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Essay: 100 Happy Days

Cari Taylor-Carlson, Instagram
Day 53 - Good Morning

Go to the self-help section of any bookstore or scroll through the documentary section of Netflix, and there are dozens of titles linked to happiness. There are lots of different ideas on what the path to happiness is, but Lake Effect essayist Cari Taylor-Carlson is only an expert on her own efforts:  

Last October, my granddaughter Lily “tagged” me with the latest teenybopper Instagram fad. Because I was tagged, my task was to post a daily photo with the hashtag 100 Happy Days for that number of consecutive days.

It took me back to my student days at UW-Madison when my friends and I used to sneak bottles of Mogan David wine into the dorm and get mildly buzzed as we attempted to decode the ultimate meaning of our young lives. During those wine-fueled nights, I discovered hedonism, defined according to Webster.com, as the belief that pleasure or happiness is the most important goal of our lives. At twenty, I glommed on to that idea and held it tight. My friends and I understood pleasure, but how to find happiness led to hours of philosophical discourse.

We explored the writing of Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus and his idea that the quest for happiness is our existential duty. He wrote, “All too often, we know we are happy only when we no longer are.”

We explored Rene Descartes and his idea that we must find happiness within ourselves and not compare ourselves with others. In his words, “Except in our own thoughts, there is nothing absolute in our power.”

So here I am, a half century later, challenged by a twelve-year-old to revisit the metaphysics of my youth. I’m a happy person; I smile a lot; wear rose-colored glasses most of the time; when it’s necessary, I bury everything from the neck up in the sand. On a scale of a hundred, I’m at least a ninety-five but I don’t know why. Maybe the challenge will beam some light on the age old question of where to find the magic key to a life well-lived.

For some inspiration for my assignment, I return to Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project. She reminds me that winning the lottery won’t guarantee eternal bliss. But, on the other hand, it might buy me a garage for my car. There are plusses to street parking so on day #5, I post a photo of my car on the street in the rain and write, “free car wash.”

The first snow in November leads to three happy day posts. I had adopted a doppelganger, a small doll, because unlike the teenyboppers who post selfies all over their happy days, my wrinkled face will remain out of sight. An artist friend made this six inch replica of me. She has an uneven haircut, wears two large earrings that don’t match, and has a strange clunky necklace hanging on an unstylish shirt.

Since Rubin wrote of mindfulness and being present in the moment, on day #10, I photograph patterns of snow on a table in my yard and called it “art.” On day #11 I set the doppelganger on my sled, the Green Hornet, and write “time to play,” and on day #12, I set her on a birdfeeder in the snow and label the photo “beauty.”

Because I need to put something happy out there every morning, I find myself paying close attention to miniscule every day details and discover some surprises. I had never considered my daily struggles with the ukulele anything but a source of frustration, but in Rubin’s book, a challenge is a vital deposit in the happiness bank. On day #56, I post a photo of the uke with the caption “time to practice.”

There’s no doubt that back at UW Madison, those philosophical discussions about the meaning of life did not include the pleasure of a delicious meal shared with a friend, day #75, or dark chocolate savored on a bench by Lake Michigan, day #48, or standing for two hours at a rock concert, day #32. Now the twelve-year-olds are on to the next challenge, “three hundred comments and I’ll put my face in a bowl of flour.” I’ll take a pass on that one.

Looking for that special moment every morning and finding a way to record it visually for a hundred days turned out to be a fine exercise in thinking outside the proverbial box. I find myself surrounded by joy: my first morning coffee; a weekly lunch with a writer friend; a small dish of chocolate caramel ice cream after dinner; a brisk walk by Lake Michigan on a misty morning. It’s a matter of paying attention. That means no excuses. The next time I need a deposit in the happiness bank, I’ll watch the robin in my yard collect twigs as she constructs her nest in the pine tree outside my window.

Lily finished her #100 Happy Days, shed a tear on day #100, wrote “Life is an adventure waiting to happen,” closed the book, and moved on.

I’m stuck on happy.

Cari Taylor-Carlson travels the world with a backpack and a tent. She taught environmental education at Schlitz Audubon and the Boerner Botanical Gardens, founded the Milwaukee Walking and Eating Society and wrote Milwaukee Walks, The Food Lover's Guide To Milwaukee and Best Cheap Eats. She continues to write The Dish for M Magazine and guide hiking trips with her business Venture West.