The Enormous Role of the Little Thing (and Cavemen!)

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My friend Neil makes an interesting point about happiness: those “peak” moments in life — the big achievements and big releases that we imagine to be exactly what happiness is made of — will never amount to more than a tiny proportion of a person’s life. They are infrequent and quickly give way to the ordinary again. We invest a lot of energy getting to those exceptional highs, but they are exactly that: exceptions to the normal course of life.

In between these “violin crescendo moments” life unfolds without much fanfare, in its familiar way. But within these ordinary stretches of life lie frequent, intensely gratifying moments that arise out of the most mundane activities: waiting in line, parking your car, watching a TV movie.

Even in the context of a really bad day, there are humble little details that seem to hit some kind of “smile” button in the brain, and for those moments, life is unfettered. It’s great. Life is great just knowing that each day will contain them no matter what else the cat drags in.

Other than Ben Franklin’s two dreadful certainties, nothing in life is guaranteed — except (if you’re paying attention) that there will be a steady stream of these humble little awesome things, regardless of your situation, as long as you live. This is a powerful thought and even throughout the worst days I’ve never been able to forget it for long because the reminders come along so frequently.

Ever since I included him in a quick piece on three extraordinary blogs two years ago, Neil has been a friend of mine. I love his perspective on gratitude — it recognizes that the present moment really is the place to find everything you look for in life (and not just “in theory”), yet doesn’t stray into ego-dismantling, self-mortification or Stuart Smally-like affirmations. It takes playfulness, rather than determination.

I am not his only fan. Neil’s blog, 1000 Awesome Things hit its stride pretty quickly in 2008. He won the Webby Award the following year for Best Blog, leading to his first book The Book of Awesome, which became an international bestseller. Its sequel, The Book of (Even More) Awesome launched Tuesday.

There is something about couch cushion forts and the other side of the pillow that huge numbers of people seem to be able to identify with. I don’t recommend many (any?) products on this blog, but I’m all over this one. In terms of a practical, non-striving approach to cultivating quality of life, it’s hard to do better than to learn to celebrate these very things, just for what they are.

Recently I talked with Neil about the role of unhappiness in happiness, the role of “little thing” when it comes to quality of life, and cavemen. He’s a riot. Enjoy.

How’s it going?

Good, good, I’m good. Thanks for asking, David.

You mentioned in your TED talk that when you began 1000 Awesome Things, things were particularly not awesome. The global outlook was looking grim, and you were in an especially difficult part of your life. What was going on and how did it lead to starting the blog?

Whew. Well, let’s see here. We all go through our own ups and downs and back when I started writing 1000 Awesome Things I was definitely in a cloud of doom and gloom.

I’d been married two years and my wife and I were slowly growing further and further apart. We always had respect, admiration, and trust with each other, but… something was missing. It came to a head one night after work when she summoned the courage, through tears, to tell me she didn’t love me any more. It was one of the toughest things I’d ever heard.

At around the same time one of my closest friends was quietly battling mental illness. Chris and I spoke three or four times a week and I knew all his pills, his doctors, his efforts towards overcoming the thoughts and feelings inside his head. But very sadly… he lost the battle. He ended up taking his own life.

As all of this was slowly happening I remember feeling like I needed a way to focus on the positive… somehow. 1000 Awesome Things became my outlet and my way to remind myself of one tiny, simple, awesome thing every night before I went to bed. I started writing about snow days, cold pillows, and all you can eat buffets, as a way to cheer myself up.

Good old Nietzsche said, “For happiness, how little suffices for happiness! … the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness.” You’ve really nailed this reality in your work. Yet most of the pressures in society direct us to seek happiness in the big things: big events, big achievements, big payoffs. When it comes to happiness in general, did you always recognize the enormous role of the little thing?

First off, I just want to say that I really like the phrase “Good ol’ Nietzsche!” Like he’s this hilarious guy on the wobbly barstool across the room. Ha ha…

Anyway, hmmm — you ask good questions, David. I knew you would. Okay, when it comes to happiness in general, I definitely have no idea what makes what or what adds up to what. I just feel like, sure — we’ll all have high highs of wide eyes on graduation stages, father-daughter dances at weddings, and healthy baby screeches in the delivery room. But those big violin crescendo moments are maybe.. like, five days total in your life? I mean, I get to flip to the cold side of the pillow every single night if I can’t fall asleep and every single time it gives me a tiny fleeting rush of ice cold satisfaction on my cheek. The same is true for the crisping croissant aroma wafting out of the bakery I pass every day on my way home from work. Or the string of green lights I hit on Friday afternoons.

