“Let’s do an exercise,” my husband says. It is a something he last did 20 years ago, at Harvard; this is the piece he wrote about it at the time.
Dinner is over. Our friend Musa, the scientist, says he thinks that he has heard of this exercise. Tonight, the conversation has ranged from Neal Stephenson’s new book Seveneves, to epigenetics, the state of the economy, social media outrage, Syria and the role of oil in geopolitics. A half glass pools darkly in the bottom of the bottle of Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon, all that is left, and it’s time to move on.
My husband leaves the table to fetch a piece of paper from the printer and a plastic dustbin. He cuts the paper into 24 rectangles and writes words in each. Each of us receives 8 pieces, and on each is written one word:
He places the dustbin on the table, between me and Musa. “Now,” he says , “these, broadly, are the elements that go into making a person happy. Take a look at them.”
I place my eight pieces in two neat rows of four in front of me. I already have an idea about which ones matter more than others.
“There’s no way you can have all of these at the same time. One of them has to go. Crunch it up and throw it away.”
Musa points out that, for him, friendship and family are one and the same. What is the meaning of each of these words? What is the context? Are we talking sufficiency, or necessity?
“The words mean whatever they mean to you,” says my husband. “There’s no right or wrong answer. You have to get rid of one.”
Hmm. I examine the papers. There’s an obvious candidate to be thrown first, one to which I devote less attention than anything else. But what is this question about, really? Surely, if this is about making hard choices, it is about choosing those aspects of our lives to which we devote energy and attention? All of a sudden, the answer is clear. I take one, squash it into a ball, and throw it away.
Why? Health is necessary for happiness; health is everything. But it’s not something over which I have ever had much control. I’ve had asthma my entire life; I will never not know the subtle angst of finding myself in a self-payment gap when I pick up my chronic medication. Beyond choosing not to pick up a smoking habit, there was never much choice in that. Life and death are a lottery; good people are diagnosed with cancer or drop dead from heart attacks despite making all the healthy choices they could.
The other frown and purse their lips, then scrunch and toss. “But you can’t still fit in everything,” my husband says. “Now you have to toss something else.”
This is easy for me, much easier than it is for the other two, because this was going to be my first choice before I reframed the question. I scrunch up spirituality and throw it in the bin. Though I spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, and what it means to be good, I am not religious. My husband is an atheist. Spirituality in the churchgoing, meditating sense is not something to which I devote much energy.
Of course, other words have to go too. That is the point of all of this: reducing the things that matter in your life to their essence. Community (to which I am more attached than you might think, though I think of “community” as my social media world rather than community in the conventional sense) is followed by career, which was my world at the time when I could work 16 hours a day because I had nothing else in my life, but no longer matters as much now that I am happy and married.
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. There’s something powerful about this small, physical act of destruction. Merely crossing out the words or doing this electronically would not be the same.
Four pieces of paper are left. Family, personal development, friendship and financial. One of them has to go. But which?
Faces are pulled. Explanations made. “It doesn’t matter,” my husband reminds us. “There is no right or wrong. These are the things that make you happy.”
In the end, we are left with our three pieces of paper. I examine mine. Family is an obvious one, the most obvious of all. Personal development is there, because I would not want to live in a world where I was not intrigued and excited by something new every single day.
It is the third piece of paper that surprises the others, and me too, because it isn’t actually that important to me, and it has never factored in any serious way as a condition for happiness.
The word is cold and hard. I hate it. It doesn’t belong there with the other two, and certainly not with the choices made by my dinner companions, who both had no trouble getting rid of it.
My husband has exactly the same choices he made 20 years ago; mine is anchored very firmly in my experiences of the five and a half years that have passed since I first had dinner in this house, and first met Musa. My husband and I both had significant others then, and neither of us would ever have imagined we would end up together. Amazing how things change.
I feel I must explain. I tell them that not so long ago, I gave away large amounts of money. To business partners, friends, charitable causes. I gave it away because money represented an assumption that there was some kind of future for me, and I wanted to die. No, not die – that’s too dramatic – I just wanted to not be alive. The world beyond my 40th birthday was a grey fog so thick I could see nothing through it. Nobody needs money when they are dead, I used to reason, and I might as well make someone else happy while I can.
Even after my 40th birthday, the addiction to giving away money to make me feel good when I sense the onset of self-loathing and despair has persisted, and I have to guard against it. The moment I stop caring about having money for a future in which I might need it is the moment I know that I have slipped back into the murky pit in which I floundered for so long.
So, in this strange way, money has become something that is not necessary for happiness, but a canary in the coalmine of my dark self.
Here’s the part where I suggest that you this exercise for yourself. Cut up the paper and write down the words. Crunch them up and throw them away one by one. The words that you have left, the elements of happiness, may well surprise you.