8 Happiness Rules (That You Can Use) From My Italian Grandmother

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

In case you lived under a rock during the late 80’s, the song by that name became the first a cappella tune to reach number one status on the old school Hot 100 chart in this country. Performed by artist Bobby McFerrin, it flooded American airwaves, and by chance, the old transistor radio in my grandmother’s kitchen.

To say that she liked the song would be an understatement, singing along with every opportunity when it played, and often repeating the mantra when it didn’t. Don’t worry. Be happy.

IMG_4303Even before the song became a common listen, she seemed to have it as a life rule that she followed without question. “Nonna” didn’t discover the concept of being happy first (before looking for stuff to make you happy), but no one exemplified this rule more than my grandmother.

In a life lived as an immigrant where “Don’t worry, be happy” was a creed, she taught us many examples of how to get it done ourselves:

“Everything you need to be happy is within you today, right now” – Mark Manson

Create the life you want with hard work – It’s pretty official: from conversations, both online and off, that I’ve had or overheard with other Italian Americans, the consensus is in – we can all learn from the unreal work ethic of the generation(s) before us.

Truth be told, I’m a touch embarrassed by the way I work these days in my little office cubicle – it’s nothing like the schedules from the past, where I would put in a punishing number of hours just to keep up with my parents, or my grandparents.

I’m still astonished by the hours they kept, to provide for themselves and their family. They worked. They didn’t need to be entertained. And they would make many sacrifices of their own time to help those who needed it.

IMG_4771The present moment? It’s all that you’ve got – One of her favorite quotes was, “It’s later than you think.” I’d like to think it was her way of saying the future is coming, but it’s length and quality is an unknown. The past is nice to visit, but don’t dwell on it. This is a talent that seems to be lost in our modern days, as we all make our big plans in the coming months, or years – rather than focus on being happy right now, in the present moment. Is there really any guarantee of the future?

As I’ve heard many times in my past, “It’s later than you think.”

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”  – St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Be relentless – The default option for most people is to sit back, waiting for life to happen to them. Instead of  learning and improving themselves, they keep plodding along, wondering why things never change.

I’ve written here before about my grandfather’s relentless nature, comparing him to the champion boxer who always moved forward with constant action, throwing punches, never relenting – always on the offense.

He, and his wife of 66 years, were an inspiration on this front. They consistently pursued, over decades, what they wanted – success and inclusion for their family in this new country, their new home.

They captured a true secret of happiness, or purpose: know what you want, and never cease in your journey to achieve it.

Create meaningful, memorable moments –  A particular trait in the Italian American household is creating traditions from what other folks may consider mundane – taking every day moments and making them unforgettable.

My grandmother was a master of taking a pedestrian (for her) chore of making meatballs and turning it into an event to be remembered years later. The eating of the food she cooked made the moments even more transcendent: and it’s not just me – other family members, old and younger, can recall vivid details of visits in the kitchen, and the setting of a Sunday dinner table.

The little family picnics, cups of coffee at the table, the unexpected “drop in” (everybody loved the drop in back then) of a family member or close friend – they were all memorable moments made so by the enthusiasm for life that I was brought up with.

Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses –  Jealousy and envy are incompatible with happiness, so if you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it’s time to stop.

Everyone’s experience is different. What looks to be all shiny and bright to the outside world could have been riddled with bumps, bruises, and obstacles along the way. No matter what type of success you see or perceive, you can be sure of that.

The immigrants from my past rarely spoke in envious tones. If they were jealous of someone else’s possessions, it was probably the fact that the other party had more food (or god forbid, better food) in a celebratory spread. Or perhaps, nicer linens on a dinner table.

My grandmother would make 90 to 100 meatballs at a clip, just to make sure she wasn’t outdone by a friend or neighbor.IMG_2307

They were hard working people who had little time to concern themselves with what others had – even if they were at all interested. My grandmother thrived on living a simple life, with few extravagances but many relationships to keep cultivating. Her one luxury was a fur coat she would proudly wear to Sunday Mass during the chillier weather.

We’d all be a little happier if we avoided the comparison trap. It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve been taught.

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

Stay positive in a negative world – I really don’t know how they did it. Their lives were physically challenging and, at times, emotionally apocalyptic with deaths of family members well before their time.

I rarely saw my grandmother in a sad, melancholy mood. Especially in the kitchen. Smiling, singing, dancing, stirring, tending the oven – she seemed to be uplifted all of time. I have no doubt her faith in God was part of this.

If you had negativity or troubles in your life – well, that steaming cup of coffee and a table side chat when you visited would soon be the focus, and the remedy.

Don’t get distracted  – I recently attended the funeral service of the mother of a dear friend of mine. While giving a eulogy at her graveside, my friend implored those standing in the cemetery to be more connected – but in a more human, dare I say old fashioned, way of ditching constant social media and showing up with a phone call or visit.

Look, we’re all guilty of the zombie-like obsession with our phones and devices – myself included. And I think the social is a fantastic way to communicate and keep up with family and friends (as long as you refrain from diving into the deep end of negativity).

