Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

My husband Bob going volcanic

My husband Bob going volcanic

“If at bottom we are fighters and flee-ers, greedy and addictive, and envious and mean-spirited, then we need to be kept in line by powerful authority figures, strict rules, and heavy guilt and shame.  On the other hand, if underneath it all we are even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted, then we can live more freely, more guided by our own conscience and caring.”  — Rick Hanson, Hardwiring for Happiness. (p.32)

I’m happy to report that, apparently, underneath it all, I am even keeled and warm hearted.  Indeed, I have evidence that my actions can be more guided by caring than by the need to fight.  I can state all this today, on a grey late winter Saturday afternoon, because one week ago my husband’s actions had me at a crossroads.  Down one road lay a fight.  Down the other was compassion.  I am quite sure that in years past, I would have been very pissed, and would have initiated some kind of marital battle.  Instead, I’d say I chose compassion — but the truth is, compassion chose me.  I wanted to feel angry, I felt I should be angry — but it just wasn’t there.  My brain has changed.

All of which tells me that you, too, are “underneath it all” those same good qualities, because I believe my brain changed due to a regular meditation practice.  Nothing remarkable, and nothing you can’t also do. In fact, I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with all my meditation classes last week, to let my students know that my personal experience proved to me the truth of research around the benefits of meditation. Not that I doubted Harvard, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin … Still, it was quite exciting to say to my students, if I can do it — and I did — so can you.

Before I describe what happened, I hasten to reassure you (especially any family members reading this!) that, to say that the headline of this blog is an exaggeration is itself a gross understatement.  And that picture of him “going volcanic” is really … ummm … quite a few decades old.  I’m just having a little fun here.

The incident itself was only fun for one of us, and that one was not me.

Bob, on the other hand, had a blissful Saturday night at the annual Men of Maple Corner “Scotch Slop.”  This traditional event began several years ago in response to the annual Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange, to which no men are invited because, after a quick survey, we determined no men wanted to come.  Plus, we never schedule the women’s event on a “date night.”

Anyway …

The timing of this year’s event was unfortunate for two reasons.  First, Saturday was the night we turned the clocks back, thereby automatically losing an hour of sleep.  Second, I was scheduled to deliver a sermon on happiness at my Unitarian Church of Montpelier the next morning — a very big event for me.  This was also a semi-big event for Bob, because he and the rest of the Montpelier Ukulele Players were an important part of the service.  They were on tap for the prelude (“When You’re Smiling”), special music (“What a Wonderful World”), and postlude (“Happy Trails”).  In other words, Bob and I could both use a good night’s sleep.

So, in the days leading up to the Scotch Slop, I repeatedly asked Bob, “please don’t get drunk.”  Not that Bob is any way a drunkard, but I really really didn’t want him to be hungover on this particular Sunday morning.  His reply to me was, “I usually do pretty well.”  Which seemed fair.  He hasn’t come home stinking drunk before.

Before last Saturday, that is.

That night, I went to bed early and slept for a few hours before waking up and realizing Bob wasn’t home yet.  Not a good sign.  My fears about a) how drunk he might be and b) how safe he might be (he was walking home, and it was seriously cold and the roads — covered in sludge which had melted during the day but frozen again after dark — were slick and difficult for even a sober person to navigate) quickly had me wide awake.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he walked in the door.  I asked, “How drunk are you?”  He responded, loopily and happily, “Preeeettttty drunk!  It was so happy!  So many nice people!” Then he fell asleep, loudly.  Stinking of Scotch.

I did not fall back asleep, not for hours.  I left the bedroom and tried the sofa.  After a bit, I left the sofa in favor of the guest room.  No luck there, either.  As you can imagine, this did not make me happy.

Yet, that’s when the magic happened. Or at least, appreciation of the magic that has already happened in my brain.

As I lay there, trying every meditation trick I could think of to get back to sleep, I was intensely aware that my time for sleep — before my big morning in the pulpit — was slipping away.  I also realized, amazingly, that I was not pissed off.  Instead, I felt compassion for Bob.  Not compassion as in “suffering with” — he certainly wasn’t suffering — but more a sharing of joy that he had enjoyed a night of fun companionship with the men of our community.  Maple Corner has a lot of good men, and I was glad for all of the Scotch Sloppers that night.  They do their best to do the right thing — for the planet, for the community, for their families.  If one night a year they gather and get drunk, fine.  Totally fine.

As for Bob specifically, he’s an introvert who didn’t really have friends of his own before we moved to Vermont.  He certainly didn’t participate in the community (not that there was much of a community to be part of).  I am proud of, and happy for, how he has grown here.  He took his responsibility to attend the Scotch Slop seriously.  It was really kinda cute.  Also, he didn’t purposefully rob me of sleep.  Though his choices that night had a negative impact on me, he is normally exceptionally helpful and supportive.  So, it was one bad night. Big deal.

