4 Universal Lessons In Happiness From A Political Refugee

Sep 11, 2020
 Created by the author.
“Everything changed the day my best friend disappeared.”

There was a long silence around our campfire. Nobody knew what to say.

“We were kids, we thought we were invincible.”

There were a dozen other people around us but I couldn’t bear the silences anymore. What followed was one of the most illuminating conversations of my life.

The speaker was a student activist in his younger days. He couldn’t sit by and watch as his countrymen suffered and struggled to get the basics we take for granted; electricity, food, and running water. Government corruption was rife and funds marked for development were instead buying sports cars and gold. With his friends, the speaker organized small scale protests and civil disobedience to give voice to the poor.

Despite winning the nation its independence, the government did not take kindly to any opposition. The speaker and his friends soon started receiving threats but in their youth laughed these away. On the same day as his friend went missing, the police had knocked on his door but he had been at the shops. I may never have met him if he’d been home that day.

What was remarkable about Tony (not his real name), was how none of us could have guessed his tragic past. Up until he revealed his story, he radiated joy and smiled effortlessly. He was a great conversationalist and melted our hearts with tales of his children. I was inspired by how someone could bounce back from such hardships. I thought back to that evening and here are the four key lessons I learned.


Persuasion is a power that comes with responsibility

After his best friend went missing, Tony found it impossible to look at any of his friend’s family members in the eye. Years of overthinking have distorted his memory, but he thinks he convinced his friend to get involved with the student demonstrations. Tony can’t clear his conscience even though clearly the tragedy was the fault of the corrupt government.

When he was younger, Tony studied books on how to influence people to convince them to join his protests. People were often reluctant and favored methods that didn’t put themselves at risk. This is where Tony’s guilt came in. He knows he used morally grey techniques to make people join even when they weren’t comfortable. It came from a good place, to try to help his community, but he can’t justify it to himself in hindsight.

The line between clever marketing and manipulation can often be thin. Like Tony, I know in the past I’ve used psychological tricks to persuade people. Even if it works out for everyone, part of it will still niggle away at me. It’s hard enough to be responsible for ourselves, let alone worrying about misleading others.

Tony now tells his stories as they are not intentionally crafted for the most impact. It’s no wonder he carried himself so effortlessly as he had a clear conscience. He found the quality of his relationships even with people he just met to be far more enjoyable once he unlearned his sales tricks.


Be the light when times are dark

Tony was incredibly intelligent and picked up languages like I pick up cookies. Despite English being his fourth language, he was better versed in philosophy than most of us.

He identified with Viktor Frankl’s idea of keeping parts of joy locked up inside you that no one could take away. Yet Tony thought the most powerful thing we can do is create joy whenever things seem grave. Other people made his family despair so he did his best to make them smile.

When the town was submerged into darkness during blackouts, Tony invited the neighbors over to sing and dance by the candlelight. At university, tensions were high between different ethnic groups but he used his language skills to make everyone laugh and bring them closer together. Tony was adept at reading the stress on the faces around him and took it as a trigger to radiate opposing forces. He was on high alert when it came time for the daily pirate radio broadcast of the government’s latest crimes.

2020 has been a tough year. You’ve probably felt at some level this kind of group depression. It becomes a series of dominos where the sour mood is contagious. A bit of humor won’t erase the pain but it can make it more bearable. Every smile you can bring to someone’s face matters and provides them with strength. It’s maybe not in our power to change the world but we can bring joy to someone’s day.


Keep hope in control

Tony still remembers the season of celebration when his country won independence even though he was just a child. He called it “the best year of his life”. There were constant parties and he got more treats as all the adults were in upbeat moods!

Yet when the euphoria started to calm down, it became clear everyone was united by the need for change; not a shared vision for the future. They all had their own fantasy worlds in their head but it was impossible for all of these dreams to be realized. Unfortunately, the high made the low more unbearable when many citizens’ conditions deteriorated. The treats dried up for Tony.

This had a profound effect on Tony and the way he viewed hope. He never wanted to let himself fall into a trap of taking the best case scenario as his baseline. This was easier said than done and he found the best way in his activism was to talk to as many people as possible. He’d try to understand what they thought was realistic and measure his vision against it. When he thought about the future, he focused on visualizing the day-to-day of the average outcome.

It’s easy for us to hone in on one external part of our lives and think if that changes everything will be better. Whether it’s a change of government, job switch, or new home, there will always be challenges in life. It’s irresponsible for anyone to convince you otherwise.

When I set out on a new venture, I ask people who I know will give me a diversity of thought. The cheerleaders are great for morale but the skeptics keep my expectations grounded. If you can do the same and lower your expectations then there’s far more potential upside.


Belief in perfection will blind you

The leader of the government had crafted an irresistible image and people wanted to believe in him. Life was easier when you could trust every word he said. Tony’s own family had a portrait of the leader displayed proudly at home.

When the rumors of state crime began, many turned a blind eye as it didn’t suit their narrative. Surely their hero would never allow such atrocities to occur? Accusers were dismissed by their own communities for being attention-seeking.

Tony’s family deluded themselves for several years until one day, with his shoulders slumped, the patriarch took down the portrait. Tony remembers his father calling him in from playing outside, “I want you to learn this. I have flaws and so do us all, never agree with anyone all the time.” This got Tony in trouble at school but protected him from applying impossibly high standards to others.

We see this all the time in western culture when superfans of celebrities defend their idol no matter what. You only need to turn to Twitter to see how much conflict this causes in people’s lives. In personal relationships, you’ll always be disappointed if you think someone is flawless.

If you can remove this emotional intensity then you realize they are human just like you. Try to understand people as they are rather than how you’d like them to be. You’ll still find others fascinating and love them for the right reasons.


What to take with you

Tony endured far more than I could imagine and yet still manages to inspire others. Despite his past, he lives life to its fullest and tries to help others as much as he can. He waited until the end to get his food at the campfire whilst everyone else rushed to get to the front of the queue.

The truth is there are many people like him in the world and we should never forget to hear their stories. I’m happy I could spread his wisdom and I hope to encourage you to seek knowledge beyond the usual suspects.

  • Persuasion is a power that comes with responsibility — Focus on being honest and transparent so you can live with freedom in your heart
  • Be the light when times are dark— Bring joy to other people’s lives when they need it the most
  • Keep hope in control — Don’t rely on a promise of a better future, rely on your strength to deal with the problems that will arise
  • Belief in perfection will blind you — We are all flawed, love the reality of people, not their highlights

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.