In 2018, Cyndie Spiegel published A Year of Positive Thinking, a book packed with practical ways to be more positive, including affirmations and exercises. Then Spiegel’s world fell apart.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know who that woman is anymore.’ The things I wrote in that book, I knew they still held true, but I couldn’t connect with it,” Spiegel says.
In quick succession—and during the pandemic—Spiegel grieved the murder of her nephew, lost her mother, and then had to help care for her sibling, who suffered a stroke and spent two months in cardiac ICU. A close friendship came to an abrupt end. Then Spiegel herself was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In that calamitous time, “Something micro, smaller than small, felt like the best that I could do,” Spiegel remembers thinking. “I kept coming back to, what kind of joy and positivity can I find that is as small as possible that still counts, that still brings me moments of respite.” Her solution was to cultivate a practice of celebrating small, singular moments of joy—microjoys.
The distinction between joy and happiness is sometimes blurred, but we might all be better off drawing a thicker line between them. Even though “happiness” has become an all-encompassing term for the good life, the origins of the word have to do more specifically with good fortune.
Happiness and unhappiness, in the original usage, were twists of fate, often short-lived ones. The expression “happy as a clam” is a shortened version of “happy as a clam in the mud at high tide,” when it can’t be dug up and eaten. When the tides turn, the clam might be someone’s lunch.
Thinking about it this way, we can’t always be happy—and it’s foolish to try, since so much of our life is out of our control. But we can choose joy.
“Happiness is temporary,” Spiegel says. “It’s something we experience from time to time. When I think of joy, it’s who I am. It’s in me. When I see joy in other people, it’s not a one-time thing. It’s a way they walk through the world.”
What brings one person a flash of joy might make someone else yawn. That’s why Spiegel’s book isn’t prescriptive. She calls it a compendium of connecting stories that help readers find their own versions of microjoys.
That said, she offers a few guidelines. First, joy tends to be active. Pursuing joy means opening yourself to life and to the unknown. Sitting at home watching television might be calming and peaceful. It might be a well-deserved respite. But, night after night, it’s probably not joyful.
A practice of cultivating joy means “you have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to not do what everyone else is doing,” Spiegel says.
Joy is also a way of looking at the world, a perspective, a choice. “One thing I do every day is stop, wherever I am, and look around my space and count things that are beautiful. I could be en route somewhere, I could be sitting in my living room, I could be sitting in my office.”
A beautiful thing to you might be an object or a fleeting moment that no one else would notice. It might be a particular ray of sunlight. It could be an interaction you happen to witness between a parent and a child. It might be a well-worn object that is only beautiful to you.
Spiegel imagines a situation where someone is stuck in traffic. How do you find joy when you’re trapped in a car? “Think of one memory of being in a car that brings you joy. Depending on your situation, you may have to think harder, and that’s okay.” Don’t pick a memory and let it flicker across your consciousness. Go deep, Spiegel emphasizes. “Go back to that experience and feel it. Think about what you smelled, how you felt. Think about all of it.”
What about someone with limited options—financially, logistically, or otherwise? “Joy doesn’t serve you once and then you never get it again. You get to tap into those memories,” Spiegel says. She remembers spending time with her mom toward the end of her life. They would talk about what brought her mom joy during her childhood, or even what her mom’s current favorite TV show was. “Talk about what you do have, what is accessible to you,” Spiegel says.
Schadenfreude—taking delight in others’ suffering—has a little-known twin: freudenfreude. It’s the joy we feel when other people experience joy. It could be a friend telling you about a major life event. It could be watching a team celebrate after a victory. “Sometimes we have to borrow someone else’s joy,” Spiegel says.
Just having a name for it is the first step towards cultivating freudenfreude. The next step is giving ourselves permission—we’re allowed to take joy in other people’s joy. “We’re trained to look away,” Spiegel says. “We live in a culture that asks us to look away from a lot of things, including moments of joy.”
The Weird Lawn Chair People: An Excerpt from Microjoys
Ira and I really like vintage lawn chairs—the collapsable loungers with brightly colored nylon webbing and a nearly unbreakable (though not very sturdy) aluminum frame. Be warned: that frame will singe off the top layer of your skin if you don’t cover the metal arms when lounging in the hot sun. But danger be damned, the nostalgia is worth a minor burn from time to time. There is an innately calming quality about these lounge chairs. Looking at them makes me want to slow down and rest with a good book while drinking iced lemonade (sometimes, but not always, spiked with bourbon).
When we moved to the suburbs, we scouted for months to find vintage lawn chairs in mint condition that didn’t cost a small fortune. We eventually found a rare perfect pair; one has taupe-and-white-colored webbing and the other is kelly green and white. Though they weren’t the bright colors we were initially looking for, they are pure perfection. We picked them up in a nearby small town from an older gentleman who told is that the chairs once belonged to his parents and he’d found them while cleaning out the garage. We chatted for a moment and piled the chairs into our car to head off into the sunset with our newly acquired pieces of Americana.
In the midst of all this scouting, we forgot a few simple things: we don’t actually own a lawn to place these chairs lovingly onto, nor do we own a home in which to sit in front of while waving to the neighbors when we look up from our fantastic books. Of course, we could take them to the park and the beach, but the front lawn experience is why we wanted the lawn chairs.
After much consideration, we decided that we would be okay being known as the Weird Lawn Chair People in Front of the Apartment Building in our neighborhood. If it came down to that, I mean.
So on a summer Sunday afternoon, I donned my oversized yellow straw hat and we pulled our chairs—along with our newspaper, a few good books, and two cans of very cold beverages—onto the small patch of lawn in front of our building. (The hat was multipurpose; it blocked the sun but also functioned as a disguise in case this was too weird and someone recognized me.) In New York City, where land is in short supply but high demand, sitting on your stoop in front of your apartment building is normal and even enviable. But here in our suburban neighborhood, it was slightly out of place alongside the million-dollar homes lining our street.
Still, we persisted. And throughout the day while lounging, we watched drivers glance over in curiosity, chatted with people (who we presumed to be) neighbors out with their dogs, and eventually pulled out a third chair for another neighbor while we opened up a bottle of wine and chatted into the evening.
Our vintage lawn chairs brought us community, comfort, and nostalgia. Long live the Weird Lawn Chair People. May we know them. May we raise them. May we be them.
From MICROJOYS by Cyndie Spiegel, to be published on February 28, 2023 by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Cyndie Spiegel.
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