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Appreciate the power of life's small joys

If you live in my neighborhood you might have seen me in our front yard on a recent weekend afternoon. I was the one crouched beside two weathered, wicker chairs with a can of spray paint — four cans of spray paint to be exact.

I'd lost the debate with my husband about whether our front door should be painted fire-engine red and we'd compromised with the decision to transform our porch furniture with a spray-blaze of reddish color.

It took more time than I'd anticipated to color-coat two chairs and a slightly-tottering table with the paprika-colored paint. But it was a sunny Saturday, after a too-long winter, and being out in the breezy warmth doing something mindless made me supremely content (And it got me out of any responsibility for the lawn cleanup my industrious spouse had taken on in the backyard)

Those burnt-red color bursts cheered me as I manipulated the cans of paint over, under and through the dirty-white wicker. When the task was done, I felt inordinately self-satisfied with the process and the results.

Later that weekend as we came and went, the porch actually seemed happier too. I'm taking this to its extreme, and neighbors may not agree, but now the house seems to be smiling at me when I drive up.

I'm not sure where I'm headed with this column topic except to say I've become a fervent believer in the absolute importance of adding a splash of paprika to everyday living.

There is an inspired, well-researched book, "Stumbling on Happiness" (www.stumblingonhappiness.com) written by Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert that I thought about as I spray-painted my way through the sun-drenched afternoon. The book talks about mis-estimating life satisfactions.

Dr. Gilbert has chapters with titles like "The Joy of Next" and "Reporting Live from Tomorrow." He redefines happiness.

Here's my take on his theories. I might think the simple joy I got from my afternoon project is directly related to a future vision of myself sitting on the porch in one of those fresh-red chairs, feet up, sipping on a glass of minted lemonade, reading a riveting novel.

But I'm suspecting Dr. Gilbert would contend any happiness I feel is more accurately associated with my personal understanding of research (there, actually, is some) indicating painting is highly therapeutic — or my recollection of stories from friends who've had experiences involving similar simple projects from which they derived total pleasure.

His distinctions require more thought than I'm willing to give at this moment. Maybe that's what he means by "stumbling" into happiness.

I'm absolutely sure about the personal satisfaction I got from my colorful weekend task — a kind of quiet joy I want more of in my life. Dr. Gilbert might say you could look to my experience and easily duplicate it in your own venue. He may go so far as to label me your "surrogate for satisfaction."

Not so sure I understand all that, let alone buy into it. But I do have half a can of paprika paint that I'd be willing to lend in order to get you started.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu