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Happiness and Homelessness - Are They Mutually Exclusive?

June 26, 2015


Homelessness seems synonymous with misery.  This notion is salient in our culture: USA Today published an article about a coffee shop in Denver that employs homeless youth titled "From Homelessness to Happiness", framing happiness as an antonym to homelessness.  But if happiness is determined more by internal than external factors, as current research implies, millionaires can be miserable, and homeless people can be happy.  Fortunately, happiness is not exclusive to the materially fortunate. 


My field research for my thesis about street youth in Mexico City, Mexico showed me this.  I began with naive, idealistic notions that I would help poor, suffering street youth transition to shelters.   I was shocked to learn when joining Casa Alianza's street educators that most of the youth did NOT want to leave the streets.  Drug addiction, specifically to inhaled pipe solvent, "activo", was a prime reason, nonetheless some of the youth seemed, dare I say it - happier - to live on the street than elsewhere.  We'd play UNO or soccer with street youth on the street, hoping to eventually persuade them to go to a shelter.  The kids would joke around, laugh, and play with the street dogs they'd adopted.  Yes, there was squalor, and yes, most kids would sneak sniffs of their "monos" (toilet paper soaked in "activo") every few minutes, yet at least for moments, these kids could find joy, despite the circumstances. 


Does this mean we should stop working to solve issues of homelessness, or more importantly, the root social causes with the excuse that people can be happy despite material poverty?  Absolutely not.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to act should.  Moreover, helping others is key to happiness, as is knowing that others want to help you.  Perhaps the street youth seemed happier when we interacted with them because they knew we cared. 


My point is that we are more resilient than we realize and capable of finding happiness in the most unhappy of circumstances.  This series of TedTalks on happiness highlight how happiness does not stem from external success, or even freedom of choice, or any external circumstances, but from helping others, meaningful relationships, gratitude, and doing what we love.  The implications of these findings are both empowering and intimidating.  The responsibility of happiness is on us: waiting around hoping that an external change (better job, better relationship, better house) will automatically bring us happiness is futile.  We all have more power than we realize over our own happiness, although there are serious obstacles such as physical and mental illness, extreme deprivation, stress and grief.  Still, my question is, if a 14-year-old from an abusive home, living on the streets in Mexico City, eking out enough to survive by washing car windows, can find happiness, at least for fleeting moments, why can't we all?

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