Happiness researcher: ‘Everyone was just so broken’


Happiness researcher: ‘Everyone was just so broken’

People's capacity not only to survive trauma but to emerge stronger on the other side is what really inspires him, says Johannes de Villiers, a journalist and one of South Africa's leading mindfulness practitioners and happiness researchers. ANNELIESE BURGESS spoke to him.


“HAPPINESS, or joy, is not about people who sit and eat candy floss and watch Leon Schuster movies. Joy is a way of living where you stop resenting your life for being flawed and imperfect. Because if you wait for your life to be perfect before you are happy, you will wait for a very long time."

This is according to Johannes de Villiers, a journalist and one of South Africa's leading happiness researchers. He has been delving into meditation and mindfulness for over two decades. It all began with a “hippie phase", which he says might not be that evident considering his current clean-shaven appearance.

In 2000, he went to London to make some money because he wanted to travel to India and the Himalayas. Then, quite by chance, he discovered a Buddhist organisation offering meditation classes.

“Thursday evenings, we would meet and drink peppermint tea, and someone would talk about the four ways of the Buddha. But the thing that hooked me wasn't all the exotic stuff, it was the meditation."

On returning to South Africa, he wanted to continue his meditation practice and discovered the Dharma Centre in Robertson.

“Heila Downey is probably the most interesting woman who almost nobody in South Africa knows about – the only Zen master in the world who was born in Africa. I started going there on weekends, basically living the life of a Zen monk. In another life, I would have been a monk, except that I was in South Africa and had to earn a living, so I started working at Die Burger and later at Rapport and Huisgenoot (where he still is)."


“I had this parallel life. On weekends, I would sit and meditate in a Korean kimono, and during the week, I would write about Leandie du Randt's love life. It was schizophrenic, but I later realised it was a good thing because that's how I got the offer to write my first book on mindfulness, Kalmte in die malle gejaag. I tell the story of myself and my Zen master and all the people I have met over the years.

“I'm sure there are one or two churches somewhere in the east of Pretoria that will still burn my books if they get their hands on them, but something else happened: I was invited to come and speak all over the platteland."


A few years later, a new book followed. With a new focus – happiness.

“Over the past 25 years, happiness has emerged as a new field of scientific research. The Positive Psychology movement began with Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, who, in the late nineties, made an influential speech that acknowledged that psychologists know everything that can go wrong with people; that they know all about trauma, depression, anxiety, grief, and addiction, but they have never tried to understand what constitutes happiness, gratitude, and contentment.

“And then, like with all my books, I immersed myself in the subject by talking to people to understand their wisdom – in this case, people as far removed from each other as survivors of the war in Bosnia and Serbia, nuns in Assisi, and monks in Thailand."

Some of the most interesting experiences, he says, came from people who had essentially returned from the dead.

“One person I talked to had survived an execution. He was made to kneel at a mass grave in Serbia, but something went wrong with the gun, and he woke up in the grave among all the bodies. His first sensation was an enormous feeling of gratitude. He told me he almost wanted to go and thank the executioner because he would never again in his life not be grateful for a single moment because, after that experience, everything was a gift."

De Villiers says there is a “switch" that flicks in some people that allows them to “come home to their own lives".


Losing it

Before Covid, De Villiers was happily running a yoga studio in Stellenbosch and was putting the finishing touches to his lifelong dream of having a yoga and meditation retreat – in Stanford.

“And then Covid hit. And the last thing anyone wanted then was a place where a whole lot of people were exercising together and breathing over each other. And my dream was shattered."

He decided to study French, something he had always wanted to do, and that now seemed possible in the strange new Covid world, but the only place that would accept him was the University of the Free State. And so, he found himself arriving in Bloemfontein “with his pot plants and two dogs".

And then Bloem enchanted him. “I had decided to spend a year in self-imposed exile, but I loved the place," he says.

Then he started offering meditation courses in Bloem. “I am pretty sure I was the only one doing this between Worcester and Vereeniging,” he says. “People were coming from Kimberley, Vereeniging, from Molteno in the Eastern Cape.

“And you would think it would be the arty-farties, not the guy who was working at Tiger Wheel & Tyre, or the primary school teacher or the dentist or the person who could not find a job," he tells of the wide variety of people who came to sit on the black cushions in his meditation room.

And the invitations started streaming in from all over the platteland.

“It has been such a privilege for me... There are many people who offer mindfulness courses in middle-class neighbourhoods in Cape Town or Johannesburg, and yes, First World problems are real problems. But now, in my mid-life, I find myself in Bloemfontein and in the small towns of the Free State platteland. And for the first time, I can see what state collapse really means. Everything that could be stolen has been stolen. The imprint of Ace Magashule is everywhere. And the people who still live here are the ones who couldn't get away. There are no opportunities, no jobs, no schools, no streets, no infrastructure, or hospitals. And you can't tell people in a situation like that to ‘look on the bright side’. That's just vulgar.

