For several days after a listening exercise for my upper-intermediate high school students about happiness, I found that the subject kept popping up in my mind. It’s like the answer to a riddle: what can’t be bought or sold, given or stolen, weighs nothing, and, although it’s free, is worth more than gold?
After listening, we’d talked about happiness—who has it and who doesn’t. These high schoolers were all university bound, and in a year or in two, depending on their age, they would take the exam allowing them access to the university, not just to continue their studies but to matriculate in a particular program, medicine or history or architecture. I thought they’d be interested to hear that a branch of study now exists called happiness studies. In American universities, you can take classes in happiness, I told them, just as you can in, oh, women’s studies, or leisure management.
But they hardly reacted. So I told them something I had read some years before that was even better: having a sister raised people’s happiness levels, in general. Did this surprise them, I asked, and could they think of an explanation?
It did not surprise them, but at the same time they didn’t believe it. I cocked my head.
One of the students spoke up then. He is a tall, good-looking boy, very polite, quiet though not shy. He’s an only child, like most of the students, and he said he used to want a brother or a sister to play with, but he no longer felt the lack of a sibling and was satisfied being an only child. A sibling wouldn’t make him any happier.
“Well,” I wondered aloud. “How could you know that?”
He shrugged. “I’m happy. I don’t need a sibling.”
“You couldn’t be any happier?”
He shook his head. “No.”
I pictured this boy with a full cup of happiness beside him, not a huge cup but nevertheless full whenever he took a sip.
“Do you think,” I asked, “that having a sister—because it’s a sister in particular we’re talking about—could have changed you so that happiness comes easier? Or that your capacity for happiness is greater?”
He shook his head. “No,” he insisted. “I really don’t need a sister.” He relaxed in his seat, leaning back.
He was missing the point, I thought, and my mind turned to people who assert they’d rather die than live under certain conditions. Life wouldn’t be worth living like that, they say, whether like that is being a double amputee, dirt poor, or simply half senile. Not to you, I think in response, but it might be to the new, wheelchair-bound you or the you rooting in garbage bins or the person you become as you lose your mind. Perhaps my student was right and he couldn’t be any happier right now, but the child he was might have been altered so that the person he became could indeed experience a deeper sense of happiness. I looked at him sitting across the room. He’d recently had a haircut and with three inches off his bangs, which he’d worn in a stiff swirl that stuck out over his forehead like the brim of a cap, he no longer had to tilt his head back quite so far to view the room. He appeared more assertive as well as more at ease.
Of all the students I’ve ever had, he is the only one who’s said he likes poetry. He is the only boy who has said he wants to marry and have children, without adding the distancing phrase, “some day.” “You want to have two kids?” I double-checked on that occasion, and he confirmed that he did. He seemed just as calmly ready to shoulder a family as he would willingly bend to lift a box or hoist a bag of groceries for someone.
I turned to a girl in class who has a younger brother. “What about you? Did you ever want a sister?”
No, she said, she got along fine with her brother, though they did compete. Over grades? I asked. Yes, she said. And are yours better? No, she answered, they were about the same. “But he works harder for his good grades. That makes me the winner, I think.” She had a self-conscious grin.
I asked if being the sister in the twosome and thus presumably contributing more to her brother’s happiness than he to hers made her the winner again or the loser. “The winner,” she said without hesitation.
I looked at the clock. Our time was up. We hadn’t gotten to the explanation yet for why a sister increases happiness. To have or to be, that is the question for another day. I quickly asked the students to describe their level of happiness. Happy, they all said, gathering up their books and rising from their seats. Then among themselves they began to complain about how tired they were, how many exams they had, and how stressed they felt. Beyond the words was the music of their voices. They filed out, and their words became a burbling flow of murmurings and whispers, with an occasional hoot of laughter like a splash from the fountain of happiness. The sound of it washed back in from the entryway and then from the hall after they were gone.
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