In Which I Get a Quick Shot of Happiness — Thanks to Winston Churchill.

One of the great joys of my life was writing my biography of Winston Churchill. What a pleasure it was to write that book! I had so many complicated things (both praise and blame) to say about Churchill, and the problems of biography, and human nature, and I felt that I managed to express them all — to my own satisfaction, anyway.

When I feel a little blue, I often console myself by thinking of some of my favorite passages of Churchill’s writing. So many examples stand out in my mind. One, for instance, is the extraordinary eulogy to Neville Chamberlain.

Another is a passage from Their Finest Hour, the second volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Of a visit to a very poor London neighborhood that had been devastated by the Blitz, he wrote:

Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration.

Just this morning, as I was walking down the street, this passage floated into my mind for some reason. I got tears in my eyes, thinking about it, just as I do every time. That feeling of elevation is one of the most exquisite varieties of happiness.

Is there a passage from a book, or a scene from a movie, or a work of art, that brings you particular happiness — just to think about it?

* It’s a scorching hot day here in New York City, so I looked at these beautiful photographs of Japanese “snow monsters” — trees covered in snow and rime ice — with particular pleasure.

* Blatant self-promotion: if you’re looking for a good Father’s Day gift, may I suggest my biography, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill?

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Yes!  The Bible account of baby Moses, especially the part where, after sending him down the river in a basket, his mother Jochebed is called to be the one to nurse and care for him. I cannot read it without a huge rush of emotion and tears coming to my eyes!

  • A personal favorite from literature has always been the moment in Sense & Sensibility when Elinor realizes that Edward Ferrars is no longer engaged to Lucy Steele and is finally free to marry her.  She is so overcome with emotion that she has to physically flee the room!  It’s so beautiful seeing Elinor, who has been so carefully restrained in her feelings for Edward, finally uninhibited through her joy.  That scene always brings a smile to my face.  =)

  • BPR

    About ten years ago I was in the Art Institute of Chicago, and saw Marc Chagall America Windows. I must have spent thirty minutes in awe, with emotion rolling over me, in part because of the underlying message in the windows, and in part because of their artistic beauty.

    I also get very emotional with large public events shared by many–the Olympics, the Red Sox winning the World Series, the peaceful uprising in Egypt . . . it’s the sense of shared humanity.

    Thanks for asking!

  • Peninith1

    Some passages in Handel’s Oratorio, “The Messiah” seem to me to be a perfectly adequate argument for the existence of God. I’m always overwhelmed.

  • Peninith1

    Also, listening to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech always reduces me to weeping jello. I watched that on television on the day he gave it, and reacted that way then–I hope I always will.

  • Susan B.

    Hi Gretchen,
    I particularly like your use of the word “elevation” for the feeling you described.  I get it too, but now I have to think of examples.

  • I love the scene from love actually at the airport with families and people from every background and class, displaying love and sorrow openly all having personal private moments with everyone around. I feel like all defenses are down and people are truly vulnerable, and therefore at their best… That has special significance as I have left family and met family at airports for teh last 23 years of my 29 on this earth. It makes me cry with a full heart EVERY time I see it or even think about it!

    • Yes yes yes! As I was trying to answer Gretchen’s question and read the comments, there weren’t any books or movies coming to mind… and then I read your comment! Yes yes yes!

      That scene… and that opening monologue (in the background) with the scenes:

      “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.”

      With Love and Gratitude,


    • That is definitely the scene for me, as well!  I just returned from a 6 month volunteer trip, of which the second half was particularly difficult.  I craved watching this movie all the time and often thought about this scene in relation to my pending home coming.  

      I just started writing again after a 3-month hiatus since getting home.  “The Happiness Project” is inspiring me to more systematically explore my own personal happiness – an idea that has occupied my thoughts a great deal over the last 6 months.  Please feel free to come and take a look for yourself:

      Thank you, Gretchen Rubin, for this book at the perfect time in my life!

  • Susan B.

    Okay I have an example: many aspects of a recent CBS segment
    with David Pogue on the final liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour. It was
    moving to hear a reporter call it a “magnificent vehicle” and to hear Charles
    Bolden, the head of NASA, get emotional discussing his hopes that his
    grandchildren would have as meaningful an experience of human space exploration
    as he did watching the moon landing in 1969.

