The Ingredients of Happiness
Happiness is a Journey
Dr Laurie Santos likes to say there are two things in life, the stuff you can control and the stuff you can’t.
Things my mother taught me, part one: chocolate cake makes everything better.
This thought floated through my mind as I paused, willpower wobbling, preparing to run the gauntlet of glassed-in cakes that greeted each coffee-shop visitor as soon as the door closed behind them. Carrot cake, sponge cake, coconut cake, poppy-seed pound cake, peach shortcake, chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting: not a single one was on my no-white-flour, low-carb, low-sugar, low-fat, I’m-in-control-of-my-life diet.
Except I wasn’t in control, and every cell and synapse in my body recognized that. ‘Could I get a small-ish piece of the chocolate cake?’ I asked the girl behind the counter.
She shrugged and grinned, the piercings around her lips and nose bristling. ‘Sorry. We’ve already cut it into slices. What if you bought a piece, ate half, and threw the rest out? Or wrapped it up for tomorrow?’
‘As if that would ever happen,’ I said with a chuckle. ‘Might as well give me the whole thing. I’ll do my best.’
I paid for the massive hunk of cake and a full-fat latte and carried the soul-soothing loot to a small wooden table near the far door. From here I could watch out the big window and try to picture whether New Haven would ever feel like home. Yale students and worker bees streamed along Chapel Street, headed toward their morning destinations—some chattering and laughing, some expressionless, absorbed in whatever played through their headphones. How many of them were happy? How much did that matter?
My attention caught on a couple sitting at the next table over. I had taken them for lovebirds, with their heads bent toward each other, whispering sweet nothings, sharing a slab of coconut cake. His voice rumbled and I made out the words: ‘
Then her hissed voice grew louder. ‘I don’t want the puppy. I never wanted the damn dog in the first place,’ she said.
She dabbed the tines of her fork over the crumbs on the plate, though most of their cake was intact. She brought the fork halfway to her mouth, but then let it drop to the table. (I would have licked that implement clean.) After wiping her hands on a napkin, she grabbed her purse strap and slung it over her shoulder as she stood. She lowered the volume of her voice a notch.
‘You don’t seem to understand, I can’t do that. I need space, lots of it. Three months apart taught me that. Right now, in this conversation, I feel like I can’t breathe.’ She pressed her palm to her throat and then clacked out of the shop on tall heels, model-thin and businesslike, leaving her husband (I assumed) sitting alone.
Awkward as it felt, we were left facing each other, and I couldn’t avoid meeting his gaze. His cheeks bloomed pink and he flashed an embarrassed smile. In spite of the sweater and the glasses and the tiny overlap of his front teeth, once he smiled, I could see he was cute. The kind of cute that could make your gut flip a little once you’d noticed.
‘That went well,’ he said, and crooked another little smile. ‘Sorry to subject you to my marital dirty laundry. She’ll come around, eventually. Don’t you think? From a cake-loving woman’s perspective, I mean.’
I glanced down at my plate, which was in fact empty. This was the problem with getting distracted and not eating each bite mindfully—I’d powered through the whole slice. As for his wife coming around, I didn’t think so.
‘I don’t know her, so it would be hard to say,’ I offered, trying for something noncommittal and diplomatic.
‘But supposing,’ he said, his face so hopeful, ‘you were giving your very best advice to a lovesick friend.’
How could I flat-out lie?
‘Things my mother taught me, part two,’ I said. ‘Don’t count on someone else to make you happy because, chances are, you’ll end up alone anyway. Except for the dog. You’ve definitely got the dog and that counts for something, right?’
Instantly I wished I’d gone with my first instinct and not said anything other than sorry. This was none of my business and now I’d made him feel worse. ‘I’m so sorry, that was a dumb thing to say. I blurt when I’m nervous.’
But he’d started to laugh. ‘Your mother sounds like a wise woman.’ He stood up to leave. He was taller than I would have expected, solid and muscular like an athlete. ‘Now I’m curious about part one. Have a good day.’ He smiled again, gathered their plate and mugs to return to the rubber bin marked for dirty dishes, and disappeared out the side door.
I drained the last bit of foam clinging to the bottom of the mug, then placed it and my empty dish in the same black rubber bin, feeling a little sad and definitely regretful. The poor man must have felt bad enough without me clanging him on the head with the bald truth as though I was wielding a cast-iron skillet. How humiliating to have had such a private conversation in public.
I headed out the same door he’d used, and crossed busy Chapel Street to the New Haven Green. This town was full of contrasts—students everywhere, of course. Historic stone churches that spoke of gravitas and money lined one side of the beautiful green space in the town’s center. On the other side, benches crisscrossed it, many hosting homeless folks and their bundles of belongings.
I lapsed into my favorite game as I walked, trying to guess from the faces of the people I passed whether they had happy lives. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the couple in the coffee shop. Could that man and his wife be happy together? From the tension in her shoulders, and her hard words, I wouldn’t have thought so—even if he did.
But aren’t we all chasing happiness in our own unique and often bumbling ways? If you read women’s magazines or watch Dr Phil or Ellen DeGeneres or browse Facebook quizzes, you’ll have noticed that the pursuit of happiness has snowballed into a much bigger deal than back when it was first introduced in the Declaration of Independence. Even bigger than getting fabulously rich or looking youthful and leggy, it seemed.
Though it still surprised me to say it out loud, I, Cooper Hunziker, PhD, was about to become one of the gurus. The biggest expert in America, with a brand-new book revealing a fresh slant on how to tackle the problem of happiness that could change every woman’s life and launch her true journey to bliss, if you believed the hoo-haw sent out by my book publicist.
I wouldn’t—at least, not all of it. I was new to the professional happiness business, and still working on my own ‘happiness journey,’ too. I wouldn’t have described my family as happy, but fortunately, I figured out how to keep my distance from their drama. As my divorce attorney boyfriend Daniel counseled his female clients, you must guard your personal space. Rubbernecking other people’s emotional angst can suck you into its orbit.
Anyway, I was different from both of my parents. I was happier—my life was going exactly the way I had dreamed. Or maybe not exactly, not yet. But it would be, once I got used to everything being new.
Right now, I needed to focus on balancing the plates I had spinning—a new, dead-serious, one-year assistant professor job in the Yale psychology department with razor-sharp competition for permanent tenure, plus a new book on chasing happiness coming from New York publisher. So far, the two weren’t mixing all that well—think expensive organic olive oil and city tap water.
I reminded myself to remember small things and be grateful for them: at least the chocolate cake had tasted delicious enough to be worth the calories. And New Haven was big enough that I’d likely never again see the man I’d humiliated in the coffee shop.