Thomas the Tank Engine, as much as it pains me to say this, totally got it right. See, Thomas isn’t a Really Happy Engine. Thomas is a Really Useful Engine — and he’s happy when and because he’s useful.

This is true of absolutely everyone, everywhere. And it’s part of a huge epiphany to my wife and I. It came after we read a horribly moving post on HuffPo, but I loathe linking to HuffPo because they have no concept of mercy for someone using an older computer, so I found the original: Why I Make Terrible Decisions.

Now, I originally sent this to my wife under the title “If You Want to Feel Rich, Read This.” That’s because my wife and I are constantly feeling this weird tension between having crazy awesome stuff like an on-counter deep fryer, a machine that turns bananas into ice cream, and an app that beams more kids’ programming into my Kindle Fire than my son could ever watch — and being frequently required to work after we’ve put the kid to bed in order to pay the bills on time.

Compared to Linda Tirado, the soul who wrote that blog post, however, we have it really good — and while I thought initially that it was because we’re not eating microwave burritos or missing any teeth, my wife (in her typically wise way) saw the truth more clearly. It’s because we feel like our decisions matter.

Here’s the important part, in case you missed it:

You have to understand that we know that we [the truly poor] will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever.

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s.

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope.

I highly encourage all of you to go read the whole thing; it’s incredibly honest and brutal. The point that my wife found inside of it is hidden — hidden, but incredibly important. I’ve often heard people say that the things in life that made them feel the best about themselves were the things they did for other people. In my life:

  • Jon Junell’s Eagle Scout project, where we re-lubricated all of the fire hydrants in Sequim so that the fire department didn’t have to. (I’ll never forget breaking a huge hydrant wrench with a flying kick — Jon’s comment was “Where was the Hadoken for that?”)
  • Volunteering to bring food orders from the LDS Bishop’s Warehouse in Kent down to several families in Olympia who needed them.
  • Volunteering to clean the local Olympia soup kitchen with a bunch of students from Evergreen.

I could go on, but you get the point. I think that in America, we have this notion that happiness comes from being free and being able to get the things we want — but America is the least happy nation in the developed world. I think that may be because we’ve lost track of the simple lesson that Thomas the Tank Engine was made from the ground up to deliver: happiness comes from feeling useful and meaningful.

My life is useful and meaningful. I serve my wife and my son. I also serve the Church by teaching Sunday School, and by being the Building Representative for my ward. I serve a goodly number of writing clients by providing small businesses with a high-quality writing service for a decent price. I serve my son’s school by being one of the most regular providers of snacks for his kindergarten class, and attending many outings as a chaperone.

And the things that make me feel the worst in the entire world are those times when someone tries to convince me that my life isn’t useful and meaningful. When my step-mother-in-law tells me that unless I get a second job and work 60 hour weeks and buy a house for my wife and son, I need to “man up“. When some random stranger at Lowe’s tells me that I’m a bad father because I’m carrying my kid around on my shoulders (seriously!?!?) When someone is wrong on the Internet, and tries to convince me that only stupid people believe in Keynesian economics.

Any time someone tries to attack the things that you consider to be useful and meaningful about your life — in my case, my decision to put family and child first and my firm belief that conservative economic theory is the major contributing factor to our social and economic condition — it makes you feel crappy. Because feeling good about your life doesn’t come from having a deep fryer or even a fresh whip — it comes from being a Really Useful Engine.

I’m still honestly working on how to apply this particular insight in my day-to-day life, but I think it involves spending less time playing Bloons Tower Defense 5 and even more time meaningfully supporting the people and places I love. I’m sure there will be more on this later. 🙂