An emotional life

by Keith Barber

My aunt Joan looked like a million bucks. She was resplendent in a stylish, purple linen blouse and summer outfit that came from the island of Capri. The streaks of gray in her brunette hair had been replaced by blonde highlights. She even appeared to have shed a few pounds.

“Europe looks good on you, Joan,” I said, giving her a warm hug.

Mostly, Joan looked peaceful and content. It was as if her personal aura had been completely transformed. My family gathered at Chateau Morrisette, a winery and resort located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Va. for Joan’s 70 th birthday celebration on June 12.

My mother, my aunt Patsy and Joan had just returned from a nine-day adventure in Italy. The trip was Joan’s birthday present. They shared photos and stories of their time in Rome, Naples and Capri. As I perused their photos, it warmed my heart to see three of the most important women in my life so genuinely happy. And it dawned on me the reason they didn’t want their trip to end. It had nothing to do with the thought of seeing their friends and family again, but rather the share bliss of spending time with people you truly love.

Many years ago, Joan took a European bus tour that didn’t quite live up to her expectations. She laughs now when she talks about sitting on the back of a bus and drinking several glasses of wine with her fellow travelers as they barreled down the Champs-‘lys’es at breakneck speed. The bus driver called out over the loudspeaker, “There’s the Arc de Triomphe!” Joan only caught a glimpse. She had to wait another 30 years to experience the beauty and mystery of Europe.

The other big difference between her first trip overseas and her 70 th birthday excursion were the people with whom she shared the experience. Despite my aunt Joan’s proclivity to snore, my mom and aunt Patsy said they would not have dreamed of getting separate rooms. My mother said her fondest memories of the trip are the laughter they shared before they fell asleep at night and first thing in the morning. All three have the ability to laugh at themselves, which made those moments possible.

As I listened to their stories, I was reminded of the three-part documentary series, “This Emotional Life,” which aired on PBS earlier this year. Hosted by Dr. David Mrazek, “This Emotional Life” explores the life of the mind and the science of human happiness.

The series explores a number of topics that all relate to human happiness including relationships, stress and anxiety, mental illness and meditation. Mrazek points out that the application of scientific methods to explore the nature of human happiness is relatively new, but there are some recognized universal truths about the ethereal nature of happiness, joy and fulfillment. The biggest truth is that happiness usually occurs when we spend time with the people we love. And the things in life that seem to promise joy — whether it be money, power or prestige — very rarely satisfy us. Happiness comes from within.

This weekend was a time to celebrate my aunt’s birthday with my extended family. It was also a time of reflection. Looking at the images of Italy took me back to my family trip to Rome in 2005. I have so many great memories but the one that stands out is departing the Pantheon on the final day of our trip and telling my mother, “This hasn’t just been the best vacation of my life,” I said. “It’s been the best six days of my life.”

The entire six days had not been perfect, but I experienced perfect moments, and that is what matters. It might have been the only opportunity we’d ever have to share something that transcendent.

Science teaches us that people who live in the moment are generally much happier than those who dwell on the past or worry about the future.

Living in the moment is easier said than done but the teachings of positive psychology allow its followers to focus on the good things that are happening every single day. Taking a cue from “This Emotional Life,” I’ve started a journal where I document three good things that happen daily. Then, I write out three reasons why each of those good things happened. It’s a simple exercise that inspires gratitude and reminds me of my talents and abilities.

My aunt Joan has learned this technique, for her emotional life appears vibrant and full. And as we wished her a happy birthday, her happiness descended upon all of us and we shared that moment as a family, and that was truly a good thing.