The Small, Happy Life

By Brooks, David | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Small, Happy Life


Brooks, David, International New York Times


In this first batch of personal takes on how some readers found purpose in life, a surprising theme emerged.

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to send in essays describing their purpose in life and how they found it. A few thousand submitted contributions, and many essays are online. I'll write more about the lessons they shared in the weeks ahead, but one common theme surprised me.

I expected most contributors would follow the commencement- speech cliches of our high-achieving culture: dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world. In fact, a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, "was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? 'The message,' the friend replied. The message was 'we do not all have to shine.' This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared."

Young continues, "I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind. I wanted to raise children who were kind." She notes that among those who survived the Nazi death camps, a predominant quality she noticed was generosity.

"Perhaps," she concludes, "the mission is not a mission at all. ... Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning" and chances to be generous and kind. Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

Kim Spencer writes: "I used to be one of the solid ones -- one of the people whose purpose was clearly defined and understood. My purpose was seeing patients and 'saving lives.' I have melted into the in-between spaces, though. Now my purpose is simply to be the person ... who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. ... I can edit your letter. ... I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. ... I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. …

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