• Stories unlock the secret to happiness

  • As the New Year begins, I'm recalling the phrase my granddaughter used as her recent birthday approached, "I've never been 7 years old before — I wonder what it will be like."
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  • As the New Year begins, I'm recalling the phrase my granddaughter used as her recent birthday approached, "I've never been 7 years old before — I wonder what it will be like."
    I incorporated her words into our Christmas letter to family and friends, and several people commented. My uncle Erl, who will celebrate 90 years soon, was particularly engaged by it and wrote. "Your grand girl's words made me smile" and "helped me forget that my get-up-and-go got up and went."
    Ever heard that phrase before? I think it's a favorite of aging males. Women seem to prefer "I don't have a lot of energy today — maybe a little something sweet will help."
    As we age, each year becomes somehow more precious. Will this be a year where your "get-up-and-go" flags a bit? Will you be asked to deal with situations and circumstances that test you mightily? Might this be one of those Frank Sinatra "very good years?"
    Perhaps it will be the year in which you create that Bucket List people talk about. Maybe, like Margaret, who's in her 80s but looks decades younger, you'll array all the adventures you've already had and reflect on them one by one. A "reverse-bucket," if you will.
    My husband was recently given a pocket-sized book, "100 Things You Do Before You Die — the science-based version." The book has engaged me over the last week — made me think. I liked the suggestion to "inhale helium and sing a little tune." But I knew it would engender one of my spouse's raised-eyebrow looks if I even broached it. Just as well. We have nary a balloon in our household, let alone any helium. Maybe we'll choose to "Measure the speed of light with chocolate." All you need is bar of chocolate, a ruler and a microwave oven. And after you're done you can eat the chocolate. (At least I think you can — I may need to go back and re-read that chapter)
    This column may seem a little random, but I'm reflecting on what makes life better — and I'm thinking about thinking.
    At this moment, I'm thinking about a Christmas Day exchange between my recently married daughter and a lovely friend of ours who's been married for more than half a century. Jen (that's my daughter) asked, "Can you tell us the secret to a successful life together?" The response was immediate, "Patience — and two cars."
    Now who cannot relate to that kind of answer? I did think it interesting that Jen queried her about being "successful" instead of "happy," but then what is "happy" exactly? Ever thought about that?
    My favorite thinker (at least at this writing) is Malcolm Gladwell, author of countless books, but the one I'm reading now is "What the Dog Saw." He offers this challenge: "Convince yourself everyone and everything has a story to tell. You succeed or fail on the strength of your ability to get engaged, to make (yourself) think, to get a glimpse into someone else's head — even if you then conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
    Maybe the good life is less about each of us individually and more about our being open to and fully engaged in the stories life offers us.
    Maybe that's the description of "happy."
    You think?
    Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.
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