Years ago a friend announced that she had a simple resolution for the new year:
Eat more cake.
Her rationale seemed straightforward. We were living in Germany on a year-long program and knew we had to return to the States in six months. She had become a big fan of both the German style of baking and the tradition of taking a late afternoon “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) break; so why not enjoy them as much as she could during her remaining time in the country? I was pleased to go along for the ride, and we quickly developed a nice Sunday routine of taking a long, leisurely walk before heading to a bakery café for a hit of German goodness. Overall, I’d say that her commitment to those three little words added a lot of value to my life (and a deepened friendship), and for that I was – and remain – grateful.
However, this resolution ended up having a much more far-reaching impact on me and has grown to be what I consider the ultimate year-end pledge. I don’t think resolutions that entail hardcore behavior modification really work. My experience as a smoker who tried to quit for many years before finally being successful taught me that when the right factors come together and you really have the mindset to change, you will. Until then, setting a target based on something as arbitrary as the flip of a calendar page is likely to just set you up to feel guilty and defeated. However, I do think there’s something to be said for using the coming of a new year as a trigger to evaluate how we are leading our lives and identify possible improvements. And since happiness is what most of us are really chasing, why not use that as our metric?
I think the “eat more cake” resolution works on many levels. One could certainly dust off the trope that life is too short. I do follow this philosophy and think it’s very important to keep in mind that time is the one resource that we can neither recoup nor replenish. However, in this case I think the main issue is actually a bit larger. To me it seems critical to do as many things as we can to keep stoking our internal happiness furnaces. The idea is simple: If we regularly feed this fire, our overall happiness baseline will never dip too low – which should help us to both maintain a better mood in general and bounce back when something comes along to derail us (as it inevitably will, life being life).
When I went back to graduate school in my early forties, I took the resolution a step further. As I prepared to enter my second year, I knew I was in for a challenge – I was faced with conducting empirical research and writing my thesis while simultaneously taking classes and teaching. I wanted to develop a strategy that would help me get everything done but also ensure that I was enjoying myself; one of the main reasons I had gone back to school was for the pure fun of being a student again, and I didn’t want anything to sabotage that. I ended up deciding to adopt a mantra for the year: Keep Sarah happy. I’m almost embarrassed to share that, as it seems to smack of self-indulgence and self-centeredness. However, damn it, it really worked. I didn’t have an abundance of free time, but I still made it a point to do things that stoked my happiness furnace. I went for long bike rides along the river, made a weekly run to the local co-op for vegan chocolate chip cookies, scheduled massages at the student wellness center after every major exam or deadline, and stocked my cupboard with the insanely strong espresso-roast coffee that I love so much that I actually start looking forward to it as I fall asleep at night. My year ended with academic success – but more importantly, I had managed to keep calm and happy and achieved the experience I was after. I had eaten more cake, and my heart, soul, and psyche had all reaped the benefits.
So if you’re at the point of pondering how to tweak your own life for the better in 2018, I urge you to think about things you can do to bring a smile to your face. To give you a sigh of contentment. To achieve that delicious feeling of joy that spreads from your toes throughout the rest of your body. It doesn’t matter if it’s watching Bollywood movies, taking your dog for walks on the beach, doing crossword puzzles, or spending time on your balcony just watching the world go by. We all have our own version of eating cake – the main thing is just to do more of it.
Have a happy 2018, folks. And to my wise friend Stephanie, please know that on the 1st I’ll be quite literally eating more cake and as always thinking of you.
(@Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka)