The Happiness Choice

Peace Corps is hard. There is no doubt about that. It will break you down and rebuild you over and over again. Some days you feel the highs and lows in the very core of your being. In Pre-Service Training, they teach you about the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment” – the emotional spectrum that is Peace Corps Service. At the moment, I’m at the solid stony bottom of that spectrum.

feelings-mapThose of you who talk to me on a regular basis already know: I haven’t been doing too hot these days. I wake up in the morning with a sinking sense of dread, and go to bed at night exhausted and lonely. I won’t hide the fact that I’ve flirted with the thought of throwing my hands up and getting on the first airplane home.

According to that chart I should start adjusting any day now, heading into six content months until my mid-service crisis. Before everything turns into sunshine and rainbows, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what makes Peace Corps so hard.

Everyday for the past few weeks I’ve asked myself two questions: Why am I so miserable? and What can I do to make things better? This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. R&R: Peace Corps Service is a 24/7 Job, and that is a huge weight if you take it seriously. It means that even when I’m home, by myself, in basketball shorts, watching a movie, I’m still a Peace Corps Volunteer. It means that I think twice about how I choose to relax and have fun. It means that I feel guilty when all I want to do is sit in my house, by myself, in basketball shorts, watching a movie. I know I need to carve out more time for myself to rejuvenate, and know that I’m a better Volunteer when I do.
  2. Balance: During the first few months of my service I didn’t have much on my plate work-wise, so I said yes to any project or idea that came along, I jumped on the bandwagon just to have something to do. Once I came back from In-Service Training, all of these projects and ideas launched all at once. Instead of having nothing to do, I had too much to do. I literally had at least two places to be every single day, at a minimum, and some work on top of that. I haven’t had a real day off in months. And I’m tired. Being back in site for about four weeks now, things seem to be falling in place and I’m looking forward to a full weekend off sometime soon.
  3. The Small Stuff: Common adage tells us not to sweat the small things, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer there are no small things. An off-handed comment, tripping when I’m walking, the store not having bananas – all of these feel like the worst thing. It also becomes incredibly difficult to prioritize when everything needs a solution. There are moments when tears start welling up in my eyes, and I have no idea why. This is one of the reasons I try and keep myself busy – when I’m busy I don’t have time to think about the small things.
  4. Feeling Dumb: I’ve always considered myself a smart person. I’m a quick learner, and I enjoy knowing what’s going on. I’ve never felt more stupid in my life than I do here. Because English is an official language here, most people speak some of it, but Setswana is the language of choice. There are plenty of people who don’t speak English well enough to delve into deep conversation – or the expect me to speak Setswana, refusing to speak in English. Because of this, I spend a lot of time feeling lost, being laughed at, looked down upon, or scoffed at for not understanding. And it hurts. My limited language skills immediately creates tension as I dance around the barrier trying to find the appropriate approach to take.
  5. Being Present: As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s hard not to mentally live in the future or on a different continent. You check Facebook and see all of the updates from home and realize how much you’re missing. Things might not change that much in reality – but sometimes it feels like the world will be a different place 27 months from now. You can’t stop these changes, instead you have to embrace them. Then you look at the Calendar – even though I’ve been here more than six months, it feels like a drop in the bucket. It feels like no time has really passed, and that can be a crushing feeling. I’ve tried to find closer landmarks to look forward to: Grassroots Soccer Training next week, my sister’s wedding in September.
  6. Core Expectation Number 1: Peace Corps expects you to prepare your life for a 27 month commitment. This meant moving out of my apartment, selling my car, canceling my phone contract, quitting my job, and leaving everything behind. It also means I have no Plan B. Sure, if I were to leave I would have a place to go and people to support me, but I would have to piece my life back together. Somedays I feel like I’ve prepared my life too well for this commitment, which makes me feel like I have no option but to stick it out. Maybe that was the point.
  7. circleofsupportSupport Systems: I spend a lot of time here feeling very alone, and with no place in any of the communities I have a foot in. I don’t feel integrated in Maun, and I don’t have many PCV friends. In fact, I could probably count them on one hand. The friends I do have are incredibly important to me, but they also have their own lives, their own trials. On top of this, I live with other Volunteers who seem to have huge networks of friends who are very close and very supportive. They don’t see how much of an outsider they make me feel every single day of service. I try to find support where I can, but mostly I’ve been focusing on supporting myself.
  8. Personal Growth: With all of this, I’ve had to reevaluate myself and the things that are important to me. The biggest problem is that I don’t like the person Peace Corps is making me. I’m turning into a grumpy old woman. When my values are threatened, I harden. My expectations move to the extremes, both for myself and for others. I have become less fun, less forgiving, less willing to take risks. Pieces of me that I like have been trampled. Pieces of me that I don’t like have taken center stage. I need to learn to stand up for myself, even to myself.

