The stuff of happiness

Growing up, I didn’t have much, so I remember all of it. And that may be a promise of future joy in my life.

Mikhail Metzel/AP/File
Children play in fresh snow at a Moscow kindergarten.

I was a happy child. I’m basing that on the fact that I’m grinning in all five existing photos of me as a baby, and also because that was the report from the front lines. I was a “handful,” mind you, but I was happy. 

I think happiness is something you can be born with, like red hair or a musical bent. But also, my parents didn’t mess it all up. They were on the same page regarding whatever discipline I got, and never fought with each other in my ken. In general they led me to believe that everything was in good solid hands, and that I could expect certain outcomes and didn’t have to guess, or play the odds, or one against the other. Also, I didn’t have all that much stuff.

I had plenty. I had everything I needed. That would be food and affection and limits and drawing paper and rules about using extra drawing paper underneath so I wouldn’t mark up the dining room table, and other rules. I was appreciated and hugged and laughed with and laughed at, and I had a clear idea what I could get away with: nothing, according to me; everything, if my older siblings are to be believed.

I was thinking about that when my husband, Dave, was hunting around for a pencil sharpener. He was looking for the plug-in model but had to settle for one of those little square numbers you have to actually shove the pencil into and turn all by yourself with your other hand. It worked great! It reminded me of back-to-school shopping when I hadn’t even been to school yet.

What a day. Mom had a list from John Marshall Elementary, as I was to enter first grade there. We went to the five-and-dime store and started checking things off the list. 

I remember one of the items was a pencil case. That was a little zippered bag – was it plastic? Did they even have plastic then? And pencils (No. 2, five of them). 

And one of those little square pencil sharpeners. It worked great! There’d be that little crunch inside, tiny violence in the box, and even the scent was sharp: wood and carbon, earthy and pungent, as though everything you would ever make might be in there. 

And a composition book. Those had a mottled black-and-white cover. And a big square gum eraser. And a ruler.

This was the most extended period of acquiring things that would be mine that I had ever experienced. The only other way to get new things was to grow out of old things – and then you were likely to get your sister’s even older things – or get toys on your birthday or Christmas, and not that many of those. 

Man, we were flying through that list! My pencil case was blue. Why would I remember that with fondness decades later? Because I didn’t have a lot of stuff.

If I’d had a lot of stuff, I wouldn’t remember any of it. I wouldn’t have cared about it. Happiness comes cheap, and a lot of the time that’s the only way it comes.

As an adult, I romanticized the days when people my mother’s age could have been delighted with a Christmas orange in their stockings. I knew that kind of joy was a thing of value you can get only by not piling on.

We’re likely to be coming up on those days of value again. Our wasteful ways will have to come to an end soon. We can’t keep pirating unearned energy out of the rocks. We won’t be able to afford the stuff we thought we could when the big vein was being mined and we were living off the jackpot like it would last for all time.

The good news is that our children will be happier.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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