The Happiness of Retreat

relaxSarah lay on the grass in the back yard, her hands crossed behind her head, one foot propped on the opposite knee, watching the sky.   She watched the edges of clouds sweep and swirl against its endless blue.  She watched the birds sailing past on nothing at all.  She watched the leaves of the trees that framed her view dancing their gentle leaf-dance.

Mixed with the calls of the birds, she could hear the traffic a couple streets away, and the sound of the television drifting through the open windows of a neighbor’s house.  Kids were playing farther down the block.  She heard the smack of their ball on the pavement and their laughs and shrieks.  It all melted together with the fragrance of the grass beneath her somehow, with the breeze, with the warmth of the sun on her skin, with the flow of unfocused thoughts drifting through her mind.

She didn’t know it at the time, but she would retrieve this moment years later when she was an adult, caught up in a far different world, and it would serve her the rest of her life.

Guided by the speaker at a seminar she attended as a requirement for her job, she rediscovered this gentle memory and claimed it as her symbol of tranquility and peace.

She learned to use it as a retreat, an island of calm, that she could visit when the rush and pressures threatened to engulf her.  Five minutes of focusing on that wholly carefree time, of remembering the clouds, the breeze, even the fragrance of it, made all the difference in the world.  Her muscles softened, her breathing deepened and slowed, and she connected with her sense of who she was beyond the transitory immediate circumstances.

All of us have moments like Sarah’s somewhere inside us that symbolize a time when we were wholly relaxed and at peace, a time when we were completely carefree and all was right with the world.  It’s worth the tiny bit of inner exploration it takes to discover one of your own, or even inventing one if you like.

Once you have it, practice it for a few minutes as you fall asleep at night every night for a couple weeks.  Let it come alive for you, reveling in its pleasant grace.  Then tuck it in your pocket and take it with you wherever you go.  When life gets tense, take a few minutes to visit it.  See what it does for you.  See if life doesn’t take on an easy sparkle as you return.  It works for me; I think you’ll like it.

The Happiness of Lightening Up

Lighten UpThe shrieking wail of my weather-alert radio blasted me from bed in the pre-dawn darkness.  I stumbled to the next room to shut off the ear-piercing screech and, turning on the audio, learned that a thunderstorm was blowing through the next county to the north.  I uttered a low, angry growl and crawled back under my warm blankets to wait for the more polite alarm of my clock.  It wasn’t a very long wait.

The heat hasn’t been turned on for the season yet in the building where I work, so I shivered my rain-dampened way through the long list of emails requesting my immediate attention.

I wanted coffee and found my boss in the break room scowling and muttering under her breath.  She hadn’t put the lid on the pot when she brewed the first coffee of the day and it was sitting in a pool of brown liquid and grounds.  “Want some?” she asked, holding out the pot.  “It’s crunchy.  But it’s hot.”   Hot was too good to pass up, crunchy or not.

It was an hour later before I really noticed the steady trickle of internal complaints that was dripping down the back wall of my mind.  I had wiped out the first dribbles by focusing on the tasks before me.  But now I realized I had a fair sized leak going.

I stopped what I was doing to pay attention to that sorry whine.  What was I really saying to myself?  What kinds of stories were running back there that were making me feel so listless and crabby?  What did I need?  That’s the only thing to do when a simple refocusing doesn’t work.  Listen to what’s going on inside you.  See if your body needs something.  See if what you’re saying is true or if there’s another way to look at it.

I quickly understood that I was still reacting to the rude awakening from my pleasant dreams.  I was telling myself I was tired and wanted to sleep, that I didn’t want to be at work, that I didn’t want to be busy.  Was that really true?  Despite waking a few minutes earlier than I had planned, I had slept well last night.  My body wasn’t really tired.  Why did I think I wanted sleep?  I realized the room was a bit darker than usual and opened the blinds on the window to let in more light.  If I didn’t want to be at work, what would I rather be doing instead?  I thought about some attractive alternatives waiting for me at home, but they would entail being busy, too, and I knew I would have time for them when I got there.  Were the tasks before me really that unpleasant or daunting?  If I looked at them one at a time instead of as a great heap, they looked do-able.  Easy, even.  I was still a little chilly, but not miserably so.  I decided to do that tasks that required visiting offices on other floors and walked the stairs to give myself some exercise.

