How to be happy & why the little things matter
In the course of an ordinary day, life presents us with a rich buffet of opportunities for joy.
These opportunities arrive in the form of simple pleasures and they’re easily overlooked when we’re not paying attention.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my favorite spot in my house, the lilac is blooming outside my window and sparrows are flitting between the lilac and the nearby bird feeder. I’m listening to one of my favorite albums* and I’ve got my new favorite coffee** in my favorite mug***. [Eeeks, that’s a lot of favorites. I do love my creature comforts.)
There was a long period in my life, maybe 8 years ago, when I began each morning by making a long list of everything I appreciated in my life. I started doing this because I really hated the job I had back then. While I loved the actual work I was doing, the poor management and negative work environment made me dread my job on the daily. To help myself stop waking up every morning with a pit in my stomach, I started getting up 15 minutes earlier to make an appreciation list in my journal.
After doing this for a few months, I looked back over my lists. What was notable was how many of the things on my list were really small things that I would have totally failed to notice if I hadn’t been paying attention: a brief conversation with an acquaintance as we crossed paths, the sparkle of dew on the grass as the morning sun hit it at just the right angle, the coo of a mourning dove sitting on the electric line outside my kitchen window.
Fleeting moments, really. And in isolation, seemingly insignificant.
Yet I began to envision my days as a series of these beautiful moments, like a string of fairy lights.
I saw that all these little moments gathered together could light up my life, whether or not anything changed with my job. Because of course, no day is perfect and no life is perfect and the course of any ordinary day is likely to have plenty of difficult moments too.
Which is why it’s so important to actively look for these little moments of joy: because our brains are wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive.
If we’re not making an effort to notice the good, we might miss it completely.
The negativity bias of the brain is evolutionarily adaptive. It’s what keeps us alive. (No one wants to be so caught up appreciating the quality of the sunlight on the grass that she stops in the middle of the street right in the path of the UPS truck.)
But when you pair the brain’s negativity bias with the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and even mild tendencies toward depression and/or anxiety, it’s easy for life to start to seem like a string of frustrations, worries, and disappointments.
Mindfulness, which is really just paying attention to your life as it’s unfolding in the present moment (rather than being mentally focused on the past or future) is the first step to noticing what brings you joy.
Intentionally looking for these moments of pleasure, beauty, enjoyment, connection, and delight that are sprinkled throughout the day enriches the quality of daily life.
And research shows that holding your attention on these pleasurable experiences as they’re happening actually changes your nervous system and helps to balance out the brain’s focus on the negative. So does intentionally recalling moments of pleasure later.
And dedicating some time every day to focus on simple pleasures, as I did with creating my morning appreciation lists, builds momentum: the more you pay attention, the more things you find to appreciate about your life. The more things you notice to appreciate about your life, the happier you feel. On the days I begin by making a list of things I love, I effortlessly notice more and more of these small pleasures throughout the day. Like there’s an alert watcher in the back of my mind, just waiting to find things I can add to my list the following day.
When you intentionally look for what you enjoy, you’re training your brain to notice what makes you happy.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how small changes + time can help us create big changes in our lives. I’m all about simple ways to feel better. And I delve into this topic more deeply in my free ebook 7 Day Happiness Challenge: 7 days, 7 easy ways to get more joy in your life, which you can download below.
P.S. Here’s the list of my current favorites.
*Favorite album: Putumayo Presents African Odyssey (which sadly seems to be out of print.)
**Favorite coffee: The Roasterie’s Kansas City blend. (Seriously, I’m not usually a fan of light roast coffee but this is like liquid joy.)
***Favorite mug: Mara’s Snowman mug, which has become my go-to, all seasons mug. Though I do have my eye on this panda mug, because it’s adorable!