Once, on the train from Naples to Rome, I was flipping through La Repubblica, and noticed a review for a self-help book on happiness by Italian psychologist Giulio Cesare Giacobbe, of Genoa. I couldn’t wait to get to the bookstore at Rome’s Termini station to buy the book, and when I finally held it in my hands, I was surprised to see that it was a scant 100 pages. Could one actually teach people how to live happier lives in such a short treatise? The Professor’s message was clear and simple; his advice sound: Focus on happy thoughts, and you will feel happy.
As it turns out, the research on the psychology of happiness confirms that changing what you think about really does change your mood. The most common cultural mantras repeated throughout Italy today, give testimony to an instinctual wisdom that preceded any formal psychological laws of happiness: Tola su dolsa. Arrangiarsi. Tira a compare. Different dialects, similar concept. All of them reflecting a conviction that we can overcome life’s hardships if we stay focused on its gifts,
Mauro, for example, lives on the outskirts of Italy’s “food valley”, the extraordinary city of Parma. Parma is known best for its exquisite cheeses, hams, famous musicians, artists, and its bountiful, velvety violets from which the Violetta di Parma fragrance was first created for nineteenth century duchess Maria Luigia, who cultivated the purple flowers herself.
“There is nothing more destructive than thinking sad thoughts,” Mauro mused one day as we enjoyed a leisurely espresso on Piazza Garibaldi, in Parma’s favorite people-watching district. The Parmigiani are renowned for their characteristic cheerful, upbeat demeanor. While they might raise their voices occasionally for argument’s sake–after all, a good argument is always stimulating—they are acutely aware of the difference between the type of argument that stimulates the intellect, and the type that diminishes the quality of Italian life.
What is Mauro’s solution when life disappoints him? As he will say in his dialect:“Tola su dolsa”, which, loosely translated, means “take the sweetness from life (and leave the rest)”. This philosophy is woven into all aspects of Parmigiano life. Even going to the store to buy a cartridge pen (yes, they still use them) is a social event in this eloquent corner of the world. The storekeeper makes customers feel like royalty. She will show various models, offer a gold-embossed foglio, paper to try them out, and exchange pleasantries with a tazza di caffe’.
Tola su dolsa is the gentle flow of simple, uplifting moments that make you feel happy to be alive at the end of the day. It is a philosophy of cushioning life’s sharper edges—for yourself and for others— with the softness of positivity. This week, your assignment is to stay focused on life’s gifts, and help others who might be hurting, to do the same.
(Adapted form an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). For more self-help with a “dolce vita” approach, please visit this blog daily, and help me spread the word. Letting others know about my work is like giving them the gift of positivity!
Tune in or stream in to my show “The Art of Living Well” on wnhu.net or 88.7FM. Tomorrow–a discussion about the joy of ballroom dance! Also, I will be interviewed in NPR’s “Faith Middleton Show” this week. On Friday, 3/30, you can hear the show on your local NPR station at 3PM and 9PM, or download a podcast. As always, I love to hear from my readers! mille grazie.