The five minutes I spent listening to myself and responding to what I was saying turned my whole morning around.  Honoring yourself that way is important.  It helps you find the light in the gloom.  It lets you turn reaction into response.  And while it may not bring instant happiness, it points you in the right direction.  It puts you back in charge of things and reminds you that you’re your own best friend.  And that’s a pretty good thing to know.

The Happiness of Memories

happy memoriesOne day, curious to see what I would find, I bought a ticket to the land of childhood memories.  I cozied into a big, soft chair, closed my eyes, and sent my mind back into time.  I asked myself, “What was I doing when I was six?”  And before I knew it, I was remembering my family’s living room.

There was Dad’s favorite chair, with the pipe stand next to it, and I remembered the fragrance of his Cherry Blend tobacco.  There was the big floor radio, where my mother and I listened to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.  It must have been a big event at the time.  I remembered having View Master slides of it afterwards and coloring books.

Then I saw feathers filling the room’s air and remembered the pillow fight Carol and I got into, and how aghast my poor mother was at the sight of feathers everywhere.

I don’t know how long my trip back to childhood lasted, but it brought back memories I never knew were there:  Details of the neighborhood, and of the neighbors, toys I loved, Aunt Katherine’s parakeets and the doll outfits she crocheted, the big fur hat that I wore in winter, my dad cooking blueberry pancakes, my mother decorating my Valentine’s box with red crepe paper and hearts cut from paper doilies, the treadle sewing machine, my grandmother singing as she ironed clothes, the blisters I got on my hands from playing on the jungle gym at school.  It was a glorious adventure.

A friend of mine who spent September writing lists every evening of things she appreciated during the day says she’s going to spend October recalling good memories.  What a grand happiness practice!  If her excursion into the past is as enriching as mine was, she will be thrilled that she took the time for it.

And if you take the time, you’ll be thrilled, too, and amazed at how much you can recall.  All it takes is a little slice of quiet time and a comfortable chair.  Then pick a trigger:  remember where you lived, or think about your first pet or your favorite teacher, of your first bus ride or the family car.  The rest will unfold from there.

Your mind is a vast country of unexplored memories.  Buy yourself a ticket to it some Saturday afternoon and see the sights.  See if you don’t come back high on happiness, feeling richer and bigger and whole.

The Balcony People

balcony peopleBehind the top rows of the balcony in the theatres of our minds, in the room where memories store the props for our lives’ plays, sit the balcony people.  Mrs. Jackson, your favorite grade school teacher, is there, and your old neighbor, Mae.  There’s Uncle Fred and that counselor from camp who convinced you that you could swim after all.   They’re the people who believed in you, who told you how special you are.

They sit there, watching through time’s magic window, as the scenes of your life play out on your reality’s stage.  When you fall, they murmur, “Get up, kid!  You can do it!”  When you succeed, they throw their hats in the air and cheer. And at the end of each act, when you tuck yourself into bed at the end of a day, they break out the popcorn and rave about your performance.

“Man!  He’s really something, isn’t he?  I loved the part where it looked like he was going to get all riled over Sarah’s attitude again, and then just smiled and walked away.”

“Yeah, and how about the way he stopped to give that homeless woman a coin and said, ‘Keep believing’ as he pressed it into her hand?”  That nearly moved me to tears.

“I just wish he’d stop taking himself so seriously.  Have a little fun now and then.  Kiss the wife a little longer.”

“Aw, he’ll get there; just watch.  He’s got spirit in him he hasn’t even begun to tap yet.”

You may not know they’re there.  But they are.  Once we connect with people, we stay connected.  It’s a quantum physics thing.  Anyone who ever saw your potential, who saw your strengths, who admired your honesty or creativity or determination, believes in you still, is cheering you on and wishing you well.

You may want to wander around up there, in the back of the balcony, sometime between scenes, and say hello to these old friends, get reacquainted, thank them for their support.

The Happiness of Friendship

FriendshipI recently purchased a home gym, and despite my almost total lack of mechanical skills, I was determined to assemble it today.  Just as I finished unpacking and organizing the daunting heap of parts, my pal Bob knocked on my door.  He looked at the pieces arranged on my living room floor as if he were a kid who had just opened a coveted erector set for his 8th birthday.  “Can I help?” he asked, all bright-eyed.