My trick is to supplement that, getting a kick out of sneaking in a phone call or text in addition to Facebook comments. It’s way more fun to talk to Uncle Tony or cousin Frankie than it is to just click the “like” button. We all need more of that – again, myself included.

Get yourself out there, and socialize

My grandmother knew the secret – if she was happy (or at least acted happy), everyone around her couldn’t but help to be happy as well. Her attitude was infectious.

She was the life of the party wherever she went, loving to socialize whenever she had the time. You have to remember, her work schedule, whether for family or her restaurants, didn’t allow for much leisure time – but when she had it, made good use of it.

The impromptu party or picnic was frequently on her radar – and her grandson has picked up on this as well.

I wasn’t what you would call “super sociable” by any stretch back in the day, being just as comfortable with alone time as I was hanging with friends.

This was solved by getting married to the (perfect) woman I’ve nicknamed Suzie Satellite for her uncanny ability to throw the perfect party or turn complete strangers into friends within the hour. Now it’s rubbed off on me, as I’m more likely to approach new faces as easily as lurking around the outskirts of a room, just observing.

You need time with me? You’ll have to talk to Suzie – otherwise known as my cruise director or booking agent.

Don’t Worry – Be Happy

In the end, one little Sicilian immigrant knew the secret to be, and be happy: to believe that everything works itself out. To not take yourself (or others) so seriously. To know how to laugh, situation appropriate or not. To avoid really negative chatter, and to lighten up the world and those around you at every opportunity. And to have faith that you have a special offering, regardless of the inner voices or outside forces.

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Running Out Of Time? Try This Brilliant Christmas Shopping Idea

It’s getting close to crunch time. If you haven’t gotten your remaining holiday gifts for the people you buy for, you’re running out of days and minutes.

For many, panic mode is soon to set in.

My wife was feeling the pressure. With the nephews and other relatives still on the list, I saw her mind starting to race, and her actions becoming harried. I’ve already had to tell her to go slower.

Women especially feel obligated to purchase gifts for everyone, as an expression of love. Even though most of us have everything we need, the ladies (and a lot of men) have hit the malls in record numbers.

I am of the opinion that if you’re becoming short on time, maybe gift cards are your solution. But my wife won’t have it. “What seven year old wants to open a gift card?”

She’s right about that.

But, what seven year old (or person of any age) would not like to open an envelope with some cold, hard cash in it?

If you’ve read this far, some of you may be thinking, “What an unthoughtful gift!” And to that I say, keep an open mind. When I was younger, I was privy to the Christmas shopping genius that was my Grandmother.

Her shopping method? Order her grandson to get in his car, and take a trip downtown to the bank. When there, grab a couple dozen fancy bank Christmas envelopes, go to the teller, and make a withdrawal of varied denominations of dead presidents.

Boom. Christmas shopping completed.

Now, while it may not seem thoughtful to you to give cash gifts I, like Jimmy Fallon, can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like money. Aside from the fact that practically no one will say “You gave me money??” with a disdainful look on their face, there are other advantages to the glorious gift of cash:

There is no stress involved – The process for cash gifts is one stop shopping. The bank is your store, and the teller your retail clerk. “Can I help you?” “Why, yes, I’d like a pound of twenties, please.” And you’re done. No running from store to store. No jostling with others to be first in line.

And no pepper spray. Easy breezy.

You take away the possibility of overspending – At the bank, you can’t buy another toy other than what was on your list, and there’s no sneaking a little something for yourself there, while you’re buying for others. Even if you really deserve it.

If you’re gift giving budget is $300 or $500, there’s no overspending. That’s what you get.

You can focus on family and fun – Gram had no time to go to stores, unless it was to the import store for cheese and mortadella (I drove there, also). She had people to make happy, and mountains of food to prep and cook. And she had to go to church, too. Because that’s what the holiday is about anyway.

You help the economy! – Yes, you do help the economy when you shop at Macy’s or J.C. Penney’s. I’m aware of that. But why not help the economy and your mental state? Instead of going on expeditions through shopping mall jungles looking for hidden treasure, admit to yourself that cash is the perfect gift! It’s a win win! The economy gets a little boost, and you don’t feel like strangling your fellow shoppers!

My Grandmother handed out envelopes like she was the Queen handing out royal appointments. She gave gifts to her favorite people, and every single one of them appreciated the gesture. She would be met every once in a while by an “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”, but every gift was accepted.

I even tried to tell her on a couple of occasions, “Gram, I don’t want your money. You do enough for me.” Remember, I ate meals at her house 300 days out of the year. Or more.

“Oh, come on!!” was the response I would hear. And my hand would extend to take the envelope.

This week, don’t wrack your brain trying to buy yet another gift. Use a gift from an old Sicilian lady instead. Stick a greenback in an envelope, relax, and enjoy the sights, sounds, food, and events of the holiday with those people closest to you. That’s the true spirit of Christmas…

Buon Natale!