A Private History of Happiness

Joyful Moments: A Private History of Happiness

April 29, 2013

Happiness comes in many different flavors—and you can find 99 of them in the 2012 book A Private History of Happiness. Author George Myerson has assembled a collection of snippets from diaries, letters, memoirs and other “life records” that show “everyday moments of joy in different times and cultures” as recorded by artists, authors, poets, philosophers and other thinkers. Many of these moments take place while the individuals go about their normal lives—the joy is there for the recognizing.

After each passage, Myerson relates some background information on the person who wrote it, and the situation which called up the moment of happiness. The passages are organized by themes: Morning, Friendship, Garden, Family, Leisure, Nature, Food and Drink, Well-Being, Creativity, Love and Evening. Some of the writers are well-known, (Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot, Ptolemy and Leo Tolstoy, for example), but many are not.

I met many interesting people on these pages, like law student George Cutler (“A Breakfast Served with Stories and Laughter”) whose jubilance shines through his words:

“For the moon was bright, the snow full of reflection, I full of breakfast, and Nate [his horse] full of fire; while the cocks of the country crowed about us for music and the stars shot this way and that about the heavens, as if making a display of fireworks for our amusement. All was silent. As we rose [rode up] the hills and looked back upon the far distance which ran down the valley to the southeast, the two extremes of the splendour of the united powers of snow and moonbeams and the contrasted darkness of the deep ravines into which light would not penetrate, filled the whole view. I often stopped to admire the cold but burnished beauties of the prospect and felt the magnificence of the scene.
“I found George up, though I little expected it when I turned a corner to take a look at his window. I had little thought of seeing a light there at that time of the night—I ran upstairs, opened the door an inch and inquired if Mr. Gibbs lived there. Then we laughed ourselves to death and disturbed the neighbors….
“Breakfasted there and told stories till I thought I had told too many […]….”

And pioneer woman Lodisa Frizzell (“Home-Style Cooking on the Wagon Trail”), writing about the comfort of food on the way west in 1852:

“We encamped in a beautiful place, on the bank of a stream called Elm Creek, under the shade of two large elm trees; here was good grass, plenty of the best of wood, and some water, for the creek was very low, and as the sun was 3 hours high or more, some went out hunting while the old doctor, Beth [Bethel], and I went to cooking; we soon had the best of a fire, cooked some meat and beans, stewed some apples and peaches, boiled some rice, and baked biscuit, and fried some crulls, and as I had a glass pickle jar full of sour milk, and plenty of salaratus [baking soda], I had as fine cakes as if I had been at home; and when they returned in the evening we had a general feast.”

A Private History of Happiness is a wonderful book to dip in and out of. These stories serve to remind that it’s often the little, sometimes unnoticed moments that bring the most happiness. We don’t have to search for happiness, or wait for it to come to us someday when we’ve reached a certain goal or milestone. When we stop and look around, we find that happiness has been here all along.

I experienced a moment similar to these a few weeks ago, which I wrote about here. What small moments of happiness have you experienced?

30 days

30 Days

April 26, 2013

If you’re at all familiar with home organizing websites (or Pinterest) then you’ve probably come across the concept of “30 Days of Organizing.” With my affection for lists and for clearing out and decluttering, I’m always drawn to these lists and often start off making my own with a burst of enthusiasm—enthusiasm that fades approximately five days into the whole deal. You see, I’m always attracted to the fantasy idea of “getting things under control” in a set time, like 30 days. Never mind that life itself resists efforts to control it, and likely will never be under control. Never mind that my list often sounds about as fun as 30 days of dental appointments. (How much interest can I really drum up in cleaning the bedroom ceiling fan?)

So as I was making my latest dreary home organizing list, I pondered taking the 30 days concept in a much more enjoyable direction. What about scheduling 30 days of creativity? Or 30 days of sketching, writing, gratitude, or even pampering? Oh, oh, oh—or 30 days of chocolate! Gee, those sound a lot more fun! Frankly, I have more need of scheduling creativity and fun that I do chores. Despite my sensitive conscience and obsession with contributing to family life, I do enough. Instead of adding more to my workload, I’m going to schedule in some fun.

