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Cranky, but trying not to be

It’s this simple — when you’re happy, you’re a joy to be around. You even like yourself better. But when you're cranky, you’re not fun to be with at all.

Our 3-year-old grandson is visiting us this week, and he used that word to describe his own behavior after the dog abruptly woke him from a nap by licking his toes.

I was similarly cranky with my husband, who had been the one to let the dog into the napping area. My hubby was a little irritated with me for overreacting to the situation, and with himself when he saw the unexpected result of his actions, but he’s a fairly mellow fellow and got over it quickly.

There were a few tense and teary moments in calming our grandson, but we got past it. My spouse made joking comments that were actually very funny, and we laughed and moved on. Our happy, tail-wagging dog was oblivious, and if re-exposed to naked toes, she would start licking them immediately.

When you spend a week with a 3-year-old, you quickly learn how a child’s giggly laughter can affect your mood. And you similarly come to know how the mood changes when laughter is replaced with the profound unhappiness that comes from being denied a second Popsicle. Patience is a learned behavior, and perhaps happiness is too.

There’s solid research to support the fact that people need joy in their lives. At their frolicking and inquisitive best, children offer us mood-enhancing goodwill. My message to myself this week is “reach out and grab every giggly moment.”

Picture a well-rested 3-year-old laughing and romping with a colorful plastic ball and a yelping pup — maybe you’re even smiling at the thought. And that’s where it starts. Smiles beget smiles. A wide-mouthed grin, returned or initiated, is the portal through which we become more joyful. Once inside a happier self, we can move on to a more frequently stated, “Well done,” in response to a child’s ability to calm his crying self after a bad dream or a spouse’s wise and tender attentions to that same distressed toddler.

If you want to ramp this up a bit, try words like “magnificent” or “incredible.” Maybe that’s a little over the top — tailor to your own preferences. There are so many affirming adjectives to choose from. “First-rate” and “splendid” are two of my personal favorites. When I hear my grandson repeat my use of the word “splendid” when the dog brings a ball back to him, I am reminded of the joy possible from little moments like this, as well as my obligation to create more of them.

All of our lives are complicated, and there is a lot to divert and distract. We may not be well-practiced in pat-on-the-back approaches, but it’s not too late. All it takes is renewed attention to the importance of joy. Add a boy and a dog and a sunny day.

So many things can make us cranky, and so many more that can make us smile.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.