Several hours later, I had a gym.  And Bob had a home-cooked meal in his tummy.  He called me later and said, “I sure had fun working with you.  Thank you for the great day.”

He had given me hours of skillful labor and saved me from what would have been, I realized as the work progressed, a hopeless nightmare had I actually tackled it on my own.  And here he was, thanking me.

“You know,” I thought to myself, as I hung up the phone, “if I could keep only a handful of the treasures that life has given me, one of the first I would claim is the gift of friendship.”

Whether you’re sharing work or play, celebrations or sorrows, having a friend at your side means so much.  Friendship makes our happiness happier, and brings comfort when we’re grieving.  It binds our wounds and encourages us through our struggles.  It listens and applauds and laughs and cries with us.  It makes us feel seen and real.  It accepts us as we are.  More than that, it loves us as we are, and it helps us to love ourselves.  It nurtures us and grows us. It amplifies the best in us and overlooks our flaws.  It makes the good times better and the worst times endurable.  It shares its knowledge and skills and humor.  And it graciously receives our gifts in return.

Life is an uncertain place, filled with shadows as much as sunlight, but at least it gives us trusty hands to hold along the way.

Isn’t that beautiful?

The Happiness of Postive Expectations

wowBe watchful here.  This is another one of those times when I need to remind you about the four most dangerous words in the English language:  “I already know that.”  Familiarity with a common truth, remember, isn’t the same thing as actually living it in your very own life.  And if you really want to make that one precious life of yours juicier, this is one happiness practice you will really want to master.  It’s the practice of expecting the best.

It’s teaching yourself the habit of looking forward to seeing all the good experiences that will unfold throughout your day . . . the bits of pleasure and friendliness, the pieces of valuable information, the opportunities to use your strengths.   When you wake up in the morning, before you even move, let yourself suppose that it’s going to be a great day—an especially interesting day, with all kinds of happy surprises tucked in its curves and corners.  Then get up, and go out and prove it to yourself.

How?  By collecting evidence.  Here, let me give you a big Tupperware container with a snap-tight lid and a big comfy handle.  (Since it’s invisible and weightless, you can easily carry it everywhere.)  Now, every time you catch yourself enjoying something, make a mental note of it, and stick it in your Tupperware and take it home.  Get a smile from someone?  Stick it in your Tupperware.  Hear a joke?  See a piece of beauty?  Get a lucky message?  Learn a lesson?  Stick it in your Tupperware.

Here’s the deal—the part where you have to be careful to hear with fresh ears:  What you focus on expands.  Ask and you shall receive.  Seek and you shall find.  When you form an expectation, a powerful little part of your magnificent brain (the reticular activating formation, to be exact) filters through all the millions of bits of data coming in through your senses and calls your attention to the things that you are expecting to see.

Expecting to be cucumber cool, regardless of the situations you find yourself in?  Expecting to be surprised by beauty?  By kindness?  By humor?  By opportunities to serve?  Expecting to connect with the people in your life in uplifting ways?  Expecting answers to some of your puzzles?

Look for evidence of your expectations and then put them in your Tupperware.  At the end of the day, open it up and see what you have found.  Expect to be delighted and amazed.

The Happiness of Contrast

Contrast 01

There’s no in with an out, no up without a down.
There’s no dark without a light, no smile without a frown.
There’s no give without a take, no sorrow without joy,
No storm without calm, no girl without a boy.

There’s no roar without a hush, no cold without a hot,
No yes without a no, no is without a not.
There’s no courage without fear, no wet without a dry,
No laughter without tears, no sell without a buy.

There’s no curve without a straight, no begin without an end,
No music without silence, no borrow without lend.
There’s no hard without a soft, no go without a stop.
There’s no rough without a smooth, no lift without a drop.

There’s no evil without goodness, no clean without a stain.
There’s no hard without an easy, no healing without pain.
There’s no knowledge without ignorance, no low without a high,
No warring without peace, no truth without a lie.

There’s no doubt without faith, no lost without found,
No full without empty, no square without round.
There’s no ugly without beautiful, no old without new.
There’s no wrong without right, no me without you.

The Happiness of Simple Pleasures

simple pleasuresWhen you stop to think about it, isn’t it awesome that our senses bring us joy?  The taste of a ripe, juicy peach, the splendor of a sunrise, the coolness of water, the scent of a rose?

