the world?"  

My husband saw a guy sitting in a ditch for no apparent reason and made a passing comment.  My retort was "Well, apparently he's happier than we are."  It's really hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that someone living with so little could be happier than those of us who have so much. 

I think we're brought up to believe that if only poor people were more industrious, more ambitious, more willing to put in some hard work, their wealth would increase and, thus, they would be happier.  Right? The current cover article in the Atlantic reinforces the fact that those of first and second generation wealth tend to feel that they have earned it purely by hard work, effort and intelligence. 

I'm not suggesting that the Happy Planet Index is the only measure of contentment.  But Costa Rica measures really well on a range of indexes related to perceptions of happiness as noted in this New York Times column

More interesting to me than the happiness of the Ticos was my own reaction to it relative to their lack of wealth.  I think we perceive poverty to be an individual failure that could be corrected if the individual would only buck up and get with the program. But I do know better. 

Programs like Grameen Bank have illustrated that, if you're willing to see people instead of poverty, there are ways to turn the paradigm upside down.  At the point we consider wealth and fortune to be solely driven by individual effort, rather than first based in the sheer luck of birth and opportunity of circumstance, we give ourselves permission to dismiss those who do not share in that same luck and opportunity.  We also then may tend to equate happiness with that material wealth and fortune - something that this population appears not to do.

Even knowing all this, it took the convergence of a happiness ranking, a drive through a poor country and a guy sitting in a ditch to make me really think about my own poverty prejudice. 

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