“The technical definition of mindfulness is to be aware of what is happening in your life, without judgment. To reach a point where you don't measure your life against some imagined ideal of how it should be, but to become comfortable with the life that has been given to you and to work with it. It's a very experiential thing, so it's difficult to explain it in words, but when you go through those meditation exercises and interact with people, there's a kind of vulnerability and caring that emerges. And when people connect with that feeling, they are, strangely, more inclined to want to be involved and reach out to others.

“So, we practise certain brain habits. That's where the meditation instructions come in. We practise gratitude techniques and mindfulness techniques to help you come home to your life. It sounds very cheesy and all Chappie philosophy, but it's about teaching yourself disciplines to not constantly see your life as something you have an adversarial relationship with and something you need to fix."


Post-traumatic growth

It was precisely in his own time of mourning, after the losses of Covid, that he decided to write his third book, the one closest to his heart.

“It was the beginning of 2021. Everyone was just so broken. Everyone was depressed and wanted to divorce. First, there was the trauma of the disease and the isolation, then the loss of people who had died, then the knock-on effect on the economy. Everything was just crazy. Then I wrote to my publisher and said I wanted to talk to people whose lives were now completely broken, because I wanted to know: how the hell do you live in a broken world?"

De Villiers shares how surprised he was by research done on so-called post-traumatic growth.

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun were two American researchers who worked with prisoners of war held by the Viet Cong for two, three, five years, and who were physically and psychologically tortured day after day, watching their friends die around them. The US government warned their families that they could never recover from this trauma. But the researchers found a resilience among a large group of these veterans that stunned them. (Two of them would later become US presidential candidates, among them John McCain.)

“When the researchers wanted to publish their findings, no one wanted to publish it because it sounded impossible.

“Then they repeated it later with parents who had lost kids, and time and time again they heard this thing from people who had been through severe trauma and who said it made something in them stronger. Of course, we're not talking about bounce-back resilience like a mattress. If your son has been eaten by a shark, you can and will never again be the same person you were before that trauma. And the second proviso for post-traumatic growth is that people will only go through intense dark struggles for a period of two to ten years before discovering the inner-strength reserve they didn't have before."

He tells of the woman who was abducted from her Johannesburg home and experienced terrifying physical and sexual violence. “She's a psychologist, and she says she's a 20 times better psychologist after the experience because she now understands trauma."

He speaks of a “rearrangement of values" that takes hold in people. “Things that used to seem important are no longer. People find they suddenly want to help other people to heal and to overcome grief. There is a sense of vocation and a new realisation of community. And it's pain that gets you out there. And naturally, anyone would rather be without that pain, but ultimately it's pain that results in the growth."

Community trauma

And then, the conversation becomes even more interesting because De Villiers says post-traumatic growth is not only applicable to individuals.

“When we look at a society like ours that is going through such a collective trauma, I am amazed every day by the inner strength of South Africans. In many other countries, a society going through what we have gone through would have been paralysed. I think the historical traumas we have experienced contribute to this ‘get up and carry on' mentality. And again, it's not a ‘life hands you lemons, and now you make lemonade' kind of thing. It's an ‘I have experienced in myself the ability to survive when life knocks me down, and that's why I know can do it again.'

“And this is post-traumatic growth.

“I see it here in Bloemfontein, where I live. The decay, the falling apart, is traumatic for people, but in the wake of it there is a civil society that rises up. It's a kind of post-traumatic growth. Our values become rearranged. And there is a broader sense of community, a sense of purpose. People start asking: how can I help, and what can I contribute?"

Our conversation touches on inter-generational trauma.

“We damage each other because we were damaged in the previous generation by people who were damaged by a generation before that. And I hope that if we become aware of it, we may stop the cycle. Because as we sit here, we are traumatised by high levels of violence, terrible poverty, and the tremendous indignity of the circumstances under which so many people must live. Will we pass on that trauma to the next generation?

“Because pain can turn us into a bunch of bullies, or it can transform us. The people who come to listen to me in the small towns in the platteland are mostly Afrikaans and 95% white. And there is more to those people than you give them credit for. If you talk to people in a way where you try to understand them without jumping in with accusations of historical guilt, you realise there is this deep willingness to build and reach out and help.

“We have forgotten how to speak in a language other than anger," says De Villiers, referring to the loss people feel.

“That loss is not a longing for apartheid. It is a longing for something we had as recently as ten years ago — a kind of hope. Anger is a secondary emotion. We don't want to feel sadness; we don't want to feel loss, so we react with anger. There is no other way for me to explain our high crime rate and the terrible levels of domestic violence other than that we are a traumatised society that can only speak in anger."

And then he laughs. Again. “You know those people in their leafy suburbs in Constantia in Cape Town who turn up their noses at me because I now live here in Bloemfontein... I laugh at them because I think we, in the broken parts of the country, are far ahead of them. We are already working on solutions to problems they don't even know they have."


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