On New Year’s Eve when I was in my late 20s, I would ask my friends to reflect on our best days of the year, the times when we had the most fun, felt the most grateful or were happiest.
Sometimes they were the days we expected. Parties, vacations, weddings. But more often, the real best days in hindsight weren’t the obvious ones. They were marked by the ordinary: a long conversation with a friend when I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did. That time we were going to miss the train so we sprinted to the point of near collapse — and made it. Staggering home with a Christmas tree so big, it barely fit through the door.
The planned punctuations to life — holidays, job promotions, family milestones — often disappoint. New Year’s Eve is useless; Thanksgiving ends up being memorable not for the meal but for the next-day deliberations over how many ways you can eat a leftover turkey. The polished moments that ended up on Instagram weren’t what I remembered at the end of the year, either. I rarely had any photos at all of the best days. I was too busy living them.
The problem with these best days was they went by without me realizing how special they were. Unmarked by ceremony and undocumented for posterity, they streamed together in my mind as a blur.
I wondered, could I find a way to know when the best days were coming and really feel them as they happened? So I tried declaring a best day in advance. Even if it felt ridiculous, this effort to make the ordinary feel extraordinary usually worked. Mundane experiences felt special when I marked them as such. Staying up talking in a living room until too late at night or going for a weekend run through a park in the sunshine felt as wonderful as I had hoped it would.
Designating a regular night as a best night helped me claim that moment. I no longer had to battle my nostalgia for ownership of my experiences. Now that I was looking for them, I caught them before they became memories.
Marking experiences this way is one key to happiness, said Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, Zen priest and the director of the Harvard Happiness Study.
“Often we’ll remember the things that are more emotionally loaded as opposed to the neutral, the flat, the boring,” Dr. Waldinger told me. “That’s why you probably can’t remember what you had for dinner last Monday night — unless it was something special. That’s because our brains have to screen out a whole bunch of stuff. So when we look back, we tend to remember the things that were more emotional.”
In other words, the framing I was giving my declared best days — and the anticipation I was assigning them — was tricking my brain into seeing them as something more special, more weighted with emotional significance, than it otherwise would. I was burning these ordinary but precious days into my mind.
Looking back at 2021, I realized recently that I had stopped seeing the best days. I was too busy following the news and wishing my life would go back to normal. But this is normal now. Our lives are not on hold. This is it.
It’s easy to stay caught in nostalgia’s thrall, to think back longingly to when things were better. That makes sense because nostalgia is an especially powerful psychological tool for enduring trauma. It helps you cope with stress, combat loneliness and find meaning in struggle. It is restorative. But for me, it has sometimes led to an unsettling feeling that my past was better than where I am now.
When I think about it, it’s clear that there will be experiences from this pandemic that I will miss or feel nostalgic for as well: a blissfully vacant calendar; meandering walking catch-ups with friends; smiling at neighbors after months of waving from across the street. Not the tedium or the dread, of course, but the beauty we found in the quiet.
And lately I’ve realized that a lot of what made me unhappy during the pandemic made me unhappy beforehand, too. The loneliness that I worried at times might become a permanent feature of adulthood, for example, or the way the days and years can stretch together. The excuses I made as I waited for something to change.
We can’t wait anymore. The stress we feel now isn’t going to magically disappear, just as it never would have before the pandemic. The world has always been a shambles. There’s only one thing we can control: How are we going to live in it?
Why not try to have a best day right now, maybe even tonight? It certainly beats waiting until the world is fixed. And a moment of happiness doesn’t stop us from pushing for the worst of the world to change. On the contrary, as Dr. Waldinger told me, savoring positive moments can serve as fuel to create more of them.
So I’m going to go back to my practice of declaring a best day in advance. I’ll start by declaring today or tomorrow or next Monday one of the best days of 2021. Then I’ll tell someone its new designation, because a best day is often better with company. I’ll put down my phone. I’ll decide to do something I enjoy — it could be as simple as having some friends over or going for a walk.
Most important, I won’t wait. Today is as good a day as any to enjoy what life already offers.