This lack of anger — a clear contrast to how I would have reacted in the past — stands out for me as clear proof that meditation has changed my brain structure for the better.

Meditation isn’t my only happiness practice.  I have a daily routine, which includes watching (& singing and dancing to) inspirational videos; these two by Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen are current favorites.  I also have a daily anticipations journal, a reminder bracelet, a savoring alarm on my phone, and an evening gratitude journal — really, it’s a wonder I have time to do anything else in my life, what with all these sincere  attempts to walk the happiness talk.  Also, because I teach happiness skills, and coach, and write about it … well, the general topic and all that it entails (living a life of meaning and pleasure, being kind, all that good stuff) are never far from my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Presumably, all this has changed me.  Sometimes I respond to life in ways that surprise me.  Last week, for example, walking on a snowy trail through the woods that opened up onto a sunny, snow covered meadow, I found myself bursting into little ballerina twirls of happiness.  Like a child, just breathing into spontaneous joy.

But who can really tell cause and effect?  Is one particularly fierce hurricane due to climate change?  No one can say.  Still, when there is a pattern of extreme and weird weather conditions (how much snow did Boston get this year??), then maybe something is really going on.

Nonetheless, I specifically attribute my calm and compassionate thoughts and feelings in the sleepless hours of Saturday night to my meditation practice. In particular, I’ve been doing a lot of meditation which corresponds to the three different operating systems in our brains, as discussed by neuro psychologist Rick Hanson in a book I think everyone should read,  Hardwiring for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Hanson explains that the three major layers of the brain (brain stem, subcortex and cortex) correspond with three operating system that 1) avoid harm, 2) approach rewards, and 3) attach to others.  These systems function to meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection — or, writ large, as Hanson himself does in a guided meditation as part of his online Foundations of Well-Being course, “peace, contentment, and love.” I have modified that somewhat to “peace, love, safety, and abundance” — four words that I breathe in and out on a nearly daily basis.

My understanding, based on Hanson’s book and course, is that this meditation is like putting money in the bank for each system, thus allowing my brain to respond to a perceived “crisis” in a calm and compassionate manner, rather than flare up in an intense reactive mode.

And my belief is that I have, to a certain extent at least, re-wired my brain, exactly as Hanson promises. I’m also reminded of this video by Dan Harris, who states that the science favoring a regular meditation practice “is really compelling” including studies that show meditation leads to a growth of the part of our brains responsible for compassion while also shrinking the reactive amygdala.  No wonder, as Hanson says, meditators can become more “even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted.

I have to say, I am convinced.

The next morning, by the way, Bob was not hungover and both the ukulele players and the sermon itself went smoothly and were well received.

Afterwards, in the back of the sanctuary, I was talking with some of my choir friends about the sermon, and some of the ways positive psychology suggests we can cultivate personal happiness.  One of my friends asked, “But does it really work? Are you happier?”

I smiled and said, why yes, yes I am.  In fact, I have proof.  Let me tell you a story from last night …

Thus has my sleepless night turned into a gift, a learning tool I can share with others.  I am actually grateful to Bob for the learning opportunity he provided me.

I am also grateful the Scotch Slop only happens once a year!

 

 

 

Artisans Gallery in Waitsfield, Vermont.

The charming Artisans’ Gallery in Waitsfield, Vermont.

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” – John Milton

Despite the almost Biblical nature of John Milton’s quote, the story at the center of this blog entry is solidly grounded in earthly concerns.  Specifically, I tried to frame a mild business setback into something bigger and more painful than it was (not a recommended happiness strategy!) before ultimately choosing a more positive frame — a re-framing which contributed to a happy winter morning for me and everyone else with whom I interacted that day.

The story began when Artisans’ Gallery severed our 12-year relationship (detailed below).  It was just a moment in my long life, but here’s the thing: all we have are moments.  In each one of our precious moments, we choose.  With both minor and major life choices, our minds can make any situation more heavenly or more hellish.  In this way, we shape our lives and we impact the lives of others.

Thus, every moment is important.

Positive psychology offers a variety of tools to help our minds choose a happier path.  In my Artisans’ Gallery story, I used re-framing, benefit finding, and consideration of my personal intersection of talent, meaning, and pleasure. Aristotle said, “Where your talents cross with the needs of the world lies your vocation.”  Add meaning and pleasure and, well, my departure from Artisans’ Gallery was long overdue.

