When your family all get home from their long days and you finally have a moment to spend together, what do you ask one another? For most of us the answer is some variation of, "How was your day?"
How is that working out for you?
This classic conversation opener certainly isn't the worst way to kick off a conversation with your loved ones, but often elicits general impressions and overall feelings. You're most likely to hear nothing more than, "Fine," or "Annoying," "or "Great" before your spouse or child turns to whatever activities they use to unwind in the evenings.
Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee thinks she's found a better alternative that won't just lead to more interesting conversations, but also to more joyful days (hat tip to the always excellent Swiss Miss blog). Funnily enough, the idea is the brainstorm of a four-year old.
A better alternative to "How was your day?"
"We were having dinner with our good friends Baxter and Lauren last night, and they mentioned that their daughter Margaux, age 4, has spontaneously started asking a new question at dinner," she explained on her site recently.
The new question: What was the silliest part of your day?
It's obviously a cute question coming from a preschooler, but Fetell Lee goes on to explain the very grown-up reasons this might be a good question for adults to ask each other as well. The question, in it's slightly goofy specificity, pushed her friend to "reflect on her day through the lens of silliness [which] made her notice delightful or weird moments that otherwise would've just been noise in a busy day."
This friend also noticed that the lens of silliness caused her to rethink negative experiences. "When she looked at some of the most annoying or frustrating encounters of her day, she realized that these were actually very silly moments," Fetell Lee writes. A missed train stop, for instance, was transformed from an irritation into an opportunity for a little self-deprecating laughter.
The question "reframes experiences that might have been negative into positive ones," she continues. "Over time Margaux's question might actually heighten your attention to the silly things in life. Because you know you'll be talking about it later, you actually look for more silliness in the world around you, more joy."
The science of silliness
Science suggests several reasons why Fetell Lee might be right in suspecting this simple question could retrain the brain to see more joy in the world. Research shows that "neurons that fire together wire together," which means thinking a thought now actually makes it easier to think the similar ones in the future. We wear ruts in our brains, essentially. Therefore, the more positive thoughts you have the easier it is to think positively going forward.
Also, studies show that zeroing in on the mundane details of our days have other, unexpected benefits. Not only do remembering ho-hum details bring people more joy than they expect, but so does breaking out of facile small talk to engage in more meaningful conversation.
Finally, the process of focusing in on details effectively "unchunks" your memories, turning a workday that might simply be filed away as thoroughly un-noteworthy into a specific memory worth saving. This attention to -- and savoring of -- detail makes time seem to go slower. And who among us wouldn't be a little more joyful if life seemed to speed by a bit more slowly?
For all these reasons, why not try swapping out your usual end-of-day conversation starter with this question and see what happens. You might just make yourself instantly happier.