The Measure Of Our Days

We would all be happier if we could learn to see each day as a “good place.” As Walt Whitman said, “not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour.”

I’ve been trying to put this philosophy into practice for the last five years, one day at a time.  My training began on January 1, 2016, and will end on December 31, 2020.  Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

The Happiness Project
Several years ago, I read a book by author Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project (2009). Rubin had spent a year conducting research on happiness. She integrated the wisdom of the ages with modern science and applied the findings to her own life. In the process, she became more aware of what made her happy (and unhappy) and began to structure her life accordingly.

Rubin’s project has been popular with readers all over the world. The book spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into more than thirty languages. It inspired another publication, The Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal:  A Five-Year Record, which is the basis of my own experiment.

Journaling My Way to Happiness
The journal Rubin created is an unimposing little hardback book, approximately 4” x 6” and 1” thick. The first page includes the date (January 1), followed by a short quote (“What you do every day is more important than what you do once in a while”), a spot to record the year, and a few blank lines for five consecutive years.

On those lines, you are to record one thing that made you happy that day. It can be anything you want – a conversation, a compliment, a hug from a friend, a quiet day at home, a piece of delicious pie that you made yourself – as long as it’s genuine.  Five years times 365 days equals 1,825 of these personal moments.

At first, it can hard to think of something to write about, especially if you are used to letting the days pass in a blur of activities and unexamined thoughts. If you’re stuck, you can use the space to reflect on the quote at the top of the page, which comes from Rubin’s research and which changes every day.

Reading through the five years of my own journal, I have discovered that my personal sources of happiness fall into these general categories:

–Quality time with a few friends and family members.

–Research and writing projects that are challenging and growth-enhancing.

–Volunteer activities that make a difference in some else’s life.

–Projects that make my house a warm and inviting home (painting, decorating, gardening).

–Projects that make my life feel calm and orderly (cleaning and rearranging, sorting and simplifying, donating unused and unnecessary items).

–Good self-care, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep a night, and time alone for reading and reflection. Maintaining a healthy relationship with my husband and sustaining friendships are important to my mental health. Paying off debts, limiting my spending, and saving money are important to my sense of security.

Besides identifying themes across the years, another benefit of keeping this journal has been the dawning recognition that practically anything can make me happy, from the first sip of hot coffee on a cold morning to the sound of wind in the trees outside my bedroom window at night.

I have learned that happiness is a state of mind that I create myself, based on what I choose to focus on and how I choose to interpret it.

Additional Benefits
Besides this knowledge, I have found other treasures in my happiness journal.

I keep the journal on a table next to the couch in our family room, where I sit every day.  When I read or hear something on television that I want to remember, I have gotten in the habit of writing it in the empty spaces of my journal – on the first blank pages, in the margins, at the back of the book. Here I have recorded song and album titles, the names of authors and books I want to read, inspiring quotes, ideas for articles, and website addresses.

More than once I have written something on a random page of my journal and forgotten about it, only to find it again the following year. Most of this marginalia is still relevant – a surprise encounter with something I once found interesting and still do.

The journal has become a meaningful part of my life. I look forward to writing in it at the end of each day. The very act of writing makes me happy, as does reading the entries from previous years and the prospect of writing something positive on this day next year.

Another surprise:  the journal has provided a new way to connect with my husband.  Sometimes when I am writing an entry, I will say, “Do you know what happened on this day three years ago?” Of course, he never knows. Then I tell him about something good we shared, and he says, “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” And for a brief moment, we re-live the experience and enjoy it all over again.

My husband, being a glass-half-empty kind of guy, often makes good-natured fun of my journal. For example, if something annoying or frustrating happens in the course of a day, he will say sarcastically, “Put that in your happiness journal!” And sometimes I do, because now I can find a positive side to almost anything.

To Number Our Days
Many years ago, long before I began to keep this journal, my mother and I had a conversation. She was in her 80’s, and we were talking about our daily lives.

“It’s interesting to think about all the different things that happen in a day,” she marveled.  At the time, she lived alone and maintained a house with a big yard, shopped and cooked from scratch every day, played cards, visited friends, and went to church. “I fall into bed at night and sleep well. I’m grateful for every day.” In her old age, she knew that one day, even these small pleasures would fall away.

I was still working and building a career, and my life was very different from hers. I spent my time stressing over work, money and relationship issues. I sometimes felt overwhelmed. It had not occurred to me to feel grateful for the many little things that happened every day.

A well-known bible passage advises that we learn to approach life the way my mother did:  “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).  The passage is part of a longer reflection on how frail humans are and how very short our time is here. Marking the days and appreciating each one as it passes helps us understand (from the heart, not the head) the very point of living.

It takes a lifetime for most of us to learn to number our days, and we forget easily.

So I’ve decided to start another five-year journal on January 1, 2021.  Because I still need a reminder to look for happiness in an ordinary day.

Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen

Ruth Ray Karpen is a researcher, writer and retired English professor. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. (See Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Lifestory Writing, 2000 and Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life, 2008).  Most recently, as a hospice volunteer whose 100-year-old mother is a hospice patient, she has been exploring the meaning of death and dying. In our series on “Heart and Soul,” she will consider how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen  for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.