On a lighter note

Inching your way to happiness, one note at a time.

If you have more than one pet, you can’t, in good conscience, get a tattoo of just one of them. Yet, that’s exactly the predicament I find myself in, after getting a portrait of my dog Baxter tattooed on my calf a few short months before the pandemic hit. So getting an accompanying portrait of Behr became a bad idea, at least for now.

Behr never misses an opportunity to bark and growl at any dogs that pop up on TV, so I’m sure if he recognized Baxter on my calf, he’d have plenty to say about it. Still, I hate the idea of playing favorites, so I try to be as fair as possible when it comes to treats and quality time, but that’s been hard lately.

About a week ago, Behr spent the night in the hospital after having bladder stones removed. He’s mostly back to his goofy, jolly self, but whenever his vet-prescribed cone gets in the way of his happiness—by, say, making it impossible for him to grab his favorite ball—he’s sure to make his voice heard. I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt whenever I hear him whimpering as he repeatedly knocks his cone against the dresser trying to grab his toy.

That guilt is usually short-lived, though. Whether it’s five seconds later or five minutes later, Behr always manages to get his toy stuck shortly after he’s pestered us to rescue it for him, and despite his growing pile of things to play with, he can’t be distracted from whichever one he’s got his eyes set on. As much as I love Behr and his silly underbite, it’s hard not to get annoyed by what seems to be a deliberate attempt at repeatedly getting his toys lodged as far under the furniture as possible.

Still, the simplicity in Behr’s pursuit of happiness is enviable. At any given moment, I can ask Behr where his toy is, he’ll perk up, and immediately dart off to grab whatever toy popped into his mind. He might pass by his “Pupst Blue Ribbon” plush that he played with all yesterday without a second thought, or maybe pause to consider his torn up tennis ball, before reaching the purple bear he hadn’t touched in nearly a week. With hardly a second thought, my dog can jump from the bed to exactly what will make him happy and leave his woes in the dust with few hurdles along the way.

Things being as heavy as they are in the world, that sort of instant gratification can feel unattainable. There’s not much comfort to be found in aimlessly searching for a new show to binge before succumbing to another passive watch through of Regular Show as you doomscroll the night away. While there’s no contingency plan for happiness when it feels like the world is falling apart, maybe there’s a way to sprinkle little bits of happiness everywhere in case of emergency.

Day by day

Last year, while I was in the middle of a bad depressive episode, someone suggested placing Post-It Notes throughout my apartment with little affirmations I could read whenever things felt overwhelming. At a time when I struggled to hang onto my self-worth, that advice helped get me through my worst days by having a go-to place for a confidence boost. And I knew that I could always make more if the original notes started to lose steam.

Eventually those notes, while still welcome, didn’t feel as necessary to my day-to-day happiness, but a persistent backdrop of things that make you happy can be useful right now when so many of us are hurting and our usual paths to happiness might not be accessible.

Rather than sticking a feel-good note to the inside of your medicine cabinet or the side of your nightstand, your notes app or journal can be a great place to store the things that brought you joy on a given day with an easy way to tie them all together. For that, I use Obsidian, a wildly powerful “second brain” app. I’ve been really into its note linking capabilities and its use of Daily Notes.

In Obsidian, you can link notes together using a double bracket syntax, so whenever you have two ideas or clippings from other sources that might not mesh well into a single note, you can make a link between the two so they’re just a click away. It doesn’t stop there: you can click into the graph view to see a visual map of how your notes all tie together. As I wrote in my last issue, this lets your ideas grow their connections organically, since tiny bits are easier to connect than long swaths of data.

Pair that with Obsidian’s one-click Daily Notes function, which creates a note every day with the date as the title, and it makes for a powerful tool in tracking your happiness and everything that might be contributing to it.

There’s lots of ways to use Daily Notes, ranging from logging every thought or activity in your day, to just storing clips or interesting links you come across but haven’t sorted yet. For me, daily notes have become a way to save nice things people say to me that I’d like to hold onto, videos and tweets that made me laugh, or articles that help me feel a little bit better about the world right now. That way, those good days don’t have to fade into obscurity once the clock strikes midnight.

Since they feel so fleeting, I like to mark any particularly good day as such with a backlink to a “Good Days” page in Obsidian. That page doesn’t actually contain anything other than a list of other pages that link to it, but that gives me an easy-to-navigate roadmap of the days where I felt great, and what contributed to it. I still regularly journal at the end of the day to get my thoughts and feelings out, and I don’t think a short form note taking app is the best place for that. That being said, Obsidian’s Daily Notes serve as a powerful supplement to journaling by showing not just that it was a good day, but showing the things that might have contributed to that rare, joyous feeling. The more you lean into logging these things, the better your graph will be at showing the things that actually brighten your day and make it easier to seek them out when you need a quick boost.

There’s no quick-fix or fast track to happiness, though many ads and sponcon will tell you otherwise. Usually, it’s the result of some combination of self-care, good support systems, the right therapist, and a bit of indulgence with the things that make us feel like our best selves. This year robbed us of many of the things that make our hearts sing, and adapting takes time. Maybe, instead of pressuring yourself to find a new thing that’ll fill the void, just take note of the things you’re already doing and pay special attention to the things that genuinely make you feel better. It might not alleviate your anxiety or hurt right away, but you’ll slowly get a stronger idea of when you’re feeling better and what got you there. How you build your all-star cast of joy-sparking tidbits from there is entirely up to you.

📚 Good Reads:

You don’t have to work on yourself forever (Vice): It’s easy to think, in times of distress, that things might not be so bad if you actually had your act together. While it’s true that there’s always something we can do to better ourselves, this piece by Shayla Love illustrates the extreme end of the self-optimization spectrum, wherein it becomes its own obsession and deterrent from living a good life. 

Our shared unsharing (The Cut): Most of us have had our relationships with Instagram shaken at least a little bit by the pandemic. Stella Bugbee writes about how quarantine, the summer protests, and everything else that’s happened this year has caused us to retreat a bit from the oversharing we’d grown so accustomed to on Instagram. 

Artificial intelligence will help determine if you get your next job (Recode): Applying for jobs is a nightmare, and algorithms are set to make it even moreso. Rebecca Heilweil reports on the ways companies are using algorithms to filter out applicants and the biases AI can introduce into the hiring process. 

I can’t stop thinking about these 14 seconds in How to With John Wilson (Vulture): If you haven’t yet watched How to With John Wilson, I highly recommend taking a few nights to get through it. It’s a quick watch, and each episode is thoughtful, heartfelt, and hilarious. If nothing else, watch it for the mundane but brilliant Kyle MacLachlan cameo.  

🌐 Just Browsing:

👩🏼‍🎨Take a journey through the aesthetics of TikTok. 🧠 E. Alex Jung on quarantine brain and how nothing in 2020 made sense. 📽 Watch Joanna Stern’s excellent documentary on how tech could bring our loved ones back after they’ve died. 📰 Take some time to read this heartbreaking piece on how Disney’s layoffs have hurt its workers. 💬 How to leave the group chat. 💖 This Twitter thread will have you bawling in the best possible way.

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

Standard eBooks: Book nerds have probably heard of Project Gutenberg, a site that curates and houses free eBooks you can load onto your Kindle, Kobo, or whatever other screen you so choose. I recently heard of Standard eBooks via this tweet from Merlin Mann. It’s basically Proejct Gutenberg with a more careful eye on edits and aesthetics. 

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.