April 4, 2017 by Jean
I am generally a happy person. I attribute this to having lucked out in the personality sweepstakes, where I was blessed with a personality that tends toward optimism and looking on the bright side. I remember a conversation with a classmate when I was in college: I had just learned that my then-fiancé would not be going straight to Vietnam from boot camp but would first be stationed stateside for the better part of a year, and this made it possible for us to marry sooner than we had been planning. “How can I not be an optimist?” I asked, “Everything always works out for me.” She gave me a quizzical look and said, “I think maybe it’s the way you look at things.”
Twenty-five years later when my niece, then in her mid-twenties, expressed the opinion that I was always happy because I had never known any hardship, I knew that she was wrong. I had known my share of hardships, but a positive attitude had given me resilience to move past them. When I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer at age 50, the office manager in my oncologist’s office told me that “Attitude makes a difference.” I don’t know whether attitude played a role in the fact that I’m still alive and cancer-free almost twenty years later, but it certainly made my cancer experience easier.
Recently, I found myself reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W.W. Norton, 2011). The book is about the rediscovery in the 15th century of Lucretius’ ancient poem On the Nature of Things and, through that poem, the rediscovery of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus argued that life’s highest goal was the pursuit of pleasure. But his was not the pleasure of orgies and excess. As he explained in a letter, “we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, …an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and revelry….” (quoted in Greenblatt, p. 77) Rather, Epicurus was focused on the simple pleasures of daily life and especially on the pleasure and peace of mind that comes from understanding that everything in the natural world is interconnected.
When I read this, I realized that I am an Epicurean. I have long believed in the circle of life and the interconnectedness of nature. For the most part, that belief promotes calm, and it helped reduce my anxiety about death when I was diagnosed with cancer. But my enduring happiness depends very much on my enjoyment of the simple pleasures of daily life. For me, these are most often the pleasures of the five senses: the taste of my first sip of tea each morning; the feel of soft spring breezes or warm sunshine on my skin; the smell of fresh air the first day it is warm enough to open the windows in the house, of clean laundry that has dried on the backyard clothesline or of lavender as I walk through the garden; the sight of snow on trees or a pileated woodpecker outside my study window or of crocuses blooming in spring; the sounds of birdsong as the migratory birds return. Paying attention to these simple daily pleasures, being mindful of them, and savoring them turns pleasure into joy.
There has been quite a bit of focus of late on helping people develop this kind of joy – discussions of mindfulness and of keeping gratitude journals. Because it turns out that the office manager in my oncologist’s office was right; attitude makes a difference. There is now a considerable body of research showing that those with a positive attitude are not only happier, but also healthier. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a misleading correlation; of course those who are healthier have a more upbeat view of life! But it turns out that the correlation also runs the other way; a positive attitude at an earlier point in time predicts better health at a later point in time.
Recent research shows that such an attitude doesn’t have to be part of early personality development; it can be learned in later life. This is the logic behind gratitude journals, where one develops the habit of identifying the positive aspects of life each day. As I thought about the simple sensory pleasures of my daily life and the way that being mindful of those pleasures creates joy, it occurred to me that they might present an alternative to the gratitude journal. Rather than noting three things to be grateful for each day, one could note three sensory pleasures (however small) experienced that day. The idea here is less about directly promoting a positive view of life and more about developing the capacity for joy by being mindful of life’s simple pleasures. I think this would work best if the pleasures noted included at least two senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) each day. I imagine that, over time, the list of pleasures noticed would become longer and longer, until writing them down was no longer necessary for being mindful.
If anyone tries this, I’d be interested in hearing how it works out for you.