Very Poor and Very Happy

“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” – Ernest Hemingway

I love the above line from Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. I admire the simple co-existence of the two words, ‘Poverty’ and ‘Happiness.’

Hemingway does not say ‘We were very happy despite being poor.’ He doesn’t portray poverty as a hurdle between him and the merrier side of life.

Neither does he put on an underdog act and then reveal how he went on to become an accomplished writer. Instead, he gracefully accepts that he was both – poor and happy at once. 

Are poverty and happiness mutually exclusive?

Despite his lack of money and poor living conditions, these were the happiest years of Hemingway’s life, as well as the most artistically productive. [Source]

As most of us strive toward earning sufficient wealth, we somehow believe that anybody who doesn’t have enough money must be pitiful.

It’s easy to assume that owning material possessions is the key to joy, whereas those who lack them must be living a miserable life. But is that really the case? Because in a way, every other person is poorer than somebody else.

Money plays an essential role – but what beyond that?

Poverty is not a noble state to be in (although scarcity teaches its virtues and lessons). But similarly, money is also just the means to bigger, important things.

But once your survival and any anxiety-inducing possibilities are taken care of, money sort of loses its sheen and charm. You know that it’s not ‘the goal’ anymore, and perhaps you need to look beyond it.

So, can you be very poor and very happy?

Here’s a theory: The poor often don’t have much concern for what they lack – not as much as those who look down upon them. Rather, they aren’t bothered by what’s absent, but they’re certainly grateful for the little that they possess. As long as the basic needs are fulfilled, they go on joyfully.

Aren’t we all poor, anyway?

We aren’t all millionaires (or even close). Not all of us have big homes and fast cars. Our bank accounts aren’t as stashed as we’d want them to be. We make do anyway.

And yet, don’t we laugh with our families over meals, have friends to rely on, and little things like desserts or sunsets to be grateful for?

Even if someday you grow richer and reflect on these days, you won’t be able to deny (as Hemingway said) that you were very poor and very happy.