What Does Happiness Look Like?


I was reading a few weeks ago about the concept of “the happiness u-curve.” Research by Dartmouth Professor David Blanchflower suggests that “Starting at age 18, your happiness level begins to decrease, reaching peak unhappiness at 47.2 in developed countries and 48.2 in developing countries.” The theory is that we re-evaluate our expectations as we go through life, and often find mismatches between them and our evolving reality — but the upside is that tend to grow happier later in life (in our 60s and beyond). The thing is —

A few years ago, I realized that happiness, for me, is not a static condition. I am not a particle that toggles between bands of “happiness” and “unhappiness” and stays put. I experience happiness in small bursts, usually at the hands of something wildly trivial, like the lay of sun on our back porch at four o’clock in the afternoon, the sight of my son’s pudgy, still-babyish fingers on my dress, Mr. Magpie carrying a handful of raspberries in from the garden in the morning, the smell of coffee at the beginning of a slow weekend morning. And so I think I have a different way of thinking about happiness that has little to do with life expectations and everything to do with realizing how impossibly short our lives are and how wonderful it is to experience brief moments of comfort, release, love.

I have noticed that, increasingly, my “slivers of joy” relate to what I can only describe as domesticity, and the broader experience of feeling “settled.” How predictable, I know! But a nontrivial amount of navel-gazing has led me to realize it is true: I am profoundly relieved to be through the ill-lit meanderings of my 20s and 30s, to have found stability in so many domains of my life. I am living in a string of answering years. I write that with trepidation, as I am also aware that life is rarely this good for that long. Still, I am sitting here in a kind of calm, cloistered hammock. The arc of my day-to-day life is pleasantly narrow, and I am grateful for the shade. I find slivers of joy in the smallest things, including the continuous, mindful way I put up my palm against unnecessary insinuations of stress. What I mean by this is that I am widening my margins wherever I can. In the narrowest sense, this looks like putting extra money in the parking meter so I won’t have to even think about rushing back to my car, and calendaring times to sift through the approximately 345 emails I’ve received about my children’s various camps (why, just why, do I need to download individual apps for individual camps?) I punt those prying fingers out of my way and lock them up in a 30 minute window on a day where I have the give in my schedule to accommodate them. I am also saying no to multiple activities in a single day, and blocking off entire afternoons to just spend time with Mr. Magpie — no agenda, no reservations. Just unfettered hours to hang out while a sitter looks after the kids, usually on a Friday afternoon, to avail ourselves of Mr. Magpie’s “summer Fridays” (a blessed vestige from our New York days — his office still practices this distinctly New York City convention, when the city drains of its white collar inhabitants, who head out East). In a broader sense, when I find myself keyed up over some issue or another, I have been liberal in jailbreaking myself: I turn off the computer. I go for a walk. I get my nails done. I ask myself, essentially: “Will this matter tomorrow? In a week? In a month? In a year?” and then I evaluate its severity, and it rarely extends beyond the “matters-in-a-week” bar.

I have also been practicing a Magpie reader re-frame (thank you eternally to the Magpie who shared this, as it actually occurs to me at least a few times a day at this point and completely changes my outlook at multiple points throughout my week), it’s not “I have to do this” but “I get to do this.” Wow! I think of this when I’m running errands, taking my children to an appointment or lesson, going for my run in the morning, sitting at my desk to write. All of these experiences are expressions of incredible good fortune and determination and I am truly the luckiest. Going to the grocery = having the means to do so, and multiple loving family members who lean on me for their nourishment (it is a gift itself to be needed!). Running in the morning = enjoying health and physical ability, having a schedule that permits this indulgence, living in an area that is beautiful to run through. Etc.

I guess what I’m saying is that when I first read about that u-curve concept, a shiver of dread ran through me. “Oh, great. Thanks, Doc. Now I’m on the escalator down to the pit of unhappiness for the next decade, until I turn 47.” But I think I know how to keep myself at the mezzanine. And it has to do with, as I put it elsewhere, “living lilliputian.” Seeking those slivers of joy where you can find them, in the smallest things. Permitting yourself to unfold into them. The stress of today likely won’t matter in a week, month, year, so let me pour myself into what happinesses I can find today.

What do you think?


+My original essay on happiness.

+On being truly happy for friends.

+Serious and beautiful words.

Shopping Break.

+Have been getting a ton of wear out of this Hill House maxi. I have it in the stripe, but love it in the brown floral, too — such an understated-chic piece.

+Guys, can we talk about Emily Henry?! Where have I been living? Underneath a rock?! I am halfway through Happy Place and it is SO enjoyable (narrative mechanics are wildly implausible to the point of absurd but who cares? it’s fantasy of a different color!) and also I have so many thoughts on this genre of writing in general. Ahh! Cannot wait to discuss.

+ICYMI, J. Crew has really cute summer sandals for under $100 that have a classic/elegant bent to them. Love these. And if you’re a trendier gal, these $118 slides have been FLYING.

+I’ve been using these eye masks — had never tried an eye mask before! — and WOW. They legit, legit work. Like, my undereyes literally looked bright and…hard to find the right word, but almost hydrated? Plump? Soft? I can’t describe. Very impressed.

+This “starter pack” of kitchen spices would be such a cute gift for a college graduate moving into his/her first apartment, along with a couple of simple cookbooks.

+The colors in this striped skirt spark joy. Cute with the matching crop top or a solid-colored tank.

+A small desktop pleasure.

+A luxury citronella candle from Diptyque! We also think Thermacell works REALLY well, and will also put up a fan if we’re outside — fans really help keep mosquitoes/bugs away.

+Love these embroidered shorts from Zara.

+Matouk’s scalloped towels come with the cutest trim colors. I love the yellow!

+This $69 dress is giving MAJOR La Ligne vibes. Love it in the red.

+Under-$30 floral everyday dress. Great to throw on when you don’t know where the day will take ya!

+Currently lusting after this tan Tanya Taylor piece! I read a profile in Tanya Taylor in InKind magazine and I’m obsessed with her because of it. She is so ambitious but humble. Love!

+Everyone’s favorite water bottle, in a fun new color for summer.

+Another fitness dress to consider. (Still obsessing over my Lulu one.)

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