And now, another installment in my quest to understand the fascinating condition of Brazilian happiness–how is that that these people seem to be so unremittingly joyful? Is it because they are so musical, so closely connected through family, do they put antidepressants in the agua de coco? What is it?
Last week I visited Sao Paolo with my new friend Catherine. We met in the strikingly beautiful coastal, colonial town Paraty at the couchsurfing gathering for the Jazz Festival. At the last moment, I decided to chaperone Catherine on her first couchsurfing adventure in Sao Paolo. That’s the joy of bus travel.
Our host was Alberto, a true gem who picked us up at the bus station, paid our metro fare on the way to his home, and bought us beer and wine to chill out at home and enjoy our first of two nights together. Alberto showed us Sao Paolo the next day, and I was so happy to finally put a face to the name. So many Cariocas and others have talked negatively about Sao Paolo, so it was exotic to finally see it for myself. I liked it, for two days anyway! Alberto is the rare young Brazilian who lives alone and it was a lot of relaxing fun to hang out on his couch and watch Brazilian MTV–surprisingly different and better than American MTV. More weird videos and sophisticated programming.
Alberto brought up this question of Brazilian happiness with me. He initiated it, referencing a conversation with a Canadian he had hosted, who had asked, Why are Brazilians so joyful and warm and open and North Americans are not? Alberto had his answer ready for me. Little did he know this is my blogging fascination of the moment. His answer was rather simple: Brazilians are used to living with insecurity, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Jobs, money, housing, violence, and I would add relationships (in the sense that infidelity is so common). Because they never know what’s going to happen, Betao (his nickname) said, Brazilians learn to enjoy every day as it comes, to suck every bit of pleasure they can from each day. That’s his life philosophy, anyway, to live as intensely as possible so he as stories to tell his grandchildren. He’s also the kind of traveler who arrives at his destination without a guidebook, only a backpack, no plan, just relying on God and luck. God, that fetishizing of the non-planned adventure!
Alberto’s theory is that Brazilians are de facto Buddhists. Because their lives can’t be planned, they realize they have no control over the future–they are much better at focusing on the moment. Pleasure is better than pain, Alberto said to me. And I though, how simple and true! (Certainly that’s true with regard to Brazilian men–they are very good at focusing on the pleasure of the present moment when they see a woman they want to kiss.)
In some fundamental way of the universe, Alberto is absolutely right; we pretend to ourselves that we have control in the U.S. and Europe, but at any time, an accident could happen, a spouse could leave, a lottery ticket could prove to be the winner. According to his theory, our stable lives always leave pleasure for the future–in a stable day to day life, you know where you are going the next day, and the next day, and life becomes more routine, less spontaneous and pleasure-filled.
I read somewhere a long time ago that one of the cornerstones of mental health is to feel control over your life. I always believed that to be true. That when I feel in control of my destiny, my environment, and know that I have enough money in the bank to cover my bills, my mental health is more stable. It’s fascinating to me to think that these people seem happier than I am on a daily basis but they live with such insecurity. On the other hand, people in many other countries live with great insecurity too. How happy are they?
And then there’s the mask of Brazilian happiness. I wonder what’s really going on when people go home for the night from the samba party. When I got back to Rio from my two-week trip to Nova Friburgo, Petropolis, Paraty, and Sao Paolo, I bumped into the expatriate crew in Santa Teresa. These are young women from England and Norway who who have settled here and are teaching English. I shared some of my frustrations with Rio, that it can be hard to feel connected here in a city where everything is about fun, fun, fun, and everyone is always wearing this joyous smile. They have had Carioca boyfriends, so they have gotten in a little deeper than I have, in a sense. They talked about the mask of happiness in Rio, that’s all tudo bem, jovial smiles out at the bar, but when they get home, their boyfriends expressed a real lack of trust in anyone, and seemed awfully depressed, not wanting to go out. Obviously, this is an anecdotal hearsay, but I do think there’s something to that, the way people present themselves out in public here has to be different from what they really feel inside.
I adore the joy here, but it does me a lot of good to talk with English people who are more culturally similar to my friends in San Francisco. We are more unafraid to talk about our problems and get in there and analyze them, look for solutions. Perhaps this happens among intimate friends in Brazil, but it has only happened with me once–with my dear friend Natalia in Florianopolis. She too thought that Brazilians have a problem with talking about their problems. I felt closer and more comfortable with her ultimately than any other Brazilian woman that I have met traveling, yet.