Privilege Does Not Entitle Us to Happiness

I distinctly remember my friend Oscar’s response when we asked him about his tuition. He responded genuinely yet enthusiastically, “Oh, it’s a lot, about 400 dollars a quarter,” and the look in his eyes told me it was something he valued very much. My heart sank a little because we pay more than 40 times that amount for a degree some students write off as “just an upper-hand in the job market”.

Last month, I took an immersive course at Universidad de Centro Americana in Nicaragua and met some incredibly humble and grateful people. Despite being considered the poorest country in Central America, the country certainly is not lacking in love, kindness, and appreciation. I found myself wondering what makes them able to find such a deep joy to life despite living in less than ideal conditions while we, as Americans, sometimes have a hard time finding happiness even though we have almost everything at our fingertips.

To better understand this unique discrepancy, let’s take a look at something called the Happy Planet Index. Nicaragua is the 7th happiest country out of a list of 140 countries, while the United States ranks 108th. The United States GDP is over 25 times that of Nicaragua’s, so why doesn’t economic success correlate with a content society? Even as a generally privileged country, a lot of people still have a hard time truly appreciating the little things in life.

Perhaps there is another statistic that is quite telling about this issue: ecological footprint. The US has a huge footprint (Trump accent intended). At 8.2 global hectares per person (gha/p), it actually has one of the highest footprints in the world (137th out of 140), which can only increase given the recent efforts to defund environmental conservation.

On the other hand, Nicaragua’s footprint is at a minimum (1.4 gha/p) and conservation efforts beyond the scope of the government are steadily increasing. To me, this is very indicative that a strong connection to the environment and a lack of technological luxuries can lead to more happiness and overall a better wellbeing.

What does this say about our current society and it’s future? Valuing the natural world and its preservation clearly correlates with human happiness. What can we, as college students, do to further encourage the need for ecological conservation? While it’s nearly impossible to give up all modern technologies, I suggest taking a break from time to time. Go outside and exist with the environment. Make a conscious effort to live more sustainably. This is the only planet we have, and we might as well treat it with respect and benefit from the joy it can bring us.

Claire Everett, Class of 2018
Marine & Conservation Biology and Chemistry dual major