Zu Magazine is a publication of Zu Media. Below is an article from Issue 2: Contentment
Staff Writer | Chloe’ Bagley
Every year since 2012, The World Happiness Report has published the rankings of over 100 countries based on their happiness levels. The report is used to discover the levels of contentment and overall life satisfaction in different societies. It is subjective to the country and gathers its numbers based off of things like life expectancy, freedoms and generosity.
America has never cracked the top 10, keeping it from earning the title as one of the “Happiest Countries in the World.”
Different cultures seek contentment and happiness in different ways. The question then becomes: what are other countries doing differently?
Dr. Ismael Lopez-Medel is an Assistant Professor at Azusa Pacific from Madrid, Spain. He and his family sold or left everything they owned to move to the United States in 2011.
When his family first moved, Dr. Lopez-Medel experienced many cultural learning curves, one of them being what he describes as “positive culture.”
In his experience, Americans can be superficial in their interactions because of the cultural expectation to be positive. This superficial interaction is an example of how Americans often find contentment in what others think about them.
“It shows a concern for reputation that to me is not Biblical … reputation in the Bible has a completely different take, it’s not what other people think, it’s the nature of your actions,” Dr. Medel-Lopez said.
According to him, the American Dream is a “vertical dream.” Americans always have to be achieving something or moving towards something better. In contrast, Spanish culture provides its people the ability to be more satisfied with where they’re at in life.
“If I told you I was going to just continue this job for the rest of my life and never do anything else, what would you say? You would ask where my ambition is … that rush for more, more, more is the mortal enemy of contentment,” Dr. Medel-Lopez said.
America has higher economic wealth than Spain and Dr. Medel-Lopez thinks the “rush for more” is driven by materialism. He also notes that due to economic crises that Spain has experienced, Spanish people have learned to “do better with little and be content.”
When asked about his personal definition of contentment, Dr. Medel-Lopez referred back to something his daughter learned at school when they first moved to America.
He said, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset, to me that is the perfect definition of contentment … and as a Christian I have to add that also means to be grateful for what you have.”
Dr. Bala Musa was born and raised in Nigeria and moved to the United States in 1994 with his wife and their first son. He has been teaching in higher education for 30 years, first at a University in Nigeria and then in America. Dr. Musa has now been teaching at Azusa Pacific in the Department of Communication for 12 years.
One of the biggest cultural differences that he noticed after moving was that America is an individualistic society. Nigeria is a communal society. Musa explained that Nigerian culture is more focused on relationships and each person as a human being, rather than their accomplishments and contributions to society.
“Relationships matter a lot in developing countries … our relationships are stronger, deeper and mean a lot more,” Dr. Musa said.
In Nigeria, they do not compartmentalize their relationships. Dr. Musa said he had to learn that things like our work life and church life do not overlap in America. In Nigeria, if you know someone in one context, they are included in every part of your life.
Dr. Musa believes that he grew up with less material options and expectations than Americans. Because of this, he celebrated what he did have.
Nigeria often ranks extremely high on the Happiness Index, Dr. Musa said. He even remembers years when Nigeria was ranked first in the line-up.
“In developing countries where most people don’t have electricity, their own cars or clean water, they still rank high on the Happiness Index…” Dr. Musa said, “…because happiness and contentment comes from other sources besides materialism, mostly it is that sense of relationship, community and gratitude that what you have has come from God’s divine favor.”
The priorities of African cultures can be found in their languages and proverbs, according to Dr. Musa. In Nigeria they name their children things that, in English, mean that that child is wealth, safety, strength or peace.
“If you don’t have people, even if you have money, you don’t have peace. If you don’t have people, even if you have power, you don’t have safety … contentment comes from relationship.”
Dr. Musa says that his idea of contentment is influenced not only by his culture but by his belief and value systems.
“Contentment is when you cease from the endless struggle,” Dr. Musa said, “when you get to the point of surrender and allow God to take charge … when you accept your circumstance and embrace your situation.”
Another high-ranking country on the Happiness Index is New Zealand. Dr. Viv Grigg is a professor in Azusa Pacific’s Masters in Transformational Urban Leadership Program, which works to send students overseas for missions targeted at different cities’ slums.
Dr. Grigg was born and raised in New Zealand and it wasn’t until eight years ago that he moved to the United States with his family to help develop the program.
Dr. Grigg explained how western cultures have more subtle differences when it comes to topics like contentment, but that subtlety can also cause stress.
“We talk about trying to make a fair deal with people in New Zealand … American people talk about finding what’s right and that rightness creates tension for people,” Dr. Grigg said. “Whereas looking for something that’s fair means you’re looking for middle ground and that helps to create harmony between people and within people.”
Something that Dr. Grigg noted as a positive aspect of America’s culture is finding contentment in work. He described his experience working with other professors to pioneer new pathways in his field of study.
“They [Americans] get things done and they get them done well. They have a sense of excellence in all that they do,” Dr. Grigg said.
In contrast, New Zealanders can see putting in that extra effort to get everything done perfectly as unnecessary. Dr. Grigg described Americans as holding excellency in high regard and being willing to spend their time and energy making sure that even the last two percent of a job is perfect.
“In New Zealand, we think that’s a waste of time,” Dr. Grigg said, “Get the job done and be content with a really good job, but don’t waste time on excellence, except for some really important things.”
Peace within their environment is something that New Zealanders consider an important part of everyday life.
“The first thing I do when I go to a new place is plant trees,” Dr. Grigg said, “There is a lot of contentment and spirituality that can be found in engaging with the earth…in Los Angeles people don’t have time to plant and to watch things grow and to connect with The Maker. Part of my spirituality is having dirt under my fingernails.”
Our ideas of what contentment looks like can come from two things: our cultural influences and our own personal values. These, in turn, are influenced by our faith and our life experiences.
Americans can get caught up in the busyness of the day-to-day, but we can learn from other cultures how to be happy and satisfied with where we are in life.