It’s ice cream truck season. Lately, that familiar twinkling tune — you know the one — trills almost nonstop through the streets of Brooklyn, doling out lickable, lopsided renditions of Spongebob and crumbly cones blanketed with chocolate and nuts.
I wonder whether the drivers despise that song they have to sit inside all day long; whether they tear through packages of Q-tips before bed at night, grimacing, trying desperately to wipe the cheery melody from their ears, to no avail. (It’s a sticky one, as addictively saccharine as the frozen treats.)
Or, maybe, they ride their vans like kings in chariots, proud to be beloved by every giddy kid given a dollar for a popsicle. Maybe that ditty is their anthem. Maybe they hum it, smiling, while they get dressed every morning, and whistle it while they wind up and down the same repeated roads. Maybe they feel lucky that their jobs make them drivers of joy.
At my yoga studio, the sequence of every class is different, but each one includes a chair pose (or three). The posture looks the way it sounds: you raise your arms up by your ears and squat as if sitting back in an invisible chair. And then you stay there, until the teacher says it’s done.
For a lot of people, it’s an unsavory exercise. It’s awkward and difficult and uncomfortable, and you just have to dwell in it while your thighs slowly quiver and melt. But it’s my favorite. I like an odd challenge, because I like practicing maintaining gentleness under strenuous circumstances.
Recently, I’ve built a new habit: smiling in chair pose. I let the corners of my mouth lift, and I feel the crinkle coming up around my eyes. I’ve done it enough days and weeks in a row that it’s become a reflex. I smile instinctively as I bend down into my air chair, and I feel wonderful — because smiling does that to a person — and I think about the symbolism.
We’re taught that difficulty breeds discomfort, and that discomfort is a precursor to dismay — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Difficulty and discomfort can be joyful things, if we savor the unsavory stuff as a delightful dare, as a temporary test of strength, as evidence of engagement with the full spectrum of human experience.
I’m perpetually drawing connections between my motions on the yoga mat and those maintained in the rest of my life, but I think it works that way for any pastime you might practice on a regular basis: we build our life philosophies, our ways of being, within the predictable containers of our everyday doings. Our reactions to our familiar regimens become the formulas for our reactions to unordinary, unexpected, outside scenarios, too.
Happiness, in a way, is a habit. And it’s one we hone every time we smile.
I once read that we use our mental thought processes to justify the actions we’ve taken, after we take them — though we think we’re doing things the other way around, acting based on logical reasoning.
When other drivers cut us off in traffic, we scowl and honk as a supposed expression of annoyance at the culpable strangers’ rude moves. But in fact, based on scientific studies of the brain, the scowling and honking are purely physical reflexes, entirely unattached to judgment. We slap on the judgment afterwards in an unknowing attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves.
If we can catch ourselves in our involuntary reactions, then we can train ourselves to trade them out for something softer. We can swap the honk-accompanying scowls for smiles, again and again, until the lighthearted smiling eventually supersedes the original annoyance. It’s so simple — so Pavlovian — that it seems almost absurd. But it works. It just takes attention and recognition and decision. And patience.
Grinning while creeping through gridlocked traffic, whistling while we work, smiling in chair pose — each expression of good humor is a choice. It’s a choice until it doesn’t have to be, because it becomes a reflex.
The word “happy” arose in the late 14th century, and it was mostly associated with fortune and chance. Throughout Europe, most of the original words for “happy” meant “lucky” at first.
It’s no wonder, then, that our modern-day culture is so hooked on happiness research and that positive psychology is gaining steam. We’ve advanced too far to wait on fortune. We want to make our own luck.
But most of us spend more time reading the self-help books, looking for answers on how to find “happy,” than we do just practicing the moods and motions of “happy” and seeing what sticks.
There’s one exception to the etymology of “happy”: in Wales, the original term meant “wise.” Maybe the Welsh understood, way back when, that sound judgment and awareness are the keys to securing more smiles than scowls — that there’s sagacity in sensibly approaching every situation, however uncomfortable, with a warm, accepting grin.
A few days ago, I finally set up a Facebook page for The Core Stories. It’s something I’ve been resisting doing for months, because it felt terrifying to make this thing Facebook official, to open it up to “likes” and comments where everyone can see them, and to have to ask people, again, to follow along.
The first person I invited to “like” the page was my sister. And then I gritted my teeth and began inviting everyone else I know, from estranged high school classmates to exes.
It sounds silly from an outside perspective, I know, but the whole process felt uncomfortable inside my own head — my head that sat on hunched shoulders with a furrowed brow.
And so, I started smiling. I smiled while I hit the “invite” button so many times that the word lost all meaning. And then I listened to my accompanying mental dialogue as it shifted:
Here I go, doing something a little bit awkward. Invite! Invite! Invite! This is fun, actually — just doing the thing, challenging myself. Why, exactly, did I think this was a big deal worth worrying over? How lucky am I, to believe in something so much that I care what other people think of it? So silly! So human. What an odd treat, to be human. Invite! Invite! Invite!
The window next to me was cracked open, and a glimmering breeze waltzed in around my wrists. Birds chirped outside like a blissful church choir. And an ice cream truck trilled in the distance.