Imagine holding all your happiest moments (and those of your friends, family and even strangers) in your hands. Imagine having these moments at your fingertips—to relish, turn over, examine in the sunlight. You can do this by starting a happy book—a journal to collect and list those instances of joy, both life-changing and small, that make your heart glad.
The Happy Book Is Born
One afternoon in 1995, I found my best friend Candace sprawled across her couch sobbing.
"Why are you crying?"
She sniffed and mumbled some comments on college classes, overdue credit card payments, her frustrating relationship with her current boyfriend, her cat's dirty litterbox. I tried to decide how to help.
I am, by nature, a list-maker. I believe there are few things that can't be solved with the assistance of a good list. I like taking the chaos of work growing on my desk and corralling it—all with numbers, paper, and a nice, fine-tipped pen. When I list the stresses in my life—the bills I need to pay, the decisions I need to make, the issues I want to resolve—Im fencing them in, shepherding them into control. Not only do I love the utility of lists, but I find their very form beautiful: numbers progressing into the infinite, the fusing of horizontal and vertical. (I am also the type of person who, when completing a set of chores, will make a list of what I've just finished, all for the satisfaction of crossing an item off.)
So while Candace dried off her face, I began thinking of lists. I drove her to a nearby coffee shop, ordered us coffee, shoved some Kleenex her way, and got out a pen and paper scrap from my bag.
"Let's make a list of 10 things you can be happy about. It will make you feel better," I said.
She blew cigarette smoke up in the air, then sipped from her mug, looking at me. "What are you talking about?"
I looked around and saw a statue in the corner of the shop, one that I hadn't seen there before. It was a beautiful wooden mermaid with long flowing hair, hands modestly covering her breasts.
"Here, that mermaid—she makes me really happy." I wrote: 1. The mermaid statue at this coffee shop. "And right now, sitting here drinking coffee, that makes me and you both happy." I started numbering the lines, filling in the spaces. Candace volunteered a couple. When we were done, I read the list:
1. The mermaid statue at this coffee shop.
2. Sitting and holding a warm cup of coffee with friends.
3. Holding Joe's fingers.
4. Being completely engrossed in a good book.
5. Sugar-trimmed cranberry margaritas.
6. Having silvery buttons on your sweater.
7. Brad Pitt's hair.
8. Shannon coming home soon.
9. Café Mochas.
10. New Laura Ashley perfume.
"Your homework," I said to Candace, "is to list 10 more things that make you happy. Bring them next week—we'll do coffee here." She nodded.
By the next week, Candace had brainstormed 20-plus things to add to the list. We read them over coffee again, and sometime that evening made a decision to keep going. I don't remember why. Maybe Candace was still depressed, or maybe that week I needed to focus on the good. I'm sure part of the decision stemmed from our very natures—my love for order, Candace's joy over words (she's a brilliant poet), our shared energy for beautiful things. I also have to believe the list-making process itself just made us really happy. Within the next few days, Candace bought a steno pad, and I volunteered to transfer our entries into our new book and decorate the cover.
And It Grows and Grows ...
Six years later, we're at 3,000-plus entries—three full steno pads and the start of a fourth. They're filled with messy handwriting, neatly blocked letters, an occasional picture. The back cover of the first book is tied on by a thread; some of the pages in the second book (entries #1707-1906) have been chewed by a friend's dog; all the books have the smell of coffee shops: smoke, espresso, musty perfume. When I read them, fingers tracing over the imprints of hard-pressed handwriting, I feel like I'm an archaeologist of my own life. I've found the artifacts of my and Candace's growing up.
The major events of the past six years sit there on pale blue lines. I read them and feel the moments of joy and transition and newness all over again. There is entry #1938 when Candace won a Bucknell fellowship for her poetry. I wrote entry #2694 when I was awarded a graduate teaching assistantship in a letter with the phrase—"Starting your teaching career at Ohio State University." I couldn't believe I was going to have a "career." Candace wrote entry #2824—"Finally knowing my uncle and now knowing why I always wanted to know him"—when she was acquainted with an uncle she hadn't ever met.
Our old crushes and new loves tiptoe across the pages, too. Some are embarrassing; some, since they are over, make me sad; others are just beginning. But those moments of spring infatuation, of a boy making your stomach dance, are still electric, even if the ink is dry:
57. He asked about me three times.
1652. Jack inviting me to the Blue Wisp.
2016. Homemade breads baked for us by Jon.
2582. Kissing. I always forget how nice it is.
2851. Right now, it makes me sad thinking of Jason in his bright orange coat with the hood up, standing in the rain waiting for me, but at the time it made me happier than anything the past 2,850 entries ever made me.
