As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bombarded with a fairly common bit of moralistic advise: think about those starving kids in Africa. The point being, essentially, that I have no right to be unhappy or frustrated with my life, because there are people out there who have it an awful lot worse. I’ve grown up in a wealthy middle class family with happily married parents and a healthy (if somewhat scrawny) body. Not once in my life have I had to worry about money, and at no point have I been forced to go hungry. I’ve never wanted for anything. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was a sort of semi testicular torsion. So really, I should be grateful. And I am, believe me. But I’m not free of discontent, and I’m starting to form the opinion that that’s actually quite alright.
I think I’m justified in saying that most people here in the western world are told at some point in their lives that they have no right to complain. Their lives may be compared to those of people living in the developing world, as in the example above, or to those of their parents. The underlying message remains the same; you don’t have a right to be unhappy, because there are people out there who have it worse than you. Of course, we all go on complaining anyway, but for some of us a speck of guilt appears in our minds. But is this really true? Should we really be thinking like this? The other day I got to pondering it, and I realized that it doesn’t actually add up. First of all, what is the fundamental difference between us and these faceless examples of “people who are worse off”? I’d say it’s money. It’s more than that, of course; it’s a lack of warm clothes and food and water and healthcare. But it’s all very much of a material nature. We’re being told that we’re not allowed to be unhappy because we happen to own certain material things. And yet, as we all know by now, material things are not actually directly linked to happiness. Wealthy, healthy businessmen kill themselves just as surely as sickly paupers do. Naturally, good health and proper nutrition contribute to a person’s overall well-being, but there’s more to it than that.
Now, please don’t misinterpret me. I definitely think it is possible for a person to complain about things they have no real reason to complain about. Throwing a fit because your parents have decided you’re not allowed to get a new Xbox is a bit silly (though it’s very much possible that there’s an underlying reason for why the console in question is considered to be so important). I most certainly don’t think that the problems faced by people living in developing countries are trivial. What I’m disagreeing with is the notion that human rights, healthcare and wealth are the solution to all of mankind’s problems and that once people have these things they should be expected to renounce all discontent. We are complex animals with incredibly advanced minds, and we’re surprisingly fragile at times, both mentally and physically. The key to happiness is not development – it’s just a step in the right direction (and even then only if done in the correct manner). We can’t tell people that they have no reason to be unhappy, unless their unhappiness is based on a faulty belief of some sort.
The basic fact of the matter is that people are sometimes genuinely unhappy, despite favorable circumstances. There’s no denying this. Well to do people feel depressed, lonely and at times angry. Likewise, orphans living in Indian slums are sometimes quite happy. And if a person truly is unhappy, then clearly that is in itself an indication that said individual has a reason to be unhappy. We are after all talking about emotions here, and emotions are subjective by definition. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be “thinking about the kids in Africa” and I’m definitely not of the opinion that we shouldn’t be trying to improve the quality of life of people living in LEDCs. However, we should always remember that everyone has a right to be discontent and that if a person is unhappy, logic dictates that there’s a genuine underlying cause for this. We need to spend more of our time and energy supporting and encouraging one another, even those amongst us who appear to be acting a little selfishly. Of course, that goes for the people in LEDCs, too.