This article was originally published September 18, 2012.
When I was seven years old, I learned how to ride a bike. I learned on my brother’s old, stripped-down, J.C. Higgins. It was a pathetic little thing possessing no fenders, no handle bar grips, no hand brakes, no . . . just about everything. Then, of course, I wanted to ride the bike every chance I could get, but since it was my older brother’s pride and joy, well, you can guess how that worked out.
Yearning for a vehicle of my own, I tried to save money to purchase my own bike, but at age seven, I only earned 50 cents a week allowance and I usually spent 40 cents of it on a trip to the movies. Every week, I was torn between watching Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the other heroes of my youth—and saving for a bike.
Mom saw my dilemma, and after watching me eyeball my brother’s bike for the thousandth time, came up with a plan.
My grandmother had recently married a rather wealthy lawyer who was so desirous to show his love for her that he gave her a 200-pound ironing machine (the kind usually used at hotels). Grandma appreciated the gift, but had other ideas. She figured she could use her newfound wealth to send her laundry not through a giant ironing machine but to a professional establishment. So, Grandma hired a moving company to haul the thing to our house.
“With your bad back and all,” Grandma explained to my mother, “I’m betting this newfangled contraption will be just the ticket.”
In truth, the machine was absolutely terrific—if you happened to work for Barnum & Bailey and needed to touch up a tent. Unfortunately, the huge appliance was hard to operate, “ate” shirts and blouses, and only made Mom’s back feel worse. Eventually, the monster was moved to our basement where it sat next to my brother’s bike—the one I so sorely coveted.
“I bet,” Mom explained one night over dinner, “we could take that silly ironing machine that is just gathering dust in the basement and auction it off.”
“We could certainly use the money,” Dad replied.
“Yes, and I know just what to do with it. Billy has grown too big for his bike so I figure we can sell the ironing machine at auction and then turn around and buy Billy a bigger, better bike.”
This wasn’t going well for me.
“And then Kerry can have Billy’s old bike.”
Things were looking up.
Now, you might be thinking: Why did my mom’s plan end with me owning the hand-me-down bike while my brother Billy, who already had a bicycle, would get the new (to him) bike? Those of you who are a younger sibling know the answer. As a kid brother, it was my job to recycle cast-offs. My clothing store, for example, was my older brother’s chest of drawers. And when it came to sporting goods, well, I was thrilled with the idea of getting my brother’s bike. It was a bike. I didn’t have a bike. Was there any other way to get one?
Two weeks later, when the local auctioneer placed the ironing machine up for bid, Dad turned to me and explained that, judging from the crowd of hayseeds that had gathered, it was doubtful that anyone would want the curious offering we had placed on the block.
“We’ll need to get about fifteen dollars if we expect to turn around and buy one of the bikes that are going up for auction,” Dad explained. “I don’t think anyone around here even knows what that machine is.” Now I was worried. Would I ever get a bike of my own?
Dad was right. At first, the curious apparatus just sat there while people poked at it with their index fingers. Perhaps a carburetor had fallen off a passing spaceship. Eventually, the auctioneer read the instructions from the metal plaque soldered to the body. “Why, it’s a fancy ironing machine,” he announced with an air of achievement. Soon the bidding was off and running until a woman with a large feathered hat bid fifteen dollars.
When we returned home later that day, my brother Billy jumped for joy at the sight of the second-hand Schwinn bike Dad had purchased while I rushed to the basement to claim my windfall. I was ecstatic. At last, a bike of my own!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t ride my bike just then because it was now raining and the dirt road in front of our house had turned into a river of mud. Since the bike didn’t have fenders, if I ventured out onto 25th street, it would paint an ugly brown stripe up my back, neck, and head.