2948. Curt-time. It makes me happy and that makes him happy.
The Happy Book has become an archive of who we are, of what has happened to us, of who we've met. It's a living record of the big moments that compose Candace's and my life.
It's also a chronicle of the small moments that make the day-to-day time of teaching or cubicles or gray winter just a bit more tolerable. In the Happy Book, I find little bits of grace coming down to fill our ordinary lives. There's #1601: "Lady feeding homeless cats at the park." Or #2021: "The ladies at the phone company who've extended my bill deadline three times 'because it's Christmas.'" And #2286: "Oranges out of the fridge." Sometimes, when Candace and I are in need of reinvigoration or just in need of some happy energy, one of us will call out random numbers while the other pages through and reads the entry.
Early in the Happy Book's life, we started inviting friends to come to coffee with us and to write in the book. Soon, we invited parents, siblings—even the servers at the coffee shops we frequent—to write entries of their own. Through their words, I have started to learn that it is not just Candace and me who find joy in the small, the simple, the unexpected:
47. Hot butter popcorn, cold beer and a good movie with my daugher. Jim (my dad)
266. A good novel on a rain-filled day. Matt (server at Café Vienna)
418. The freshness of the world at 5 a.m. and waking w/o an alarm to enjoy. Donna (server at York Street Café)
443. Babies falling asleep on your chest. Marla (friend)
1052. Sunburnt shoulders and noses after early Saturday night shower. Holly (Candace's sister)
1156. Even if you hate vanilla yogurt, it's okay to buy it for someone you care about. Jon (friend)
2029. Dreaming, I love to sleep and dream. Kristin (friend)
2311. Trenton makes it a point to tell me when the full moon is every month. Rachel (friend)
2341. There are trains that go by my house sometimes and they always sound so incredible. Shannon (friend)
2860. 24 flavors of soft-serve ice cream. Tiffany (friend)
2958. My really ugly bike. Rachel (server at Kaldi's Coffee Shop)
2980. Big Bird. Jamie (server at Kaldi's Coffee Shop)
I have learned that happiness isn't just the "big things" in life, like getting married, graduating from college, having a baby or getting the dream job. It's also waking in the morning and stretching your legs like a cat. It's chairs that unexpectedly creak. It's a phrase from a Charles Baxter book that you can't stop repeating. (#2353—"'Her clocks ached.'") It's having a best friend, a kindred spirit, who meets you every week for coffee, who writes in the book for you when you've gotten dumped and can't stop crying, or who lets you write for pages and pages when you're feeling spring in your fingers.
My friends Megan and Sara have started their own books, and I started one to find some joy when I was living in a different city for graduate school. My graduate school Happy Book has taken a different path—not everyone numbers their entries, and some people prefer to draw rather than write. (There are no lines in this book.) Happiness is showing up in sketched images, in lengthy prayers, in photographs. One friend wrote a poem for me to paste in the book; another friend gave me a picture taken at a picnic of a bottle of Merlot in the sand. My friend Susan drew pictures of her cats, Miles and Chet, unrolling a roll of toilet paper. During a concert, Linford Detweiler, the piano player from my favorite band, Over the Rhine, took the book backstage, and wrote a meditation on happiness, ending it with a list that included: "The shape of a woman," "A good fishing story" and "Applesauce." A 6-year-old friend wrote, "My name is Hannah and I like my family." While visiting Graceland, my friend Jenny catalogued a list of things about Elvis that made her overjoyed. ("He loved his mama.")
Browsing through the books, I've discovered that happiness, while unique, is always shared. I wouldn't have written that poem, I don't particularly like applesauce, and I harbor only a mild fascination for Elvis, but I love the energy of the different handwriting on the pages. I love that people can pick up a book, a pen, and can focus on the good, that they can find the positive in even sweaty, meatloaf-loving rock stars. I love that their happiness makes me happy.
Now that Candace and I are living in the same town again, we meet every Wednesday for coffee and Happy Book time. Happy entries bombard us and multiply like dragonflies in summer, each recorded moment reminding us of past joys and leading us to new ones.
Happy moments have been leading me since the very first entry in the book—the one about the mermaid. When I saw that mermaid statue in 1995, that first Happy Book day with Candace, I suddenly remembered my 11th birthday, the below-zero weather, my Aunt Judy taking me out for hot chocolate at a coffee shop tucked into a small corner of an eclectic Cincinnati neighborhood, and me feeling very grown up. My aunt and I sat at the table—I don't remember what we talked about, only that I ordered hot chocolate and that there was so much whipped cream on it, the thick chocolate nearly spilled over the sides. I put my palms around this mug, letting the warmth seep through my palms, and in the corner of the darkened shop, I saw a statue of a mermaid, rough-cut but beautiful, watching me. And I was happy.
This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.