Of course, some moments are way more momentous — on both ends of the emotional spectrum.  Re-framing and benefit finding aren’t necessary for blissful moments (savoring and gratitude might come in handy then). On the other hand, these tools may be very hard to access during times of deep suffering, when we need them most.  Practicing these strategies during the regular travails of life will help build your re-framing and benefit finding muscles — literally, carving new or stronger neuro-pathways in the brain — so you can more readily use them during your times of emotional heavy lifting.  Taking the time to see the heavenly on “normal” days (for example, “thanks to the dark days of winter, I can enjoy colored lights in the living room”) will serve you well when your best re-frame may be, “I know the pain won’t always be this acute.”

Because even then, our minds can step back just a bit from Hell.  As Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

My Artisans’ Gallery Story

I was doing exactly the wrong thing last week when I made the beautiful drive down scenic Route 100 to Artisans’ Gallery.  “Hell” is a bit strong, and so is “Heaven” — but on a very low key level, as I drove, my mind was trying hard to turn a good situation into one of pain and suffering. It was like I was mentally picking a scab to make it bleed.

You see, my mission in going to this charming, consignment gallery was to pick up the remaining pieces of my watercolor jewelry in stock because they were no longer selling. Artisans’ Gallery had written me an apologetic note, asking me to remove my work and make way for a new artist.  Their request wasn’t unexpected — my check for December had been a measly $16.00 — but I had enjoyed my relationship with this gallery.

Now, I was the jilted party.  Theoretically, that’s a bad role to occupy, so I kept trying to make it hurt. Only, there was no pain and suffering.  I was actually happy to close this door.

That’s because,the  re-frame was so obvious.  My work life as a happiness activist and advocate is quite full.  There is no room anymore for me to paint watercolor pins and earrings.  The letter from Artisans’ Gallery  liberated me and them from our outdated relationship.

Further, making these tiny art pieces is no longer in concordance with my values.  Oh, I certainly believe in and treasure having art and beauty in our lives, but when I began making my jewelry in the 1990s, I did not consider the environmental impact of using copious amounts of nail polish (to seal the watercolor paintings) and other chemicals I used in the process. I still have some leftover chemicals, so I could kinda justify making more, but, I really didn’t want to. My conscience protested the very idea.

If happiness is found in the nexus of meaning and pleasure, as Tal Ben-Shahar suggests, it was long past time to say goodbye to Artisans’ Gallery.  When you throw in Aristotle’s advice to combine one’s own strengths with society’s needs … well, I have more important strengths to meet deeper societal needs than painting happy jewelry (which was fun, I’ll admit, but that is not where I am anymore).

As for benefit finding, there is still one gallery I am working closely with, a gallery in my home town of Montpelier.  The pieces I picked up from Artisans’ Gallery are mostly pretty nice items I can now deliver to Artisans Hand.  Also, my community has a very sweet craft show every December, and I love being one of its exhibitors.  It is such a social occasion!  I had thought perhaps this last December was my final opportunity to be part of that show, since I am finally running out of stock.  Now, I can be part of that show at least one more time.

The biggest benefit, though, is that I am increasingly feeling the need to say no to some parts of my life in order to say yes to other, higher priority activities. Artisans’ Gallery made that “no” easy.  I’m grateful for that.

The bottom line is, I arrived at Artisans’ Gallery in a very chipper mood.  When I told the woman behind the counter why I was there, she immediately put on a sad face and began, so sympathetically, to tell me how much the gallery hates this part of the business.  “No,” I said, “it’s really fine. I stopped making these a long time ago.  No wonder they aren’t selling!” She visibly relaxed and we had a pleasant chat as I packed up.

Turns out, she’s related to some of my neighbors.  We had a good time exploring that connection.

My mood remained high at my next stops, and the one after that.  Finally, it was time for the first meeting of one of the “Meditating for Happiness” classes I am teaching. Coming from a re-framed, benefit finding, living in concordance with my talent and meaning stance, I was smiling and happy with all these folks, taught them well, and received smiles and happiness and good learning beamed right back at me.

What a great day! I was spinning in a cycle of happiness hour after hour, giving and receiving loving human connection. In other words, heaven on earth.

 

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

 

The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.

  • Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.

Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.

Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.

  • So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones.  There are some things we just have to do.

On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.

Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.

But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.

Strike one:
Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself.  At. All.  Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.

Strike two came at the playground:
Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.

Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages.  Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.

Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.

I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do?  I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents???  Or even a mall employee?

Very sad.  What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time?  Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?

Strike three:
Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.

Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.

As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.

This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.

Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation.  More mall fall-out?  Or just the way it is these days?  Either way, something is wrong here.

Strike Four: $anta Claus
Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).

So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”

But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.

Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.

Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap.  It is about commerce, not magic.

Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.

Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.

I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience.  Is nothing sacred?

  • Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”

Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire.  As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.

Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up.  Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

As I recall, the girl sitting next to me in home-economics class was named Diane.  She was a cheery sort, and we chatted amiably while working on our sewing projects.  I was making a pair of identical paisley print bolero vests.  One was for me, I explained, and one was for Bobby Sassaman, the love of my as-yet-very-young life.

“You like him??” she almost gasped in disbelief.  Clearly, Diane did not see Bobby as acceptable boyfriend material.  I saw way more than boyfriend potential: later this month, we’ll celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.

We still have the vests.

To be clear, when we got married, I believe a majority in the church — including me — were sure the marriage was doomed.  I was a pregnant high school senior, barely 17 years-old.  Bobby was enrolled at the local community college, but he was still just a paper boy.  Neither one of us had driver’s licenses, much less a car.  I was fired from my part time job as a short order cook because pregnant teenagers didn’t fit the restaurant’s family fun image.  Not too promising, right?  I mean, I was crazy in love, but I wasn’t stupid.

Yet, here we are.  Still crazy in love.  Nobody’s betting against our relationship anymore, especially not me.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

Perhaps that’s because the odds were in our favor all along.

Recently, I asked Bob (the extra syllable disappeared a long time ago) to take the VIA Institute on Character free online survey.  I’ve taken the “test” a few times, and used it in workshops, so I have a good idea of my top strengths.  I was curious about his, and one Sunday night he announced his results.  Turns out, we have the same signature strength: the capacity to give and receive love.  The fact that humor is also tops for him, and forgiveness is number two for me, doesn’t hurt either when it comes to maintaining a thriving relationship for the long term.

Okay, there are many other factors that helped us along the way, including the love and support of our families.  Still, I was really struck by our common survey result.

I had taken the survey again as part of my home work for the Kripalu Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  The faculty are very generous with their time and expertise, so I asked program director Maria Sirois if she thought there was any connection between the longevity of my marriage and our capacity to give and receive love.  I wondered, is the shared strength of love the chicken that laid the egg of a long marriage, or, is a long marriage the egg that hatched the chicken of love as a signature strength within each of us?  Maria responded,

“Some strengths – core strengths – seem to be with us from the beginning – I like to think of them as cellular but I don’t know that the VIA people would use that language. They simply are who we are. If you both had this as a core strength from childhood I could see how it could contribute to your longevity in relationship. And since it is a strength, at least in the recent decades, that you share, you can be sure that you reinforced it in each other and in so doing elevated other strengths that support your relationship as well. Self-esteem and competency both rise when we are in our highest strengths, and the love strength is also closely associated with generosity – which can only help a relationship. So I’d say you have a fabulous chicken and a delicious egg thing happening here.”

Thank you, Maria!

Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?

Well, no.  Nor is it from a magazine like “Cosmopolitan” or “Redbook” (are they still around?).  The VIA index stems from solid research.  According to “VIA Character Strengths – Research and Practice: The First 10 Years” by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., the index of 24 universally admired virtues and strengths “emerged from several scientific meetings led by Martin E. P. Seligman and rigorous historical analysis led by Christopher Peterson, who collaborated with 53 other leading scientists over a period of three years.”   This is serious stuff!

I initially learned about the VIA index in 2010, at my first ever positive psychology training led by Dr. Lynn Johnson.  Dr. Johnson shared the VIA list with us, and I now share it with you:  1) Creativity, 2)  Curiosity, 3) Love of learning, 4) Wisdom/perspective, 5)  Open-mindedness, 6)  Bravery, 7) Persistence, 8) Integrity, 9) Vitality, 10) Give & receive love, 11) Kindness, 12) Social intelligence, 13) Citizenship, 14)  Fairness, 15)  Leadership, 16) Forgiveness, 17) Modesty/humility, 18)  Prudence, 19)  Self-regulation, 20) Appreciation of excellence & beauty, 21) Gratitude, 22) Hope, 23) Humor, and 24) Spirituality.

You may glance at the list and immediately have a sense of your strengths, but, if you take the online test at the VIA site, you can learn so much more!  Plus, there’s lots of information about these strengths and how real people have applied them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Here’s the best part about the VIA online test: everybody has signature strengths!  Everybody is a winner!  Go ahead, take the test, find out how wonderful you are!

