By Arlene Appelrouthaappelrouth@atljewishtimes.com

Most people don’t look at their refrigerators for inspiration or guidance, but I do.

Arlene Appelrouth

Arlene Appelrouth

I’m not talking about what’s inside my refrigerator. There’s hardly anything inspiring about the almond milk, yogurt, fruits or vegetables. Actually, when produce languishes too long and ends up in the garbage or I trash leftovers after ignoring them for more days than could be considered safe, my refrigerator gives me guilt.

There’s nothing inspiring about guilt.

But the outside of the refrigerator, a stainless-steel door that serves as a perfect bulletin board, provides me with precepts and ideas to remember. In addition to photographs of my grandchildren, there are dozens of quotations on magnets or postcards. An organizer told me I was cluttering my refrigerator door, but I think of them as wisdom statements and have no problem if they look like clutter.

“Life is short, take the scenic route,” reads one magnet. Next to it is the reminder “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Some of the quotations are philosophical, others psychological.

“Worry is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do but it won’t get you anywhere” is one of my favorites. If you had access to my psychological genealogy chart, you would see I was conditioned by a long line of worriers. It’s useful to have a tangible reminder about how counterproductive worrying is.

When the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was released in 1988, I recall singing and dancing to lyrics that provided important advice: Give up tormenting yourself and find a way to be happy.

Bobbie McFerrin, who composed the lyrics and sang the song, wasn’t the only one encouraging people to seek happiness.

I think it was an invitation to a local Jewish event that contained a sentence I found surprising and provocative. “It’s a mitzvah to be happy” was written in beautiful calligraphy. I had never studied mitzvot, so my understanding of them was sketchy and full of inaccurate assumptions. I believed each mitzvah provided a rule of what Jews were supposed to do or what was forbidden.

It never occurred to me that being happy was included.

Happiness was a popular topic. There were many articles in magazines about how to be happy.

What surprised me was that in Judaism, being happy was a spiritual directive.

Happiness is about one’s frame of mind and attitude, which are influenced by many things. I wondered, if happiness counted as a mitzvah, whether the source of that happiness was material.

Since I was a teenager, I had longed to drive a convertible.

Before my 16th birthday, when I planned to get my driver’s license, I told my parents I wanted a convertible as a birthday present. My request was not reasonable as my parents could not afford to get me a car, so I was surprised when my mother agreed to grant my wish.

When she handed me a small white box on my birthday, I imagined the key to my convertible was inside. I opened the box to find a small gold charm of a convertible car. I was neither pleased nor amused nor grateful. I gritted my teeth, felt disappointed and promised myself that someday I would get a convertible.

Years passed. By the time I could afford a convertible, it wasn’t practical. I spent lots of my time carpooling.

My desire to drive a sporty convertible remained a dormant fantasy for decades, but

I loved doing research on new cars and often went to auto dealers to test-drive new models. Eventually I fulfilled my old dream.

When I drove my red Toyota Celica convertible off the dealer’s lot on Roswell Road, I was giddy with excitement, exuberance and happiness. Like my old adolescent self, I wanted to honk my horn and shout to anyone who noticed, “Look at me.” When I stopped at red lights, it pleased me if other drivers lowered their windows and called out, “Great car.”

I called my friend Saundra, gushing with happiness about my convertible.

“It’s great to hear how excited you are, but what you’re feeling isn’t going to last. True happiness has to come from inside you, Arlene, not from what car you’re driving.”

Over time I discovered she was right.

The happiness I experienced from my new car began to wane. It became simply a means of transportation; it didn’t make me happy.

I did some research into happiness and found a long-running study at Harvard that followed 268 Harvard graduates for 75 years. The researchers wanted to determine what it takes to live a happy life.

This is what they found.

The source of happiness was not driving a particular car or having a high IQ, which most Harvard graduates had.

It wasn’t about being rich or famous.

The most important factor in being happy was love.

The Beatles, who sang, “All you need is love,” knew something it took Harvard researcher 75 years to determine. A loving family and close friends were the sources of happiness.

I was fortunate to have a loving, supportive husband, wonderful children, and lots of friends. I didn’t focus on all I had to be grateful for. When friends told me how lucky I was, I’d shrug my shoulders with the realization I took my blessings for granted.

If I wanted to fulfill the mitzvah to be happy, I had to change my perspective. I began keeping a gratitude journal, and every day I cataloged at least three things I was grateful for.

The journal is too bulky to post on my refrigerator, so I wrote myself a message that I placed on my refrigerator so I wouldn’t forget what was important.
“Gratitude is the source of happiness. Count your blessings. Be happy.”