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How to be happy: 5 Simple Everyday Rituals for a Happier Life

I’ve recently been inspired by Robert Arbor’s sweet guide to French living, Joie de Vivre. Arbor, a French restauranteur who sings the praises of peaceful breakfasts, family gardens, trips to le marche, leeks, love, and homemade jam. The book reminded me how much happiness we can derive from simple, everyday rituals. Read more about simplicity. Here are five I highly recommend, although, of course, you should choose the rituals that bring you and your family the most pleasure and, equally important, peace.

1. Make the beds every morning.
It’s difficult to maintain order in a house, especially if you have little ones. Even without children, the piles of papers, books, CDs, gadgetry, sports equipment, laundry–you name it–can be overwhelming. Which is why I make the beds every morning. It takes five minutes to make a bed, it gives you a small sense of accomplishment early in the day, and every time you walk into the bedroom, you are met with a small island of calm in the midst of the chaos. I prefer soft white bedding with pillowcases in a bright color or inviting pattern–all the more zen.

2. Read every evening.
I love reading alone, and I try to do it for a few minutes every evening while my husband and son are spending time together. But one of the great things about reading before bed is that it’s an easy ritual that can also be shared with children. After a long day, I love sitting in the bed with my son, the bed piled with books he has chosen. He snuggles up close and we read anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, depending on how tired he is. By the time we turn the last page on the last book, he is ready to have a glass of milk and go to bed. There are so many things to distract from time spent with family, so many time constraints that can lead to stress and arguments; reading with my son is a way for us to be close to one another in an utterly contented, quiet way. It’s also when some of our best conversations happen, and when he asks some of his most endearing and surprising questions. As parents, most of us always feel that, in some way, we’re coming up short. But I feel happy knowing that my son loves reading, and that this is a pleasure he will likely carry with him through his life.

Recommended reading to help you feel calm, less stressed, and happier: Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in 10 Minutes a Day

3. Wear something that makes you feel good.
It can be a pair of shoes, a favorite scarf, a beloved jacket from college–it really doesn’t matter. Just choose something that makes you feel good–better yet if it has some sentimental value. Even if your clothes feel a bit tight today and the lines around your eyes came as something as a shock in the mirror this morning, wearing one beloved item that you know looks good on you can give you confidence. I love to wear a gold chain with an emerald that my husband gave me for our fifth wedding anniversary; every time my fingers absently find the emerald, I remember the choice my husband and I made more than a decade ago to spend our lives together, and it makes me feel calm and happy. What’s your emerald necklace?

4. Say something kind to someone you love.
It’s easy to be polite to strangers. We all know to say please and thank you in public, to smile and open doors for others, to ask, “How are you?” Being nice is ingrained in American life; the balance of friendliness and formal politeness varies, of course, depending on region, upbringing, and personal style. But in the rush of daily activity, it’s easy to forget to extend the same courtesies to the people we love, the people we see each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, the people with whom we share meals and bills and responsibility. My husband and I always take time for a kiss and a hug and a kind word in the morning before he leaves for work (it sounds very 1950s, I know, but as I work from home, and he wears a suit, I do send him off every morning, something like June Cleaver). I feel grateful to him for going to work week after week, year after year; and he feels grateful to me for packing lunches and getting our son dressed and getting him to school (and working); and we both like each other very much. If he looks good in that shirt, I tell him. If he made a particularly amazing batch of chocolate chip cookies (which he does pretty often), I let him know I appreciate it. He does the same for me, numerous times a day, in numerous different ways.

We both do the same for our son. Think of a typical day–how many times do you end up correcting your children, telling them to do this or don’t do that, explaining that if they don’t brush their teeth, the teeth will eventually fall out? It’s not bad parenting–it’s just the way of the world–there are a lot of things we have to tell our children. But how many times do you say, “That’s such a great idea,” or, “I love how imaginative you are,” or, “I had so much fun with you today,” or, my favorite, “You’re a great kid.” They need to hear it, and it’s easy to say. So, each day before you part with your family members in the morning, and again before you go to bed at night, be sure to say something kind. It will make them happy.

5. Go outside and breathe.
I need not wax lengthy or this one. Hot or cold, rain or shine, remember to look at a tree or a bird or some rocks or some wildflowers. The only time I found it hard to go outside and breathe was Beijing, circa 1998, because breathing the city air was like breathing soot. So I would take a cab to the Forbidden City, find a quiet spot, and do my sitting and breathing there. Now that it’s summer in Northern California, we have our meals outside as often as possible–on the deck, or down in the yard in a little tee-pee my sister made for my son. I love to step outside first thing it the morning, when the air is cool. There’s a sense of promise to the morning hours, a sense of the world waking up which we can easily forget if we run from house to car to work, without spending a moment in the outside world. My son likes to go down to the back yard (we live over a canyon, and getting to the back yard is something of a trek) and check to see if Rocky the Fast, his favorite chameleon, is scuttling around on the bottom step. It’s good to be reminded of a world that is bigger than we are, and creatures that are smaller than we are. Perspective breeds happiness.

