Tuesday, March 20, 2012

appliance - refrigerator as sage

A magnet on my refrigerator reads: “I have decided to be happy because it is good for my health.” Research supports the connection between emotional wellbeing and health. But what about the notion that happiness is a choice? Though I tend to think more about contentment and joy than happiness, I subscribe to Abraham Lincoln’s belief that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” As it happens, contemporary studies bear this out as well. (A WebMD article summarizes some of these studies in lay terms.)

If we can indeed choose happiness, the obvious question is: How? As I pondered this question, it occurred to me that I could once again look to my refrigerator for my response.

Commit to the Choice 

You probably know people who believe happiness depends on external circumstances. I’m in regular contact with one of these people, and you know what? That person is right. If you give other people and events the power to determine your happiness, they’ll generally oblige and you’ll generally be miserable. If, on the other hand, you claim responsibility for your own outlook, you’ll enjoy an immediate sense of efficacy that leads to positive thoughts and actions. I’m not talking The Secret’s Law of Attraction or even Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking. Happy thoughts won’t erase poverty or war, bring back lost loved ones, restore sight to my right eye, or land me a job. But my thoughts govern my reactions to unhappy circumstances. If there are practical ways I can make a bad situation better, a positive outlook gives me the confidence to attempt those changes.

Cultivate Gratitude

Even under crummy circumstances, I seek to recognize and appreciate the many good things in life. Most days, I’m bowled over by the extravagance of these things: vision in my left eye that is better than it was ten years ago, two garbage bags filled with hand-me-down clothes for my daughter, free books at the library, a dog who greets my arrival like I’m a rock star, a piano from an older woman at church, a piano teacher who lives next door, fuzzy socks, windows that open to the spring breeze, a lovely paragraph in Ted Kooser’s book on poetry, visits to a hometown where I can see the stars at night, hearing my daughter’s Big Bad Wolf voice as she learns to read Little Red Riding Hood, hearing my son pick out a harmony line to the 1970s song Magic of all things, the purple door in my bathroom, my $75 refrigerator.

My husband and I have spent many Saturday mornings—one of which was our first date—browsing garage sales. We have seen a refrigerator at a garage sale exactly once: the weekend after we moved into our current home and inherited a refrigerator that constantly sounded like it was making ice, even though it wasn’t equipped with an ice maker. The location of the garage sale? One block from our house. Some neighbors had remodeled their kitchen and were reselling their four-year-old fridge for $75. As a bonus, walking a refrigerator down the street turns out to be a great way to meet the rest of your neighbors.

Give Back
When you begin to see abundance around you, the desire to give back comes almost automatically. What is the purpose of those benefits if not to benefit someone else? International child sponsorship is not without controversy, but our family has chosen it as a way to support communities in other parts of the world from our home in Minnesota. The point is not how you give, but that you give in whatever way you can. You can always find reasons for tightfistedness—most of which reveal the desire to control the way a recipient uses what we give—but I believe it’s almost always better to err on the side of meeting the need in front of you. That might mean giving my gloves to a homeless man, shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk when she’s recovering from a shoulder injury, inviting a woman with three items to move ahead of me in the checkout line, or sending a thank you card to someone I appreciate. I don’t do these things because they make me happy, but I’m happier having done them.

Ask for Help

Conversely, we’re all needy at some point. My personal wellbeing has depended on admitting my needs and asking for help, most significantly when I took a semester off college to seek treatment for bulimia. Because of that history, I chose a doctor with a mental health background when we moved to Minnesota. She’s one of the people I routinely ask for help.

Invest in Relationships
Of course, many of the people who help me are friends and family members, and I hope they would say I help them in return. Healthy relationships are well-established contributors to overall happiness, but they can be elusive. Making meaningful connections requires time, commitment, and (gulp) vulnerability. Even when you’re a supportive friend or devoted family member, there’s no guarantee the other person will meet you halfway. In the end, though, I think relationships are what life on earth is about, and it’s hard to imagine happiness without them.

Tend to the Soul

My beliefs about happiness, as well as my happiness itself, are linked to my thoughts about eternity and my place within it. I think of my soul as the eternal part of me, the part that connects me to all things mortal and divine. I tend to my soul by participating in a religious community, appreciating the natural world, praying, reading religious texts, and enjoying artistic interpretations of the human experience.

There are other things that promote happiness: physical health (represented by the food in my refrigerator and the YMCA schedule on the door), meaningful work/activities (the calendar on the side of the fridge), humor (several magnets that make me laugh). Just as I’ve unconsciously furnished my kitchen with these values, I’ve somewhat more intentionally taught them to my children. Their happiness is not my primary goal. I’m more concerned that they recognize and pursue their purpose and give more than they take. If doing these things sets them up for happiness—well, that makes me happy.

appliance - 1. a device or instrument designed to perform a specific function 2. the use or application of a technique 


  1. Kim, this is yet another work of brilliance. "As a bonus, walking a refrigerator down the street turns out to be a great way to meet the rest of your neighbors." I absolutely love following your visual path across the refrigerator ... what a great metaphor, and what a significant tie-in with the role food plays in our emotional and physical lives.

  2. By the way, I covet that amazing china cabinet next to the fridge ...

  3. I'm at a loss for words, Kim. This post is SO engaging... and the photos and pictures you simultaneously draw with words bring it to life in a way that I typically do not find in blogs... This is lovely, and I admire the ways your refrigerator ties in to all of it!