Finally, after a week of unrelenting drizzle, the sun dried the road enough to be useable. I hopped on Billy’s old bike (I still thought of it that way) and rode around frenetically while shouting and yipping for joy. It was a dream come true. For about five minutes. Then I came to the realization that I didn’t really have any place to go (I was seven. Where would I go?) Nor did I have any smooth surfaces to take me there—just a bunch of rutted hills that led to more rutted hills. Plus, the bike only had one gear. It was really hard to pump. In fact, it was so hard that one day, as I tried to get up speed to shoot across the slimy, hand-hued wood bridge that crossed the creek near our house, I skittered off the bridge and into a muddy stream—turning myself into a ball of mud and slime and ruining my brand-new white corduroy pants. So, I parked the stupid bike where the ironing machine once sat until I eventually outgrew the thing and my mother gave it to Goodwill.
This wasn’t the last time I yearned for something I was convinced would bring me happiness, only to discover I was dead wrong. (If you’ve ever saved up for a Slinky, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) You’d think that after a string of disappointing purchases we’d all have learned that owning things doesn’t exactly guarantee happiness.
Unfortunately, the vivid advertisements that pump out of our TV sets at the rate of about 100,000 a year continue to preach otherwise. Copywriters tell us that buying things will bring us all sorts of spectacular benefits. For instance, when I was a teenager, the hair product Brylcreem was said to make you so attractive that women would chase after you, wrestle you to the ground, and run their fingers through your hair—something that I thought sounded mighty promising at the time—but that never actually panned out for me.
But then again, it’s not as if having more money (and the things that go with it) never helps. For instance, a recent study revealed that happiness does actually go up with income—to a point. And then it levels off. Not having enough to pay the rent or get your teeth fixed wears on you, so happiness rises with an infusion of cash. But when you reach a certain level of owning stuff, your happiness quotient stays the same. More stuff doesn’t boost your score. That is, researchers found, unless you do a couple of different things with the extra money. You can use it to create memorable family experiences or to help others. When you do one or both of these, more money can indeed yield more happiness.
At some level, we all understand this concept. But then again, at a deeper, more visceral level, we think: Yeah, I know more money won’t make me happier, but with more money I’d be in Paris being the same degree of happy, and maybe even driving a sports car. It only stands to reason that driving a sports car in Paris creates a higher order of happiness than driving a Honda in Omaha. Meaning, of course, that try as we might, we can’t find a way to believe that owning more toys doesn’t guarantee more happiness.
Last week, I witnessed for myself the serving-others aspect of the recent research finding. My twelve-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, was dusting shelves for her mother while her friend stood by in tennis gear waiting to go play doubles at a nearby court. Rachel’s three-year-old sister, Lizzy, was toddling behind her, and after Rachel dusted each shelf, Lizzy would plead: “Help me!” Rachel would then lift Lizzy who, in turn, would drag her miniature duster over the same surface. To me, it was precious. Nevertheless, you’d figure that since Lizzy wasn’t actually helping move the job along, Rachel would ditch her baby sister in favor of finishing sooner and playing tennis. But she didn’t hurry. You could tell by the broad smile on her face that she took genuine pleasure from indulging her little sister.
“Rachel enjoys helping others more than doing just about anything,” her mother explained. “She learned that at an early age.”
What a blessing to have learned at such a young age that serving others (be it with your extra resources or your time) can be a great source of happiness. This idea, of course, can’t be sold through infomercials nor sponsored by celebrities, so it won’t spread across the country like the latest design in running shoes. In fact, unless the world experiences some sort of cataclysmic upheaval, one of the most important principles ever known to humankind will continue to be overshadowed by a deluge of messages that suggest we can’t really be happy unless we own things.
But then again there’s no knowing for sure. An ironing machine might be just what you need. A new bike could really help you out. The hair product might even make your hair shine. But then again, maybe all of these things will let you down. Most assuredly, none of them can be counted on to bring you anything as important as happiness.
You want happiness? Use your time and resources to genuinely and freely serve others: visit a shut in, read to a sick friend, compliment a coworker on a job well done, write a thoughtful note, or take homemade cookies to your grandparents (one of Rachel’s favorites).
In short, find a way to bring others happiness. It’s the fast track to joy.