Is awareness a burden or the key to happiness?

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“Don’t F@ck with chocolate. I don’t want to know.”

That was a friend’s reaction when I told him I was researching the book that would become WHERE AM I EATING?, a book in which I traveled around the world to meet farmers who produce chocolate, bananas, coffee, lobster, and apple juice.

The cocoa farmers I met in West Africa lived in poverty. A worker on a cocoa farm was enslaved. Child labor. Environmental degradation. Economic impacts of a changing climate. There were plenty of issues to be aware of.

So…did this awareness ruin chocolate for me?

Nope. Quite the opposite. Now that I know more about chocolate, how it’s produced, where it comes from, and brands that concern themselves with the well-being of cocoa farmers, I actually enjoy chocolate more. I don’t eat mass produced chocolate (Mars, Snickers, etc.) any longer, not so much out of protest of their business practices, which are often worthy of protest, but more so to outwardly remind myself of my inner change. When you meet a modern-day slave, it should forever change you in a lot of ways.

(I write about quitting mass-produced chocolate here.)

Awareness has enhanced my life and not just as a chocolate eater.

WHERE AM I EATING led to eating local eggs, which taste way better, learning so much more about coffee and appreciating it more. WHERE AM I WEARING? made me aware of the harsh realities of the garment industry, but it also introduced me to brands positively impacting the lives of the people who make their products. I didn’t care much about labels before, but after my experiences meeting workers in Bangladesh, Honduras, Cambodia, China, and Ethiopia, I sought out ethical brands. Wearing them makes me happy and reminds me that there is good in the world and that I can be a part of that good.

All the above relate to things we consume and awareness of how they are produced. Shopping our way to a better world is so American, and the solution to a consumer can seem so easy. But what about issues like extreme poverty, genocide? Wouldn’t it be better to NOT know about the famine in Yemen? Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a fantasy world where we thought all humans lived happy, healthy, and fulfilled lives?

At times I’ve thought that it would be better to not know. Then I met Scott Neeson in Cambodia while I was researching WHERE AM I GIVING?.

Scott was a Hollywood executive who many would say had it all – a Porsche, a yacht, movie star girlfriends, and an annual salary of a million dollars. While traveling in Cambodia he had an experience that ultimately led to the selling all of his possessions, founding Cambodian Children’s Fund and moving to Cambodia where he’s been for 13 years. Each night he walks the edges of an abandoned trash heap where people live and face the harshest of realities.

Scott is happier now.

“I believe that the happiest you’ll be is when you find your groove and settle into it,” Scott told me. “I believe in the philosophy of Joseph Campbell.”

Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist who wrote about the common themes and journeys of mythical heroes.

Campbell wrote:

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (From The Power of Myth.)

In Cambodia, Scott doesn’t appear to be living in happy circumstances. He works too much, and worries that he might get shot in the back. He confronts child rapists and deals with the aftermath. He has a folder of photos on his phone from the Child Protection Unit – a partnership between the police and CCF. Each photo is accompanied with a horrible story. When I was with Scott he scrolled through his phone and landed on a picture of a smiling girl who could’ve been one of the dancers at the CCF school we had visited.

“Attempted murder and rape,” he told me. “Guy tried to drown her. Held her underwater. She swallowed really nasty water and got a lungful of pneumonia and another infection. But we got them. These two really nasty people. They’ve gone away forever. Ah … horrible stuff.”

How is this happy?

The Dalai Lama wrote an editorial in The New York Times addressing our need to give to others:

…[R]esearchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed…Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.

Life in Cambodia helping kids and families of the dump is Scott’s groove, and it is full of meaning and purpose for him.

Researchers from Florida State University who compared happiness and meaning found that “[h]appiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.”

Meaning isn’t something that we find in ourselves, but only in putting ourselves and our gifts to work for others. This is true in our daily lives of abundance, or in the most extreme conditions you can imagine.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, wrote about his time surviving the Holocaust and life in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl acted as a therapist to his fellow prisoners, helping them find meaning in the senseless tragedy they all faced.

“Being human,” Frankl wrote, “always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.”

When we become aware of something, we have the opportunity to act on that awareness. Not acting leaves us guilty until the hollowness of apathy takes hold. But acting on awareness gives us purpose, enhancing our lives.

Want to be happy?

Seek awareness. Accept responsibility. Act.

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To read more about Scott, awareness, and purpose, check out my book WHERE AM I GIVING? A GLOBAL ADVENTURE EXPLORING HOW TO USE YOUR GIFTS AND TALENTS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

 
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