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What are your rituals and secrets to happiness? Please share in the comments section.

postscript: The simple pleasure of a traditional French breakfast: The morning after reading the first chapter of Joie de Vivre, I went out and bought a fresh baguette, local butter (made just down the road in Petaluma), and strawberries for a traditional French breakfast: spread some fresh butter and homemade jam on a baguette and enjoy with freshly ground coffee. The coffee is a ritual I’ve had down for years (even more essential a part of my days ever since researching coffee culture for my novel, No One You Know). I buy the beans once or twice a week, grind just enough for a single use, and make just one cup either with a manual drip (a little ceramic cone that you fit over your coffee cup) or a French press.

and all the ships at sea

I wanted to share an interesting email I received last week from a reader:

I’m a Marine stationed over at Camp Pendleton in California. While I was on deployment, I found The Year Of Fog in the small ship library…I was a part of an expeditionary unit sitting off the coast of Burma last year after their country was ravaged by a natural disaster. I mean this in the greatest sincerity when I say that reading and finishing your story was truly all I looked forward to the 2 months I spent sitting on a ship, counting the days until I could come home. I’m not sure what it was, but I found myself very sympathetic and attached to the main character. I almost wish the story hadn’t ended. Or at least had ended the way I was expecting. Again, thank you for your story.


My Year of Questions

Please visit and bookmark my new blog, My Year of Questions

As the mother of a six-year-old boy, my days, more often than not, begin with questions. Our son has a habit of bounding into our bed around six each morning and awakening us with something like this: “Who would win in a fight–Batman or the Incredible Hulk? Which is beautifuler–a sunset or a rainbow?”

Many of his questions begin with why: “Why haven’t scientists figured out how to turn sand into time? Why do kids sometimes act like your friend and sometimes growl at you? Why do I go to school to learn, because teachers are grown-ups, and the grown-ups already forgot what they knew when they were little?” (more…)

Which would you choose?

I recently came across an interesting exercise, in which you are asked to read a paragraph about two very different sorts of lives, and choose which one you would prefer to live. Choice one: the world adores you and bows to you, and all is beautiful, comfortable, and glorious…with a catch. In the other, you live the very life you are leading now. Go ahead, read the choices, and answer any or all of the questions below. And please share some of your more surprising or personally illuminating responses in the comments section!

Have I already made this choice? Many times? Have I ever awakened from a wonderful dream and somewhat reluctantly entered the “real world?”

Have I ever had a dream that I would re-enter forever? What is it about “real life” that competes so easily with dream worlds which have their wonderfully intense emotions and activities? What can I do to be more aware of this value I place upon my “real life?”

How is my childhood now like a dream I have had? Would I re-enter and relive my childhood?

What pleasures of life have now passed “forever” and are now something “outgrown?” My childhood toys? My youthful desires? My adult plans? Which of these are now like dreams I have had but do not need to re-run? What parts of my life right now are transitioning into “old news” that no longer is alluring?

How do I spot the future towards which my present life is pointing? What can I do to make the transitions easier?

How does ordinary life normally “process” my “desire sets?” What is it about the passage of time that transmutes and/or extinguishes desires?

After I die will any part of my life escape this “dreamification” process? What will I look back on that I will want to re-enter? Will I be “finished with desires” when I die?

How do I know the “evolutionary” value of “getting rid of a desire?” What do I gain from doing so?

How do I embrace “me now” when I know it will one day be “that old me?”

How am I always like a child?

How is my future wrought from my innocence?

Would you read a story on your iphone?

I don’t have a Kindle yet, or a Nook, or an ipad. But I do have an iphone, on which I occasionally read short sections of books while waiting in the security line at the airport. Although I’ll never, ever give up ink-and-paper books, I can imagine a kind of reading schizophrenia, wherein I read certain types of content the old-fashioned way, while enjoying some fiction electronically. I think one of the best uses for e-book technology is the short fiction form. New self-publishing platforms are a terrific way to introduce readers to an author’s out-of-print work, or to feature work that is available only in an old issue of a hard-to-find literary magazine. I often receive inquiries from readers who want to know where they can find a story of mine that they read about online–the most frequent request is for “An Exciting New Career in Medicine,” which appeared in Playboy some years ago. I always encourage them to try to hunt down a back issue–but wouldn’t it be nice if the works were easily available?

So I’m conducting my own experiment, and have just published a short story, “The Great Amphibian,” on scribd.com, which has been getting a lot of attention lately as an effective publishing platform for writers who are trying to get their work out into the world for the first time. But websites like scribd.com and smashwords.com also stand to make a big impact on established authors with a hard-to-find backlist of short works. “The Great Amphibian,” which is available for free on Scribd, won the 2006 Mississippi Review fiction prize and appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of that journal. It was also anthologized in Don Noble’s “A State of Laughter.”