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A few good things
Practicing happiness in a time of collective sorrow.
I spent much of last week focusing on what was wrong. Mass shootings. Dead children. War overseas. A maddening formula shortage. A pandemic that’s surging once more.
Horrible news story after horrible news story weighed on my shoulders. The grief sat on my chest. The collective sorrow made it hard to breathe. By Thursday night, I found myself in a spiral. Things are bad. They are getting worse. I felt panicked. I felt hopeless. I felt scared, angry, and powerless.
That night, I cried. I choked out tears between shallow breaths. I sobbed into my pillow until I finally fell asleep. The following morning, I woke up with puffy eyes and an emotional hangover. Facing the day felt especially exhausting. But I had no choice. I trudged through work responsibilities in the morning and parenting tasks in the afternoon. Everything I did felt like an obligation. There was no joy, no opportunity, no gratitude. It was a no-good day.
The next morning, I woke up determined to turn things around. It was Saturday, which meant a day without screens in our household. For the next few hours, at least, I could escape the headlines and live in ignorant bliss. I spent the morning playing with and caring for my daughter, who was in a sweet and goofy mood. Once Billy woke up, we decided to drive to a nearby state park and go for a hike. I was reminded of one of my earliest grief mantras: When in doubt, spend time in nature.
The hike was serene—exactly the reset I needed. In the woods, I felt centered and safe. I listened to the sounds of chirping birds and trickling water. I took deep breaths.
Billy and I paused to read informational placards along the trail, quizzing our toddler about the animals pictured on each sign. We didn’t talk much. We let our over-excited minds slow down for a while.
By the time we got back to our car, I was feeling less like everything was doomed and more like my optimistic self. I found myself repeating a small, comforting thought from earlier in the week: If all we have is this moment, it’s a good one.
Every so often, though, my mind would wander back to the horrifying events of the past few weeks. I thought about the children killed in their classroom. The shoppers murdered at the grocery store. The congregants shot at church. I thought about the many, many people who were grieving those deaths—grappling with an untold amount of sadness that they will carry for an untold amount of time.
My world would tilt. Then I’d take a deep breath and try to ground myself in the present. Once more, I reminded myself that I can be sad and happy at the same time. That I can grieve for others while also being grateful for my current fortune. That I can appreciate what’s in front of me while knowing that it won’t last.
Saturday was harder for Billy than it was for me. That afternoon, as we were getting ready for another walk, our still-wobbly toddler tripped and hit her head. She was fine, save for a small bruise under her eye, but it was a scary moment. When Billy rushed in to tell me what happened, I saw his eyes fill with fear, his head swimming with worst-case-scenario thoughts. Before I knew it, we switched roles. He had done his best to comfort me during the week; now, I was the one reassuring him that things would be okay.
Our daughter got kisses and an ice pack. Billy got hugs and soothing words. Then we headed out for more time outside. We passed cute houses and manicured lawns, people who walked their dogs and waved hello, a block party filled with joyous music.
On our walk home, we stopped at a neighborhood restaurant to eat dinner on the patio. I could tell that Billy was still feeling shaken. I asked him if he was up for playing a familiar game. He reluctantly agreed.
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The Good Moments game is one that Billy and I started a few years ago, after I’d heard about it on a podcast or something I’d read. It’s as simple as games go: One person lists a good moment from the day, then the next person adds another. You continue trading good moments until you run out of steam or ideas—or, until you feel a little better about the state of the world.
Billy and I don’t trade Good Moments all that often. But when we do, it helps. It’s an especially effective tactic when one or both of us is in a negative headspace.
Sitting across the table from each other, Billy and I started listing happy moments from the day. Like always, many of our good things involved our daughter.
When she clapped and danced in the car. When she waved to the bus and the driver beeped in return. The way she hugged me, warm and sleepy from her nap.
Those were easy things to note. We remembered other good things, too.
The overnight oats were delicious. The weather is beautiful. That detour we took home was unexpected and fun.
Back and forth, we shared little things that made us smile. The day wasn’t over yet, but we came up with a surprisingly long list.
Holding your hand. Taking an afternoon nap. Honestly? Having a moment to wash the dishes in peace.
If happiness is a habit, the Good Moments game is a great way to practice it. It is a fun and easy opportunity to actively note the goodness in life. It is a chance to be vulnerable enough to share those things out loud—no judgment about what the other person finds joy in. For a moment, at least, it’s a way to give positive events more power than the negative ones.
Sometimes I get annoyed at how cloyingly simple happiness advice can seem. But maybe that’s the secret. Happiness should be simple. It should be sweet. Our brains try to overthink things; to make life more complicated than it has to be.
Of course, life is complicated. It’s hard—beyond hard—to feel happy and safe when you learn about yet another act of hatred. You can’t solve the brokenness of society with a walk in nature. You can’t heal collective grief with a gratitude journal. You can’t convince the powerful to change their minds through a happiness game.
But we can do those things for ourselves. Considering what we are up against, such simple acts of joy can seem futile. Somehow, though, they work.
Finding internal contentment and calm is an important responsibility—one that I often overlook. Without those things, we can’t effectively reassure our children. We can’t connect with people who have differing views from our own. We can’t make a difference through our unique offerings.
So many of us wondered what we could do to help this week. We donated to Everytown. We called our Senators. We contributed to GoFundMe campaigns. (If you did these things, thank you. Thank you for being the goodness in this world.)
All of those things did help. But taking action without also tending to ourselves only leads to burnout. We will assist others, but then not have enough energy to treat ourselves with the same kindness. We’ll take out our anger and frustration on the people closest to us. We will cry ourselves to sleep at night.
We deserve more. All of us do.
When the world seems like it’s falling apart, it can feel pointless to do things like going for a walk, turning off the news, taking a nap, calling a friend, or playing a simple game. It can feel misguided or selfish to focus on our own happiness in a time of greater sorrow. But tending to our well being is crucial in times of chaos.
We must be willing to put the effort into nurturing peace within ourselves. Only then can we extend that peace to others.
If all we have is this moment, we might as well make it a good one. We can cultivate joy and watch it bloom in our own lives and the lives of others. We can collect all those good moments and play a game of gratitude. We can find and spread peace—even and especially when we need it most.