Here’s one of the four things happier parents do: they soak in the good. Which means that when things are pretty decent—not necessarily great, just fine, thanks for asking—they look around, and they notice, and they take a minute to let that soak in. They observe. They say to themselves, yep, dinner’s on the table, 5-year-old’s having a tantrum because the sippy cup is wrong, gotta go back to work and get to all those emails after bedtime, but overall, this is sweet.
It’s not that they’re popping it all into their gratitude journal or anything. They’re just paying attention.
To the good stuff.
Which helps us train our brains to pay attention to the good stuff more often. Which helps us to be happier on a more regular basis.
I’ve just run across some research suggesting that we can use that same technique even when things really do suck—and it will still help.
In her book Rapt(which I found through Cal Newport’s Deep Work), science writer Winifred Gallagher describes how the connection between attention and happiness worked for her after a “particularly nasty, advanced” cancer diagnosis. She made a conscious choice not to focus on the cancer, but to put her attention on the rest of her life instead. A day might include grueling treatment, but it might also include a movie or a martini—and when she planned it, reflected on it, or described it to others, she defined that day by the pleasure, not the darkness.
As she describes it, her commitment to focusing on what was good in her life helped more than she would have imagined, and she found cross-disciplinary support for the idea that the management of our attention is the key to improving our experience of our lives.
What’s happening around us matters, but it’s what we decide to emphasize about those events that shapes our mood. Even when big things are cratering, we can enjoy the little things—and feel better. Happier.
I truly hope none of you is in a terrible moment in your life, but we all have been and will be again. I find it comforting to know that even then, choosing to soak in the good can help.