As I was thinking about this idea, I also remembered something I’d read on Matt Cutts’ blog—a slightly different take on the 30 days concept.  Matt is a software engineer and head of Google’s Webspam team and he chooses a new 30-day challenge every month. Some of his challenges have been 30 days of: exercise; acts of kindness; avoiding reading, watching or hearing the news; drawing something; and ukulele! Here’s a link to a video of Matt giving a short TED talk about 30-day challenges: 

I decided to go for 30 Days of Creativity, and here are a few things I’ve jotted down on my list (any suggestions?): go on an artist’s date; finish filling my sketchbook that only has two or three blank pages left in it; write a haiku; take some photos. At this point, I’m not going to limit myself to any one area of creativity, but I am going to try hard to make it 30 consecutive days. That will be a big challenge for me, because I often find it hard to do anything for 30 consecutive days, even fun things. I usually miss a day here and there, but I won’t beat myself up about that. Any step in a more creative direction will be progress. To keep me honest, I’ll let you know when I officially start my experiment, and post updates about it here on the blog.

In my opinion, we don’t need to add more work to our lives. We need to add more joy, more play, more fun and creativity. There will always be more than enough work to fill our time—but is that really how we want to fill it?

What would you like to try for 30 days?



April 24, 2013

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
Margaret Atwood


Fun with Facial Hair

April 22, 2013

Fu-Dog-Chu (look closely):

Salvador Doggy:

I obviously have too much time on my hands. And how was your weekend?


Build Your Happiness Skills with Happify

April 19, 2013

A couple of months ago, one of the founders of Happify.com contacted me to ask if I’d like to be a beta tester of the site before it went public. Of course I said yes, because I’m always interested in all possible ways of increasing happiness for myself and others.

Created by a combination of scientists and game designers, Happify uses games, quizzes and activities designed to help improve your level of happiness because, as they write in the About Happify section, “Just like physical fitness, there are activities you can do on a regular basis to become happier.” Scientific evidence indicates that about 40% of our happiness level is within our control (the remaining 60 % stems from genetics and demographics). That means that we can have a significant impact on how happy we feel by doing things that make us happier.  

Happify has broken down the activities into five “essential happiness skills”: Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, Empathize. Once you sign up, you’re given an initial assessment of your happiness level. Then you choose a “track” to follow. You can measure and follow your progress on your designated track, and you can switch tracks if you want to. Most activities take only a few minutes, with a few more minutes more to write about them. Some you can pledge to do, then come back and report on how they went. You can read about the science behind each activity by clicking the “Why It Works” button. Members are encouraged to follow other members, “Like” and comment on others’ Happify posts. You can set each activity to be visible to your followers, or just yourself. (To protect people close to me, I chose to keep a couple of the more sensitive activities private.) You can choose photos to illustrate your posts from the Happify site, from Facebook or from your own computer. There is also a Happify Facebook Group you can join.

In addition to Happify members’ posts, Happify’s home page features the “Daily Happifier”—photos, videos, quotes or short stories intended to boost your mood.

So far, I’ve completed one track: “Cope Better with Stress,” and I’m now working on “Nurture Your Body and Soul.” Other tracks include “Appreciate What You Have,” “Explore the Art in Happiness,” “Be More Socially Connected,” and “Enjoy Parenting More.”

So what do I think? I have to admit my initial response when I started was to feel more stressed! (Oh, no—I’m falling behind on my happiness activities!) The program is set up so you do a certain number of activities in a certain time frame, and I could not keep up. This was partly because since I am a “Pioneer,” I was taking them very seriously and wanting to put some time and thought into each activity. I wanted to post, comment on others’ posts and give feedback as often as I could. Once I realized I could extend my track as often as I wanted, and that no one was pressuring me to finish, I settled down to my own slightly plodding and erratic pace and relaxed about the whole thing.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is how oblivious I am throughout the day. I don’t take the time to notice and savor. I charge through my days trying to “achieve” as much as I can, whether that means a writing project, household chore or batch of errands. I’m missing my own life! The Happify activities, many of which require a bit of reflection, have helped me be more mindful, to plan treats for myself and others, and to think more deeply about my life.

