a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
How many times can you recall being actively happy in the past two months?
When I was a junior in high school, I discovered the concept of small joy. How it was the same as big joy. Though my memory’s played a game of telephone with this story over the years, it was something about an author sharing an orange with her husband. How it brought her the same joy as a trip to New York.
Well aware you don’t compare Big Apples and little oranges, sixteen-year-old me’s life was flipped upside-down at this notion. It explained why the high of test scores or honor rolls faded so quickly, or why I would think about little coffee dates with friends weeks after. I even wrote my graduation speech on this, urging my classmates to embrace the radically minute.
It was more than a habit — it was a philosophy. What is the meaning of life? More importantly, what is the meaning of mylife? Up until the advent of small joys, I didn’t exactly have one. Get good grades. Get into a good college. Make good money. I lacked a purpose, and any goal I held onto in the abstract seemed so distant and intangible. With small joys, though, my purpose was going to get coffee with my friends. I still want to set myself up for future success, but what matters is the happiness I can experience today. When my purpose and value as a person isn’t connected to a source mostly outside of my control (profession, academia) and is instead much more within my control, I found that it is much more accessible.
I was fully confident in this way of living, until I went to university. Finally I mastered the beast that was high school and basic socializing/identity formation, only to be thrown into what was undoubtedly the most lonely period of my life.
Just two months in and I was physically ill from anxiety, skipped lectures and assignments for the first time in my life, and homesickness hit me like a semi-truck-tidal-wave. I was on a break with my now-ex boyfriend, writing breakup poetry my unfortunate professor would find in their inbox the next morning (it was just as mediocre as it was cathartic). Then the first snow of the year hit.
It was around midnight and my roommate came back from a shower, and we just sat in front of our window watching it fall. All our lamps were shut off and in the moonlight I was a starry- eyed kid again.
We decided to layer up and go on a walk. Look at the snow for just a minute.
And when we got downstairs, we saw crowds of teenagers excited over something as little as cold weather. They made make-shift sleds from recycling room cardboard, snowmen with the half-inch we had, and so many snow angels you’d think the rapture had burned itself into half the lawn (with the obligatory snow-penis that took up the rest).
We decided to circle around the building, then circle some more. We went to “just the street and then back,” which turned to the union, which turned to Old Main. We were out for around an hour. We were damp. And freezing. And I get earaches when I’m in the cold for too long.
Still, I was happy for the first time in so long. I didn’t even realize the small joys had faded from my life until they came back in blizzards, flying from the sky and onto my eyelashes and nose.
I can’t stay consistent a single diary, so I track my life in millions of small ways: playlists by month, outfits on a Snapchat story, I read a book every month, I journal tarot readings that I do to reflect on personal issues. I don’t believe in tarot spiritually, but I find it to be a very effective self-reflection tool. Ever since that first snow, I’ve kept a list in my phone of small joys.
I bought a vinyl from my favorite artist.
They had strawberry soft serve and potato salad at the dining hall. My hands looked nice in a selfie I took.
I played a D-C-B7 chord progression on my guitar for the first time.
It builds up to bigger things too:
I could feel myself lose feelings when my ex blew up at me
I finally got diagnosed with ADHD, and dad’s open to medication I realized I feel like a complete person again
Since I was little, I’ve been fully overcome by excitement. I used to have “laugh attacks” as a kid. For no reason at all, I was more than satisfied — I was gleeful, and I had to laugh. I remember being called out by a substitute teacher in second grade for putting so many exclamation marks in my papers. The rule was to use them when something is exciting — which was almost all of the time. I still overuse them in my emails. I can’t help it.
The average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old laughs 4.
All children have are the mundane, the day-to-day. When we grow up, we feel silly to look at the world so small. It makes us naive, stupid, childish. You are only truly intelletual if you are cynical and hate the world around you. The tortured genius is such a prevalent trope, paired with the happy-go-lucky airhead. Happiness correlates directly with stupidity.
I think it’s rather stupid to discount each day in the name of the next.
Happy as I am, I have never been one to look into the mirror and say affirmations. I actually consider myself a fairly negative person. Affirmations feel corny, and I don’t believe what I’m saying. If anything, it makes me cringe more at positive self-talk. Celebrating small joys, however, is very authentic to me.
In the new year, I know many of my friends are looking for ways to be more positive or have better mental health, and I’ve learned that the brain’s language is not English, nor is it Spanish nor Mandarin nor Portuguese nor Pig Latin. It is behavior and it is evidence.
As much as you tell yourself to think positively, the logical statement alone isn’t going to will you into a happier person. You must train yourself to look for satisfaction in the mundane. I’ve started texting a friend of mine daily, asking him his small joy of the day. Not only is he going out of his way to do things that make him happy, but he is going back and highlighting what he already does that gives him that spark.
I started this list November 11 and I initially wrote this January 17. Sixty-six days, and fifty-one small joys in. It is now May 27, and the list is at a strong 135. As I asked at the beginning of this, how many moments can you recall that have actively brought you joy in the past two months? I couldn’t name all fifty-one off the top of my head, but when I’m spiraling and need reminders that my life is fulfilling and worth leading, I have plenty of evidence right at my fingertips.
Part of my resolution this year was to get more into independent writing. And to be more self- compassionate. I know neither are quantifiable, but hopefully you can see both of these as you adopt this habit. I want to put these small joys out into the world, explore them in whatever means or mediums possible (poetry? essays? interviews?).
Heavily inspired by Julia’s Questions to ask your mom.
Brianna Ifland (19) is a Filipino-American born and raised in Mountain Home. She currently studies Creative Writing and Multimedia Production at the University of Arkansas. Writing about mental health, identity, culture, and relationships, Brianna has since been featured at the Arkansas New Play Festival, Fellows for Two, HaluHalo Journal, and is set to have her work in Paper Crane Journal. She’s also passionate about film, theatre, and radio.
* = Editors' Choice work
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