“A multitude of small delights constitute happiness.” — Charles Baudelaire, 1897
If only I had a better salary, I’d feel secure. If only I had a bigger house, I’d be content. If only I got that promotion, I’d be happier.
If only… If only…
We seem to predicate how we feel and how we live our lives based on tangibles and outcomes. As if there were some end goal, some final state of being that we could attain if we possessed something or passed a level—an IRL version of “Achievement unlocked!”
Humans are a strange species. Our brains trick us all the time, and in the strangest ways. Here's a quick example: if a baseball bat and a baseball together cost $1.10 and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
I’ll bet your intuition told you that the ball was ten cents, right?
If that was your answer, your brain tricked you. The correct answer is five cents.
Yet our brains tell us that if only we got what we wanted, we’d be happy. That a change in circumstances would make us satisfied.
Think about that for a moment. If you had desires—more money, a different house, a different job, a vacation, an ice cream cone, a single malt whisky—does that keep you happy and satisfied? Likely not. Your circumstances change briefly, but then you find you’re back to saying “if only…” again.
According to Professor Laurie Santos of Yale University, in her course Psychology and the Good Life, “a primary takeaway is that happiness is a mind-set to be cultivated, not a condition to be imposed.” (New York Magazine, May 2018)
A mind-set to be cultivated.
In other words, it’s not about external forces, the stuff you own, or the way society judges you to be successful; it’s about the habits you undertake that lead to sustained satisfaction. What are some of these habits?
You could put more effort into relationships with family and friends. You could practice gratitude (recall that G.K. Chesterton wrote “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”). You can live in the present, taking the time to observe the world around you and appreciate the things that make you smile.
It’s the little things that matter.
“If you can honestly say that you get along well with your family without worrying too much about them, that you get satisfaction from your work from day to day, and that you ‘feel good’ most of the time, you already possess the main elements in happiness.” — Ladies’ Home Journal, 1946
We’re surrounded by little things every day—things that may escape our notice. And yet, when we practice a little reflection, we can get so much more out of these little things than we first imagined.
A couple of years ago, I posted something that later made me reframe how I look at things. I asked my friends to share a fond memory of us.
Because of the way the algorithm works on Facebook, we know that we don’t see 100 percent of the posts that our friends make. In fact, it’s a much smaller percentage. And when you’ve over-friended, people are at risk of not showing up in your feed at all. Because of that, there was a copied and pasted post that was going around.
It was a simple request: “If you’re reading this, even if we barely talk, comment with a fond memory of us.”
Much to my surprise, it got nearly 300 comments, including from some friends from long ago. But more than that, it was the caliber of responses that stuck with me.
Again and again, I came across little moments—moments that in some cases, I don’t even recall—that stood out in people’s minds. Perhaps it was a note I sent, a remark I made, or a laugh we shared.
Things that frankly, didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time. But they mattered to my friends. So much so that these memories were sparked so many years later. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I was greeted with a multitude of small interactions that added up to a great deal (“You’ve been given a great gift, George.”)
It’s the little things.
The true power of leadership isn’t how many people you can fire, how profitable or successful you make a company, or the number of hours you spend working.
True leadership is found in everyday words and actions—the way you treat every person you meet.
Speeches and official communications will fade from memory. But your small gestures of kindness and inspiration will remain with people forever.
“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner, 1971
A Little Gesture from a Big Guy
One last story for you.
One of my fondest memories of working at Ford was on Take Your Child to Work Day in 2013, when I brought my two sons, Will and Drew with me for the day.
One of the events was a presentation in a large auditorium filled with Ford employees and their kids, where Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford at the time, gave a presentation. When he finished, he asked for questions from the audience, and Will’s hand shot up, but there wasn’t time to take his question.
Back at World Headquarters, after the boys finished their hot dogs and tater tots (a requested favorite!), as we were leaving the cafeteria, my phone rang. It was Amy, Alan’s executive assistant.
“Scott, where are you?”
“I’m downstairs, just outside the cafeteria.”
“Can you come up to Alan’s office, please?”
As much as I visited the 12th floor, just two floors above my office, and regularly interacted with Alan, I didn't really know what to expect.
When we arrived there, Alan was waiting in the doorway with a big smile on his face. He invited us into his office and chatted with Will and Drew for a bit. He asked them about school, he inquired about their day so far, and he asked their mom’s name.
Then, he sat down and wrote a note to Mindi on Ford letterhead, telling her what fine boys she had and how proud she must be. Then he drew his signature heart around “Ford + Monty Family” at the bottom.
He asked if we’d like a picture, and invited us behind his desk. Then he motioned to Amy, who brought in two bags of Ford goodies—Hot Wheels, pens, keychains, notepads, and other Ford tchotchkes—and sent the boys on their way.
This was one of the finest examples of servant leadership I’ve ever witnessed. Alan took note of us in the audience, and even though he couldn’t answer Will’s question, he followed up with this meaningful and personal experience.
Were there other executives whose kids’ questions didn’t get answered that day? Probably. Did they get an invitation up to Alan’s office? Possibly. But the thing is, even if they did, I guarantee Alan made them feel just as special as he made us feel.
Because that’s the kind of leader he is.
And I hope that’s the kind of leader my kids grow up to be.
Meanwhile, I’m spending as much time with them as I can before they’re grown.
If only we could stay like this forever.
Timely: Present Tense
“Happiness is not something you can catch and lock up in a vault like wealth. Happiness is nothing but everyday living seen through a veil.” — Zora Neale Hurston, 1939
The new Facebook Oversight Board — designed to keep keep Facebook posts in check — announced it won’t be operational until later this year. (CNBC)
Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s top executives, engaged in “spin” during a meeting over hate speech, civil rights groups said. (The New York Times)
It's been two years since Little Things shut down, a casualty of the changing algorithms at Facebook. It’s too bad, because their uplifting news—most recently reflected in John Krasinski’s Some Good News—is so desperately needed right now. (Digiday)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” — Samuel Johnson, 1776
Little things can mean so much. Like this heavy-machine operator who took a moment to bring smiles to the faces of two kids playing with toy trucks.
“People seem to want to make things complex, almost like a badge of honour, ‘I thrive in complexity.’ People talk about the complex sale, but when you explore a bit, scratch the surface, you find that the complexity is neither natural or necessary.” We need less complexity in our lives. And before you go there, no, this is not another Marie Kondo post. My Decade of Decluttering (Tibor Shanto)
Plato’s Euthydemus contains a conversation between Socrates and Cleinias, where Socrates considers happiness a result of having wisdom:
“What do possessions profit a man if he has neither sense nor wisdom? Would a man be better off having and doing many things without wisdom or a few things with wisdom? Look at the matter thus: If he did fewer things, would he not make fewer mistakes? If he made fewer mistakes, would he not have fewer misfortunes? And if he had fewer misfortunes, would he not be less miserable?” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“When you sell a man a book, you don't sell him 12 inches of ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.” – Christopher Morley
🎧 Who invented pants? How did ‘pink for girls’ and ‘blue for boys’ happen? What do dogs say when they bark? These are some of the perennial questions the hosts answer on Every Little Thing.
📘 Have you ever wondered why we spend so much time and energy thinking about the big challenges in our lives when all the evidence proves it’s actually the little things that change everything? In The Little Things: Why You Should Sweat the Small Stuff, Andy Andrews proves that it is in concentrating on the smaller things that we add value and margin.
I can’t thank you enough for being here and reading this far. If you’re inspired by what you read today, please recommend this newsletter to a friend you care about.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.