Five Minutes at a Time

Last year I read Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. Near the end of the book, the main character, Rabih, takes a picture:

“Wanting to capture this moment, Rabih calls them to gather for a photo, then sets the camera on a rock and runs to get into the shot. He knows that perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time. This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

I was deep into a hard year of adjusting to having two small children; it was a joy-filled year, but I often had to fight for the joy. This quote resonated with me–tiny increments of perfect happiness at a time–as it might resonate with anyone who has small children.

I often found myself laughing so hard at something my children were doing and breaking up a fight in the next breath. By the time I ran to grab my coat, the joyous time we were having outside ended when someone tripped and skinned a knee. The fun preschool activity I planned lasted much less time than I had hoped. The car ride, which had such potential for being fun, was mostly listening to our little one scream and our older one complain. It felt like life was constantly disappointing me–like good and beautiful times were just outside of my grasp (and my children’s capabilities). I started to get resentful until I began turning this quote over in my mind.

A couple minutes of perfect happiness  at a time seems reasonable. And yet it bothered me: was I settling for too little? Shouldn’t I set my sights higher?

But I’ve found that accepting (not expecting!) five minute bursts of pure happiness does indeed lead to more contentment, more true joy. It’s an attitude that acknowledges that those beautiful peak moments come and go. And it’s okay–it’s necessary–to embrace them and capture them and celebrate them. But we can’t expect to live our lives in those bursts.

In a conversation recently, a friend pointed out that we tend to want all our lives to be full of those peak moments–the ones we imagine when we look at someone else’s snapshot. The whole vacation must have been as filled with joy as that beautiful moment captured by the canyon’s edge. The adjustment to two kids must have been so easy because look at the adoration in the big sister’s eyes. There were no awkward moments or bad moods at that family gathering–just look at that happy photo!

I want to get to a point where my life runs easily–where the hard things are smoothed out by my exceptional planning and lack of emotional lows. I want to control my own mood as well as the moods of all the other people in my family. I want those times with the potential for happiness–the grand trips, the long car ride, the trip to the children’s museum–to be full of near-perfection.

I want to wait to celebrate until all the ducks are cheerfully lined up in their row (they must be bright yellow, and the paint must not be chipping). I want to wait to rest until all the work is done. I want to hold myself back until I get it all together. And so I miss out on those perfectly good moments of happiness all the time because I want them to last longer or happen more.

The amazing thing is: those minute-long bursts of pure happiness blend together and stand out to make us look back fondly on a season or a trip. They’re why this year’s vacation never seems as glorious as last year’s until next year when we are looking back fondly on it.

And so, I focus on five minutes at a time and consider that a win. Was it fun to jump into the leaf pile for a few minutes? That’s an awesome blessing! Did my sons enjoy a few minutes of painting while listening to Mozart and drinking afternoon tea? That’s a special time! Did I remember to notice their own glee as they slid down the slide even if leaving the playground ended in a tantrum?

When I’m expecting things to go smoothly and be beautiful and near-perfect for a long period of time, I’m always disappointed and resentful. Our hearts long for true and lasting happiness, and one day, we will have it. But on this earth, in this beautiful but very broken world, being thankful for a few minutes of glorious happiness at a time leads to more joy than expecting everything I plan and every day to be a never-ending list of highs.

I read something last year about how the happiest families are those who celebrate not big stuff but small stuff– who step back from their day to commemorate a lost tooth or a small promotion. These things stick and they matter because they show the people we care about that they matter. Celebrations give us something to look forward to, a time to pause and be grateful and create our own tiny increment of happiness.

So I’m trying to feel the freedom to celebrate more, not just the peak moments but the little things too. Most of our lives are lived in the mundane, and there are often incremental bursts of true happiness scattered all throughout the ordinary moments. It’s all about what I choose to focus on and accept with gratitude.

This season, I’m trying celebrate the fun we have and the memories we create without forcing it all to be perfect and free of wrinkles. I’m happily snapping pictures of these moments to remember and try to pay attention to all the details around me, to really breathe in the smells and hear the sounds and feel my feet grounded to the earth. These are all true gifts, even if they aren’t fully finished or perfect or lasting yet.

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