14 things to be happy about

The summer after I graduated high school, my best friend gave me a book entitled “14,000 Things to be Happy About.” It’s a list of random things, most of them small and everyday, to … duh, be happy about. I developed a habit in the following months of picking it up, flipping it open, and marking all the things that made me happy. In the many years since, virtually every entry has been marked.

I find myself thinking about that book this summer, when I am frequently reminded of all the things in the world there are to be unhappy about, yet, somehow, I’m generally happy.

I therefore present a list of 14 things to be happy about — because 14,000 is just too many for this column.

1. Old Friends: Those people who were there when you were becoming the person you are and who carry a little piece of you with them wherever they go, and vice versa. Multi-decade friendships are something to cherish.

2. New Friends: The people who know the now you, without all the history and drama of the past. There’s something particularly special about friendships that develop as adults, when it seems true connections are a bit harder to establish as everybody goes about the business of a life.

3. TV: I’ve definitely had some favorite television shows throughout my lifetime, but I would argue that recent TV is the best. I’ll go weeks without really watching anything at all, but binge-watching an entire season of a favorite series over a weekend is quite gratifying. And some of the performances and story lines of current television shows are almost mind-bogglingly good.

4. Stepping Outside Comfort Zones: I can’t stress this enough. It’s entirely possible to be too comfortable. Going someplace new, talking to new people, doing something you never thought you’d do — sometimes there’s nothing more rewarding than surprising yourself and breaking free of the comfort zone trap.

5. Engagement: I’m involved in several community groups, which means meetings and projects. I admit sometimes I don’t want to go or be involved, but I almost invariably find myself in a better mood after doing so. The most effective way to stop feeling our differences are insurmountable is to actually talk with people.

6. Parenting Adult and Teen Children: I often hear parents talking about how they wish they could turn back time to when their kids were very young. I don’t. I love parenting older kids.

Sure, their problems often aren’t those that can be solved with a hug and a Band-Aid. But the richness of our conversations and the depth of our relationships continue to grow. They challenge me like few ever have in ways I never knew possible. But I also have more fun with them than I do with practically anybody else.

7. Realizing People are People: Speaking of rich conversations with my kids, I recently had a discussion with my son, the gist of which was that there are no capital-G “Great” people. People are complex, and sometimes the people revered for one action or another also engaged in some pretty questionable, if not downright despicable, behavior. Do we then judge people based on their best deeds, their worst deeds, some combination of the two, or simply whether the good outweighs the bad? I don’t claim to have the answer, but the recognition of that complexity is smile-inducing.

8. “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie”: The conversation with my son about the complexity of people came on the heels of seeing “Oppenheimer” in the local theater and reflecting on the legacy of the titular character. The movie itself, however, was brilliantly done.

“Oppenheimer” has been beaten at the box office by the massive hit “Barbie,” which quickly became one of my all-time faves. Far from the “anti-man” claims of some, I found it to be a hilarious and entertaining dissection of the way traditionally gendered roles trap both women and men. Further, however, I’m delighted both movies prove there are audiences hungry for something other than a sequel or a remake, hungry for films with something real to say.

9. Big Cities and Small Towns: I (mostly) love this small town where I was born and raised. I also (mostly) love the city. They both have qualities to love and, like people, some parts that could really use some work.

I have people in my life who get nervous when I travel to the city, who believe the exaggerated claims of rampant crime and danger on every corner. I also have people in my life who believe small towns like mine are full of closed-minded, prejudiced people. While there are some truths in both beliefs, I have happily found neither broad generalization to be accurate (generalizations rarely are).

10. The James Webb Telescope: The breathtaking images it’s providing us could make a person feel insignificant. For me, they’re proof that humans working together in pursuit of a common goal can achieve remarkable things. That the telescope doesn’t just work, but is giving us such an awe-inspiring glimpse into the mysteries of our universe and the distant past is proof the seemingly impossible is sometimes possible.

11. Empathy: My experience is not everyone else’s. This seems pretty simple and common sense — but, wow, does it rile some people up to point out that people’s lives are not identical and some people come from very different places than others. Everything I’m listing here as something to be happy about may not ring true for others. I recognize I’ve been fortunate enough to be where I am and that other people haven’t had the same experiences.

12. Inclusion: Related to number 11. Beyond simply understanding and appreciating that people have different experiences, histories, backgrounds, etc., is the notion that once those issues are acknowledged, people take action to change behaviors and patterns that, intentionally or unintentionally, harm others. I call it basic respect.

13. Live music: It’s better now. This summer alone I’ve seen two acts who can boast completely devoted fan bases: Dead & Company and Taylor Swift. While some may say these two have nothing in common, having been to them both I would argue there are more similarities than differences.

Those are the most joyful groups of people I can imagine. Whether it’s trading homemade stickers or friendship bracelets, these crowds of dedicated fans want to connect and celebrate the sense of belonging found there. Singing and dancing along to Taylor Swift in the company of my young teen daughter was extraordinary.

I think there are many reasons why, but chief among them is the pandemic and the loss of live music for a couple of years. Having it back now makes the joy seem — I don’t know — joy-ier (which I know isn’t a word). I don’t take live music for granted anymore. I don’t take a lot of things for granted anymore.

14. All the Small Things: The other day I found myself distracted watching trees sway in the wind beneath our big blue Wyoming sky. So many things each day are so beautiful, and I find myself deeply appreciating such little things. When I catch myself doing it, all I am is happy.

I know sometimes it feels as though there’s not a lot to be happy about. I get feeling that way, too. And pretending things aren’t bad is naïve and lacks the empathy, connection and inclusion I was just referencing.

I happen to believe it’s more important than ever to find things to be happy about, despite all the terrible things in the world — if not because of all the terrible things. It feels defiant and somehow hopeful. And perhaps that, too, is something to be happy about.