I heard this story from a friend I know well. Because I know her well, I know a lot about her family, so I know that she has a very close family, with very loving, generous parents who are also very loving and generous grandparents.
She told me this story about her parents.
At one point, one of their granddaughters became very interested in dollhouses (I know this stage well, because both my daughters went through very intense dollhouse stages). She had a very simple, under-furnished version of a dollhouse, and she desperately wanted a more elaborate one. She talked about how she would furnish it and arrange it and loved looking at pictures of dollhouses, dollhouse furniture, and miniatures.
So, with all good intentions, the two grandparents went out and bought a beautiful dollhouse and even more than that, they bought all the furniture for it. It was fully furnished! The little dining room table and chairs, the little bathtub and sink, even the tiny vase of flowers and various kinds of food for the kitchen.
And their granddaughter was overjoyed, and played with it for a day, and never much played with it after that.
And I was thinking…why?
Reflecting on my own daughters’ way of playing with our dollhouse—especially my younger daughter Eleanor, who was far more engaged with the dollhouse—I realized that this story perhaps illustrates an observation by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his fascinating book The Conquest of Happiness: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
I’ve thought a lot about that statement, and whether I agree with it. I’m not sure that I do agree with it, but this dollhouse example strengthens his case!
My daughters liked the process of furnishing the dollhouse. The furnishings are expensive, so they would get pieces slowly—something for a birthday, something for Christmas, or perhaps my mother would take them to the Tiny Dollhouse Store in our neighborhood to choose something as a special treat during a visit to New York City. They would yearn for something, they’d plan, and then when the time came, they’d get it.
In the meantime, they had to make do with what they had. Some children love to improvise—using an empty spool as a stool, for instance—but Eliza and Eleanor didn’t do that. They just played with whatever they had, and then whenever they got something new, they’d arrange and re-arrange it repeatedly.
And the fact is, it’s so fun to go to a dollhouse store and pick out the cunning little items. They’re so perfect and miniature! And without realizing it, and with the most loving of intentions, these grandparents had given themselves much of the fun, and taken away much of the fun.
I’m not sure that I agree with Bertrand Russell that it’s always true, but it’s certainly true that sometimes, to be without some of the things we want is an indispensable part of happiness.