In which my friend’s waitressing experience teaches me something about happiness.

A friend told me a story about the first summer she spent as a waitress.

Several times, she had tables of people who seemed really nice, with whom she had a great rapport, for whom she went the extra mile, and she’d think, “Wow, I’m going to get a great tip!”

And she wouldn’t.

Other times, she had tables of people who seemed indifferent or grouchy, and she’d think, “Wow, they’re going to stiff me.”

And they’d leave a generous tip.

She mentioned this observation to her manager. He said, “You’re only surprised because you’ve just started waitressing. You’ll see, almost always, people tip whatever they usually tip. They don’t tip more or less based on you and what you do.”

To me, this story seemed to contain two lessons.

First, although I feel like the center of the action, often I’m not. People aren’t adjusting everything they do based on me. I need to remember that in many cases, I’m not responsible for the reactions that I think I’m provoking.

Second, habit is important. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” A generous person makes a habit of generosity, a happy person makes a habit of happiness, a querulous person makes a habit of complaining. So I need to watch the habits I build.

(I love the way the Happiness Project has put me in the practice of finding moral lessons in casual anecdotes.)

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  • I love this insight. I think that happiness isn’t exactly like generosity, complaining, etc. because those are actions, and happiness isn’t really achieved by merely acting happy (as I know all too well). That is, if you act generously, you ARE generous; if you complain, you ARE a complainer; but if you act happy, it doesn’t go all the way toward making you happy (though it may certainly relieve the misery of those around you). I think it’s more composed of deliberately choosing gratitude, optimism, appreciation, good will, and so forth. Then happiness is something like a result of these choices, don’t you think? But I love the insight that people who make those choices will make them in whatever circumstances — must remember this!

  • Michelle I

    I am going to have to write this quote down and keep it handy, “I’m not responsible for the reactions that I think I’m provoking.”
    I try to remember that often because when I don’t, things & people get to me too easily.
    I often try to be SO happy, upbeat and wonderfully generous with others. When they don’t respond the way I want, it really brings me down. BUT I have to remember that it’s not about me and I can’t have all these high expectations of what I want the response from others to be. They are living their own lives and caught up in their own world. If I want to be super generous or something, I have to learn to do it because it makes ME feel good and accept the outcome–whatever it is.
    Next time I’m out to eat, I’m going to make a point of leaving a much more generous tip in your honor and to pay it forward. Thanks!

  • “a happy person makes a habit of happiness”
    If only it could be that easy… 🙂

  • shinypenny

    This American Life had a great episode on the tipping phenomenon (see act 2).
    Definitely worth a listen.

  • Martha, I really like your observation, it feels right.
    I keep coming back to your blog Gretchen, you always find thought provoking stuff to show us. Keep it up 🙂

  • My son-in-law was a waiter when he married my daughter. One night he picked her up at our house after work, and he caught her in his arms, whispering something that made her squeal with joy! They giggled and hugged for a minute and then he announced that he’d received a $50 bill for a tip. Ever since then when I leave a tip, I’ve pictured the waiter going home with the great news that I left a good one.

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  • This particular post and the comments reminded me of a tangential experience – in my first waitressing job, at only 16, was just happy to be working, to have a bit of independence, and to be trying on a more grown-up self. I neither tried hard nor slacked – I was just myself doing what I thought was the job.
    One day I got a $20 tip from a regular customer, an older gentleman from the nearby veteran’s hospital. He always only ordered coffee, and spent a lot of time writing on the napkins. Instead of leaving it, he handed it to me, and thanked me saying “Sometimes you’re the only person who smiles at me all day.”
    It’s been over twenty years since then, and I’ve never forgotten it – sometimes I might be the only person who smiles at someone all day long.
    So, when I read this: “Second, habit is important. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – it made me think.
    My whole life long, I’ve had the kind of face where, when just walking down the street (even as a little kid!), strangers would say “SMILE! It’s not so bad!” or something like that. I always wondered why, because I was never aware that I was frowning or sad. My blank expression isn’t really blank, it seems.
    So, I more consciously try to smile, remembering all of that. It’s just a good habit.