A Box of Soap
by Don Vowell

You’ll be surprised to learn that an encounter with black-legged Kittiwakes is the key to happiness.  I never saw it coming.

Think back to a meeting, event, appointment, or date you were dreading that actually turned out to be a pleasure.  Think back also to an outing you eagerly looked forward to that turned out sort of hum-drum.

That’s two kinds of happiness.  The anticipation can invigorate you for some time before the fact.  But the unexpected delight found where it was least expected is the more memorable by far.

A recent Washington Post article attempted scientific explanation.  Neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of the Max Planck Institute, the author of the quoted study, said – “Happiness is not about how well you’re doing in general, but rather if you’re doing better than expected.”

As the laziest person in America the immediate solution occurring to me was to simply lower expectations, but this level of pessimism might make you sort of unhappy in the space between surprises.

If you finally get the chance to take a friend to a concert by your favorite artist in the world, your anticipation can increasingly buoy your mood for several days.  If the show doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, those several days of elevated mood are not lost.

How you feel right now depends some on the balance between overall expectation and degree of surprise.  Rutledge’s study indicates that surprise matters more.  When you have a truly great meal at a restaurant it makes you much happier if you just had no idea it would be so good.  Had you counted on that wonderful meal the unforeseen treat would have been lost.  We have experienced this a few times because of our predilection for wandering into strange little restaurants when away from home.  Many times we just get strange little meals but once in a while we get an unforgettably fine meal.

We’ve just returned from Alaska.  My sister kindly included us in her retirement tour of the state.

We have seen some of Alaska so our expectations were high, but that left plenty of room for surprise. She booked passage on an Alaska Marine Ferry from Whittier to Valdez.  The compound amazement included being on that ferry, making a startlingly close pass to one of the icebergs feeding out of Columbia Glacier, spotting the Kittiwakes resting on a flat spot atop the iceberg, and actually negotiating all the knobs and dials on the camera to get a couple pictures while passing at 14 knots.  I was elated and even had a silly grin for a bit.

Now as I look back, the pictures are not crisp enough for serious enlargement and I wish I had a do-over.  None of that matters – the momentary elation cannot be reduced.

Nor can it be reproduced.  The other inevitable conclusion from this study is that happiness is impermanent – we are hard-wired to want more happiness.  I confidently look forward to more moments like that iceberg encounter.  That is what keeps us moving forward.

I have been absent from this space for a while because the capacity to surprise seemed lost.  You and I both can get tired of whiny liberal drivel.  Then I watched a special about poet and pacifist William Stafford.  He advised that if you feel stuck in what you write, lower your standards and keep going.  I might agree with those who believe my standards cannot be lower.  But maybe there will be a surprise that pleases us.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer. He gets on his soapbox regularly in the Keizertimes.)