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Noticing and Naming
April 28, 2017
Once upon a time, I worked in community mental health. I loved my job there, even though it broke my heart on a regular basis. Like the time I was working with a teenager who was depressed and angry and in serious danger of flunking out of high school. In the beginning, I focused on piecing together a timeline of trauma, trying to get a sense of this young woman's life. At first, she didn’t really believe she had anything worthwhile to say, but as I returned week after week, giving her my calm focused attention, gently drawing out her stories with questions and with my genuine interest, she began to share stories. But while this work was good work, and important, it did little to alleviate her painful symptoms or to unlock her motivation, either for school or for living.
One day, I decided to take a different path.
“What do you like?” I asked. My client looked at me blankly. After a moment I pressed on, “You know, tell me something you like to do. Or something that just makes you happy.”
There was nothing, really. Her girlfriend, maybe, at least when they were getting along. “I really don’t like much,” she summarized.
I offered up some of my own simple pleasures, hoping to spark something, but she just looked more and more uncomfortable. Somehow our conversation had turned into homework she now feared she was flunking.
Then it came to me, “I know,” I almost shouted in relief and excitement, “What is your favorite color?” The perfect question I thought. This is the way in, the way to begin exploring beauty, joy and awe! But my elation was dashed, as her answer hit me like a blow to my solar plexus.
“No one’s ever asked me that before,” she said. “I don’t know what my favorite color is.”
That moment broke my heart, and it revealed to me a new dimension of poverty, deeper and more profound that simple lack of money. It revealed to me how very important it is that every child have at least one person who had the time and interest and energy to nurture his sense of self, her emerging soul.
I thought of this young woman again this week when I encountered this quote by the late David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota:
A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set point [of happiness]. Find the small things that you know will give you a little high—a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends—and sprinkle your life with them. In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while.
Lykken is right, I think, sprinkling our days with small pleasures is a path to a happier life, but in order to follow his advice, we must be able to identify those small pleasures. Noticing and naming what sparks joy, induces warmth, gives pleasure, opens up a moment of grace or zen or tranquility—that is an important, but sometimes difficult or illusive task.
So today, I invite you to notice and name, do polka dots make you smile? What is your favorite color? Has it always been the same or did you prefer another color once? Notice the daffodils, or the tulips, or the hydrangeas leafing, or the maroon peony foliage reaching for the sky. What makes you smile? Babies? People in love? Your children? What makes you laugh out loud? Kitten videos? Saturday Night Live? Knock knock jokes? What are your small pleasures and how can you sprinkle more of them in your life, today and in the days to come?
I would love to hear your answers—leave me a message!