A couple of caveats and clarifications:

  1. First, the VIA index does not cover all my strengths, or yours.  I know, for example, that I have a facility for painting with watercolors.  Apparently, I also have very flexible shoulders.  Which is to say, we all have many gifts to share with the world and make our own lives more enjoyable.  After you get your VIA list figured out, dig a little deeper.  What else makes you wonderful?
  2. Strengths and Virtues can present in different ways.  Take bravery, for example.  A few summers ago, on a vacation trip with Bob, my sister Kathy, and her husband Rick, we climbed a waterfall trail in the wild woods of Maine.  While Rick clambored to the top of rocks overhanging a steep waterfall drop, I found a rock far, far away from the edge to sit on.  I couldn’t even look at Rick.  I was terrified.  When he was finally safe and we were walking down the hill, Rick remarked on many of the emotional risks I have taken, risks that would have terrified him.  Point taken.  Bravery wears many faces.
  3. Don’t overuse your strengths.  Tal Ben-Shahar, the primary teacher in the Kripalu program, sometimes talks about the “Lasagne Principle.” In short, he loves lasagne, but if he ate it at every meal, the lasagne would be significantly less appealing.  Just as our diets are diverse, so too are our strengths and virtues.  Love is not, in fact, all I need.
  4. Remember your weaknesses.  While our strengths deserve top billing, paying an appropriate level of attention to our weaknesses is also a good idea.  Case in point: for some reason, I am challenged in getting dates and times right.  Twice, I showed up as a weekend guest in a friend’s house a week early.  Once I took my kids to a road show of “The Sound of Music,” also a week early.  Fortunately, there are these wonderful items now called “calendars.”  It’s taken me a few years, but I have finally learned to write down appointments and also to regularly check what’s in there!

“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”

As mentioned above, the VIA index is a serious topic for research and discussion among eminent leaders in the positive psychology field — but it can also be fun!  Nancy K, one of the TA’s in the Kripalu program, demonstrated that in grand style when she posted her list of 24 music videos, one for each of the virtues and strengths.  She invited the rest of us to consider what music videos we might choose for our own signature strengths video.

Lord knows, there are a lot of love songs out there, but most of them are focused on romantic love between partners.  The capacity to give and receive love that Bob and I share is broader than that.  Yes, we love each other — and, we each love many others.  So even though love is not all I need, let me close this blog the way I began — with love.  And the Beatles amazing song, “Love Is All You Need” .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it time for this middle aged grandmother to try on a pair of handcuffs?

Why, yes, perhaps it is.  I don’t have a date penciled in my calendar, but I can feel it coming closer.  For my own personal happiness, for your personal happiness, and for a happier planet, I suspect I will soon respectfully engage in non-violent civil disobedience.

Such a possibility is not a new idea.  It’s been resting somewhere in the back of my consciousness since I first became involved in the Gross National Happiness movement.  As I became increasingly aware of the enormous and urgent challenge of changing our economic structure to avoid environmental apocalypse, I’ve wondered if there might come a day when I would need to really put myself on the line.  The entrenched systems we must change for a liveable planet are massive and powerful.  Weening ourselves off fossil fuels and shifting from a growth economy to a new economy of well being is possible but it will be a very, very hard struggle.

And, as the prayer of the Hopi elder says, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — not, they are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Maeve McBride, organizer for 350 Vermont and mother of two being led away from Governor Peter Shumlins office on Monday night.  63 other protestors were arrested with her.

Maeve McBride, organizer for 350 Vermont and mother of two,  being led away from Governor Peter Shumlin’s office on Monday night. 63 other protestors were arrested with her.

Thoughts of arrest rose to the surface this past week thanks to the actions of 64 brave Vermonters — from teens through grandparents, men, women, students, farmers, professors, all walks of life — who stood up for the love of Vermont, the planet, and future generations by sitting down.  Sitting down, that is, in Governor Peter Shumlin’s office until he agreed to shut down a pipeline for fracked gas or until they got arrested, whichever came first.  No surprise what happened. They were arrested for trespassing — an event that was beautifully captured on video.

I was so grateful to and proud of the Vermonters who put themselves on the line that night.  For several hours, I was one of the 500 or so supporters who rallied outside the office building to raise our voices against fossil fuel infrastructure and for those risking arrest on the inside of the building.  Rising Tide Vermont was one of the rally and sit-in’s sponsoring organizations; check out their website for information about the ongoing pipeline struggle.

As I chanted, clapped, sang, and sometimes yelled as hard as I could, I felt waves of emotion: anger and frustration at a governor who talks the climate change talk, but is not walking the walk; despair at the seemingly immeasurable depths of corporate greed; joy at being in community with strangers united in common purpose; admiration of citizen courage, commitment, and creativity; and heartbreak looking at the babies around me and wondering what climate change will mean for them.

I also felt heartbroken as farmers and parents from affected parts of Vermont testified about what this pipeline means to them, and the beautiful fragile natural landscape which we all love.  Even Lake Champlain is not sacred — Governor Shumlin wants the fracked gas pipeline to be built under this precious, already-threatened shining jewel in the crown that is Vermont’s landscape.  I was appalled to realize that our governor plans to throw Vermont and Vermonters under the bus in this way.

