How To Be Happy

BLOG #10, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
HOW TO BE HAPPY
March 11, 2015

During recent weeks, I’ve been sifting through thousands of stories that we’ve filed away during the last half-century. One day, I asked God that, if it was His will, He’d help me notice nuggets of wisdom that might be a blessing to our blog readers. Several hours later, I came across this, originally published in Girl’s World, later in a 1926 Youth’s Instructor. In order to better understand its significance, you’d have to know that, back then, in the days before air-conditioning, during summer months, cities often turned into furnaces. Everyone who could escape to the mountains or seashores, did so. The rich would leave home in early summer and not return until fall. Consequently, in a real sense, the poor were left to keep the cities going. And their babies were taken care of by their sisters. The story has to do with Alice Freeman Palmer (1855 – 1892), one of the most loved and admired educators in American history. It was during her years at Wellesley College, first as professor of history, then Dean of Women, then President, that she was catapulted into national eminence; and later at the University of Chicago, also as Dean of Women. Deans of Women are legendary thought-leaders: again and again people have told me of unforgettable stories they first heard from the lips of such deans. So naturally, I was curious about what Dr. Palmer might have said about happiness, a subject, even today, that so many millions of people are feverishly searching for. Here is what she had to say:

This is Alice Freeman Palmer’s recipe for happiness and the way she happened to tell it makes a delightful little story. It was in the years of her beautiful home life, after she had finished her great work at Wellesley. Almost every week through the hot summer she used to leave her peaceful, calm retreat in the country, and go to Boston to talk to children of the slums at a vacation school. The story is her own, but much condensed.

It was a very, very hot day, even in the country, but in the city, oh my! Yet, when I reached my destination, I found many girls in the room, and more babies than girls, for each girl was holding one, and there were a few to spare. “Now,” I said, “what shall I talk to you about this morning?”

Then up spoke a small, pale-faced, heavy-eyed child, with a great fat baby on her knee, “Tell us how to be happy.”

The tears rushed to my eyes. Happy in such surroundings, with such burdens, too heavy to be borne! Yet, while this flashed through my mind, the rest took up the word, “Yes, tell us how to be happy.”

“Well,” I said, “I will give you my three rules for being happy; but mind, you must all promise to keep them for a week, and not skip a single day, for they won’t work if you skip one single day.” So they all promised that they wouldn’t skip a single day.

“The first rule is that you will commit something to memory every day – something good. It needn’t be much – three or four words will do, just a pretty bit of a poem, or a Bible verse. Do you understand?”

One little girl with flashing black eyes jumped up and cried: “I know; you want us to learn something we’d be glad enough to remember even if we went blind.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s it exactly.”

“The second rule is: Look for something pretty each day: a leaf, a flower, a cloud – you can all find something. And stop long enough to say, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Take it all in. Can you do it, every single day?” They promised to a girl.

“My third rule is: Do something for somebody each day.” I thought that would be the hardest of all, but they said: “Oh, that’s easy! Don’t we have to tend babies and run errands every day, and isn’t that doing something for somebody?”

“Yes, I said, “indeed it is.”

So I went home, and came back at the end of the week, on a still hotter day. Suddenly, on a very narrow street, I was literally grabbed by the arm, and a little voice said, ‘I done it.”

“Did what?” I exclaimed, looking down at a tiny girl with a baby in her arms.

“What you told us, and I never skipped a day, neither.”

I made her put the baby down on the sidewalk while she told me all about it.

“Well,” she said, “I never skipped a day, but it was awful hard. One day it rained, and the baby had a cold, and I thought sure I was going to skip, and I was standing at the window, ‘most cryin’, and I saw” – here her little face lighted up with a radiant smile – “I saw a sparrow taking a bath, and he had on a black necktie, and he was handsome.”

“And then there was another day, and I thought I should have to skip it, sure. The baby was sick, and I couldn’t go out, and I was feelin’ terrible – and then I saw the baby’s hair!”

“The baby’s hair!” I echoed.

“Yes: a little bit of sun came in the window, and I saw his hair, an’ I’ll never be lonesome any more.” And with a radiant face she caught up the baby and said, “See; isn’t it beau-ti-ful?”

“Yes,” I said, “it is beautiful.” And I took the baby, and we went on to the meeting.

And the best thing about the story is that the three rules for happiness are good any time and anywhere.

I read this, and at first it seemed too simplistic to work, but then, as I thought about it for a while, I realized that the three rules were more profound than I’d thought, for the first rule would necessitate rummaging around for some time in books and magazines before one would find lines worth memorizing and internalizing. Internalizing the second rule would necessitate a continual search for beauty in everything one picked up through the senses (sight, hearing, touching, or smelling); over time, as one concentrates on beauty rather than ugliness, one’s character would reveal proportional upward growth. The third rule (helping someone else rather than brooding about self) would open up a continuous succession of doors into joy.

Try them – and see if they won’t work for you.