‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true. (English O-level 2014, Syllabus 1128)

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true.

Let us start with the proposition that it is often not easy to do the right thing. Yet, almost by definition, it is a good thing to do the right thing. It often costs us no money to do what is morally and ethically right, but these difficult things that litter the paths of our lives often prove to be the very best things in life.

I once found a fifty dollar note fluttering about in a car park, back in primary school when my daily allowance amounted to a grand thirty cents. This find obviously was an unbelievable fortune to my young eyes, a fortune I was loath to part with. My father turned to me and asked, “What shall we do with that now?” In school, we are trained not to take something that is not ours, and so, painful as it was, I replied, “I think we should give it to the police in case someone lost his money and wants to find it again.”

This decision may not have cost me any money in a technical sense, but in the moment it certainly felt like it did. Nevertheless, my father and I headed to the police station, where I am certain the adults traded many “I’m trying very hard not to laugh” smiles while trying to act with the necessary gravitas (dignity) to properly reward the child with good intentions. The police listened to my story, and — shockingly, to my present sensibilities — told us that they would keep the money for three days, just in case someone came forward to claim the money. They told us that if the money went unclaimed, I could rightfully claim it as mine, because of my honesty.

Psychologists (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) have found that getting the approval of socially significant others — such as parents and the police — has a very significant effect on self-esteem. Our brains process this as a kind of pleasure, and indeed, on this occasion I enjoyed the collective approbation (approval/praise) of adults I both feared and respected. This experience proved to me that the best things in life are free. Incidentally, we managed to retrieve the money after the three days passed; the difficult and rewarding thing that I did indeed proved to be free.

On another occasion, I decided to help a stranger, a decision that cost me nothing and brightened the day of a complete stranger. I had been having an extremely stressful day studying in the library, when I decided to head to a snack vending machine to give myself some kind of snack boost. I was thoroughly preoccupied with panicky thoughts about the upcoming examinations while waiting for my turn. The girl in front of me stood aside with a strangely distressed look on her face while rummaging about for more coins. It was then that I noticed her choice of snack hanging off the edge of the vending machine’s shelf without being dispensed — a vending machine failure! She quickly realised that she had no coins left, and was about to leave without the snack she paid for when I told her to wait. There was an easy solution to the problem at hand. All I had to do was to buy the same snack that was hanging off the shelf — sugared peanuts — instead of the more expensive cookies I originally wanted. So, in a way, this decision not only cost me no money, it helped me save money. Her resulting smile was the ray of light I sorely needed that dark and anxious day, and I had no need for a psychologist to tell me that my brain processed this experience as pleasurable.

In our age of mass over-consumption, many of us need the reminder that the very best things in life — whether they are decisions, experiences, or objects — are often free, costing us no money. It may not always be easy, but it is a good thing, as comedian Russell Peters has famously said, to do the right thing.

(667 words)