September 10, 2020
A tree next to a bus stop, a flower poking through the sidewalk. Our guest, an Iraq War…
ROSS GAY And while I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record, “Delight,” I noticed a white girl. She looked fifteen but could have been I suppose a college student standing next to me with her hands raised. I looked up confused and pulled my headphones back, and she said like a coach or something, “Working on your paper? Good job to you! High five!” And you better believe I high-fived that child in her pre-ripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty bitty Doc Martens. For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my largish, male, cisgender body. A body that is also largish, male, cisgender and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful are not universal. We should all understand this by now.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center, filling in this week for Dacher Keltner. What would it be like to take some time out every day to savor the small things in life? That’s the challenge award-winning poet Ross Gay gave himself on his 42nd birthday: to chronicle the things that brought him joy, each day, for one year. On every episode of our show, we have a “happiness guinea pig” try out practice backed by research to build kindness, resilience, or connections to the people around us. Today we’re talking with Ross about his own practice, which he shares in his most recent book, “The Book of Delights,” which is a series of 102 short essays about the small, and often overlooked, sources of joy around us. Ross, thank you for joining me on The Science of Happiness.
ROSS GAY It’s my pleasure to be here.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Writing about anything every day for a whole year is no small feat. Particularly when you’re try to consistently focus on the positive. Was it hard for you to write about delights for a whole year?
ROSS GAY In the beginning, I was a little bit worried that I wouldn’t have enough things to write about. And within a couple of weeks, I became much more attentive to the number of things that were truly delightful that that I often overlooked in my daily life. I would find a little time to do my little writing, and I would have to think about, “Well, that thing was delightful, well let me try to think about this thing,” you know. Getting to choose that was sort of the fun part. But the other thing is that there were other days when the not delightful was sort of weighing heavily on my mind, which I also contend with in this book.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Did you find that it was ever difficult to find the time to write about or contemplate delights on a given day?
ROSS GAY I gave myself I think three rules. The first one was to write something every day, which I promptly broke I think by the fourth day. And then I gave myself the rule to write it by hand. And then I gave myself the rule to draft them quickly. And for me, quickly meant thirty minutes. And so in terms of like finding the little thirty minutes or whatever amount of time it took, it actually wasn’t a challenge timewise for me. Sometimes they would come out in you know ten minutes, or it would literally almost be transcribing a conversation that I had, or something like that. And sometimes I would have several essays that I would write in a single day. I just had a little bit more time and I kept on going with it.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS One thing I love about The Book of Delights is that some of the things you write about or are small or mundane, that most of us might just overlook. For example you wrote about seeing a hummingbird on a busy street. Would you be willing to share that prose with us?
ROSS GAY Yeah, for sure. Today as I was walking down Foothill Blvd. to do laundry (the laundromat one of my delights—not quite the democratic space of the post office or public library, but still, delightful) a hummingbird buzzed past me and alighted in a mostly dead tree poking almost up to the power line. The bird sat on the spindly little branch that bounced in the breeze, twisting its little head and big proboscis this way and that, but mostly just standing still, looking out over the little traffic jam on the far side of the street, not moving even as I got almost directly beneath the thing. I’ve never seen one sitting still like that for so long so in the open—while I’m writing this, sitting on the curb, a young woman, a kid, walked by wearing a kind of cat hat (winter hat with pointy ears—it’s about 88 degrees out today), and she was walking a mini-doberman pinscher with pink booties skitching across the asphalt, although my partner thinks the hummingbird might be my totem animal (there goes cat-hat and doggie-slippers again) given how they seem to follow me around.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS What can you say made you so entranced or even awe-inspired by this little hummingbird?
ROSS GAY I mean, in a way I think the question is like, how do we not be entranced by a hummingbird? I think that’s sort of the question. I live in Indiana, and hummingbirds are not daily occurrences, so it feels really special. And although in this instance I was in a different place, I was in California, hummingbirds do not stop being fantastic to me. They do not stop being wonderful and wondrous to me. So that was the thing; when I see hummingbirds, when I see some things, they make me want to shout, and hummingbirds are some of those things.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS That’s awesome. In another piece called ‘Sharing Love,’ you write about a mother and her child sharing the burden of carrying a large grocery sack together in Chinatown in New York City.
ROSS GAY Yeah. I suppose part of why I so adore the sack-sharing is because most often this is a burden one or the other could manage just fine solo which makes it different than dragging granny’s armoire up two flights of steps, say, or wrestling free a truck stuck hip-deep in a snowbank. Yes, it’s the lack of necessity of this act that’s perhaps precisely why it delights me so. Everything that needs doing, getting the groceries or laundry home, would get done just fine without this meager collaboration. But the only thing that needs doing, without this meager collaboration, would not.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS What is it that drew you to this mother and child?
