There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote I’ve been leaning on a lot in 2020, taken from his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, that weird sci-fi time trip that blends the real and the fantastical in a story struggling to contextualize the surreality of the author’s experiences witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II. As the protagonist bounces through time and across the galaxy, encountering man-made sorrow and extraterrestrial beings, the phrase “So it goes” becomes a sort of darkly comic refrain, a transition between one inexplicable, chaotic moment and the next (or the previous ” time travel humour!).
It’s incredibly apt phrase for this year, but today I learned that I might improve my outlook on the future (currently: bad) if I tried to live by another bon mot from the late author of classics like Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan.
I encountered it via a 2016 post on Elephant Journal, a site dedicated to “mindful living,” in which writer Stephen Moegling highlights a passage from Vonnegut’s 2005 essay collection A Man Without a Country, noting that it changed his thinking about how to increase his own happiness. A quick google of the quote revealed that it has also inspired many others, so ” during Lifehacker’s Happier Week, and certainly during one of the worst years the world has endured in a long time ” I thought it made sense to share it with you.
It comes amid a passage in which Vonnegut is relaying a bit of life advice he received from his Uncle Alex:
But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “˜If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
Notice when you are happy. It’s a ridiculously simple idea, almost insultingly so: What good does noticing being happy do you when you are pointedly unhappy? But… think about how much time you spend focusing on how unhappy you are. Think about how satisfying it is to wallow in a bad mood, to bitch about the boss with your co-workers. To take your anger at the injustices of the world out on your kids, who have nothing to do with it, even if they are being so annoying.
I can think of five examples in the last day in which I focused my mental energy on thinking about being unhappy. I can think of no instances where I stopped and took stock of the opposite, of all the good moments that still fill my days, even during this hellish and uncertain year. My daughter’s newfound obsession with crossing her eyes and making funny faces. My son hilariously asking Alexa to play age-inappropriate songs. Curling up on the couch next to my wife to read after the kids have finally fallen asleep after the evening routine of bickering and bargaining.
Perhaps if I make it a habit of noticing these mundane, marvellous moments in the moment, I could go to bed and wake energised by the possibilities for happiness tomorrow will bring, instead of greeting each day with my own darkly comic refrain: “Oh, this again.” Perhaps you can too.