What Kurt Vonnegut Taught Us about the Science of Happiness.


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Kurt Vonnegut, one of the best writers of any lifetime, once wrote a sentence that—if you recite it—can literally expand your capacity for experiencing and retaining happiness.

But before I give you that magical sentence from Mr. Vonnegut, let me share two memories.editorspicks

Memory One: I was eight years old when my relative pinched my love handles and called me Porky Pig. I still remember how the room smelled (like honey-baked ham roasting in the oven), the time of day (4:35 p.m.), and what I was wearing (an Izod striped short-sleeve polo shirt that was way too tight for my chubby body). It was 33 years ago and I still feel the pinch of my relative’s fingers on my side.

Memory Two: The calling hours for my mother’s funeral. It was raining hard. I smelled the stench of people who had smoked cigarettes before entering the funeral home. How some eyes were filled with compassion and others’ were filled with dread—as if my mother’s death was a symbol of their own pending mortality. I was 14 years old when my mother died. It happened 27 years ago, but I am still shaking hands with family friends and acquaintances. I am still receiving kisses. Rain still drips onto my ill-fitting suit from grieving acquaintances who came in from the rain. I am still wondering how the hell I will live tomorrow without my mom.

These memories are decades ago but they’re still right in front of me.

But ask me about the beautiful experiences I had in the past week—the small and big moments—and my memories are fuzzy. Even though I’m intentional about remembering these things.

For example: I have a morning and evening ritual. Each morning I write down 10 things I’m grateful for. Each evening I write down 10 “wins”—awesome moments, little victories in my life.

But sometimes I just sit there, full of blankness, forcing my mind to scan the day for those moments I can use for my ledger of gratitude and happiness.

Those moments of happiness are there. Those moments of bliss fill even my lousiest days.

But it can be hard work to remember the good things.

And yet the bad moments are vivid, multi-dimensional: still living and pulsing inside me.

I know I’m not alone.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, explains that our brains are like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive experiences. Positive and negative emotions use different memory systems in the brain. According to Hanson, positive emotions don’t transfer as easily to long-term memory the way bad emotions do.

Which brings us to Mr. Vonnegut and that magical sentence.

I remember reading a Vonnegut essay where he told a story about his uncle who encouraged Kurt to take in the good moments.

Vonnegut writes, quoting his uncle: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Hell, yeah!

In his book, Dr. Hanson says that most of us don’t stay with positive experiences long enough for them to be “encoded” into our brain’s neural structure.

He goes on to say: “The longer the (brain cell) neurons fire, the more of them that fire, and the more intensely they fire, the more they’re going to wire that inner strength—that happiness, gratitude, feeling confident, feeling successful, feeling loved and lovable.”

In other words, if you let a moment of happiness pass without being intentional about taking it in, it won’t stay with you.

Which is why Vonnegut’s advice is so profound: stop in the moment of your bliss and acknowledge it.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Yesterday it rained. It’s been raining every day here in Virginia going on a month. Rain gets me down. Work has been stressful, which gets me down. I’m an ambitious dude who wants to help others go beyond their limits, and yesterday I felt like I was retreating back into my own comfort zone. That got me down.

Then I went into Target to buy socks and wine.

The young female cashier scanned my socks and wine. The computer prompted her to input my birthdate. Instead of asking for my ID, she made up a birthdate for me and punched it in.

And—get this—she was within a few days of being exactly right about my date of birth!

“Wow,” I said, a smile on my face. “I’m impressed. You have a gift.” I explained how uncanny her guess at my birthdate was. She smiled back and said that the other day she had almost perfectly guessed another shopper’s birthdate.

I encouraged her to play the lottery—and let me know which numbers she decided to play. We laughed, I took my bag of socks and wine and left the store.

I got into my car and sat there, remembering the encounter.

The young woman’s smiling face.

The smell of popcorn at the concession stand.

Our laughter. My amazement. She made me feel good. I made her feel good. It was a shared moment of bliss.

I said aloud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

I took it in.

Life has a way of beating us up. It rains. Work can suck. You don’t get what you want. People hurt you. People leave you. People squeeze your fat rolls and remind you of your weight problem.

Then there are the other moments, which happen more than I sometimes remember.

A kind exchange with a stranger. Your cat looking at you like you’re both amazing and a dummy. A meeting with a co-worker that turns into a magical brainstorm session where everything is possible.

I don’t know if Mr. Vonnegut knew the science behind why our brains are like velcro for negative experiences and like teflon for good experiences.

But he was right.

Inhale the fragrance. Take it in. Receive the gift.

Remind yourself: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”


Author: Stephen Moegling

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: Soffie Hicks/Flickrq 


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angelswithbr Feb 3, 2019 9:32am

I’m taking that with me. Thanks!

bhaminie_sagram Feb 3, 2019 5:14am

I love this article. Reading it was a wonderful way to start my Sunday. We can all use this advice. Thank you for sharing and inspiring the world. God bless your soul.

Hannah Gwyn Feb 2, 2019 9:18am

After reading this, I happily got out of bed. Not afraid I was going to have a yucky day. This is my favorite essay to date. And…I am a life member of EJ!?