  • Edelgade

    Maybe it’s too long, but this fragment from “Sweet Thursday ”  by J. Steinbeck always puts me on the verge of tears:“Doc was changing in spite of himself, in spite of the prayers of his friends, in spite of his own knowledge. And why not? Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at down, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. Change may be announced by a small ache, so that you think you’re catching cold. Or you may feel a faint disgust for something you loved yesterday. It may even take the form of a hunger that peanuts will not satisfy. Isn’t overeating said to be one of the strongest symptoms of discontent? And isn’t discontent the lever of change?Befote the war Doc had lived a benign and pleasant life, which aroused envy in some gnat-bitten men. Doc made a living, as good a living as needed or wanted, by collecting and preserving various marine animals and selling them to schools, colleges, and museums. He was able to turn afable and uncritical eyes on a world full of excitement. He combined the beauty of the sea with man’s loveliest achievement- music. Through his superb phonograph he could hear the angelic voice of the Sistine Choir and could wander half lost in the exquisite masses of William Byrd. He believed there were two human achievements that towered above all others: the Faust of Goethe and the Art of the Fugue of J. S. Bach. Doc was never bored. He was beloved and praised on by his friends, and this contented him. For he remembered the words of Diamond Jim Brady who, when told that his friends were making suckers of him, remarked, “It’s fun to be a sucker-if you can afford it”. Doc could afford it. He had not the vanity which makes men try to be smart.Doc’s natual admiration and desire for women had always been satisfied by women themselves. He had few responsibilities except to be a kindly, generous, and amused man. And these he did not find difficult. All in all, he had always been a fulfilled and contented man. A specimen so rare aroused yearning in other men, for how few men like their work, their lives- how very few men like themselves. Doc liked himself, not in an adulatory sense, but just as he would have liked anyone else. Being at ease with himself put him at ease with the world.In the Army there had been times when he longed for his music, for his little animals, and for the peace and interest of his laboratory. Coming home, forcing open the water-swollen door, was a pleasure and a pain to him. He sighed as he looked at his bookshelves. It took him ten minutes too decide which record to play first.. And then the past was gone and he was faced with the future. Old Jingleballicks had kept the little bussiness going in a manner even more inefficent that Doc had and then had left it to founder. The stocks of preserved animls were depleted. The bussiness contacts had lapsed. The bank that held his mortgage was no longer checked by patriotism. There was some question whether Doc could ever build back his marginal bussiness. In the old days he would have forgotten such considerations in multiple pleasures land interests. Now discontent nibbled at him- not painfully, but constantly.Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hungers gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the bastard Time. The end of life is now not so terrible far away- you can see it the way you see the finish line when you come into the stretch- and your mind says, “Have I worked enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I loved enough?” . All of these, of course, are the foundation of man’s greatest curse, and foundation of man’s greatest curse, and perhaps his greastest glory. “What has my life meant so far, and what can it mean in the time left to me?” And now we’re coming to the wicked, poisoned dart:” What have I contributed in the Great Ledger? What am I worth?”And this isn’t vanity or ambition. Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments the debt only increases, and the quality of his gift is the measure of the man.Doc’s greatest talent had been his sense of paying as he went. The finish line had meant nothing to him except that he had wanted to crowd more living into te stretch. Each day ended with its night, each thought with its conclusion; and every morning a new freedom arose over the eastern mountains and lighted the world. There had never been any reason to suppose it would be otherwise. People made pilgrimages to the laboratory to bask in Doc’ s designed and lovely purposelessness. For, what can a man accomplish that has not been done a million times before? What can he say that he willl not find in Lao-Tse or the Bhagavadgita or the Prophet Isaiah? It is better to sit in appreciative contemplation of a world in which beauty is eternally supported on a foundation of ugliness: cut out the support, and beauty will sink from sight. It was a good thing Doc had, and many people wished they had it too.But now the worm of discontent was gnawing at him. Maybe it was the beginning of Doc’s middle age that caused it-glands slackening their flow,skin losing its bloom, taste buds weakening, eyes not so penetrating, and hearing dulled a little. Or it might have been the new emptiness of Cannery Row- the silent machines, the rusting metal. Deep in himself Doc felt a failure. But he was a resonably realistic man. He had his eyes examined, his teeth X-rayed. Dr. Horase Dormody went over him and discovered no secret focus of infection to cause the restlessness. And so Doc threw himself into his work, hoping, the way a man will, to smother the unease with weariness. He collected, preserved, injected until his stock shelves were crowded again. New generations of cotton rats crawled on the wire netting of the cages, And four new rattlesnakes abandoned themselves to a life of captivity and ease.But the discontent was still there. The pains that came to Doc were like a stir of uneasiness or the flich of a skipped heartbeat. Whisky lost its sharp delight and the first long pull of beer from a frosty glass was not the joy it had been. He stopped listening in the middle of an extended story. He was not genuinely glad to see a friend. And sometimes, starting to turn over a big rock in the Great Tide Pool- a rock under which he knew there would be a community of frantic animals- he would drop the rock back in place and stand, hands on hips, looking off to sea, where the round clouds piled up white with pink and black edges. –and he would be thinking, What am I thinking? What do I want? Where do I want to go? There would be wonder in him, and a little impatience, as though he stood outside and looked in on himself through a glass shell. And he would be consciuos of a tone within himself, or severeal tones, as though he heard music distantly.Or it might be this way. In the late night Doc might be working at his old and battered microscope, delicately arranging plankton on a slide, moving them with a thread of glass. And there would be three voices singing in him, all singing together. The top voice of his thinking mind would sing “ What lovely particles, neither plant nor animal but somehow both- the resevoir of all the life in the world, the base suply of food for everyone. If all of these should die, every other living thing might well die as a consequence”, The lower voice of his feeling mind would be singing “ What are you looking for, little man? Is it yourself you’re trying to identify?Are you looking at little things to avoid big things?” And the third voice, which came from his marrow, would sing, “_Loneseme! Lonesome! What good is it? Who benefits? Thought is the evasión of feeling. You’re only walling up the leaking loneliness”.