So I yelled and clapped wholeheartedly — until it was time to leave for my Monday night yoga class.  Big mistake.  Oh, I know self-care is important, especially as we age.  Yoga is vital to my physical and spiritual well being.  Yet the whole drive home, my body was practically screaming at me to turn around.  How could I be going to yoga when other Vermonters were awaiting arrest?  I was so distracted driving home, it’s a wonder I didn’t have an accident.  I was in the wrong place at the right time.

I don’t want to make that mistake again.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

There are a lot of brave people out there.  I’ve watched Bill McKibben, Gus Speth and others getting arrested in Washington, DC to focus America’s attention on the need to block the Keystone pipeline.  We’ve all seen video of non-violent Occupy Wall Street resisters getting pepper-sprayed.  Courageous eco-warriors worldwide are fighting for not only a livable future but a livable present, like the Marshall Islanders taking to their kayaks to block coal shipments and fight for the very survival of their nation.

Realistically,  it is safe and civilized here in Vermont. In the video, you can see how courteous the whole episode was.  There is not a high likelihood of pepper spray here!  Also, I’m self employed, so don’t have to worry about any ramifications from a corporate employer.  And I wouldn’t be stepping outside of societal norms; my community would be very supportive — as I am supportive of those who have already donned the handcuffs.

Still, the prospect is sobering.  When Bob and I talked about this last night, it was a subdued and sad conversation.  How unfortunate, indeed, that even here in Vermont — the Green Mountain State — caring, committed citizens have to be willing to go to jail for our voices to be heard.  Right there, that’s worth a good cry.

Our beautiful Vermont.

Our beautiful Vermont.

 So, how then does this relate to happiness?

First of all, if Mother Nature ain’t happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy.  Both a healthy environment and good governance are fundamental planks of any Gross National Happiness system. That’s pretty basic.

Second, on the personal level, this might be a good moment to observe that happiness is not about having a smiley face all the time!  Certainly, I’m all for feeling the joy — and there is much joy in working together for a better world, especially when one of the bands is playing — but happiness is also about being authentic, living in concordance with our values, working toward goals, following a meaningful path, being in community, and being so engaged in life that time just seems to stand still.

For me, raising my voice also means working from my strengths.  I am not a scientist or a political strategist.  But I am an extrovert, and I can show up when organizers put out the call. Or even when they don’t call!  I think my first “protest march” happened in the summer before I entered second grade.  While my parents were downstairs watching the Democratic National Convention — they supported Adlai Stevenson — my siblings and I were upstairs chanting, “We want Kennedy!  We want Kennedy!”  Talk about being authentic — I guess I’m just a born rabble rouser.

By the way, though I haven’t seen any happiness studies on this topic, all you older folk should know: I feel so much younger in these climate action crowds.  I love, love, love how thoroughly mixed these crowds are in terms of generation.  We are all in it together, and it feels great to be on the same team with teenagers, great grandparents, and everyone in between.

Standing on the side of love.

That word, love, crops up for me a lot.  “Standing on the side of love” is a rallying cry for the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which I am a member.  And for me, that’s what it really boils down to — love.  Love for the entire astounding planet, as well as the little piece of it called Vermont and the people who live here.  On the day after the arrests, with a heart full of love,  I listened repeatedly to one of Vermont’s musical treasures, Jon Gailmor’s “For the Love of Vermont.”  I so want to do my best for this land I love!

At one point during Monday’s demonstration, three awesome teenagers from my own neighborhood were marching right in front of me — I felt such love for those beautiful young ladies!  But the strongest motivator of all is love for my own grandchild — and for all your children and grandchildren too.  For family and friends.  For summers and rainbows and loons.  For the grandeur of autumn foliage. For blueberries, garlic cloves, and snow shoeing in the woods with a dear friend. For the whole crazy package that is life. Love, love, love.

Right now, when I think about engaging in civil disobedience, I am not feeling anger or hate or fear or blame — it is love.  Just love.

And that means happiness.

 

 

 

to

A happy day in 2012 when I got to walk with Paula Francis (left) and Linda Wheatley (right).

A happy day in 2012 when I got to walk with Paula Francis (left) and Linda Wheatley (right).

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”  I’m not sure who said it, but this quote is so ubiquitous that you can even buy a wall plaque from Amazon emblazoned with this wisdom.  I suppose that’s both good news and bad news.  Good, to reinforce the abundance we already have.  Bad, of course, because it’s all about the shopping!!

