I once met a woman named Miriam who lives in a Mexican squatter’s community—dirt roads, wood pallet houses, bootlegged electricity—and from her front doorway she could see across the border to a mall in the United States where she would watch people shop. I asked her how she felt about seeing that reality, whether it made her jealous or angry. Miriam looked perplexed. “I have my family, my community,” she said in Spanish. “If I had a big house or fancy car, I don’t know where I’d put it. My life is full.”
I frequently reflect upon Miriam’s words. We expect the materially poor to be downtrodden and depressed, and our culture often equates the accumulation of wealth and possessions with happiness (reference any holiday commercials). And yet, there’s Miriam. My life is full.
One evening, I found myself thinking about Dr. Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who studies what makes people happy. Not happy just in the moment, but a longer, sustained happiness. Livingston boils his findings down to three things: meaningful relationships, meaningful work, and a sense of hope for the future.
By Dr. Livingston’s measure, Miriam’s fulfillment—her deeper happiness—is not a mystery. Like many who live in distressed communities, Miriam has strong ties to her family and neighbors, creating a support network that could buffer the inherent insecurity of living on the margins. This network is, in significant ways, more valuable than material goods, since it can’t be stolen like money or lost like a job.
I do not mean to romanticize life in a squatter’s community—the material poverty there has many other destructive outcomes, and should only be understood as a great human tragedy. That’s not to say, however, that Miriam has nothing to teach us. In fact, from her story, we can all learn an important lesson about living a fulfilled life.
A powerful way to move towards this kind of fulfillment is to pursue meaningful work that will not only fulfill our philanthropic duties but also cultivate meaningful relationships. From my experience, I’ve noticed that volunteerism seems to be one answer to attaining this. As Sr. Manager of Volunteers, I witness this meaningful work every day. Working in non-profit, or joining the PeaceCorps is not practical for everyone, which is where volunteering comes in. Dedicate a few hours a month to doing work that you find truly meaningful.
Donating time to a worthy cause has been said to not only help those in need but also allow us to bond with our peers over a shared commitment to better our communities. If you’re ever looking for this kind of fulfillment, we invite you to join us at Philabundance. We’re certain it’ll be a dual fulfillment worth your while.
How are you planning to fulfill the rest of your 2011?