  • Crispy

    I love this post! I can think of many examples to fit the described feeling of elation. One that I reference often is page 199 in To Kill a Mockingbird. When Dill runs out of the court room because he is upset at how the lawyer is treating Tom Robinson. And under the tree Dill, Scout and Jem meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond, a white man who has children with a black woman and is known for drinking. He offers Dill a drink from the bottle in his paper bag and it’s just coke. Scout questions why he goes around town pretending he’s drunk. Dolphus replies that it gives people an easy excuse to dismiss his life choices that they don’t find acceptable. I really love how he says “things haven’t caught up with that one” when speaking of Dill’s crying over the mistreatment of Tom Robinson. It really hit homes the concept of how over time society’s influence can strip us of our natural instinct for humanity. What an incredibly insightful writer Harper Lee was, no wonder its a timeless classic. 
    Peace out.
    Love the blog Gretchen 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      I just re-read that book last year!

  • How about this moment in the movie Hoosiers…

    “Coach stays.”

    Love it!

  • Al Pittampalli

    Great quote, Gretchen. The final scene in Shawshank Redemption, when Morgan Freeman’s character finds his way onto the Island to reunite with Tim Robbins’ character.  Gets me every single time!!

  • Sobia

    Such a wonderful post! Churchill really was the Great Inspirer.

    For a little elevation, music really works wonders for me. “Joseph and the Amazing Dreamcoat” has a bunch of moments that just slay me, but the ending when father and son are happily reunited stands out:

    “So Jacob came to Egypt/ No longer feeling old; And Joseph came to meet him/ In his chariot of gold/ of gold…”

    And “The Waste land” might not be everyone’s idea of “uplifting,” but I love the first and final sections. They are unbelievably beautiful and provide gorgeous images to mediate on.

  •  All this happy airport talk made me think of a book by Alain deBotton “A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary”–I have been meaning to read it. 
    I love the scene in “The Sound of Music” when Frauline Maria dances with the Captain the first time. Many scenes in that movie flood me with happiness every time I see it! 

  • Dianalane

    A couple of scenes come to mind:

    One is from the movie Crash where the racist cop, Matt Dillon, rescues a woman whom he had previously abused from a flaming car wreck.

    Another is the scene from Phantom of the Opera where Christine is loving and compassionate toward the phantom.

    In both cases people overcome an initial antipathy towards one another and hatred is replaced by love and tenderness.

    Both bring tears to my eyes every time I see them.

  • Donna

    “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you–AMAZING THINGS WILL HAPPEN.” Conan O’Brien

  • I love the movie ” pursuit of happiness” where that Will Smith  finds his way out of so much trouble and then no stopping him to become a great business man.

  • cmclaire

    Good heavens, Churchill was badass.

    I cry a lot.  Books, movies, music, nature… I love a good weep.


  • Armychic73

    The final scene in the movie The Kite Runner where Amir shouts back over his shoulder to his childhood best friend’s son, Sohrab, “For you, a thousand times over!” as he offers to run down the kite for Sohrab.  This is the same expression that Hassan (Amir’s servant boy/childhood best friend -they were more like brothers) used to shout to Amir each time that he would run down a kite for him when they were children.  This one expression speak volumes of life regrets and the opportunity for second chances and the need (as well as the ability) to make things right, even if it is years later.

    Of course there are many scenes in the movie that make me emotional, but this final scene gets me bawling because somehow, in some small way that only he can, Amir is trying to make a childhood mistake right through Hassan’s son.  

  • Dawn S

    Many of the passages from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran bring me  joy.  Of Joy and Sorrow is particularly wonderful. 

    Oh, and I agree with others… the airport scene from Love Actually!