Posting a photograph last Friday of where I walk when I listen to my podcasts reminded me of a piece I wrote soon after our family moved to Blacksburg, Virginia. Nearly two years later, we still love it here; I think that means we have a chance at durable happiness. Please enjoy this post from the very early days of Butterfly Mind (October 18, 2012).
“RESEARCH OFFERS HOPE FOR THOSE SEEKING DURABLE BOOST IN HAPPINESS.” That’s the title of an article I clipped from the paper this summer. I don’t think I’ve ever clipped a newspaper article, but I saved this one. Because in this piece, I learned the secret of people who are able to sustain happiness after an exciting life change (being newly married, or, say, taking the perfect job): that, even beyond the initial excitement of their good news, rather than letting the novelty wear off and searching for something newer and better, these happy folks continue, on a daily basis, to appreciate the positive differences the change has made in their lives.
Kind of like how every time I drive out of our neighborhood and see Appalachians in front of me, I think, “Wow! I can’t believe we live here!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this article since we made our move to Blacksburg because it tells our story – “When Jim Gubbins finally got the job he’d been working toward for 12 years, he was a very happy man.” Every day, my husband and I marvel at our good fortune, that all of our work actually paid off in they way we were hoping it would, and in a place so spectacular. But what really caught my attention, especially since, like my husband, this Gubbins character is a professor, is that after three years in his tenure-track position, Gubbins is even happier than when he first landed his dream job. All because he is satisfied with what he has, because he is not looking for something better. Because he marvels at his good fortune. After three years, he still savors the changes his job has offered him in all aspects of his life – the friendships he’s cultivated in his workplace, the perks of being at a smaller university, the opportunity to share knowledge. The amazing place he lives.
That last part – the amazing place he lives – resonates deeply with me, and makes me think we might have a shot at this durable happiness thing. My husband and I moved around a lot before settling in Blacksburg, no place ever feeling like quite the right fit, no place feeling like home. A friend likened us to Goldilocks, as we started in Florida (too hot), then moved to Minnesota (too cold), and are finally settling down in Virginia (just right). But it’s not just the climate that fits. Every time I see hemlocks and white pines, or we hike with our kids on the Appalachian Trail, or I smell the scent of mountains – a crisp mix of dry leaves, warm granite, damp earth, and high, clean air – every time I hear a Southern drawl, or my manager at work says “cotton-pickin’,” I delight in our good luck. I can’t believe we live here.
Sometimes I hesitate to get too attached, or I try to rein in my happiness, because I’m so used to having to uproot, to not get too close. Or I think the novelty will wear off at some point. The mountains will surely become so everyday, such a normal part of the landscape, that I won’t even notice them anymore.
This article, though, it’s urging me to risk it – to get attached, to get real close, to notice the mountains (like broccolli forests in summer, glittering gemstones in fall), to breathe the Appalachian air. It reminds me to savor these gifts. Having already hiked six different trails in six weeks – with waterfalls and babbling brooks, views of Allegheny ridges and the New River Valley, with boulders, hemlocks and white pines, deciduous trees ablaze in citrine, garnet, and yellow sapphire – and countless choices for new hikes, all within 30 minutes of home, the outlook is good that even in a few years we will still be in awe that we get to live here. Because we haven’t even unpacked our camping gear yet.
But the most exciting bit of encouragement that our happiness will endure comes from folks who have lived here a while. On a late-summer day in the courtyard at our kids’ school, when the sky was a crystalline blue, and the sun was warm, but not too warm, on my face, and another time, on a damp autumn morning, when fog rolled over the gentle green domes of the Appalachian mountains, I said to my companion of the day, “Every day, I look around me, or I smell the air, and I think, I can’t believe we live here.”
And my friends – two separate women, unknown to each other and on separate occasions – said quietly to me, both smiling in the same conspiratorial way, “You know, I’ve lived here for 14 years, and I still feel that same way.”