One of my kids had a play date on the horizon. I entertained his reminders and countdowns for a full week until the joyful day arrived and my son announced, “I am SO excited for my play date!” and he skipped out the door to school. It got me thinking about the ease in which happiness seems to come into the heart of a child. They express an unabashed joy over the simple things. Things like balloons, swimming pools, individually packaged snacks and puppies. They appreciate what we grownups refer to as “the little things in life.” And then the little people morph into big people and us big people seem to need much grander gestures – more bells and whistles – to find the same level of excitement. Things like a new car, a bigger house, more money, a younger wife. Why does this happen? Where does the happiness for the little things go?
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about going out to dinner was that I would be allowed to order a kiddie cocktail – a Shirley Temple with extra maraschino cherries. It always came with a toothpick umbrella. And if I was very lucky, (and my mom wasn’t paying attention), I could get away with ordering a second Shirley Temple. I stirred the red sugar juice into the bubbly clear sprite with my straw and watched it all blend into the most perfect pink. I felt happiness. I felt joy. And I collected all the toothpick umbrellas in a special drawer in my room.
Sleepovers were another source of happiness for me. I got to giggle and whisper into the late night with a girlfriend until someone’s parents threatened to take “fill-in-the-blank” home if we didn’t “go-to-sleep immediately-and-I-mean-it!” It was the best! Waking up in the morning and seeing your friends eating breakfast in their pajamas was so cool. You got to see the color of their toothbrushes and the kind of toothpaste they used. It was totally worth that terrible, grouchy exhausted feeling that took over the second you got into your parents car and your little body decided that the two hours of sleep was not sufficient to even remotely function for the rest of the day.
There’s an innocence to childhood that seems to wash off of us as we begin to age. Maturing seems to be the slow killer of our belief in everything magical (the good guy always wins; the tooth fairy brings the dollar; your parents never have sex…) I try my best to maintain the magic in my house, but the reality is, my kids are getting older. They read the paper. They ask me about the death penalty, the Holocaust, and the long term effects of people who eat McDonalds. They are seduced by headlines and playground gossip. And alas, I am married to an engineer who is not only a black and white thinker, but has always been suspicious of the tooth fairy and non-fiction books.
When I picked my son up from his play date, he was full of chatter and smiles. He’d had a great time. I had spent the day busy, overwhelmed, running errands, making and going to appointments, my head filled with the usual have tos and need to get tos. But when we were driving home and he was reliving each detail with me, (snack, game, snack, legos, snack, Wii, snack…) I felt a lightness in me. I felt a happiness inside. Listening to my son relay the simple things – the little things – that gave him joy that day, gave me joy as well. Maybe we grownups aren’t so lost after all. Maybe the happiness found in the little things isn’t gone. Quite possibly it’s just waiting to be noticed. And we just need to pay attention.