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Mapping Happiness with Flowers

Is happiness relative, especially in cities where wealth disparities are apparent? I interviewed members from slums to the general public for stories. I asked them to rate their happiness from 1-10, reflecting the number of flowers in each portrait.

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            India's rapid development has allowed for phenomena such as slums to touch malls and conditions for polar extremes. I went door to door at the slum called Gulbai Tekra and asked residents about their backgrounds, moods, and stories. I did the same in a commercial district only a street away. Inspired by Jonathan Harris's TEDtalk, I sought to “map the happiness” of people across different demographics from slum dwellers, students, mothers, engineers, and bankers to seek understanding between a certain income state and notions of happiness.

Through the interviews, I learned that Gulbai Tekra’s sustenance revolved around building elephant statues resembling the Hindu god, Ganesh. Every aspect of their lifestyle encompassed around Lord Ganesha whether it was in employment, religion, or their economy. Dwellers produced 30,000 Ganeshes per year, sold them for 90 USD, and make 23 USD in profit. Interestingly, a place that most would consider “impoverished” instead experienced 100% employment and an impressively low crime rate. Beyond initial looks, Gulbai Tekra-a slum-was economically vibrant.

On the other end, slum dwellers shared with me the government’s efforts to evict them due to the environmental hazards the celebratory tradition of immersing the Ganesha statues into India's oceans pose. While this is a legitimate concern, I felt there may have been extenuating reasons for such a severe eviction-as I was clued by the arrows drawn on walls that marked the extent by which houses will be destroyed to widen an adjacent street. I was haunted by one dweller’s statement, “In 2 months, my house will become a bus stop”.

The eviction for Gulbai Tekra was scheduled for September, a policy seemingly praiseworthy for “cleaning-up” a dirty part of a city. But I was saddened after becoming acquainted with people who lived with so little yet was so devoted to their community.Gulbai Tekra is an interesting phenomenon in that it is a “dirt poor” slum sandwiched between developed commercial districts. I’ve always thought that people in underdeveloped areas might be content with their way of life because they have never tasted more comfortable living. Yet the members of Gulbai Tekra still seemed content while watching white collars honk by in their Audis and Beamers everyday. Perhaps happiness doesn’t have to be so relative after all.

On the note of the interview approach as a whole, the variety of responses I got within a 1-kilometer radius was staggering. The people living in the slums consistently expressed numbers on extreme ends; they were either very happy or very sad, always providing honest reasons. On the contrary, I felt less intrigued by the answers from developed areas, as most of them were lukewarm reasons relevant to work, punctuality, or school. It’s possible that in a developed state, we don’t have to make as large of a struggle to survive, hence the dramatics of life are diminished.

Furthermore, it is also interesting reading people’s reactions as to why I was asking them weird questions and giving them flowers. Certain reactions emerged amongst peoples living in a certain region and as a result, I ended up tallying the number of people who:

Refused to talk to me
City: 6
Slum: 0

Refused to be photographed
City: 4
Slum: 0

Asked “Why are you interviewing me?”
City: 12
Slum: 0

Certainly it is more than appropriate to react skeptically to a stranger prying about your happiness and offering you flowers. If I were on the opposite end for the same situation, I would be weirded out as well. But it was nice that “poorer” people in general never asked me about my intentions. It made me think: Why is it so weird? Does becoming more mannered and developed thicken us with layers of “social norms”? When can things become “awkward”? As we ascend in social status, do we become more aware of our egos? Trust less? Complicate contentness? I find it beautiful that with people that I had the least commonalities with-people whom I had a language barrier with, live under polar opposite conditions, and have the farthest walks of life from me-were the most honestly human with me.

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Photo of Vincent Cheng

Fascinating study Rebecca! Very interesting how you found slum dwellers to be more open, and to report more extremes in happiness, than the general population.

Also, your comment on polar extremes of slums touching malls reminded me of a related post I made about a Shanghai district: http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/inspiration/diversity-vibrancy-opportunity-social-economic-otherwise/

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DeletedUser

Thank you Vincent! Increasing disparity within close geographic proximities seems to be a growing phenomena in countries booming in economic vibrancy

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Photo of Meena Kadri

Vincent – we also found slum dwellers to be more open on the DREAM:IN project http://www.randomspecific.com/dreamin-hunt-to-harvest-ii And onwards from your Shanghai post – I certainly found the multi-cultural diversity I experienced while living in Hong Kong, India and Berlin to be inspiringly vibrant & certainly noted many opportunities as you discuss. And these opportunities may be further catalysed when infrastructure is well configured to enhance access to those opportunities: http://places.designobserver.com/feature/peoples-way-urban-mobility-in-ahmedabad/12918/

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Photo of Jenny Jin

I'd be very curious on whether there's a stronger engagement of social issues and social responsibility among the middle-class/wealthy in these cities where the slums are right next to the economic hubs?

Living in Nairobi, I felt a palpable focus of poverty alleviation within the tech and entrepreneurship community across economic classes. But given that Kenya itself is still considered a poor developing country and a hub of int'l aid in East Africa, it's hard to say whether the root cause was the physical spaces of poverty within the community.

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Photo of Vincent Cheng

Thanks for the confirming findings Meena. And for the info on how infrastructure can help.

Also, cool that you were involved in the DREAM:IN project! As I recall from one of their videos, "Dreams are deeper than insights, wider than needs, higher than trends."