What Happiness and Yahtzee Have in Common: Tanzania Reflections

9 Aug

I am, right now, on a brain and world expanding trip to Tanzania. I am working with an amazing organization called Global Volunteers. My task is to ask questions and gather data to initiate a project that is intended to reduce stunting and raise cognitive funtion for villagers in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. This is the second in a series of thought pieces as I work my through Tanzania and this inspiring project.

I worry about drawing parallels between the students I and my fellow volunteers met on this trip to Tanzania, and their counter parts in the US. It feels dangerous and a bit irresponsible.

Everyone’s circumstances are different.


Yes, some conditions are more conducive to thriving – physically, mentally, and educationally – and even though those conditions don’t always provide a direct path to success they do provide a setting where it might be easier to unlock human potential.

Happiness and fulfillment are not that straight forward. I am not sure we can make blanket statements – circumstances alone don’t necessary translate to feeling happy and fulfilled.

Here is what I mean.

Happiness and fulfillment are relative things. We only know where we are and some of the details about how we got to this point. How we react to the circumstances in our lives is complicated. All decisions are based on what we know, how we feel, and what is swirling around us at that particular moment in time. It’s a snapshot.

We filter, sort, and search that picture for a frame of reference.

We sift and prioritize how we feel and what we perceive.

Then we dump all that out on the table, like the dice in a game of Yahtzee, and see what comes up. What shows up frames our choices and they make up our points of reference for how we put our world in perspective.

Think about this: That collection of what shows up gives us our behavioral options and we choose from what appears on the top face of the dice. Such a small slice in such a big world.

So… when I hear those around me talk about how people here, in Tanzania, are happier and more joyful even with “so little” I cringe. It just sits wrong with me. It is as if they are seeing the world through a distorted lens and that, in my opinion, leads to broad generalizations, dehumanizes life, and is dangerous.

Happiness and fulfillment really are relative things and we define our reality by choosing from available options.

Simpler does not always mean happier.

Having creature comforts doesn’t always mean you are set up for success.

The Tanzania I am seeing is filled with abundance and therefore potential. The land and the environment is rich, fertile, and evolving – that signals neither good nor bad. From where I sit, this moment in time in this country simply provides the opportunity to choose.


My new forever friend Lisa is writing about The Other Africa on her blog. This quote from the top of her Tumblr page really got my attention.

“If you followed the media you think that everyone in Africa is starving to death and that’s not the case; so it’s important to engage with the other Africa.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Lisa is looking at Africa through the eyes of a scientist and a mother and sees the potential.

I honestly believe that I have been sitting in rooms filled with the best and the brightest and maybe, corny as it sounds, the future of this beautiful country. Did they arrive in these rooms by circumstance, chance, or choice and does that even matter?


7 Responses to “What Happiness and Yahtzee Have in Common: Tanzania Reflections”

  1. Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski August 9, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    Ruth, what an amazing adventure you are having. People find happiness in the smallest of things. Some that live on a trash heap can be happier than those who live in a mansion. It’s all about how they react and deal with circumstance. Stay safe and enjoy your journey.

  2. John O August 9, 2016 at 9:39 am #

    Excellent Ruth! If all their basic existential needs are met, your mission to raise cognitive function really depends on what their cognitive of. It’s hard to understand other cultures, but growing up and living with an abundance of nature they surely have a fulfilling human existence . On the flip side what would the villagers from Iringa think if they visited a U.S. suburb, walked in a super Walmart with all it abundance, and than watched a disabled obese person riding a scooter in the sack aisle? So hard to judge with a snapshot! Love following your adventures!

  3. Carol Cassara August 9, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

    What an interesting post. I have to admit that in India I saw far more joy and happiness among people in modest circumstances than I see in the US. I did not see the kind of envy that I see so much of at home. Admittedly, my view was at more of a distance than yours in Africa. But at the same time I couldn’t help but think that their religious faith contributed to more peace of mind and also that their priorities were more fundamental. I never did see that simpler meant happier but I did see that people whose lives were down to fundamentals had different priorities and showed more joy and happiness. I do think that our constant striving here robs us of our ability to feel joy in the basics of life–a lovely day, family love, all those things. I don’t think that makes me a paternalistic generalizer, though. Even though I don’t see generalizations as a bad thing–it’s how we make sense of life around us and really, how we survive.What that all means, I don’t know but I’ve thought about it ever since I left India.

  4. Helene Cohen Bludman August 9, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

    Oh Ruth, what an amazing experience for you and I am enjoying it vicariously. It is true that happiness and fulfillment are relative terms and sometimes difficult to define. It is encouraging to hear that in Tanzania there is the potential for growth and development.

  5. Cathy Chester August 9, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

    I love hearing about life so far away through your lens, through your perspective. Happiness and fulfillment are different for everyone. How we arrive at them, if we do, comes from a mixture of happenstances. How fortunate the people of Tanzania were to experience the greatness of Ruth. Someday I’d love to crawl inside your beautiful mind to gather more knowledge. More love. More YOU! xo

  6. Lois Alter Mark August 9, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    I have been thinking about you every day that you’ve been away on this amazing adventure. I can’t wait to see you and hear all the details. They are so lucky to have had you there!

  7. Cathy Lawdanski August 9, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    What a wonderful adventure and way to serve. What an eye opening experience. Your point of how generalizations can really distort things is well taken. Generalizations about people and their feelings regarding happiness and circumstances can be dehumanizing. Thanks for the reminder to pay attention – to open our eyes to what is really going on around us as best we can. Look forward to hearing more!

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