#980 Old, dangerous playground equipment

So I’m not sure if I knew much about little things. I guess like most of us I just see, feel, and touch them so much more often. They fill my days, weeks, and months. They are everywhere and there are millions of them. So I give them big props. No offense to father-daughter dances at weddings, but I’ll take pushing those little plastic buttons on the McDonald’s drink cup lid any day.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but one of my favorite awesome things in the new book is “Doing anything that makes you feel like a caveman.” You’ve mentioned cavemen a couple of times on the blog. I find it’s helpful to my sanity to remember that I’m really just a caveman who’s learned to wear pants and do some other fancy things. I clamber up staircases on all fours from time to time when nobody’s watching. You’ve talked about the simple, primal joys of staring into a fire, letting your body hair run rampant for a while, or just breaking something. What is it about embodying the caveman mindset now and then that’s so gratifying?

Yeah, that’s funny. The Book of (Even More) Awesome also has stepping on those slightly frozen ice puddles and hearing them crack and finally peeing after holding it forever (which is a bit of an indictment on this flashy modern World of Pants we’ve chosen to live in). Plus, blowing your nose in the shower is in my back pocket if we get another go round.

I guess when it comes to cavemen it’s like — we are them. They’re not what we used to be. They are us. We’ve been walking around Earth with big brains and tall backs for what — like a couple hundred thousand years? And spandex shorts, reading glasses, and deodorant has been around for what — a couple hundred maybe? So maybe all our caveman impulses like eating a plate of just meat at the buffet, not shaving your legs during sweatpant season, or just doing nothing in a tent in the middle of nowhere scratches our brain stems just the right way.

I can’t pretend I know the answer. But I love the question and I’d love to know what you and your readers think as well.

#923 Doing anything that makes you feel like a caveman

There is a particular type of awesome thing that you’ve talked about that is undeniably awesome but I can’t figure out why: stomping dry crunchy leaves on the sidewalk or popping bubble wrap, for example. For the life of me I cannot explain why I like doing all those things, but I always do, and I know it’s not just that you and I happen to have the same weird fetishes. Appreciation for these things seems to be pretty universal among human beings, even though they don’t seem to aid our survival or have any “practical” value. Why do you think so many of us happen to derive some joy out of, say, the sound of the tiny rocks shooting up the vacuum hose or kicking those dark chunks of slush out of our wheel wells? [Well we Canadians do, anyway.]

Does stabbing a knife into the beautifully brown landscape of a fresh jar of peanut butter count too?

Maybe it’s a bit of a personality trait of maximizers or completists or something. Maybe it’s the same itch that gets scratched when you cross off the last item of a list, fold your last pair of socks (and they all match up!), or when you spatula out the final pudding molecules out of that plastic cup of butterscotch.

That’s what has probably been the most compelling part of your books and your blog: knowing that I am experiencing all these amazing little moments alongside other human beings. I always knew them as private little joys, not realizing that these are things I share with other people. There has been such an outpouring of appreciation for your awesome things — by this point you’ve reached millions of people. When you began, did you realize how powerfully people resonated with these things? Or has this widespread reception been a surprise?

When I started 1000 Awesome Things the only person who read it was my mom.

I like to tell people that the traffic doubled the day she forwarded it to my dad. My parents were definitely the first two of the thirty million or so folks that have clicked the page. And there was no way, no way at all, I could have expected the blog to amount to anything more than a simple way to jot down one awesome thing a day. That’s really all I’ve ever wanted or expected it to be. The fact that The Book of Awesome has been number one on bestseller lists for a year straight, that I got to write The Book of (Even More) Awesome, or that I’m on The Today Show next week…. believe me, these things are way beyond my wildest dreams.

