ONCE THERE WAS A YOUNG GIRL whose parents took her to the Shrine of the Golden Arches. There she saw an opportunity to buy a combination of food and a little toy that someone, in a fit of marketing genius, named the Happy Meal.

“May I have it, please?” she asked her parents.“I must have it. I don’t think I could live without it.”

“No,” her parents told her.“The toy is a trivial little thing that just enabled the price of this package to be raised beyond what it is really worth. It’s not in the budget. We can’t do it.”

But you don’t understand, she thought. She knew that they would not just be buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp, they would be buying happiness. She was convinced that she had a little McVacuum at the core of her soul:“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in a Happy Meal.”

So she explained, “I want that Happy Meal more than I’ve ever wanted anything before. And if I get it, I’ll never ask for anything again—ever. No more complaining. No more demanding. If you get me that Happy Meal, I’ll be content for the rest of my life.”

This seemed like a pretty good deal to her parents, so they bought it.

And it worked.

She grew up to be a contented, grateful, joyful woman. She lived with serenity and grace. Her life in many ways was hard: the man she married turned out to be a louse, and he abandoned her with three small children and no money. The kids too were a disappointment: they dropped out of school, sponged off her meager resources, and eventually left without a trace. When she was an old woman Social Security gave out, and she had to live from hand to mouth.

But she never complained. She had gotten the Happy Meal. She would think of it often: I remember that Happy Meal, she’d say to herself. What great joy I found there. Just as she had predicted, it brought her lasting satisfaction. She was grateful the rest of her life.

Does life ever work this way? You would think that after a while children would catch on, that they would say, “You know, a Happy Meal never brings lasting happiness; I’m not going to get suckered into it this time.” But it doesn’t happen. When the excitement wears off, they need a new fix, another Happy Meal. They keep buying them, and they keep not working. In fact, the only one Happy Meals bring happiness to is McDonald’s. Ever wonder why Ronald McDonald wears that grin all the time? Billions of Happy Meals sold.

Of course, only a child would be so naive. Only a child could be foolish enough to believe that a change in circumstance could bring lasting contentment.

Or maybe not. Maybe when you get older, you don’t necessarily get any smarter; your Happy Meals just get more expensive.

All day long we are bombarded with messages that seek to persuade us of two things: that we are (or ought to be) discontented and that contentment is only one step away:“use me, buy me, eat me, wear me, try me, drive me, put me in your hair.”The things you can buy for hair contentment alone are staggering: You can wash it, condition it, mousse it, dye it, curl it, straighten it, wax it if it’s growing where it shouldn’t, and Rogaine it if it’s not growing where it should.

People are healthier, cleaner, richer, and better informed than ever. We live longer, eat better, dress warmer, work less, and play more than ever in the history of the human race. But are we happier? Or are we just cleaner, healthier, better-coifed discontents? The desperate chase after whatever Happy Meal we were pursuing turns out to have been a trivial pursuit. — Love Beyond Reason (John Ortberg)