She treated her job, and all of the relatively meager responsibilities that went with it, as if she was sitting in the Oval Office. Things had to be done right. Her desk reflected her single-mindedness: It was inevitably uncluttered (except for paper), and home to only one personal item, a picture of Jesus.

I wound up getting to know her a bit, and we talked from time to time. Perhaps I should say that she talked, and I listened.

She liked to talk about her daughter, who had some type of developmental problem but seemed happy in the photos Irene loved to show off. She loved her husband and visited him often, working her job schedule into the prison’s visiting hours. He had been convicted of something, although now I don’t remember what it was, but that didn’t bother her much; she just talked about how great things would be when he finished this prison term (his second since they were married) and the family was back together again.

Irene wasn’t exactly cover-girl material: She was a rather large woman, and when she smiled, her lack of access to regular dental care was pretty obvious. But she kept smiling anyway.

Once, she told me she was going to ask for a raise; Irene said she hadn’t had one in a few years and thought maybe it was time. Later that day, just to make conversation, I asked her if she had talked with the boss yet.

“Yes,” she said, a little more quietly than usual. “He said no.”

Then she told me she was being paid minimum wage and had asked for a 10-cent-per-hour raise. And then she loaded her cart with office supplies and headed back down the hallway.

I was young then, and my great goal in life was to become rich and famous, in no particular order. Being happy didn’t seem like that big of a deal; I assumed it was an automatic benefit of growing older.

It was easy to see that Irene wasn’t likely to become rich or famous; even she knew that. At the time, I found it odd that someone with so little could be so happy, while I spent my time stewing about becoming something I wasn’t and not enjoying anything about who I was.

So I asked Irene how it was that she always seemed happy.

“Why wouldn’t I be happy?” she asked, matter-of-factly, never looking up from sorting paperwork. “I have my family, my job and my Lord. That’s all I need.”