Simple Pleasures

March 2014

 

Delaware Water Gap trail

Delaware Water Gap trail. 

I am a glass-is-half-empty type, a characteristic I may have inherited from my mother, who was a glass-has-spilled-and-is-completely-empty type. And yet I also notice surprisingly many things that I enjoy in my life. These tend not to be flashy or splendid things, my life being notably lacking in flash and splendor. Most of the things I enjoy are quite ordinary, the kinds of things you sometimes don’t even notice you enjoy. Except that I do notice, and often comment on it – as in, “Have I mentioned recently how much I love the view from that window?”

Simple pleasures. Like glorying in the daylight as I put up the shades in the morning; like sipping that first cup of coffee while gazing out through the French doors of our sunroom into the backyard; like going for walks along the trail that connects Silver Spring to Bethesda, or just around the neighborhood at dusk; like biting into the crunch of seeds and nuts in my morning granola. I’m talking really simple.

This is either simple-minded or profound. I opt for “profound.” And frugal! – these simple pleasures cost next to nothing. And here’s the thing: I never get tired of them; I love the simple pleasures in my life every time I experience them, which, for many of them, is most days. Maybe this says less about simple pleasures than about my consistency – once I like something, I seem to like it forever (a trait for which my husband has more than once expressed his gratitude).

The other side of that coin, however, is that once I notice some injustice or immorality, it upsets me forever, or until the wrong is righted or I die, whichever comes first.

Now, I should note that the bad things that will upset me forever, or until they are set right or I die, are big (think climate change denial and plutocracy), while the pleasures that will please me forever (like enjoying the beauty of the Italian cups and saucers my husband got me for Christmas years ago) are small. I think this is a good thing – it takes really big things to upset me forever, but I need only small things to give me pleasure forever.

I once made a list of the things I enjoy (in no particular order of importance), “making lists” being the first item on the list. Some of the other things on the list were writing, reading the Sunday New York Times out on our front porch on a summer morning, hugging my husband, hugging my son, hugging my daughter, homemade risotto with Parmesan cheese, showers when I’m not rushed, snowfalls and snowscapes, good conversation, and the kind of laugh that brings tears to my eyes.

About every one of these things I have at one time or another (and often many times) thought to myself, “This is wonderful,” or, “I love this,” or, “I love doing this” (as in, “I love sitting out on the front porch reading the Sunday Times in the summer. Have I mentioned recently how much I love that?”). And I’ve thought this about many more things that I could have put on the list but didn’t. Just listing foods I love to eat (and at one time or another have noticed how much I love to eat them) would alone probably fill pages. And these are just the simple everyday sorts of things in life, not the gala-event sorts of things.

Of course, what is an “everyday” sort of thing to one person might be a “gala-event” sort of thing to another. Not everyone has a front porch to sit out on or a husband or kids to hug. And while gazing through the French doors of our sunroom doesn’t cost anything, the French doors and the sunroom cost quite a bit. I suppose I might have bristled if someone described gazing at the ocean from the deck of his yacht as a “simple pleasure.”

But I don’t really need the French doors or the sunroom to enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping that first cup of coffee while gazing into the backyard. I would enjoy it almost as much looking through ordinary windows or just standing outside (although I do need the coffee).

Most simple pleasures rely on something outside oneself, something to notice and appreciate – something from which to derive pleasure. It might be a material good (e.g., a set of beautiful Italian cups and saucers) or an interaction with another person or just the natural world around you to enjoy on a walk. Or a good cup of coffee!

Simple pleasures by definition don’t require costly material things. That’s the point – all you have to do is notice how lovely or beautiful or tasty or generally pleasurable something is. And there are plenty of things like that. Even if you don’t have some things, you will have others. It’s not about the things; it’s about noticing how much you enjoy them.

They say that feeling gratitude makes people happy.[1] That is not exactly where I’m going here, but it’s in the same general direction. Gratitude is usually to someone or something; people feel grateful to another person or, often, to God. Many of the things that give me pleasure in life are the sorts of things for which I might feel gratitude to God if I believed in God. So I think it’s not really gratitude so much as just noticing these things and not taking them for granted. Whereas someone else might express this as gratitude, I would say I feel lucky to be able to enjoy these simple pleasures – lucky to have a window (even a small window) with such lovely views; lucky to have the time to enjoy that first cup of hot coffee and the sunroom in which to enjoy it; lucky to have a shower to luxuriate in; and, of course, lucky to have a husband and son and daughter I want to hug. These don’t seem like such big deals – until you notice how lovely they are.

But it’s not just noticing these simple pleasures; it’s noticing how much I enjoy them. You might not have thought that a glass-is-half-empty type of person like me would be this way; I certainly wouldn’t have. But I am.

And it’s a good thing too, because I also notice – and tend to obsess over – the big, ugly offenses against humanity and how much they upset me (see “Letting Go of the Outrage”). These simple pleasures act as a kind of antidote to the large, outrageous things going on in the United States and the world – they don’t get rid of them, or the outrage they engender in me, but they give me temporary relief, like so many little Band-Aids or Motrin tablets. Even amidst our growing plutocracy, even as money-in-politics is strangling our democracy, even as the climate change deniers continue to spread misinformation while the earth warms and the oceans acidify, even as evil forces turn to voter suppression tactics, I still notice how much I love the view from that window and walks along the trail and leisurely showers and that first cup of hot coffee in the morning and hugging my husband and my kids. I still notice and enjoy these simple pleasures pretty much every day.

I’m not really sure what that says. Maybe I just have a penchant for noticing things – both simple little lovely things and big, outrageous and worrisome things. For my emotional wellbeing, I need many simple pleasures to balance the outrage and upset from the large injustices and immoralities. It’s a good thing, then, that these simple pleasures come cheap (or free!) and there are potentially so many of them – all you have to do is notice them.

I think I’ll go for a walk along the trail to Bethesda. I love walking that trail; have I mentioned recently how much I love walking that trail?

[1] There is a wealth of literature on this; I put the keywords “gratitude” and “happiness” into Google and came up with a bunch of things – some scholarly articles and some “popular psychology” types of articles – for example: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/08/09/the-relationship-between-happiness-and-gratitude/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-fitness/201311/how-the-habit-gratitude-leads-happiness

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