ROSS GAY This is one of the things that this practice reminded me of. One of these moments where I just saw this very subtle collaboration, this kind of sweetness, or maybe you call them a tenderness. Overlookable sweetness and collaborations, they are to me like for when they’re constantly happening; they’re like the fabric of our lives. And yet they’re also wonderful. The way that we so easily and constantly are actually helping each other out, you know. And I’ve seen people do that before, but that day, maybe because of the frame of mind I was in, that day it occurred to me, “Oh, this is like one of the beautiful and minor collaborations that we’re constantly in the midst of.”
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS I found something else that you said similarly moving because it lies at the heart of Greater Good Science. You said, “In almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant if subtle caretaking. This caretaking is our default mode. And it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.” How can we get better at seeing and embracing this default mode of being?
ROSS GAY Maybe it is the practice of pointing to it, you know. I think the harder work sometimes is identifying when it is happening, and studying when it is happening. The collaboration, that’s all I’m talking about; like pointing out the ways that we are in fact regularly, almost constantly, helping one another out. I think that’s it. It feels like it’s just practice, you know. And in a way, I feel like one of the fun things about this book is that it does that for me. Like writing this book definitely was practice for me in attending to that fact. But it also feels sort of lovely because sometimes it feels like it also lets someone else sort of see that thing, you know.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS The science also suggest that doing a daily happiness practice, and in your case, attuning to and reflecting upon delightful moments every day, can actually rewire the brain. Like, increase and prolong activation in pathways that signal pleasure. By regularly dwelling in delight, we get better at noticing, remembering, and seeking sources of goodness in life. The lens through which we see the world becomes more optimistic and hopeful, we judge other people as more trustworthy, and we’re more inclined to cooperate. Was any of that true for you?
ROSS GAY My field of vision became more aware and capable of picking up things that were delightful to me, because I was spending time identifying and meditating on them every day. That was like my job. That was the job that I gave myself. I became sort of more acutely aware of like, “Oh that thing delights me. That thing delights me that thing delights me,” which, you know, it feels nice to be thinking about that every day.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Yeah, it seems like it could have been scarcity but it ended up being abundance.
ROSS GAY Yeah, yeah, yeah. And to do that daily, and to cultivate that as a muscle, is like a real thing, you know.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Another one of your delights was about loitering. You were sitting at a café in Detroit and meditating on a ‘No loitering’ sign on the door window. Can you share part of that reflection with us?
ROSS GAY Sure. The darker your skin, the more likely you are to be loitering. Though a Patagonia jacket could do some work to disrupt that perception. A Patagonia jacket, colorful pants, sneakers with shorts socks, an Ivy League ball cap, and a thick book that is not the Bible, and you’re almost golden. Almost. There is a Carrie Mae Weems photograph of a woman in what looks to be some kind of textile factory with an angel embroidered to the left breast of her shirt where her heart resides. The woman, like the angel, has her arms splayed wide almost in ecstasy as though to embrace everything. So in the midst of her ugly issue, everytime I see that photo, after I smile and have a genuine bodily opening on account of witnessing this delight which is a moment of black delight. I look behind her for the boss. “Oh,” I think “You’re in a moment of nonproductive delight. Heads up!” Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering which I almost wrote as a delight: taking one’s time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one’s time makes it kind of planned. For the crime of loitering. The idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be sometimes wrested from the assumed owners of it who are not you. Back to the rightful, who is. And while having interpolated the policing of delight such that I am on the lookout for the overseer even in photos I have studied hundreds of times, on the lookout always for the policer of delight. My work is studying this kind of glee, being on the lookout for it and aspiring to it, floating away from the factory as she seems to be.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS How was reflecting on the idea of loitering, and how that’s perceived to be related to the color of your skin, one of your delights?
ROSS GAY Occasionally what I do find delightful is also informed by its opposite. So loitering. It occurred to me that I love just hanging around. And then of course if I’m thinking about hanging around it makes me think about, “Oh well, part of the thing that I love about hanging around is that plenty of times I’m asked to move along.” And so then it leads into a conversation of course, a meditation on, racism and public space, and who’s allowed to be where, and when, and how. That’s how that evolved, and I think quite a few of the essays actually do that. They have a delight, but then part of the meditation on the delight is also meditating on its absence.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS You said that the book of delights became a study of interdependence for you.
