A recent article published in the Journal of Positive Psychology surveyed the life satisfaction of 99 garbage pickers in León, Nicaragua. Researcher Jose Juan Vazquez interviewed these difficult-to-access individuals and found that not only are they happy, there is no correlation whatsoever to their financial well-being.
This is one of those studies that take a moment to get your mind around.
Imagine you are an itinerant individual living in absolute penury in a third-world country. You survive by going through other people’s garbage and extracting your food for the day as well as other essentials like clothing and footwear. You live your life hand to mouth and what your hand finds are the things others have discarded. You recycle what you can for money, and this considerable effort earns you about $3 a day.
By downward social comparison, almost anyone seeing a person living in these conditions would assume the individuals engaged in this activity would resent their life circumstance and view their life as anything but happy.
But this study shows this is a false assumption.
Not only are these people not depressed, they are optimistic, have good relationships, and many of them play sports and read. The majority of them are happy with their lives.
Extreme poverty is considered to have a negative effect on happiness. In those instances, when poor people are happy, it is attributed either to their having very low future expectations or having adapted to their circumstances. But this study showed something different. Overall these rubbish collectors’ attitude is better about their future than their present. They believe their tomorrow will be better than today.
Research has shown that being a consumer of material goods does not in and of itself make us happy. What does increase our well-being and happiness is more leisure time and activities, support and connection with family, and being involved in good relationships. We are social creatures first and foremost. The desire to belong and identify with others is woven into our wiring as human beings. Everything from our health to our happiness improves when our social relations improve.
This is also true when we are involved in meaningful work — particularly work where we have an opportunity to develop our abilities, work toward objectives, have supervisory support, feel safe, and get status from the work we do. But these are hardly the conditions for rubbish collectors. Trash pickers are exposed to health problems, violence, and severe social stigmatization. This is despite the fact that the work they do provides a benefit to society. Recycling problems around the world are ubiquitous and trash pickers render a service that is both environmentally useful and economically practical. Still, this group is typically marginalized by society.
Yet the trash collectors of León are a resilient group and this study sheds some light on the relationship between income and happiness. Rather than any connection to income, the research found that the key to feeling happy is having a positive expectation for the future. Of those who rated themselves as happy, more than twice as many trash collectors could see brighter futures for themselves than their less optimistic counterparts. Additionally, men were happier than women, as were those who lived with fewer people.
But what about having enough food?
The pioneering work of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs proposed that we must have lower needs satisfied before having higher needs met. He argued we need to have our physiological needs met (things like food, water and sleep) before concerning ourselves with safety and security needs — and that these have to be satisfied before we move toward our need to be loved, esteemed, and eventually self-actualized.
The current research shows that having enough food is, indeed, a significant factor in whether an individual ranks himself as happy. Almost 90 percent of the trash collectors who rated themselves as happy had enough food to eat during the last month. This was a statistically significant finding in the study and would seem to be an indication that Maslow was right.
But in the article Vazquez points out an interesting fact: While not statistically significant, more than 70 percent of those who did not have enough to eat still rated themselves as happy. These individuals did not have the most basic ability to find enough food to feed themselves properly the month prior to the rating. This means that in spite of hunger, optimism and relationship may be more satisfying than knowing where our next meal is coming from. Socrates could have been talking about the trash collectors of León when he said: “Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live.”
What can we learn from the stigmatized, impoverished, yet resilient trash pickers of León? We discover that optimism about tomorrow is important to us today; that good relationships are better than money in the bank; and that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may not always be true.
In the words of Vazquez we come to find: “… the majority of the collectors are happy, and are convinced that they can achieve a better quality of life in the future with hard work and perseverance.”
In other words — like many of us.
Vázquez, J.J. (2013) Happiness among the garbage: Differences in overall happiness among trash pickers in León (Nicaragua), The Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1–11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2012.743574