On his 42nd birthday, author Ross Gay decided to write an essay each day about a small joy in his life — a collection of essays that later became The Book of Delights. I first read an essay from the collection, “A High Five from a Stranger,” a few months ago. In it, Gay describes the beauty of positive physical interactions with strangers. The essay struck a chord with me, as I always initiate physical contact — whether it be a high five, a hug or a kiss on the cheek.
I largely forgot about The Book of Delights until a particularly “delightful” day in Northern California last month, when I stumbled across the book next to the checkout at a small bookstore. I put away the other books I had been deliberating between, choosing instead to read Gay’s entire essay collection.
Each day, Gay picked something fairly mundane to write about that, to him, was the sweetest delight — plant saplings, blowing off a commitment or pleasant interactions with strangers. Each day, he chose to find joy in something that many may overlook.
In one of my classes last fall, my professor had us begin each weekly session with a bit of joy. Everyone in the room would share one thing that brought them joy in the last week since we’d had class — it could be as big as a medical school acceptance or as small as a delicious bite of a pumpkin pancake. Some days, it was easy to find something joyful — the leaves were beginning to change color, my father was coming to visit me or my roommates and I had cooked a particularly good dinner — but other days, it was hard. Last fall was one of the most difficult periods of my life, and finding joy in a scary time is never easy.
Though people always tell you to think positively, this is often a hard thing to do in practice. In the past, when people — typically my mom — would tell me this, I would roll my eyes or ignore them. To me, negativity has always felt much larger, making it considerably easier to focus on. Statements like “Be more positive!” or “Look on the bright side” aren’t exactly specific, step-by-step instructions that you can follow — they’re more general suggestions. However, small joys were different. My professor somehow managed to do what nobody had done for me before. She made focusing on the positive easy.
After reading The Book of Delights, I decided to do the same as Gay and to write an essay each day about something that made me happy. I’ve only been at the practice for a few weeks, but already, I have collected a beautiful assortment of small joys: the precision with which a ladybug crawled up my finger in a small courtyard in Verona, the feeling of ocean water on my skin, seeing a small girl and her father holding hands. As I’ve collected these joys like rocks or buttons or playing cards and held them close to my heart, I’ve begun to feel myself becoming happier.
I think what I’ve discovered this past year is that happiness is not something that comes to you. It is not something you’re given or something you stumble upon. Happiness is something you choose. I know this has been said before, but it was impossible for me to understand until I decided to be happy.
A year ago, I was a completely different person than I am now. I wasn’t entirely unhappy, but I was heavy. I worried a lot, and most often, the worries were about things that I couldn’t control. I focused so much on what was outside of myself and wondered how I could ever be happy in a world where bad things were bound to happen.
Now, I recognize that happiness doesn’t need to be found in grand, sweeping gestures — it can be found in the smallest of things, like the way the sky looks in the early morning, a kiss on the forehead or in taking off your shoes at the end of a long day. Through seeking out small joys, I’ve learned that you can find happiness anywhere; you just need to look for it.
Molly Green is a junior from Orange County, Calif. studying Writing Seminars.