The Wisdom of One

Our high school offered a virtual open house this year. Instead of hurrying through hallways to get from biology lab to Chinese to the choir room, I sat on the sofa and watched videos posted by my daughter’s teachers. I missed meeting them in person, but the videos were a great way to put faces with names and learn a bit about each course. And as I scrolled through the links to my daughter’s classes, I discovered a little gem. It was under the “Ambassadors” tab. (Ambassadors are student representatives who volunteer for the guidance department.) Under the heading “You Come FIRST,” I found an article titled “The Science of Happiness.”

I was curious. Why did the guidance department post this one article? I opened the link and began reading:

“Whether you’re a web designer, teacher, firefighter or Army officer, you are encouraged to keep checking things off the to-do list, … focusing your efforts on the future. There’s always something more you can do to further yourself….”

I can relate. I’m sure students can, too. The article continued:

“But there are major problems with constantly trying to get things done and focusing on the next thing….”

Major problems?

Emma Seppala, author of the article, wrote that when your mind is “always on the next task, the next accomplishment, the next person you need to talk to,” then you miss what you are doing right then. That’s important, she explained, because happiness only happens in the present.

This topic was speaking to me. I had just completed a month of positive and exciting transitions. School started! Internships ended! Family visited! College began! I loved being with each person and making each memory. I had prioritized preparing for and being available to my family during those days. Now, as I returned to my weeks-old to-do list, a scattered feeling was creeping in. My mind flitted from one thought to another as I replied to email, prepared a document for church, and minced gingerroot to prep for dinner between piano lessons.

We’ve all heard that “being present in the moment” is good. But what struck me as I read the article was that “being present in the moment” is hardest when we need it the most. When we feel scattered, anxious, or overwhelmed, how do we bring ourselves back to feeling competent, calm, and content?

The article suggests what I’ll call the “wisdom of one.” Choose one thing. When your list is longer than the hours in the day, decide what one thing you want to do first. When your thoughts swirl like sand in a whirlwind, select one thing to think about. Acknowledge that by selecting one thing, you are saying no to others. Write notes down if you think you might forget something important. Then follow the advice that science advocates: immerse yourself in your one chosen task. Maybe you’ll brainstorm for a long-range goal. Call the employee you need to consult. Write the letter you want to send to a friend. Focus on your one thing, excluding everything else while you do, and enjoy it.

My “one thing” this morning has been writing this. To me, the work is creative, reflective, and a bridge to conversation and community. I’m aware that my to-do list is still open on my desk. It’s still long, and it still feels a bit noisy. But by focusing only on this post for a little while, I’m realizing my to-do list may be more patient than I thought.

Note: The author of the article noted is Dr. Emma Seppala, a lecturer at Yale University and director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The article quoted is from her book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, copyright 2016 and published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.