I recently watched a video that offered life hacks, which were guaranteed to be so useful as to be life-changing. I was riveted: face cleanser can be poured onto cotton balls and stored in silly putty eggs for easy travel, and if you press a clove of garlic in a four-inch circle in a hot pan, you can cook a perfectly round fried egg in the center of the garlic ring. The hole in the top of a soda can was made for a straw, and lining a paint tray with vegetable oil makes the paint easy to peel off when it dries, leaving the paint tray almost new again. Baking soda and citric acid can be put into ice cube trays to make homemade dishwasher tabs, salt cleans the surface of an iron, and sliced pool noodles have too many uses to list.
I watched way too many YouTube life hacks, and was left with that empty, dirty feeling you get when you click on the “reels” on Facebook and watch several minutes of nonsense, or go down an internet rabbit hole, clicking “next” a dozen times to see what the cast of The Brady Bunch look like now. I think when I read “life hacks,” I was looking for something deeper. Something about how to spend meaningful time with friends I miss when I have a 9-5 job and a family, and so do they. Maybe something about how to save a thousand dollars a month for retirement without really trying, or something about how to ensure that your adult children are actually happy and not just telling you they are happy. Or something about how to find more time to write, and get paid for it. Instead, I found life hacks that had to do with prolonging the life of clothes hangers, the many uses of pool noodles, and eating Ramen noodles with a spoon made from the lid.
I guess I was looking for the secret to happiness. Not that I thought I would agree with it, but I wanted to see if “life hacks” offered any wisdom. I saw a quote by Eleanore Rosevelt that went: “Happiness is not a goal, it’s a byproduct of a life well lived,” and I thought, so, if I’m ever sad, am I not living my life well? I read that Albert Einstein said “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success,” and it didn’t ring true, because if ever there was a restless man who was constantly seeking success, it was Al Einstein. I remember from college that Buddha said “There is no path to happiness, happiness is the path,” (what?), and I remember that Charles Schultz’ wisdom was that happiness is a warm puppy, which I agree with, but I am allergic to dogs.
So then I thought of my mom, who often said the phrase “The trick is…” She might have been talking about anything: getting chores done, coaxing a cake out of a cake pan, or cross-country skiing. She phrased things in the positive: “take short breaks” or “butter the pan really well,” instead of “don’t be lazy” and “don’t be sloppy.” I thought of this because last week, cleaning out an old trunk, I found a journal that I kept from 1980, when I was nine. It was full of short stories about orphans (pretty ones, with good hair, seeking a friend for life), descriptions of things I found to be pretty or inspiring (nature, unicorns, novelists), and various things people said that I might want to put in a story some day. In loopy, nine-year-old handwriting, I’d written down something my mom said: “The trick is, wake up every day and decide it’s going to be a good one, and…don’t change your mind!” I actually wrote down the ellipses, though I’m sure I didn’t know they were called that, to indicate to my future writer-self that the character who would be saying this took a pause there. I gave my mom credit for the quote with a little dash and then her name, and also “Momma.” My current self sat there with the journal and read that entry about ten times.
There may be better quotes about happiness somewhere. Pope John Paul’s Do Not Be Afraid (which he totally ripped from the Bible) and Mother Teresa’s Meet every day with Joy come to mind, but they seem so lofty, so ambitious. What if you are afraid? What if you aren’t joyful? Those offer something to aspire to, and I’m not saying my mom had better ideas than Karol and Teresa, but her advice was a practical guide to living out theirs: just decide to be happy. It’s a decision. Wake up and decide to not be afraid, decide to meet the day with joy, or at least to try, and don’t change your mind.
Moms are always right.