Highlights and Interstices
We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.
~ Jack Gilbert, from The Great Fires (Knopf, 1996)
I just read this article about finding happiness in little moments in the day, and yes – I know that sounds cheesy and overtly romantic – but I couldn’t help loving the way that Chade-Meng Tan described outlook on life.
He believes that temperament is malleable. There are ways that we can take unremarkable daily events and turn them into moments of joy. Successfully reshaping your mindset, he argues, has less to do with hours of therapy and more to do with the mental exercise of recognizing “thin slices of joy.”
There are so many 2-3 second moments during the day where we can take the time to appreciate little things: the feeling of receiving a text or a message from an old friend, the sensation of drinking a glass of cold water after a long run, the first taste of coffee in the morning.
“The more you notice joy,” Tan states, “the more you will experience joy. Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere, and once you start noticing it, joy becomes something you can count on. You’re familiarizing the mind with joy.”
I won’t argue that it can be difficult to do, especially after a long day at work or following a tension-filled situation. It’s much easier to be thankful and mindful when life is going well, but it can be incredibly trying when you feel as if you’ve reached a dead end or life has been giving you the sourest lemons. Incorporating joy into my life during those times may seem impossible, but I think it’s when I need it the most.*
I remember reading the beautiful poem above and loving it so much for the very reasons that Tan’s theory outlines. Ordinary moments. At this stage in my life, in which I’ve been feeling a little lost and stuck in a rut, I’ve been thinking a lot about “defining moments” and how I define success. When will I feel successful? How will I know I’ve achieved success? What are some of my defining moments?
A large reason why I started the Perfect Day Series is that I love seeing people light up when they describe their perfect day. It helps me get to know them better, to live a day in their shoes, to better understand what they love about life. The interesting thing that I’ve learned in the process is that most of these perfect days are comprised of ordinary moments that are elevated to extra-ordinary because they are part of a perfect day.
I try to leave the questions open-ended because I enjoy seeing if the perfect day is one already lived or a hypothetical one. It tells me so much about a person, and it’s also made me realize that I tend to have memories instead of defining moments – the time one of my dearest college friends and I spent two hours in the basement of her dorm building figuring out a piano assignment and talking about everything and nothing; sitting in my favourite coffee shop writing Christmas cards on a chilly December day; walking my bike back from the music building in the pouring rain (ugh, the most unromantic); walking through the Chicago Art Institute on fall break feeling healed and renewed.
Are these moments ordinary or defining? I can’t decide. But I love them all, even the ones that are tinged with sadness.
I hope that this week brings you ordinary moments of extraordinary joy.
“Live your life, live your life, live your life.” ~ Maurice Sendak
*Sometimes it’s necessary (and healthy) to feel frustrated and savor an unsavory mood. One of my dear friends once said to me, “You have a right to your feelings.” And you do. Incorporating joy into your life doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) 24/7. Tan’s strategy is all about thin slices of joy that add up over time to form a habit of overall gratitude. So it’s okay to embrace the feeling of being upset, just as it’s okay to start small in noticing ordinary moments of joy.