I happened to find myself eating breakfast alone at a Cracker Barrel Saturday morning. I’d made arrangements for Hubs to play golf at a coveted golf course for a Father’s Day treat, and they didn’t have room over this busy weekend for me to ride along. So, I dropped him off early and, because no stores were open yet and there was nothing else to do, I decided that I’d have a little breakfast at this roadside favorite.

When I walked in, it was exactly like every other Cracker Barrel restaurant in the U.S. I walked through the retail “general store” to the hostess stand and asked to be seated. I’ve been noticing lately that many restaurants and shopping malls/centers are noticeably less crowded, a visual depiction of the reality of the current economic downturn. So, imagine my surprise when, upon being seated, I found the place packed!

From my seat at a small table for two, I began to notice some things. There were a lot of smiling people milling about, folks talking – not on the phone, but to each other! Some were playing games, others laughing while they shared their meal. As I took it all in, my mind started venturing guesses as to why Cracker Barrel was full of happy-looking, relaxed people, and a list of life lessons on happiness began to formulate:

  • Break bread together. It warmed my heart to see so many families enjoying each other in that restaurant! Family time around the dinner table seems to be a shadow of its former self in our current age. When families and friends spend time together over a meal, engaged in each others’ lives and away from distraction, bonds are formed and deepened. The ties that bind are strengthened during these happy times, to be able to better withstand the hard times.
  • Live within your means. The menu was filled with delicious, if not fancy, offerings that were all very reasonably priced. An entire family could enjoy the treat of breakfast out and still not break the bank. This resulted in moms and dads being able to relax and focus on their kids without dreading the bill. Certainly, if we could learn to live the rest of our lives that way, financial stress in this country would be greatly reduced.
  • Play together. Right there on the table was the old “peg game,” a triangle-shaped piece of wood with golf tees placed in holes in the wood. Played much like Chinese Checkers, it provides a fun and quick game to play while you wait for your food. Kids and parents were playing this all over the restaurant, with laughter and squeals. Others were playing checkers. No matter the game, playing and having fun together is an important dynamic in the makeup of a family. Sadly, it’s becoming a vanishing act and if the Cracker Barrel atmosphere is any indication, it needs to make a comeback.
  • Remember our history. All over the walls of the restaurant were old photos, advertisements, and memorabilia. By remembering the victories, as well as the defeats of the past, we keep the future in perspective. We make decisions based on positive lessons learned, and also have the opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes – an important personal lesson that can have profound impact in our families.
  • Be Nice. Every single staff person I encountered was smiling, cheerful and helpful. Sharing a smile with a stranger, saying thank-you when someone does something kind, noticing a need around you and meeting it, saying “yes ma’am/sir” to your elders, being patient in a long line, or disarming a disgruntled person with a sweet disposition…these all not only bless the other person, but cause a swell of happiness in your own heart.
  • Revive patriotism. Along with the old memorabilia on the walls, there were items claiming patriotism tucked into the nooks and crannies. There was also a large section of the “general store” devoted to our nation, its founding fathers and the freedom it so proudly claims and works to uphold. With so many differing opinions these days in the political arena, and the country split in two because of them, the idea of “one nation under God” seems to be fading. If we can work to revive the original ideal that, even with differing opinions, we’re all working toward the same goal of protected freedoms, happiness would begin to trump some of the hatred that has taken its place.
  • Rest. What would a Cracker Barrel be without a long covered porch filled with rocking chairs? They beckon their visitors to “sit a spell” and “take a load off.” Certainly, if we do this on a regular basis, allowing ourselves a break from our “break-neck” schedules, we let our bodies, hearts and minds slow down and breathe. We get refreshed and stay focused, less on the distractions and more on what’s important.
  • Have faith. As I finished my perusal of the “general store” (and purchased a few things for Hubs [Zotz Candy and Bit-o-Honey] and my nephews [Silly-Straws – remember those?]), I made my way to the door where I noticed two things: “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was playing throughout the store, and the sign over the door on the way out said “In God We Trust.” I smiled to myself because, even with this list of things that can lead to a happier life, it’s this last bullet point that will not only bring happiness, but JOY in unhappy times.

Thank you, Cracker Barrel, for these reminders and for representing them in an age where newer, slicker, and faster is considered better. Thanks for standing firm on principals that lead to a grounded happiness. Oh, and thanks for the fine meal that came with my fresh perspective.