#883 Ugly actors

At the end of the day, I still work my cubicle job in the suburbs, eat frozen burritos for dinner, and need to go to the gym more. The bags under my eyes are a bit darker and my hunch is getting a little sharper. But I don’t mind because I absolutely love and enjoy and value every tiny second I get to be alive and get to notice, appreciate, and talk about all the awesome things we share.

Thank you so much for the chat, David. You know how much I absolutely love Raptitude.com and I will be first in line when your book comes out. (Do it!) You’re a fantastic writer who I’ve learned a lot from. All the best my friend and keep popping bubble wrap and taking illegal naps every chance you get. Take care and thanks sincerely to all your readers,

Neil

———-

The Book of (Even More) Awesome is available here and I think you should get it.

And thanks so much to David Thompson (aka Monsieur Cabinet) for providing the brilliant illustrations in the post. Very cool of him.

R

Photo by marfis75 and all illustrations by Monsieur Cabinet

Learn to live in the present

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{ 13 Comments }

Liane April 28, 2011 at 4:53 am

Great post – can’t wait to check out the blog!

nickyO April 28, 2011 at 5:07 am

Lol, I was going to write “I got to leave the first comment–that is Awesome!” but then Liane beat me to it ;) lucky

Still I’m feeling pretty good about leaving the second comment, pretty good indeed.

Great post looking forward to reading the book of (Even More) Awesome.

Trish Scott April 28, 2011 at 8:29 am

I love when the cat loves popping the bubble wrap. Of course that is a PEAK moment.

David April 29, 2011 at 6:34 am

Haha! Definitely.

Erin April 28, 2011 at 9:52 am

What an insightful blog and something I definitely needed to hear today.

Yesterday was a definite self-pity day and thankfully by the end of the night, I knew how to shake myself out of it by writing my daily gratitude list.

Every night, several of my closest friends and I write 5 or more things we are grateful for and email it to one another. When I first started doing this list, I found it very hard to come up with one thing. I thought it had to be something interesting or have a ‘wow’ factor. I guess growing up in a fast-paced technology based society, nothing is simple and didn’t know that being grateful for a raindrop was ok.

Today, it’s much easier writing my list but every once in a while, my mind races asking, “is that it?” and I think yesterday I was looking for that big violin crescendo moment and it never came.

I love this statement and definitely the little reminder I need: Even in the context of a really bad day, there are humble little details that seem to hit some kind of “smile” button in the brain, and for those moments, life is unfettered. It’s great. Life is great just knowing that each day will contain them no matter what else the cat drags in.

And it is. Life is great, even if you’re stuck in traffic.

Thanks!

David April 29, 2011 at 6:34 am

I had a pretty bad day Wednesday too. Like, uncharacteristically bad. But there were islands of good: there were places I laughed and smiled, and meant it.

Maria Long April 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm

The brain has a smile button! I forget to press it often. Thanks David. The ordinary moments get bad press, but that’s because we don’t use the smile button..

nrhatch April 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Stomping dry crunchy leaves on the sidewalk and popping bubble wrap does aid our survival and have “practical” value . . . it brings us back to the present moment where:

We hear.
We see.
We smell.
We taste.
We touch.

When we notice what is being offered, we not only survive to live another day, we thrive. :)

Wonderful post. I love 1000 Awesome Things! Great blogs . . . the both of you.

Sooz April 30, 2011 at 5:47 am

I love the 1000 awesome things website :)

I always write a list of 5 good things that have happened to me each day before I go to bed :)

Jeff Gaver May 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

Great post.

It is the variances of ebbs that give the flows a more profound appreciable quality.

gem May 1, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Finally had the time to read this in full and it was worth the wait.

It’s the little things I’ve always said. Be in the moment. And when I really think about it, they are much better pieces of happiness than those big moments. So much more deeply felt.

Thanks for yet another great post.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga May 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I’m a big fan of Neil’s and I think the concept of looking at every bit of the awesomeness around us is….AWESOME. Great interview David!

Axeell May 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Now this was a great blog. I smiled the whole time while reading the interview to all the awesome things. People like you, I honestly think that people like you are the Friedrich Nietzsche of the modern blogging era. Raptitude is really helping me be more happy and thoughtful. And now 1000 Awesome things will aid that.

I am lately interested in the religion of Buddhism it would be great if you could wright about it maybe or send me the link of an existing post.

Thank you!

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