I think if you go at your own pace, and participate as much or as little as you like, Happify can be a fun way learn more about what makes you happy, as well as connect with others who are focused on bringing more joy to everyday life. Happify has extended an invitation to my readers, so if you want to check out Happify for yourself, click here. And let me know what you think!

Linda Hogan

Writing Across the Sky

April 17, 2013

This column originates in Nebraska, and our office is about two hours’ drive from that stretch of the Platte River where thousands of sandhill cranes stop for a few weeks each year. Linda Hogan, one of our most respected Native writers and Writer in Residence for The Chickasaw Nation, perfectly captures their magic and mystery in this fine poem. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

The Sandhills

The language of cranes
we once were told
is the wind. The wind
is their method,
their current, the translated story
of life they write across the sky.
Millions of years
they have blown here
on ancestral longing,
their wings of wide arrival,
necks long, legs stretched out
above strands of earth
where they arrive
with the shine of water,
stories, interminable
language of exchanges
descended from the sky
and then they stand,
earth made only of crane
from bank to bank of the river
as far as you can see
the ancient story made new.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem reprinted from Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Ed. by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, The Univ. of Arizona Press, 2011, by permission of Linda Hogan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Grandma B

April 15, 2013

One of my heroes is gone. On Saturday evening, my grandmother, Vivian Burch Holmes, passed away at the age of 97.

My grandma was my hero because she was so full of life, interested in living and in other people right up until the end. Until recently, she went to hospitals and nursing homes to visit and play bingo with the “old people.” She lived independently until November, when the effects of a small stroke made it too hard for her to climb the stairs to her basement-level apartment. I know she found it very difficult to move to an assisted living facility near my aunt, leaving her friends, her church and her independence behind.

I didn’t know my grandma as well as I would have liked. For all of my growing up years, I lived in California and she lived in Virginia. I visited her a time or two, and she came out to California a couple times as well, notably for my high school graduation. She wrote to me regularly, even up until a few weeks before her death. I’m so glad I wrote back and she was able to hear and understand my letter before she died. I always thought of her as Grandma Burch, even when she remarried after my grandfather died. (Her second husband passed away some years ago.)

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Even with our sporadic contact, I have many happy memories of Grandma. She tried to teach me how to crochet (I never advanced beyond one long string of yarn) and she did teach me how to do candlewicking. One of my favorite memories is of the time she came to visit us in Florida, and my dad and stepmom came from California, when Nick was about 3. It was near Grandma’s birthday, so every time we went out to eat, we told the servers it was her birthday, and they came and sang to her. The best time was at a Mexican restaurant where they made her wear a giant sombrero while they serenaded her. You can see by her big smile she’s enjoying the experience! Other memories of that visit include a trip to Disney World, and a looong toy guitar “concert” given by Nick out on our lanai which everyone endured more or less patiently.

Grandma lived a full life, and died a peaceful death. She was loved and she will be missed. She was not rich, famous or powerful, but she touched and inspired many lives, including my own. I was lucky to be her granddaughter.

Four generations: Nick, Grandma, me, my dad.


Happy Little Moments: Stopping to Listen

April 12, 2013

I spent a happy hour sitting on our lanai after dinner one night last week. I dipped in and out of my book, but mostly I listened to the birds, trying to identify the different species I saw and heard (I’m terrible at this but enjoy it anyway). A frog’s voice pulsed from somewhere to my left. My dog occasionally announced her presence to the world by randomly barking at nothing in particular. A squirrel jumped onto the screen enclosure with a soft thunk, a couple of people jogged by on the trail. A hawk perched on the limb of an oak, rubbing his (or her) beak against the bark. The insects began an evening chorus.

I noticed that when I stop to listen, the quiet evening is full of small clicks and chirps and rustlings. Noticing them and trying to figure out what they are gave me deep pleasure.