    Hannah Gwyn Feb 2, 2019 9:25am

    I meant EJ! With an exclamation point minus the question mark. My point = I have access to all articles. I have read a lot of them, some more than once and this on by Stephen rocked my heart.

y2rae Feb 2, 2019 5:56am

I really enjoyed this piece. It resonates with me.

james jeffery Feb 1, 2019 11:42am

“I caught this morning, morning’s minion,…….” Poetry especially Gm Hopkins, but others too, is a wonderful example of this idea.

melligsen Feb 1, 2019 9:40am

Thank you for this beautifully written and hear-warming piece. Your generosity shines through. Nice!!!!!

    melligsen Feb 1, 2019 9:41am

    heart-warming, that is……

oklasunset61 Feb 1, 2019 9:02am

This is nice Stephen thank you for sharing

tiawill96 Feb 1, 2019 7:56am

If THIS isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!

lm.wallscapes Feb 1, 2019 5:49am

You can buy wine at your Target… “if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!” Thank you for sharing!

daniela99 Feb 1, 2019 5:34am

Loved reading this! Thank you

Debbie Johnson Dec 18, 2018 6:04pm

The most amazing thing to me is that Vonnegut was able to focus on the good in life, considering the all the suffering he endured as a prisoner of war, and a person with a lot of family difficulties.

Danielle D Dec 18, 2018 8:33am

This brought tears to my eyes. So sentimental and a thoughtful reminder to pay attention to those small positive moments in life. Thank you for sharing, you have a gift sir. 🙂

Kathryn Haynes Nov 2, 2018 4:50pm

That is a great line and I will use it. Thank you! On a separate subject, I believe your memories are true and correct. It’s like those things happened yesterday, right? So vivid, you can taste, see, hear, smell and feel even the smallest details. Since you are a man, it would be wonderful if you could write another article to help other men understand this is how it is for women who suffer abuse but “have no proof”.

Mary Anne Ritenour Jun 4, 2018 2:46am

Really enjoyed

Rebeca Donaldson Jan 17, 2017 4:05am

A beautiful article! Thank you for sharing.

Deb Lecos Jul 17, 2016 10:06pm

Wonderful article Stephen...sharing and remembering (I did the KV trick) :)

Elephant Journal Jul 17, 2016 2:21pm

Bibliophage Barb R Goldensun take the screenshot and share it here as a comment if you can or you can send it to [email protected] Thanks so much!

Bibliophage Barb R Goldensun Jul 17, 2016 2:34am

Where can I send screenshot? The formatting on my phone is kind of crazy, some things are cut off. I found the continue reading button after refreshing but the ads display really oddly.

John H. Ristine Jul 17, 2016 1:43am

Yes, acknowledge the bliss!

Elephant Journal Jul 16, 2016 10:19pm

Hi! It seems to be working and showing well to me, so please try refreshing the page as Stephen requested. If the article is still not showing, could you please share a screenshot with us? Thanks, Sara, eleditor.

Stephen Moegling Jul 16, 2016 6:15pm

Try re-loading the article. It seems to be loading correctly now. But just in case, the magical sentence is, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." Which Vonnegut encouraged us to say every time we experience something nice, pleasant, lovely. Stating this helps our brains internalize the positive experience and "remember" it. (Positive experiences have a harder time sticking than negative experiences so the sentence coaxes the brain to absorb and retain.)

Bibliophage Barb R Goldensun Jul 16, 2016 2:35pm

The article ends in the middle, never got to the part about "the sentence"

Moira Banks Jul 16, 2016 11:10am

'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'. Thank you Stephen for sharing this, I also like the narrative you have chosen from your life which explains the science bit, simple and effective. Of course, not forgetting KV.

Elephant Journal Jun 13, 2016 12:33pm

Hi Claire, thanks for the heads-up. Can you be more specific about which link you mean? I can only find one link in the text and it's working. ~ Khara, eleditor

Claire L'moure Jun 13, 2016 11:24am

Info:The url link when tapping "here" does not work.

Claire L'moure Jun 13, 2016 11:18am

Thank you. One can never read/learn/be inspired enough about positive thought. You have a way with words, keep writing and I will keep reading.

Joolz Benner Jun 13, 2016 8:10am

Loved this! Thank you.

Stephen Moegling Jun 12, 2016 3:17pm

Mark, thanks for sharing. It must be a tough journey for you. I hope you find moments of connectedness and peace.

Stephen Moegling Jun 12, 2016 3:15pm

"And so it goes." How true.

Mark Steed Jun 8, 2016 9:45pm

Man, this was great. My best friend died in March and my mother died exactly 60 days later. I have really struggled since then. I want to get back to my old happy self. I want to not wire my brain to this suffering. This was well timed for me today.

Julia Tuchman Jun 7, 2016 12:10am

Love this. I used a kurt vonnegut quote from one of his books in my year book "amd so it goes"

Stephen Moegling Jun 4, 2016 5:56pm

Angie, thank you so much for your comments.

Stephen Moegling Jun 4, 2016 5:56pm

Sarah, it's hard not to be inspired to write like Vonnegut. Thank you so much for your comments.

Stephen Moegling Jun 4, 2016 5:55pm

Constance, really, really appreciate your comments. Thank you so much.

Stephen Moegling Jun 4, 2016 5:55pm

Carmelene, thank you so much!

Stephen Moegling Jun 4, 2016 5:54pm

Hi Myles, Kurt often told this story in speeches. I believe I first read it in his essay collection, Palm Sunday, along with A Man Without a Country. There's also a book called "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" that collects Vonnegut's graduation speeches, for which the title is inspired by the story shared in the book.

Sarah Smith Jun 2, 2016 5:54am

Great article. Almost a bit Vonnegut-y - really good!

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Stephen Moegling

Stephen Moegling is the founder of Inside Out Plan, which teaches the mindset, habits and commonsense approaches that create effective and lasting weight loss. Stephen is certified in sports nutrition counseling, writes about the discipline of happiness, and plays drums with wild abandon in a garage band. You can learn more about Stephen and get free resources for health and happiness here.