My daughter Sammi, for all the challenges she’s faced in her life so far, has always been able to embrace tiny moments of happiness. In part, I think it is because of a practice we started with her older sister before Sammi was even born; we call it “your happy thoughts.”
Here’s how it started: each night before bed, Sammi’s older sister Ronni would worry about bad dreams and, as a result, have trouble falling asleep, missing us even if we were just downstairs. We did not want to sit in her room until she was asleep, so we began giving her three happy thoughts to think about as she lay in bed. These were small thoughts for her small age, and they came from the day we’d just had or the day that was coming: the picture we drew on the sidewalk, the phone call with her grandparents, the plan for a zoo visit the next day. Her job was to think about those things while she waited to fall asleep.
When Sammi was born and old enough to talk before bed, we did this with her, too. “Don’t forget my happy thoughts!” both girls have reminded us if we try to leave their rooms at night without discussing them. In the last few years, we’ve asked both girls to generate their own happy thoughts, and when things have been hard for them, we’ve sent them out into the world in the morning to find their happy thoughts. Even before “daily gratitude” was in vogue, we had our happy thoughts at the end of the day. During times of intense medical drama with Sammi, my husband David and I have sometimes discussed our own happy thoughts as we lay awake at night, worrying.
What this exercise was supposed to do for David and I was to get Ronni to go the heck to sleep. What it actually did was teach both of our daughters about the wide, wide range of simple pleasures there for the taking. It forced us to look back on a grouchy, crummy, rainy, ugly day with a surgery or a terrible test result or a nasty-tasting medicine and say to ourselves: “what is worth redeeming here?” There was always a first-thing-in-the-morning warm hug to remember, or a funny episode of a tv show, or, barring all that, something nice that was bound to happen tomorrow.
Sometimes one of the happy thoughts was: “Today is over. Tomorrow will be different.”
Perhaps only somewhat luckily and only partially because of the above, Sammi, who could have turned out to be a very dark and gloomy kid, is generally happy. Partially but not entirely because of this daily exercise, a day when someone put her to sleep and then stuck a tube down her throat and removed tiny pieces of her esophagus was ALSO a day when she got to watch the Muppet Movie and drink a smoothie on the couch and see her grandmother. Partially but not entirely because of this, she is out there looking for her happy thoughts.
One day, she told me that one of her happy thoughts was waking up in the morning and hearing the sounds of the rest of us awake and getting ready for the day.
Another time, she told me that one of her happy thoughts was the feeling of zipping and unzipping the zippered monster’s mouth on the front of her sweatshirt.
And recently, she told me that one of her happy thoughts was the dimples of a kid she’d met at camp. “They’re so cute!” she said.
What made me think of all of this was an email I received from Mark Brown, the author of the book Zen Pig. As he writes on his web site about his future son, Noble, and any other children he ever has, “I wanted to guide them in a life of gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion. And help them avoid all muddy spots that one can get stuck just spinning their wheels (like I did, and still do at times) – places that are dense with materialism, entitlement, and self-centrism.” The book — first in a series — is full of sweet, simple drawings and describes, in simple rhyme, the life of a pig who embodies all the things we all want for our children, every preschool lesson of gentleness and compassion and mindfulness that adults are still working to achieve. Mark asked, if I thought this book would resonate with my readers, to share a link to it. (As a bonus, he’s donating money for each book sold to fund a year’s worth of clean water for 10 people.)
Sammi is a little too old for this book, but I think she’d have enjoyed it when she was littler. The concepts would not have been foreign to her: notice the small things; sit in the grass; give what you can; be kind. I like to think that she had those things modeled for her, but the reality is that some kids are receptive to lessons from their parents, and some are not. I was lucky to witness her grow into herself. In many ways, she is much more self-actualized than I am. Her body has been tested, she has a clear sense of how flawed people can be and still be lovable, and she (like many children) is still full of wonder. Watching her stand and observe the world has been and remains fascinating to me. I wonder often: who is this child?
Think about your happy thoughts. Sit in the grass. Watch.