I won’t bore you with the details, but my last week or two has been surprisingly stressful. Do you know how amazingly good it feels to not feel sick after you’ve had a bad flu for a couple of days? And you know how they say that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger? Well, that’s my day so far. It’s been amazing, not because of anything intrinsically amazing but because I have been able to score a few surprisingly joyful moments from everyday things. And there’s a lesson or two about psychology in there, but let me first tell you about the experiences that brought me surprising joy.
Here’s the shockingly unexciting list: seeing a school crossing sign, buying a cup of coffee, and finding an $8.95 book.
It sounds boring, but I’ll try to explain what made those experiences so joyous.
It’s all about context, of course. I saw the school crossing sign as I was walking up to the university with my younger son, who just started as a student there.
I told him I'd been reading about stress reduction (because reading is how I cope with almost any stress), so we talked about the idea of “mindfulness.” I’m no expert on mindfulness, but one of the techniques I read about was trying to notice 10 pleasant or interesting things during a walk.
Right in the middle of our conversation, Dave (my older son–who coauthors blogs and books with me) joined us for the rest of the walk and the mindfulness game.
Two things that stood out right away were a cool statue in a neighbor’s yard and a nearby children’s crosswalk sign. Besides priming pleasant images of children, the sign reminded me that my younger son has passed this crosswalk almost every day of his life. We’d bike by it every day on the way to his preschool, every day as he turned into his elementary school, and then every day as he biked up to the nearby high school. And on my return walk, as I stopped to take a picture of the sign, I noticed that right behind it was a lovely plant called a “Mexican bird of paradise.” I always pass those lovely flowers and usually fail to notice, but not today.
Broader life lesson 1: Take the time to appreciate the familiar and routine. After my younger son went off to his first class and Dave went a different direction to his office, I noticed a lot of people sitting peacefully outside the coffee shop in the center of campus. It was a lovely morning, and a giant architectural structure covered in solar panels (a visible symbol of ASU’s leadership in sustainability) shaded the spot.
I wanted a coffee and a piece of pumpkin bread but didn’t have my wallet. That’s when I remembered my phone might have an app for just that. It required some assistance from a call to my wife and the advice of a patient barista, but I got it to work and soon found myself sitting in the shade with an iced cold brew coffee and cream and a tasty slice of pumpkin bread.
I noticed a “giant book sale” right across the campus mall. I couldn’t resist a book sale, so I ambled over and saw they had many excellent hardcover books (though I am not opposed to e-books and love audiobooks, a hardcover book is somehow the only real thing to me).
Could I buy a book at an informal sale without my wallet? Yes! They had a tiny electronic device at the main folding table that allowed me to swipe my phone and score a copy of Walter Isaacson’s book about Benjamin Franklin. I’ve raved about Isaacson’s books before, including the brilliant Innovators (see "The Most Inspiring Book I’ve Read"). He's also written biographies of Steve Jobs, Leonardo DaVinci, and Jennifer Doudna.
I happily carried his biography of Benjamin Franklin to a spot under a shady tree. I remembered that Franklin was not only an incredibly accomplished fellow but an exemplar of positive psychology–centuries before his time trying to develop a list of virtuous qualities in himself.
Broader life lesson 2: Take joy in solving small problems. Even something as tiny as figuring out how to use your phone to buy a cup of coffee is an accomplishment (just think of how delighted Ben Franklin would have been for that one). I’ve talked elsewhere about what I’ve called “micro-triumphs.” (See "Micro-Triumphs" and "7 Tips for Turning Mega-Threats into Micro-Triumphs.")
Broader Life Lesson 3: Practice social mindfulness. I thank my son Dave Lundberg-Kenrick, for his general wisdom and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post. He suggested another life lesson that combines the central lessons in our recent book (Kenrick & Lundberg-Kenrick, 2022) with those from our walk with his younger brother.
After our mindfulness exercise, Dave asked his brother what he was most thankful for in his life now, and Liam responded, “Going to the rock gym” (which he does with Dave and Dave’s son Fin). Even more than my iPhone-facilitated cup of coffee and $8.95 Franklin biography, taking the time to appreciate that my two sons enjoy each other’s company made my (otherwise everyday) day.
We often think of mindfulness as something we do during yoga or a walk alone in the woods, but it can be even more rewarding to share mindful experiences with your friends and family members.
Kenrick, D.T., & Lundberg-Kenrick, D.E. (2022). Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human evolution and the 7 Fundamental Motives. Washington: APA Books