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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Stop Trying to Make It Easy

hard work ethic
My hard working, never say stop Grandmother with one of her favorite tools – the meat slicer

Back in the summer months of 2014, I decided to break one of my financial commandments – no spending money on a gym membership. I started to be bored working out at home, in the very sparse and dungeon-like confines of the basement, where I keep my heavy bag, jump rope, and a variety of weights. No longer inspired to exercise by myself, I needed a change of scenery.

Although it was hard to commit to the monthly payment at first (my frugal grandmother would have thought this a very frivolous expense), I jumped in and was quickly happy with the decision. My gym is clean, the staff is friendly, and there is more than enough variety of equipment to get in any type of workout that you choose. And the fact that it is extremely close to my house makes it all the more appealing.

On the surface, total win.

The only issue so far? The months of January and February. After the New Years cocktails are a fleeting memory to most people, stampeding crowds of fitness wannabees descend on gyms and fitness centers, with dreams of getting in better shape, taking every parking spot in the lot and leaving not a treadmill open.

It’s enough to make me look forward to the “dungeon” again.

The sad part, or perhaps not so sad, is that by mid March at the latest, the massive crowds will have fizzled out. Hopes and dreams for the quick fix will have been dashed. The monthly payments will be still taken from their bank accounts, even if they never show up again.

In time, I’ll be able to park anywhere I want, and every dumbbell and elliptical will be there for the taking.

New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned, and there will be clear sailing for the rest of us until next January.

Quitting is the easiest option when you realize the quick fix and the short cut will not work. They will never work. Leaves me wondering why everybody wants it so easy.

Stop trying to make it easy.

The image for this post is a favorite of mine. I have plenty of pictures of my grandparents that remind me of how they got where they needed to be. By working their asses off. By continually grinding.

Once they had their minds set on becoming responsible, productive American citizens who would eventually employ fellow citizens, they became unstoppable.

They never looked for the easy way to do anything. With my grandparents, the very thought of “the easy way out” or less than maximum effort would have been laughable.

I don’t even need to bring to detail their early years, the years of the factory jobs and building their own businesses from practically nothing. I can just use an example of when they were in their 70s and 80s, working every day. Rosina, in a restaurant kitchen for half of her day, then in her private kitchen for the other half. Twelve hours. Without consideration of “making things easy.”

I had prime role models growing up.

With their help and guidance, it’s now easy for me to get through the months of January and February at the gym, sailing right through the spring. It’s easy to feel privileged and blessed with abundance when money is tight for some, because of the way they taught me to spend and save.

In car crazy America, I have no problem driving less because they never drove at all. I’m inspired to keep my small mortgage instead of “moving up”, as they never needed a bank to give them one in the first place.

My route to the gym passes on the road to the cemetery where my grandparents are now. Done purposefully or not, I don’t know. I do know I can’t pass by without a signal that the hard work is about to commence.

As I drive by, I remind myself to try and embody the lifestyle that they embraced. Go hard. Be fast. Don’t stop.

And for Heaven’s sake, stop trying to make it easy.

This Is Not Your Grandfather’s “Job Security”

I can’t remember the last time I had a stunning day at work, but last week I had one of those days.

The stunner was the revelation that three people I had worked with, and come to know over the last five years,  lost their jobs. Just like that. In almost “mob hit” style, one minute we were talking, and the next they were gone.

Without a word.

Having been in the job game for a long time now, I was less stunned than a lot of my workmates. But the fact that I felt this way at all showed just how complacent I’ve become.

This is not your grandfather’s world of “job security”. For all but a tiny percentage of workers, there is no longer the 40 year career at one company, leaving to collect a pension into your golden years.

Anyone that believes a corporation is going to “take care of them”, and is going to care about any more other than the concerns of its shareholders, is playing a dangerous game.

If you believe in such a thing as job security, you are doing yourself a disservice.

If you think there is a corporation, a job, that will take care of you more than you can take care of yourself, you’d better think again.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

My grandparents’ generation worked in factories, some their entire lives. They worked hard, and their companies rewarded them with a paycheck, a pension and job security.