Anyway, all week I have been feeling a low-grade yearning for something I don’t have — or, more precisely, what I am not choosing to do.   There is plenty of joy and happiness staring me in the face with all that I have chosen to do.  For the most part, I am not only appreciative of but sometimes also dumbfounded by my amazing life path.  Still, I’m a little bit sad this week that I am not walking for happiness with my friends Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley.

Okay, so be it.  As my positive psychology teacher Tal Ben-Shahar puts it, “permission to be human.”  I’m human, I feel some regret at the road not taken.  Literally.  Since this past Monday, when Paula and Linda began the third leg of their Happiness Walk, I have watched their Facebook and Twitter posts with anticipation, joy for them, and, my own pangs of desire.  You see, I know from personal experience just how magical their walk really is.

The Happiness Walk. Theirs is a very ambitious project! As co-founding members of GNHUSA, we all know how urgently we need, as their site puts it,  “an expanded set of true progress indicators – one that views economic and material well-being as part of a broader definition of progress.”  To get a better sense of what those indicators should be — ie, how to measure what really matters to regular folks in this country, in 2012 Paula and Linda decided to walk from Stowe, Vermont to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.  As they walked, they also listened — collecting stories day after day after day about what happiness truly means in people’s daily lives.  You can see photos and listen to the stories at the Happiness Walk website — they are delightful and sometimes quite moving.

After a successful 2012 walk, in 2013 Paula and Linda  set their sights on a week’s trek from Stowe to Montreal, Canada.  Now, they have a much, much bigger goal: by 2017, they will have walked all the way to San Francisco and back!  On Monday, they began this part of the project by prancing down the steps of the Jefferson Memorial and following the road toward Norfolk, VA.

True confessions. I admit, at first I didn’t get it.  Really, I thought it was a waste of time, energy, and money.  I mean, we have a planet to save and a baby movement to grow!  What good can be accomplished by just walking?  Yes, Paula and Linda schedule some events along the way, but really, they are mostly just walking.  How does that help? I didn’t even appreciate the value of collecting stories, because I didn’t see that as valid research.  Just anecdotes — as in, so what?

But then, they started reporting back, and I could just feel that something very special was going on. Turns out, the experience of listening to people about their deepest, most precious values — listening from a heartfelt place, with no request for money – is a profoundly moving experience for both the speakers and the listeners.  What made me think this wasn’t valid qualitative data?  Sure it is.  Plus, wearing their special, brightly colored “Serious About Happiness” shirts, Linda and Paula shared love and gratitude wherever they went — and were everywhere showered with goodness and generosity in return.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

My turn to walk. Paula and Linda left Stowe in August, 2012.  I finally joined them for two days southwest of Philadelphia, PA in October.  When I arrived, they were at a fabulous little cafe in Kennett Square, and I learned another reason the Happiness Walk is so special: food!!  When you walk @ 20 miles a day, you get to eat a lot of goodies!  Not only that, but at that cafe — as at so many others along their walk — the restaurant owner insisted on comping our check.

As we walked, we took time to meditate, to talk with one another about the happiness movement and our own lives, and to answer questions from the various random strangers who stopped to ask what these “Serious About Happiness” shirts were all about.  Even on the second of my two days, which turned out to be the rainiest one of the whole walk, the magic shone through.  At a diner in rural Maryland, I got to be the listener, as the hard working waitress shared with me her stories of personal happiness.  Magical!

Both nights, our hosts were a family of five — all, until the moment we arrived, complete strangers to us.  Friends of friends of friends, learning of the Happiness Walk through a church listserv, and volunteering to give us a place to sleep and sumptuous meals to eat.  These five embraced us into their family, showering us with love and joy — all because we were walking for happiness, theirs and ours.

Let me tell you, 20 miles a day is a lot of walking!  Because I regularly walk the dirt roads around my house, I thought I was in pretty good shape, but, whoa baby.  By the end of day two, I barely made it back to the house.  Paula and Linda were practically carrying me, even though I had walked five miles fewer than they did (we met up at the diner).  But, in pain, dripping wet, totally exhausted — it was as if the sun burst through when the children of our hosts came running out to meet us with hugs, happiness, and gifts of homemade duct tape jewelry.

So do I want to be with Linda and Paula right now, soaking in more of that magic?  Why, yes, I do.  I definitely do want that.  But it is not to be.  Not right now, at any rate.

My welcoming committee, united by happiness

My welcoming committee after Day 2, united by happiness

Not without cost. There is a price to pay for choosing to walkabout on a happiness mission.  I, for one, lost two toenails as a result of my two day walk!  LOL, that’s not important.  But Paula and Linda are giving up a lot, especially time at home with their families and friends, and the opportunity to work at jobs where they could actually earn money (yes, we all still need money!). Indeed, it costs a lot of money to do what they are doing.  Even though so much is donated, much is not — like trips back and forth to Vermont to reconnect with loved ones.  Want to help with a donation?  They’d love it.