Oh, I know the strict materialists can argue that it all serves some utilitarian function evolved to aid us in survival.  But I’ll counter that joy serves that function, too.  It’s life’s pleasures, after all, that make it worth all the trouble of sticking around.

Simple pleasures – the touch of a loving hand, warm socks, the fragrance of freshly baked bread – are the poetry of life.  They soothe us and save us from monotony.

Think of the difference a favorite piece of music can make in your mood, how it plays on your emotions—invigorating, inspiring, comforting or empowering you.   In every culture on earth, we humans make music. We sing and whistle, we chant and hum, and we thump and pluck and strum and blow just for the exquisite joy of it.

Think of the simple sights that bring little slivers of happiness to your day—a play of color in a shop window, dew beaded on the morning grass, the halos around street lights when it rains, oil in a puddle.  It doesn’t take much.

And it didn’t have to be that way.  We probably could survive if the world was nothing but shades of gray and if all the birds sang the same tune.  But it isn’t, and they don’t.  And isn’t that grand?

The Happiness of Reverie

reverieHere in the northern hemisphere, today is the first day of autumn.  The hours of darkness and daylight balance in a perfect yin and yang, and the mood of the whole world seems to change.

We have seen it coming, of course.  School buses dot the highways, flocks of geese honk noisily from their great V’s in the sky.  The shops are full of winter wear and hints that the year’s trail of holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas–is about to begin.  We have begun to change our menus and to shift our loyalties from baseball to football teams.

But today it’s official:  it’s autumn, spectacular autumn, with its grand hoorah of perfect weather and its paintbrush full of dazzling hues.  It’s the time of harvest, the seasons’ crown.

And it’s also summer’s end, and the beginning of the time of turning inward.  It bears the fragrance of fallen leaves and the first wisps of wood fires.  It carries with it a note of farewell that evokes a touch of nostalgia.  Walking in its beauty, our minds are led to reverie.  Bits of golden memories drift down our thoughts like the leaves softly falling all around us.

Autumn is a perfect time for reflecting on the past, for savoring the people and events who have contributed to our lives’ colors, for harvesting the rich memories of the times that brought us joy.   In the rush and tumble of our everyday lives, our focus is so riveted on the future – on meeting the next demand, on getting to the next appointment – that we forget to remember the gifts that memory holds.  Walking in autumn can cure that.  Let it, and discover the beautiful treasures hidden in your memory’s store.  Indulge yourself in the happiness of reverie.  It satisfies, and it makes you whole.

The Fun of Happiness

So much about being happy is delicious that you just can’t say it all at once.  But there’s one part of it that’s the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae, the top of the happiness mountain.  It’s the way that being happy makes life fun.

have funFun is letting the kid in you come out to play.  It takes delight in discovery and sees the world through fresh, joyful eyes.  Fun is happiness set free.  It brims with love and energy, throwing kisses and candies from its float in life’s parade.  It doesn’t care about troubles; it doesn’t even know they exist.

Fun is the sparkle of happiness.  It ripples with laughter and shines with a sense of adventure.  It turns all your senses up to full vivid so the world is sharp and dazzling and clear.   Fun lets you know you’re alive.  It’s tasting the cinnamon and touching a baby’s cheek and feeling the sand between your toes.  It’s feeling the wind in your hair and seeing the stars and swooning to the strains of a symphony or some great jazz.

Fun is the creative side of happiness.  It pokes and prods at things to see how they work.  It invents things.  It imagines and pretends.  Fun asks, “What if?”  It defies convention and colors outside the lines.  It splashes in puddles and drums on fences just to hear the sound.  It makes up songs and sings them out loud and doesn’t know or care if it’s carrying a tune.  It likes puzzles and mysteries and games and finds them in the things that others label as work.

Fun is happiness in motion.  It’s the gusto and glide of it, its swirl and dash.  It’s the climb to the top and the free fall into the pile of leaves.  It’s not needing to hold on to anything.  It’s taking off the training wheels and testing your metal and skills.  Fun is full of confidence.  It dares the untried and can fall on its face laughing.

Fun is the zest of happiness.  It’s happiness finding its way through the cracks and bubbling into the air.  It’s letting your joy get the best of you and carry you away.  And when it spends itself, you’re richer.

The wisest among us make sure to have some everyday.  It’s free.  And it’s easy!  And all you have to do to get some is put on your kid hat and play.