My own grandparents could have retired from jobs, from working for somebody else. They decided to run their own businesses instead, drawing success from their restaurants and providing for themselves the ultimate job security: As long as the doors were open, and sales were brisk, they could never get “fired”.

I never had a job until I was 35 years old. I worked in the family business, and I would always have that work as long as I wanted it.

There is no such thing as “job security”, no matter what you may tell yourself.  If you’re someone younger than me (and lately, that’s looking like everybody :)), look at that fact as an opportunity. It’s a new world, but you can take full advantage if you’re well armed.

One of my close friends made the comment if you have a strong support group, you can worry a little less. I tend to agree with him. The more connections, the more close friends and relatives you have that can cover your back, the better.

If you suddenly find yourself out of work, then let them go to work for you. Friends love helping each other out, right?

It can help if you have other skills beside your job as well. In my past life, I was a bartender in the family business. To make extra cash over the holidays this past year, I was a part time bartender again. It’s a skill that I’ll always have, and that people are willing to pay for.

Whether you realize it or not, you have a skill like that too. It is just up to you to find out what that is.

Speaking of friends, cash in the bank is a big ally too.  A cash cushion can keep you relaxed and stress free. It doesn’t have to be huge, but you better have something. You don’t want the situation of losing an income with your savings account dry as a bone.

I have no doubt the friends that I no longer work with will be OK, and land on their feet. They are a talented bunch, and one in particular already had a side business up and running.

But if there’s a lesson they can teach, it’s always be ready. Always be looking over your shoulder. And have your options in place if you ever need them. Chances are you will.

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Best Job Title Ever – Father

IMG_3678Fathers’ Day will come and go, celebrated in a whirlwind of sunshine, breakfast on the deck, poolside cocktails, and a game of pitch and catch. As the years go by, and they go by rather quickly, I become more entrenched in the title of “father” or “Dad.” It has become my favorite line of work.

I’m grateful for many things in this life. When my wife had a little scare with her health, I was grateful that it wound up, in the end,  being nothing to worry about.

I feel gratitude for having so much time with my grandparents in their time on this Earth, especially my grandmother. We shared many cups of coffee over the years.

My life is what it is because of what they taught me as well. You know, enjoy the simple things in life, don’t stress too much, and forget about keeping up with the Joneses of the world. Good advice.

I’m grateful for the music too. Sounds that are constantly in my head, ringing in my ears, providing the soundtrack to life. Whether it was an old Sinatra standard blasting from an transistor radio in the house on 14th Street, or a song by Muse playing on my daughter’s iPod, it has been forty plus years of enjoying some really amazing sounds.

More than anything, I’m happy to be Dad. As I said, it’s my favorite job.  And my most important.

I took on this line of work on a ferociously hot day in late June 1995, when my daughter was born. Since that morning in the hospital, I’ve never looked back. I knew when I held her close to me, she would be the most important thing I would ever be a part of.

IMG_2681When my son was born five years later, he became part two of “my most important work to date.”

Now, they’re getting older, growing up way too quickly, and the work is becoming complicated. When you think you have a handle on what you’re doing as a parent, monkey wrenches appear from everywhere, and you realize you don’t know much. But you keep doing the work, and gain knowledge as you go forward. There are always new things to learn.

I was a guy who, at one time, felt there was no problem to be consumed by his job. The work. Whatever “nine to five” I was doing. But I smartened up, looking at the work as a means to an end, that glorious paycheck, and try to get really good at the important jobs. Job titles that include husband and…father.

When Gabrielle was born, at the time I wasn’t doing just a job. I was working in the family business, a restaurant where I managed the bar and spent the majority of my days tending it, serving the customers who would become, over the years, my friends. It was what I loved to do, and couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

But the days and nights at work were long, and they took me away from my little girl. To have more time at home, I gave up what I loved to do, and got a “real job” (Real? The concept of corporate jobs as being “real” is strictly a myth).

I gave up the restaurant business, a way of life that was important to me. But I gave it up for much more important work, a partnership with my wife with the job title of parent. Father. The fringe benefits are more than excellent.

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