In the Western world we seem to be receiving the message that happiness is an individual path that we travel alone to seek. For example, in practices such meditation, yoga, solo travel or alone time. The progression in technology has had a great impact. Watching television, playing a computer game or chatting on your phone leaves you feeling good, entertained and connected albeit superficially yet no deep meaningful connection is made. Physical communities are more fragmented as people move localities and form new homes without having opportunities to forge a relationship with their new host community.
When I travel to places like Asia and Africa, I can see that the community spirit is alive. The Religion and the values it transposes as well as less mobility contributes to this. People take care and look out for each other. Their community is a big part of their identity. When I come back to my world in Malta, I can see how difficult it is for us to truly have a sense of belonging in a community, through no fault of our own. And on occasion, when I do meet people with their own community connection, I can see how they cherish it and what meaning it brings to them – be it through Girl Guides, a religious group or a dance group. We have community opportunities around us all the time. Its just a matter of engaging with them and recognising the joy a sense of community can bring.
Research shows that happiness is found mostly in connection with others. Along with our individual practices which may serve an important purpose in our fast paced world, we cannot forget to appreciate and create real formations with others. When I think of seeking happiness as a natural human drive, I always think of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow explains human needs as a hierarchy in which higher needs cannot be met until lower ones are satisfied.On the lower end are physiological needs we are driven to satisfy (food, water), safety needs (job, health), love needs (sense of belonging) and esteem needs (achievement, power). The final set of needs in the hierarchy is self-actualisation where creativity, problem-solving, meaning and fulfillement lay.
When I look at my reality, I see a culture of people whose basic needs are met quite satisfactory. People around me have all basic needs met along with good educational and work opportunities. So perhaps the quest for happiness can be explained this way. People are focusing more on needs of belonging, love, and satisfaction as they climb the hierarchy. Expectations may also be a factor. Perhaps we expect more and look towards things that we think will make us happy instead of being satisfied with simplicity. Giving to others and working towards good causes always prove effective in raising levels of satisfaction and happiness, when you don’t put yourself at the center of your happiness.
Community is at the heart of Right 2 Smile. Be it the community projects, the larger volunteer community or the individual groups that visit the projects. Its all about the vision that we are better together. I will never forget a volunteer who brought this to my awareness. She was a Gozitan person living in Malta. She told me, “Through Right 2 Smile I found a sense of belonging again that I was missing in Malta. It makes me happy to meet people and know that we shared a similar experience.” She felt connected again. In that moment, I realised how important it was to have a community – wherever it may be.
In a more globalised world, there is no need to be the similar to feel connected. Our volunteer groups are a perfect example. We believe everyone has something to offer and learn. Persons of all skills and abilites are accepted, making for very diverse groups. You can find a 60 year old retiree, a 30 year old accountant, a doctor, a law student, and a 23 year old traveller in the same group. Our youngest has been 18 with our eldest being 73. There is a very good rate of cohesion within groups, the voluntary experience binding them in a common positive experience that others external to it cannot understand in the same way. Many groups remain friends and continue to meet afterwards. Within the groups, volunteers experience what it means to put the common good first, be it the good of the group or the project, ahead of personal interest. Strangers become family for their programme and this relationship often lasts.
Having said that, we have had groups who found challenges and difficulty in bonding. From them, we have learnt and received their feedback to include more team building in preparation stage, facilitated by Right 2 Smile. This will be included in our new training programme (more info soon).
Yet it was when we began the Malta project that I could see the positive ripple effects of a cohesive group who became socially activated. A wonderful group of motivated young persons have now become leaders of our first Youth Group in Malta – a youth group which again reaps the benefits of a sense of community and belonging for the youth themsleves. The youth form positive relationships with volunteers who provide a great example of role models.
I truly believe that happiness and community have correlations. I myself have never really thought about this for my own personal life yet now it makes a lot of sense. My message to you is this: go out and find your own community. If you can’t find it, create it. For whatever cause or reason that means something to you. If you don’t know what means something to you yet, be ready to try new things, even if you are shy, scared or insecure because good things happen when you get out of your comfort zone. Risk a little vulnerability to get a lot back in return. Follow your curiosity and see where it takes you. Volunteering, be it locally or abroad, is a great example in taking a first step. Find a cause you like, get in contact and see what you can offer.