ROSS GAY So often the things that did make me feel delight were moments of interdependence; moments of people helping each other out, or moments of tenderness, or moments of caretaking. And that was one of the things where I sort of realized like, “Oh, this thing called interdependence which is the real thing makes me delightful.” And the second thing that I realized is that when I witness that, upon feeling that delight, I want to tell someone. I want to share, you know. So there’s this whole sharing thing that that comes with it, and I haven’t quite articulated this yet. But there is something about this self that gets more truly connected. Like there’s some way that the self becomes more truly connected to other selves. You know, throughout all of this experience for me. That’s my feeling.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS So Ross, you ended your 365 day challenge of writing down delights on your 43rd birthday. What was the last thing you wrote about?
ROSS GAY That was the fullness of that day. I was in Marfa, Texas at a writing residency, and one of my best friends in the world was living right down the street for the month as well, and he made me lentils. I exercised, I took a walk, I listened to music. The sky was incredible. I got a couple of letters. It was just a lovely, lovely day. That also felt like the kind of conclusion to a project, but probably the continuation of a larger project.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Do you find that you still engage in this looking for or savoring and appreciating delights even though the project has come to a conclusion?
ROSS GAY One hundred percent, absolutely. And it’s been really lovely because writing this book has helped me to firmly articulate my job as a writer. What I’m most curious about, and my my ultimate inquiry, is about joy. I think joy and love are sort of pretty much the same thing. That’s my question. That’s the question of my work, and maybe it’s a question of my life. And I learned that from this book, and so that’ll sort of carry forward for the long haul, I think.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Do you have any expert tips or tricks, or sage advice for people who might want to engage in this kind of noticing daily delights practice or even draft their own book of delights?
ROSS GAY I don’t know, I guess I would just be like, however it’s fun to you. However it’s fun and useful. I do feel like the practice of sharing what you love is crucial. However you do it; whether you do it by talking to someone, or you write letters, or you write your own book of delights. I do feel like sharing what you love with someone, and that someone might be you, might be yourself, is crucial to our wellbeing.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Yes. Ross, You’re such a champion of the exercise of connecting with others and what we might call capitalizing on positive events. That’s sharing these warm feelings, acknowledging the ways that we’re all connected, and honoring the interdependence that that humans all share in enjoying the world that we live in. I want to thank you for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
ROSS GAY Thank you very much.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Research shows that when we savor the moments that we’re in, or even a moment in the past, it can make us happier. Cara Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Montana State University. She studies the impact of savoring on our well-being.
CARA PALMER You can think of a savoring pretty broadly, right. So this can refer to any way that we attend to, or appreciate, or really just maximize the positive experiences that we have in our daily lives. Savoring can also be avoiding certain happiness traps. So when good things happen, if we’re spending time thinking about ways that those good things might still go wrong, or minimize the importance of what happened, or simply just not taking the time to stop to think about it, I think could be problematic too. So savoring is really the combination of appreciating good things and not focusing on the negative aspects of some of those good events, too.
So we know that people who tend to savor more, often they generally experience greater emotional well-being in their daily lives; greater happiness, greater self-esteem. You see, these increases in happiness, not just in the moment when you’re savoring, but also over time, improve general emotional wellbeing, in terms of our long-term emotional health.
We know that not only do people who typically savor experiences have all of these good outcomes, but this is something we can also train people to do as well. We can essentially just ask people to take the time, and to sit back, and really reflect on good experiences that they have, and then really just be mindful of what those experiences were like. And so studies that have done that have shown that over time, if people do this and practice this, you actually see decreases in depressive symptoms.
I think in our society, right, we are constantly on the go. A lot of people are overworked, and a lot of times I think we think of happiness and feeling good feelings as a luxury, and almost like an afterthought. So I think just taking the time to stop and reflect on good events, and how good you feel during those good events, I think can be incredibly beneficial. Whether it’s just stopping for a second and thinking about it, or stopping and writing it down.
But also being open to expressing yourself when you do feel good, and if something good or exciting happens, sharing that with somebody you love, or sharing that with somebody who will also be happy for you. I think these are all great ways that we can take time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS If you’d like to try a practice to bring more happiness into your life, including practices focused on helping us savor life’s delights, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at the Greater Good Science Center, filling in for Dacher this week. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Join us for a live recording of an episode of the Science of Happiness, and hear from me, Dacher, Jack Kornfield and other great speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in northern California near Santa Cruz. Learn more at ggsc.berkeley.edu.