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Life lessons from a happy porter

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The temperature was more than 40 degrees celsius. Dubai in summer is no joke, and when we arrived at the airport and stepped out of the air-conditioned car, it was like stepping into a furnace.

Nonetheless a porter came running up in the blinding heat to take our bags and load them onto his trolley. He did it quickly and cheerfully, even though he was awash with perspiration. He saw me looking at him with concern, and stopped to make a wisecrack: “Sorry I’m so wet, sir – I just stepped out of the swimming pool!”

We entered the cool refuge of the terminal building with relief. Our ever-smiling porter waved enthusiastically at many people as we walked towards the check-in counter. He seemed to know pretty much every employee around him. They all waved back. He even chatted with passengers who were strangers to him, joking about how cold Dubai gets – but only indoors…

When we arrived at the check-in counter, my new friend placed all the suitcases onto the carousel, then went around to greet every single airline employee manning the various counters. He knew all their names, and they all chatted animatedly with him.

He insisted on waiting until we were sorted out and ready to go towards the immigration area. Even then, he walked alongside, joking away. The tip was optional (he’s an airline employee and the porter service is included in the fare), but I gave him the biggest tip I’ve ever given a porter. I suspect that happens to him a lot.

I asked him as we parted: “Why are you so happy?” His answer: “I am a happy person, sir. Why be unhappy? It’s useless to be unhappy.”

After I waved goodbye, I thought about this gentleman a lot over the next few hours. He is a Filipino, one of his country’s many emigrants in Dubai and all over the world. Economic difficulty no doubt made him leave his homeland. His work is physical – loading, carrying, unloading – and he does this in a very oppressive climate. Every day he has to walk out of the oven that is the outdoors into the refrigerator that is the inside, and back, dozens of times a day.

Still that man keeps smiling. All the time. Still he makes time to appreciate everyone around him and lighten their daily load a little with a smile and a compliment. I trust his employers appreciate him, for he is a gem: someone who effortlessly builds relationships and strengthens the brand – every single day. So taken was I by the experience that I realised later to my regret that I had forgotten to note down his name. Had I done so, I would have named him here and written immediately to the airline to commend him and recommend a promotion for him.

Why so? Because people like these are rare indeed. Unlike most of us, they radiate instead of absorbing. They not only accept their lives as they are, but they embrace them – they make the most of every situation. My friend’s fellow porters were all sullen and methodical – efficient enough, but unable to feel good about such a trying job.

In our families, our communities, our institutions: the happy people are pure gold. They are not always exuberant extroverts, please note: my friend certainly was, but many happy people radiate a quieter kindness which is just as effective. The point is, their energy is directed outward. Look around you. These good people exist, and they make life better for everyone. Our collective human spirit is enriched because of them.

Too many folks are the opposite of this. They expect others to make life right for them; they whine and groan about their condition, no matter how privileged; they spread ill-will and negativity; they absorb kindness without gratitude and radiate toxicity in return.

I know many well-to-do people who have it all, but still manage to look stressed-out and feel victimised every day. They always have someone to blame for their perceived plights and slights; they bring everyone around them down. They kill all signs of enthusiasm in their ambit. These characters are the opposite of my airport friend; they should be avoided and kept away from positions of authority.

So how are you feeling today, and will you be adding to the happiness in the world or depleting it?

(Sunday Nation, 10 April 2016)

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