I have a very distinct memory of being absolutely beside myself as child. My mum, being concerned with my emotional outburst (and probably not knowing what else to do) asked me to write down what she could do to give me a happy life. I stopped crying and began to put pen to paper, my eyes slowly becoming alight with imagination. I still remember how she held that shoddy piece of lined paper in her hands and said, quietly bemused ‘Is that it?’. In my grand and bold quest for happiness I had requested (wait for it) a vegetable patch and a dog.
It’s funny how, as children, we don’t really set the bar very high for what will make us happy. Inevitably there will always be the girl who sulks because daddy won’t buy her the latest polly pocket set (or if she’s anything like me she will have asked for a Roboraptor and roller-skates), or the little boy who is crying is heart out for the latest power rangers figure (or whatever it is these days!). But on the whole, I remember being a very happy and joyful child, and not for any material reason. I have so so many bright and warm memories of that time in my life, and these memories aren’t of achievements, possessions, or status. But they’re of people.
I remember playing ‘mushrooms’ with my sister where we would get out of the bath and put towels over our bodies in front of the fire and pretend to be mushrooms (turns out it’s a great game). I remember my dad carrying me on his shoulders and holding me upside down, and tickling me until my stomach hurt from laughing. I even remember eating spaghetti with just my mouth because my friend dared me to (yep, childhood me had no shame). I have so many memories of always singing, dancing and having fun (except when lamenting for my vegetable patch and dog of course).
And yet – in comparison to my life now, the world might say I had very little cause to be so happy. I mean – I had no first class honours degree for a start (which is an immediate pathway to happiness and success, right? Spoiler alert: it’s not). I had no flashy gadgets, not even one of those fancy colourful leapfrog devices that came before the tablets took over. But what I did have, and what I think most children have, was a heart that recognised the intrinsic happiness and joy that comes from spending time with other people, letting your hair down and just having fun.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we don’t do this now. Many of you reading this will be thinking hey- I’m a student – I AM the party – I live for other people! And hey, that’s great. I’m not doubting you. But I also know that for many of us, it’s so easy to see our social lives as an ‘add on’ to the ‘real’ important stuff of life. You know, the stuff that ‘really matters’. I know for me when I’m planning my week, I often have to stop and ask myself, ‘Ok Liz, you have no social events going on this week, what are you going to do about it?’. Because in reality, I’m often a fool to the lie that fulfilment and life is primarily about doing and succeeding. But what if it’s not?
I once read a story of a man who asked his son, ‘When you’re older, and you’re looking back on your life, what would you rather have around you – your medals, achievements, and awards, or people who you love?’. While this is an extreme example, it does make you think. So often we prize money, possessions, status and job prospects at the expense of forming deep relationships and community with others – or at the expense of doing something we truly love. I challenge you to look back at the simple joys of childhood, and think ahead to how fleeting the pleasures and rewards of wealth and status will be, and ask yourself – is it worth it?
“When I was five years old, my father always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” John Lennon.