78: The Most Valuable Lessons

78: The Most Valuable Lessons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


The Most Valuable Lessons

Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.


If you work hard for your money you deserve to have fun spending it. And spend it I did — mostly on clothes. Long, floaty dresses in a range of colours, dangly earrings, and shoes for all occasions. High, low, pointed, patent, round — whatever the pair, or the price, there was always a reason to buy.

For a few moments, clothes brought me joy, and I firmly believed they were the means to a better life. With a pink silk dress I could capture the attention of my perfect man. A tailored suit would ensure I aced the job interview. From the moment I spotted an item in a shop, lifeless on its hanger, an image of a sharper, chicer me would appear in my mind and propel me towards the till.

Some years later, with a bulging wardrobe but still no closer to contentment, I was given the opportunity to work at a primary school in Nigeria. The pay was basic but the chance to help others and explore a new country was priceless. Within a month I’d made the move and started adapting to a new culture and lifestyle.

I know that some people have epiphanies — they are suddenly struck by an urge for less. However, I wasn’t one of them. My transition to a more minimalist existence was a result of circumstance rather than intent.

It was inconvenient, and expensive, for me to get hold of the magazines and cosmetics I’d always bought in the UK so I was forced to forage for replacements. Instead of consuming one women’s glossy after another, all regurgitating exactly the same empty promises, I switched to books and never looked back. Meeting with other volunteers once a week we’d swap paperbacks — biographies, short stories, spiritual tomes — the genre didn’t matter but my rediscovery of reading did.

Cosmetics, which had previously given me no trouble in colder climes, suddenly seemed to react with the intense Nigerian heat and my skin became incredibly sensitive, causing an ugly, throbbing rash to spread across my face and down my neck. With the guidance of my new friends I replaced my large collection of beauty products, and my exhausting ten-step cleansing routine, with just two items: African black soap and coconut oil. They turned my skin around in less than two weeks and they’re the only two products I continue to use to this day.

I discovered that Nigerian women excelled at fashion, looking so much more stylish than their western sisters, and if they were on a limited budget it was never reflected in their attire. Gowns and dresses were chosen with unparalleled attention to cut and colour. Cool cottons and silks were selected in rich jewel colours to complement skin tones and carefully cut to drape rather than cling. The end result was two or three perfect outfits, tailored especially for the woman who was wearing them.

As I reduced my possessions, giving them away to the people who really needed them, the amount of pleasure I got from life increased. I no longer took hours to get ready, hunting for missing items or trying to salvage an ill-matched outfit. The constant hum of anxiety, which I’d dragged around with me since my twenties, began to abate and in its place I found freedom.

What I lost in possessions, I gained in experiences. The time I saved was put to good use. I travelled all around Nigeria — from the red stone villages of the north, smelling of dust and heat, to the hustle of Lagos in the south. I walked across the lushest most beautiful forests and played in waterfalls under dark, starry skies.

I spent three years in Nigeria, teaching underprivileged school children, and in return I learnt the most valuable lessons of all: possessions will not make you happy but people might; experiences are worth more than the world’s most amazing dress; what you lose in clutter you’ll gain in joy; don’t choose trappings, choose life.

~Celia Jarvis


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