Your Favorite Things

Do you want to love your life?  Just pay attention to the little things.

There are all kinds of examples in popular culture.  Consider, for example, Tom T. Hall’s 1973 song, “I Love,” which is a celebration of ordinary things:

       “I love leaves in the wind, pictures of my friends

         Birds of the world and squirrels.

         I love coffee in a cup, little fuzzy pups,

         Bourbon in a glass and grass.” 

Or consider Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” which became popular when Julie Andrews sang it in The Sound of Music:

     “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

       Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

       Brown paper packages tied up with strong

       These are a few of my favorite things.”

These songs are fun to sing, and they remind us to appreciate the little things in life.  But there are other reasons to make a list of our favorite things.  Not only does it improve our own lives, but it makes our communities better, too.

The Power of Lists
I am particularly interested in the kind of lists that reveal truths and help us find more meaning in life.  Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking, has written a book on this subject and developed a website called “The List Producer” devoted to helping people use lists to lead their best lives.

In a guest article for the website, clinical psychologist Cynthia Green explains how making lists actually helps our brains function better.  Lists help us control the flow of information and avoid feeling overwhelmed.  They force us to pay attention to the things we need to remember and put them in some kind of meaningful order.  When we are mentally organized, we have more energy, get more done, and feel a sense of accomplishment, all of which increases our self-esteem.  This improves our overall health, as well as our brain health.

List making can also be a form of self-discovery.  Ilene Segalove and Paul Bob Velik have written many books on this subject, including List Yourself:  List Making as a Way to Self-Discovery (20th anniversary edition, 2017), which offers over 100 prompts on relationships, values, culture, work, and health to “unlock the door to your personal identity.”

Along these lines, Lisa Nola created a series of journals she calls Listography, a term she coined that means an autobiography made up entirely of listed details of your life, from the mundane to the sublime, including cars you have owned, places you have lived, memorable people you have known, guilty pleasures, and your greatest acts of kindness.

Deeper Meanings
Most recently, British playwright Duncan McMillan produced a one-man stage play called “Every Brilliant Thing,” performed by British actor and standup comic Jonny Donahue and filmed by HBO before a live audience.  Donahue plays a man in his late 30’s whose life has been shaped by depression.  When he was 6 years old, his mother made her first suicide attempt.  In an effort to raise her spirits, the little boy created a list of “brilliant” or wonderful things that are worth living for.

Donahue’s character adds to the list periodically throughout his life as he struggles with his own depression.  At 6, the list included the color yellow, ice cream, and water fights.  At age 16, after his mother’s second attempt, it included the smell of old books, the even numbered Star Trek movies, and the fact that sometimes there is a perfect song to match how you’re feeling.  In adulthood, the character’s list includes reading the liner notes of old jazz albums while listening to the music and thinking about how it was made.

By the end of the show, the character’s list has reached 1 million different things that have made him happy over the last 30 years.  It is a life-loving autobiography in list form.

The list also serves as an artistic method for informing and connecting with the audience.  Included in the performance are facts about depression and suicide, along with jokes, songs, and role-playing with audience members.  The play is both poignant and inspiring, largely because the subject matter is part of the human condition and something we can all relate to.

As Donahue says, “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever having once felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.”

The Healing Potential in List-Making
For Donahue’s character in “Every Brilliant Thing,” keeping the list and reading it back over the years served as a form of cognitive therapy.  Even in 1959, Rodgers and Hammerstein understood the healing potential in making a list of your favorite things.  As they say in the song, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”

Today, scientific research helps explain this effect.  Researchers in positive psychology (the study of factors that help people and communities flourish) have discovered five building blocks that enable human flourishing:  positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (the PERMA theory).

As it turns out, making a list of our favorite things utilizes three of these building blocks.  Positive emotion helps us remember what makes us feel good.  Engagement means that we are paying attention and noticing these things on a daily basis.  Putting our favorite things in list form sets them apart from everything else in our lives and gives them greater meaning.  The very act of making the list reinforces good feelings.

And the positive effects extend beyond ourselves.  When individuals flourish, so do workplaces and communities.  According to the Positive Psychology Center at Pennsylvania State University, people with higher levels of well-being, compared to those with low levels, are more cooperative, perform better at work, have lower levels of burnout, are more likely to form healthy and supportive relationships, are more socially accepting, and are more likely to be engaged in their communities.

Your Own List
So — if you want to love your life, why not start by making a list of your favorite things?  At the very least, you will entertain yourself for a few minutes and create a bright spot in your day.  Make it a habit, and you will come to see that many small things can make you happy, and your life overall will seem brighter.

To get you started, here’s a list of my top 20 favorite things right now, in no particular order:

  1. Lake Michigan
  2. Any Volkswagen Beetle, but especially the ones from the 1960s
  3. The feeling I get after accomplishing something that I really didn’t want to do
  4. Words that make me smile when I say them (“Zippety Doo Dah”)
  5. Getting on the scale and finding that I’m down a pound, even if it’s only water weight
  6. Blueberries in season
  7. Cool showers on hot summer days
  8. Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday interviews
  9. A book on my Kindle that I can’t wait to read
  10. Cut flowers in vases
  11. TV series that draw me in and make me sad when they end (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Grace and Frankie, The Kaminsky Method)
  12. Therapeutic massages
  13. Pianist David Nevue’s collection of hymns, Adoration, which I listen to almost every day.
  14. Shade trees
  15. Public libraries
  16. Sourdough bread
  17. Purring kittens
  18. Good conversation
  19. A clean bill of health
  20. Sitting in my favorite coffee shop on a Monday morning listing my favorite things

It’s a process, but I’m working on loving my life, one item at a time.  My wish for you, too, is this:  a million favorite things, the pleasure of listing them on a regular basis, and a long and happy life.

Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen

Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.