A decade ago, I started a simple list.
We were driving back from visiting my family in Texas during the holidays, which is always among the best things I do each year, and I was feeling sentimental. I started jotting down bits and pieces from the past year. I called it the “Best of 2010” and came up with a top 10 list of just a few words -- a destination we traveled to, a visit from people I love -- my highlight reel of the moments when I had felt most joyous.
Looking at that list and reliving those moments felt so great that it prompted me to make another one. I wrote the names of the people who had been especially vital that year -- the people who showed up for me when I needed them the most. I titled that list simply “Team.”
I resolved to find a way to thank those people, sooner rather than later.
The whole exercise probably took less than half an hour, a way to kill time on a long road trip. But it felt like a satisfying way to end one chapter and start the next: focused on the good and feeling grateful.
I decided I would try to make my “Best of” and “Team” lists an annual ritual. I had started it as an email draft to myself, and I eventually compiled it in a Google doc. When something particularly wonderful would happen during the year, I’d open the doc and make a note of it. At the end of the next year, I was culling a work-in-progress down to the most essential moments, rather than starting from scratch.
So now, I have a full decade of those moments and names to reflect upon. I’ll confess that it’s a little more than 100 in total, because some years I couldn’t bring myself to limit it to 10.
I’ve created a longitudinal dataset of my own happiness.
Indulge my nerdiness while I analyze it.
Some expected themes emerged: vacations and holidays with families, celebrations like weddings, visits from friends, special sporting events and concerts, new experiences and milestones for our kids. Obviously, Big Moments aren’t always good times and laughs. But the patina of nostalgia smooths over the stress and conflict that we may have experienced at the time. I often rely on a measure of distance to help bake in the fuzzy, warm feelings and minimize whatever chaos and discord bubbled in the background.
Selective amnesia goes a long way toward familial harmony, I’ve learned.
I discovered some surprises in my dataset, too. The times my work connected with readers, helped someone in a difficult situation or was recognized by others consistently brought me joy over the years. It’s a good reminder that finding meaning and purpose in your work is key to personal happiness.
Another repeat item involved taking on difficult challenges -- like running a marathon, making a film, applying for fellowships or managing a house renovation -- and just being able to complete it. I didn’t win any races or film awards, but working on something hard and being able to finish it ended up on my top 10 list nearly every year. The funny thing is, when I’m in the depths of a project like those, I’m usually miserable -- stressed and full of despair and regret for taking it on.
This turned out to be a great way to check in with myself and my relationships. It’s given me a roadmap on how to prioritize in the future. And the older I get, the nicer it is to have a handy timeline of life’s bright spots.
It’s also been a way to reset my perspective at the start of each year. I read depressing and enraging news stories every single day, and I’ve found a way to make an antidote for myself.
May the next decade be just as list-worthy.