The Frog, Fear and the Happiest People

By Chris White
Reader Contributor

Like an injected dye highlighting cancer in our body, this pandemic has revealed failures in our country— and ourselves. Two months ago, many were watching the darkening clouds of our government in wretched, agonizing slow-motion. Suddenly, like a frog removed from hot water, we have an extraordinary opportunity to look with fresh eyes, press reset and make changes as we emerge from our cocoons.

We all desire happiness. As an extreme counterweight in this missive, I introduce the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) people, whom MIT psychologists and anthropologists found to be the happiest group they ever studied. 

Members of the Pirahã people. Photo by Martin Schoeller.

They are a hunter-gatherer, mostly uncontacted, society living on a vital vein to the artery that is the Amazon River in Brazil. Daniel Everett, educated in linguistics and an evangelical missionary working to convert the people, spent 30 years on and off living with his family among the Pirahã, gaining fluency in their unique language and recording his fascinating reflections in the 2009 book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Their world is not a utopia — and we will likely never live a life as attuned to nature as they — but what can we learn from their example that could be useful in our world? 

Socially, what stands out most starkly in Everett’s work is his observation that the Pirahã are always laughing, frequently touching and often dancing. They laugh not just when a practical joke is successful, they laugh when a fishing expedition is fruitful and when it’s not; when a hut is built or if it blows over; or if they are hungry or full. They cuddle but do not coddle their children. There is no word for worry or depression in their language. Absent is a chief or designated leader. They fish, hunt and gather cooperatively. Their possessions are few; no one owns more than another. The common good of the village is paramount. 

Though the Pirahã are not pacifists, aggression among them is rare. 

Everett relates a time when a friend’s barking dog was killed by the man’s drunken brother. Revenge over the slain animal was not on his radar — when asked about the incident, he simply acknowledged that his brother was, “broken in the head.” To my mind, they have the essential ingredients for all good relationships: trust, respect, kindness and humor. 

Juxtaposed with the Pirahã is our stressful world. 

Some of us chose a self-centered man with seemingly little concern for the people in our vast village to lead us. We’ve become numb to outrage. Pointed opposite from the Pirahã — and most advanced countries — our moral compass continues to bend foremost toward isolationism and offensive aggression. 

This leader’s collaborators try to convince us that it is acceptable to cage immigrant children and attack the environment. Safe? We fear falling alone through a cost-prohibitive medical system and weak social safety net that could leave us destitute and homeless should we experience a personal health or financial crisis. We send our graduates into the world hogtied with crushing debt at a time when they should be soaring with unfettered aspirations. The differences in material wealth is as vast as the Grand Canyon is deep. 

Hope exists but, in our despair, it often feels like trying to move a cruise ship with a rowboat. 

By default, we’ve stumbled into the Paris Accord on steroids. Breathe the especially clear air — greenhouse gasses are expected to be down 8% as the coronavirus keeps many millions of people around the world out of their cars and away from air travel. Meanwhile, our collective interest in alternative energy has aroused the possibility that oil and mining companies could lose their government subsidies. 

We should keep pressing for properly taxed wealth going to the common good, a social and medical system that alleviates the fear of falling, and a living wage for the unskilled labor that we tout daily as our heroes. We have allies in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats who have introduced the “Bill of Rights for Essential Workers” legislation in Congress. We can stoke this momentum.

Living so deep in the cycle of nature, the Pirahã are unwitting Buddhists in the sense of nonattachment — poster people for living in the present. They do not cling to staying alive, nor a creation story. 

As Everett wrote in his book, “There is a certain dignity in going through life without promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell.” 

The Pirahã do not try to relive yesterday or rehearse tomorrow. If they have not experienced something personally — or know someone they trust who has — it is irrelevant to them. Everett found that the greater good of the community supersedes ego-inspired struggles for power or personal gain. Their attachment to an identity is so light they may change their name three times in a lifetime to better reflect their personal evolution.

For us, the coronavirus pandemic can be a time for personal house cleaning, which can start by taking an inventory of what we cling to, are fearful of and are willing to fight for. Are the dogma and ideology we hold in harmony with the deep inner sense of what we know to be right and true? Are we present and laughing enough?

Everett took his own inventory and wrote, “I have given up what I could not keep, faith, to gain what I cannot lose.” The Pirahã, he found, were not lost. He was true to the quiet inner voice of truth and found himself.

Before us is a chance for change and emergence from things that squelch our happiness. There is humor in everything. Seize the day.

Chris White is fascinated with the human condition. He is not anti-religious, is a spiritual fellow and unashamedly seeks the marrow of happiness for all.

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