Whoever said variety is the spice of life obviously wasn’t very observant. Or maybe they were just stuck in a rut and trying to validate throwing everything into the breeze and starting over from scratch. Or trying to make a few bucks with self-help advice, hustling anyone who would listen: Hey! Hey, you! You want variety, yes? Is way to good life! Ah, that research over there, no good, no good. Don’t listen to them, those guys are loonies! Come here for the life spices! I give you good price!
I imagine this may come across as tres bizarre, coming from someone who must constantly be exploring new horizons. This whole blog is about getting away from time to time, for crying out loud. But believe it or not, what really gets me through the days and nights of life is surefire recipes for joy.
Nothing surprising. Just tried and true, “ole reliable” sameness.
One of my favorite examples is the phenomenon of going out to a restaurant, and seeing something fun and exciting on the menu, something that sounds enticing but with ingredients I’ve never heard of before. And also seeing my absolute favorite dish in the world (for me, it’s gnocchi — oh how I love thee).
Most of the time, I will order the gnocchi. As cool as it is to see the exciting new item (the “spice of life”, as it were), the gnocchi is compelling. I can imagine the gnocchi melting in my mouth, and filling my belly with a sweet, soft, happy glow.
Meanwhile, according to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, in those rare times that I order the new thing, I will actually self-report less enjoyment than if I’d ordered my obsessive favorite.
Philosophical issues with the whole reliability of self-reports notwithstanding, I put this finding to my litmus test (namely: does it describe me?), and have found it valid.
These days, my present self is super into identifying and filling my life with the equivalent of gnocchi. The things that will make me happy, because they’ve consistently done so in the past, and as such, will likely continue to bring on the joy in the future.
Case in point: nighttime routines. Ever since I became a mother, I’ve loved the concept of a “bedtime ritual”. Anyone who has dealt with a baby or toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed when you want them to go to bed, you are likely familiar with this concept: turn off distractions, give them a soothing bath, read a story (or in my house, three stories), turn down the lights, lullaby, hugs and kisses, second lullaby, drink of water, third lullaby …
Hmmmmm, maybe not the best example.
I did eventually get my kids to go to sleep on time. I swear I did.
Anyway, I’ve extended that philosophy of telling body and brain that it’s bedtime, beyond influencing young minds. It’s become part of my every day functioning.
I’m a wee bit OCD about the whole thing at this stage. I fold all the throws that have been used that evening. I clean up the last of the dishes. I then close the blinds in the same order (turning off lights as I go). Finally, I lower that thermostat — which is the Bat Signal to my brain that I need to hide under lots of warm blankets ASAP. Quick journey to take care of my face and my teeth, and I’m rushing for that pillow the way my kids used to rush for the ice cream truck.
I love the effect that this routine has had on my bedtimes so much, that I’ve spread it around to the rest of my day.
No, I don’t turn all the lights off in the middle of the day and rush back to my electric blanket (although don’t doubt that there are days I’m sorely tempted). What I mean to say is, when I need to transition, I’ve developed a routine to help my brain get used to the idea. To make my brain want it. So that every ounce of my being is primed, ready, and eager for the change. Because change is hard, y’all. (You don’t need a blog post from me to enlighten you to that fact. But it’s my blog, and I’ll platitude if I want to.)
Easy example: morning routine. One of my favorite parts about being the only adult in my bedroom is that I can press snooze on my alarm. A lot. I find a minimum 3-snoozes is an excellent start to the day. I can wake up, but not have to really wake up, and I don’t have to worry about the glare of death from my bed-sharer. So I set my alarm for 30 minutes before I actually have to leave my comfy spot, and those 30 minutes are amazing.
I also do the yoga stretching, showering, kitty feeding, and blinds opening stuff, but only after I give myself the Gift of Nope-Not-Getting-Up-Yet. (Seriously, it’s a better dopamine rush than getting a “like” on a post. I frickin’ love it.)
Another idiosyncratic but highly enjoyable variation on this theme: I have certain things that I do on certain days. Especially in the time of quarantine, days can often blur into one another. So I like to track what day it is by making sure I do a specific thing, mostly centered around digestible content. Monday is take-out day. Sunday is spaghetti. Friday is Chai Day. Not that I can’t have those things anytime I feel like it, but on these days, you can count on it, the way you can count on my mouth watering as I place my order at the drive thru window.
All of this is to say, I’ve been a student of happiness for a few decades now, and this is one of the discoveries that has been valuable for me. At a time of increased stress and strain and chagrin over having our usual holiday routines thrown out of whack, I’m finding more comfort in these little things than ever before — or perhaps I’m simply more aware of their power, having significantly more time on my hands to ponder it these days.
So I figured I’d share, for what’s worth. Take what you like, throw out the rest. I’m sure my future self will be doing the same.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go see about some gnocchi …