Last week, I had a long conversation that stuck with me and gave me a new framework for thinking about all of this. Is happiness a choice? Does a person choose to be happy? I’ve made decisions in my life before based on happiness. Several years ago, I left a job that could have turned into a career because I was truly unhappy. The life I had thereafter was certainly happier, and I realized that I value my happiness more than many other things. But happiness is not always guaranteed. I know, for a fact, that If I were to go home today, I would be happier than I am right now. However, this decision would come with many other things: regret, frustrations, disappointment. There is no way to tell how long that happiness would last or how true it would be.

The happiness from going home is my trump card. It’s an option I can keep in my back pocket as the last option. But I know that home will still be there tomorrow, and the day after that, and 800 days after that. I can always make the decision to be happy, but for now I’m making a decision to stay. I am making a choice to accept my unhappiness. I am not fighting with myself anymore. I try to find small moments of happiness each day, and even when I’m unsuccessful I accept that. For now. I make this choice with the faith that there is value in staying, that one day I will wake up with a smile on my face, that time will start running faster. I make this choice with two conditions. The first is that I can bear it. If there ever comes a time when my unhappiness is too much, or my faith in future happiness starts to waver, I can walk away. Second, I can be unhappy as long as it does not make me a bad Volunteer. When I can no long do my job here because I am unhappy, I’ll be on an airplane home.


“My courage is faith – faith in the eternal resilience of me – that joy’ll come back, and hope and spontaneity. And I feel that till it does I’ve got to keep my lips shut and my chin high, and my eyes wide – and not necessarily any silly smiling.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald 

5 thoughts on “The Happiness Choice

  1. As always, very well written. It’s amazing sometimes how accurate that cycle of vulnerability is. I honestly believe it will get better for you. It did for me. I was at a similar point to this last April. And then I somehow got out of the funk. Everything eventually jelled before the mid service crisis came. As frustrating as this life can be remember how much you’re doing and what a great volunteer you are. You may only be able to count your true friends here on one hand but we have stronger relationships than others that will last a life time. And remember to take care of yourself. I liked your last thought about only giving up if your unhappiness effects your work. Unhappiness will come and go and of course I want you to be happy but there are different levels. I think this level will pass and you’re still one of the best PCVs I know. Love you.

  2. ❤ Hi Anna, I agree with Anne that this was beautifully written. "The biggest problem is that I don’t like the person Peace Corps is making me. I’m turning into a grumpy old woman. When my values are threatened, I harden. My expectations move to the extremes, both for myself and for others. I have become less fun, less forgiving, less willing to take risks. Pieces of me that I like have been trampled. Pieces of me that I don’t like have taken center stage." is something that definitely resonated and I couldn't have captured any better. Even if you don't know it, or don't feel it, you have PCVs like me, who probably wouldn't be on those five fingers you're counting, but who cheer on your successes everyday. I didn't feel like myself until November/December of last year, the self that I want to be on center stage. And then it lasted, then it didn't. It took me a year to adjust & not feel like a transplanted flower. I think from your blogs/the brief time I meet you, you have high expectations for yourself, so be patient and kind with yourself.

    "this too will pass"

    1. Thanks for your kind words Theresa! It’s good to know that other people have had the same experiences, and gone through the same process of personal questioning. 🙂

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