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Can Happiness Be a Habit? Does the 30-minute Meal Exist? Am I Joking Or Am I Serious?

I’m getting a great deal out of reading Dr. Christine Carter’s book “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” I’m just over halfway through the book, and I’ve come to a chapter on forming “Happiness Habits.” Having recently read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” and having advocated here for making cooking a habit, I am very interested in the chapter. Habits are powerful things.

The happiness book itself, though, presents a problem for me. It takes an incredible mental effort for me to accept the idea that happiness can be a habit, that happiness can be learned. I really have to work at it to buy into it.

This is because have a congenital weakness, one born of the hard fire of a large Irish Catholic family, that is as real as my myopia and my high metabolism. Ever since I was young enough to hide my tears, I’ve flipped language upside down, pretended not to care, and covered it all up with a perfect patina of humor. I am, for better or worse, steeped in irony. It is such a part of my genetic makeup that I don’t think I have DNA. Rather, I have “AND,“ if that makes any sense. And it probably does not. Stupid jokes like that made junior high a living hell for me. And as you can see, I haven’t grown that much.

I’ve grown some, though. Christy Wampole’s recent New York Times article about the prevalence of irony among young people irked me, for example. Who is she thinking that her generation owns irony? Ever hear of Generation X? We were doomed from the start (I’m being ironic, ahem). And besides, didn’t irony die with 9/11? What ever happened to that?  If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, R. Jay Magill Jr., has a good history of irony (and sincerity) in The Atlantic, but I’m going to end this digression.

I want to get back to my life as it is now, and not as it was. I mention “Raising Happiness” because it is good and I believe people can change. Much of the chapter on forming happiness habits concerns how to improve the family dinner, and I’ll have more on that soon. For now, though I want to highlight one observation that Dr. Carter makes in it about how people change. “Change,” she writes, “rarely happens all at once. It happens in stages.”

She goes suggests various stages to effect change, and one of them she calls “Preparation.” In it, she talks about leaving enough time to get dinner ready. She knows that if she doesn’t leave enough time, she will start yelling at her kids, which is no way to accomplish anything.

Having enough time to make dinner was on my mind this evening as I lingered in the lobby of my office building chatting with colleagues. I had promised Santa Maria that I would have dinner on the table by 6:30, and I was cutting it very close. That’s the latest we can feed the girls without them breaking down and without completely screwing up the bedtime routine. I needed to commute home and then make dinner.

The commute went fine, and I got home by 6:00. However, I have to report that there is really no such thing as a 30-minute family dinner. A thirty-minute dish, yes? But a thirty-minute family meal? No.

I was making a 20-minute dish (and that’s no exaggeration—Puttanesca originated as a quick dish), along with a ten-minute dish (you don’t want to overcook wild salmon) and a five-minute dish (greenbeans for the kids) as well as a two-minute dish (steamed spinach for myself and Santa Maria), and when you add all that up, you come to 48-minutes.

Fortunately, it all worked out because I turned to something that has always worked for me—humor. Positive emotions are contagious, and as soon as I saw that I was falling behind schedule, I started calling out for help from Nina. “I’m in the weeds,” I said to her, using an old restaurant expression for getting overwhelmed. I had to explain to her what it meant, and when I did, she said that if I was in the weeds, she was “in the flowers.”

She set the table, filled the water glasses for everyone, and asked if she could help me cook. I set her to work cutting up the olives for the sauce. She did a great job, and had fun doing it. Humor, it works every time. Try making that a habit!

Puttanesca Sauce

  • 4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 chili pepper
  • One 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender, which is very fast)
  • 1T capers
  • 12 or so black olives, sliced
  • herbs such as basil or oregano to taste (completely optional) 

Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and anchovies and chili pepper. Saute until garlic is soft, add tomatoes and reduce. (Remove the chili pepper early, right when you add the tomatoes, if you’re worried about making it too spicy for children)

When the sauce thickens (in about fifteen minutes), add capers and olives and any herbs.

Serve over the pasta of your choice.

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