I’ve noticed, too, that when I slow down the pace of my everyday activities, I observe so many details I might have otherwise missed: the way the morning light glows in my bedroom when I open the blinds, the smell of brewing coffee and of the gardenias on my desk, the taste of strawberries and the spacecraft-taking-off-for-Mars clatter of the washing machine. These little details make up the real “fabric of our lives” (with apologies to the cotton industry) and too often I’m oblivious to them. I think I’ll make sitting outside after dinner a regular practice. I can always learn to listen better.

What do you notice when you listen?

National Poetry Month

Veiled Beauty

April 10, 2013

“A poet dares to be just so clear and no clearer…He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it.”
E.B. White

Remember, April is National Poetry Month. Click here for ways to celebrate. My library has ordered a copy of The Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition, and I plan to put in a request for it when it comes in. Another edition I plan to check out is Good Poems for Hard Times, chosen by Garrison Keillor.

In what way will you let poetry into your life this April?


What I Did on My Vacation

April 05, 2013

Too much.

My spring break wasn’t really a vacation—my son had already had his school break and we didn’t go anywhere, but I recognized that I needed a break from blogging and took one. I didn’t try to fill the days—in fact, I tried to empty them! But life, as usual, got in the way. While I was “taking a break,” Scout had some problems and had to go to the vet (she’s feeling better now) and we helped my son complete a community service project which involved making 1000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be distributed to the hungry and homeless. This is what 1000 sandwiches looks like:

I did manage to do a little extra reading (Mr. Skeffington, The Olive Grove),   ride Tank several times and make a new vision board (better late than never). And—ta da—I finished painting my sketches from Sunken Gardens

The original sketch:

Have you noticed that when you cut back on doing one thing, something else leaps forward to take its place? The time I spend writing posts and visiting other people’s blogs was easily consumed by other tasks, and by the end of the week, I didn’t really feel like I’d had a break. I extended the break into the first part of this week, and what do you know? I spent hours on Monday doing errands. Clearly, I need to work on the concept of taking a break.

This non-break taught me something about myself that I already sort of knew: I feel guilty if I’m not constantly working to contribute in some way. Since I don’t have a paying job, I drive myself to work for the family nearly constantly. I have a terribly hard time allowing myself the time I need for study, thought and yes, doing nothing, in service of feeding my creativity and my ultimate writing goals which I am ashamed to say have almost completely fallen into obscurity. I feel bad about this, and instead of rerouting my energies to fix it, I go for the more obvious (and endless) to-do list where I can mark off things achieved and actually see a result—a bathroom cleaned, groceries in the fridge, etc. I’m having a hard time letting go of tangible results for intangible ones.

I’ve written about this before, and as you can see I haven’t come up with a solution yet. I’m not giving up, though—I will figure this out! In the meantime, I’ll try to cut myself some slack, to do a little bit less in order to do more, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll plan a vacation that really will be a vacation!


Sleeping on Sunlight

April 03, 2013

Putting bed pillows onto the grass to freshen, it’s a pretty humble subject for a poem, but look how Kentucky poet, Frank Steele, deftly uses a sun-warmed pillow to bring back the comfort and security of childhood. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Part of a Legacy

I take pillows outdoors to sun them   
as my mother did.  “Keeps bedding fresh,”   
she said.  It was April then, too—   
buttercups fluffing their frail sails,   
one striped bee humming grudges, a crinkle   
of jonquils.  Weeds reclaimed bare ground.   
All of these leaked somehow   
into the pillows, looking odd where they   
simmered all day, the size of hams, out of place   
on grass.  And at night I could feel   
some part of my mother still with me   
in the warmth of my face as I dreamed   
baseball and honeysuckle, sleeping   
on sunlight.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2000 by Frank Steele, whose most recent book of poetry is Singing into That Fresh Light, co-authored with Peggy Steele, ed. Robert Bly, Blue Sofa Press, 2001. Reprinted from Blue Sofa Review, Vol. II, no. 1, Spring 2000, by permission of Frank Steele. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.