On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I had a couple of experiences that reminded me how important our attitude is to determining our own happiness. The first occurred at the airport in Punta Cana, the second directly after. For those of you unfamiliar with traveling to the Dominican Republic, as part of the process of entering the country, every visitor is required to buy a $10 tourist card prior to going through customs. You can either pay for the card online and print out a copy to bring with you or pay for one at the airport. So, when you enter customs, there are two lines, one to purchase the card before going on to the next line and one that allows you to bypass the line to purchase the card and go straight to the next line. I pre-purchased my tourist card, so I was one of the lucky ones who got to skip the first line.
As I walked around, someone standing in the tourist card purchasing line started yelling at me and some of the other passengers, “Hey, there’s a line! It starts back there!” One of the other tourists tried to explain that we already had our cards but was cut off by the same person, “Congratulations! The line starts back there.” He continued to yell at us for another minute or so until it was apparent that we were going to stay in the line we were in. He was clearly very upset. Like all good airport lines, it was one that winds back and forth indefinitely, so we soon found ourselves near the angry guy again. “Hey,” he said in what I believe was not a very kind tone of voice, “Was it worth it? All that to cut just a few spots in line? I mean, all that and you’re going to save like maybe a couple of minutes? Was it worth it?” He continued to grumble for the next few minutes until I cleared customs.
After clearing customs, I went and got in the tour van that was taking me to my resort. It was late, so I was the only passenger going to the resort. I sat up front and had a conversation with the Dominican driver that made the cynical part of me wonder if his story was completely made up, to get me to tip him better. But essentially, the driver told me that at 13 years of age, his father kicked him out of his home because he wanted to go to school, whereas his father wanted him to find work to help support the family. He said he spent the next few years living under a bridge, eating whatever he could find, and making a little money by shining shoes. The best way to make money shining shoes, he told me, was to wait outside a bar and ask drunk people if they wanted their shoes shined. Now, he was in college part time, going to class every Saturday. He was very grateful for his current job driving tourists around because he got 5 or 6 days off a month, including every Saturday so he could keep going to class. He told me he makes about $340 a month before tips, after tips maybe close to $1000. He and his family of 7 live off of this. He expressed many times how lucky he was to have such a good job; how grateful he was to be able to have a job that allowed him to support his family and also attend college.
The reason I share these stories is that they illustrate to me how much of our own happiness is dependent on our own attitude. The first guy, despite undoubtedly spending more money on his trip than my tour van driver would make in a month, was angry and upset for a considerable amount of time over something that ultimately cost him two minutes. From my point of view, it seemed like it may have even ruined his night. The second guy, who had been at work all day and who had to drive me to a resort after midnight because of flight delays, expressed nothing but gratitude for his low paying job and his overly difficult sounding life.
Having these experiences minutes from each other reminded me how important it is to be grateful for all the good things in my life, and to not let minor things detract from my own contentment and joy. I mean, just by living in the United States, I am already better off than probably half of the rest of the world or more. Living in the 21st century, my life is probably better than 99.9 % of the rest of humanity’s, historically. In other words, I have a lot to be grateful for. Remembering this helps me to be happier and makes it easier to be more compassionate towards others. I guess what it comes down to is this: I can choose to love life, being grateful for all the good in my life, or I can dwell on all the things that go wrong and be miserable. Seems like a pretty easy choice to me.