Want to walk with them?  Or help with housing or transportation?  I believe I can speak for them when I say, all help gratefully received.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also add that I have a vested interest in Paula’s and Linda’s success on their highly aspirational walk.  When my happiness gal pals meet with groups in all the many wonderful, varied cities they visit, they plan to offer me up as one of their resources — as in, I can come to these same cities and beautiful people for happiness skills trainings and sermons. It would bring me great joy to play that role, so for that and many other reasons — also coming from a place of love — I am cheering Linda and Paula on from afar.

One of these months — maybe even more than one — I will again join them for a few precious days.  In the meantime, let’s end on a musical note, with Pete Seeger’s “Step by Step.” The longest march can be won, together — singly none, singly none.

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

The focus on relationships in the prayer from the Hopi elder (see previous blog on the People’s Climate March) has me thinking about love. “What are your relationships?” the prayer asks.  “Are you in right relation?”  Then later, “Be good to each other.” And still later, “The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river … And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.”

I’m in the river with some pretty good people, which makes a huge difference in my life.  The support I feel from loving friends, family, colleagues, and community gives me strength and courage to do the happiness work I feel called to do.  They are good to me, we are in right relation for the most part,  sometimes we get to celebrate.  Hopefully, most of you can say the same.   Relationships are the number one predictor of happiness.  We need love to flourish under the best of circumstances.  As we move forward to combat climate change and push for a shift away from dysfunctional capitalism toward a well being paradigm, we will need that love even more.

All the loving kindness that flowed through the vast river that was the People’s Climate March brought to mind some experiences I’ve had in the presence of another warrior for well being, Senator Bernie Sanders.  Talk about being in the river!  He’s like the painting of George Washington standing up in the boat crossing the Delaware River.  I know many of you who live outside Vermont are cheering this 21st century leader onward.  Rest assured, on the home front in Vermont, there are throngs of people eager to celebrate his courage, tenacity, and heart in standing up for economic and environmental justice.  Yes, it’s true: we love Bernie.

Twice I’ve had the opportunity to march with Bernie in Fourth of July parades when he was campaigning for U.S. Senate.  The first time was in 2006 in Montpelier, Vermont.  My friend Judy and I were asked to march right behind Bernie because the organizer liked our sign (Women of Maple Corner for Bernie).  As we marched, Bernie would inspire wave after wave of enthusiastic loving appreciation.  The crowd’s energy, directed at Bernie, also landed on us just a few feet behind him.  It was intoxicating and invigorating, to feel the energy of love like that — just awesome.

Even better, though, was the Fourth of July parade in Warren, Vermont in 2012 when Bernie was running for re-election.  This time, I was one of the volunteers holding Bernie’s banner, just in front of the Senator himself.  Over and over again, as large chunks of the parade watching crowd shifted their attention from the float in front of us to the campaigning Senator, massive cheers erupted — and again, the waves of love and gratitude washed over all the volunteers as well.  I heard the same enthusiastic shouts repeatedly, through the entire parade: “We love you, Bernie!” “Thank you Bernie!”  And the occasional, “Bernie for President!”  The love and gratitude were overwhelming.

And, critically important. A few weeks later, after the parade season ended, Bernie launched his town meetings right next door, at the Maple Corner Community Center.  Unlike most other Washington politicians, Bernie does not charge admittance to these events.  Quite the opposite.  He actually provides a free dinner to everyone who shows up!  Amazing.  But the salad and lasagne were not the reasons why the audience that night was enthusiastic.  We were enthusiastic because of Bernie’s record.  Like the parade crowd, we were filled with gratitude and love for Bernie and his staff because of the work they do.

Before the Senator spoke, his staff member expressed his gratitude for our expressions of gratitude.  He said, essentially, Bernie needs your love, needs to hear your cheers and your cries of thanks because, in D.C., Bernie’s work is damned hard.  He needs to come back in Vermont, take a swim in the river with his supporters here who will celebrate with, and be good to, him.  Like most relationships, it’s circular: we need Bernie, and Bernie needs us.

Right relation.  Being good to each other.  Celebrating.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

Afterwards, before leaving Maple Corner, Bernie  paused to share the love with my daughter and four-month-old granddaughter.  I’d say two out three of them were happy to have their picture taken together!  Anyway, I’m grateful for the photograph.

We all need to share the love.

Bernie may need the love more than the rest of us, because he’s the target of so many more slings and arrows.  But all of us who choose to be activists — for happiness, for justice, for the environment, for a new economy — need the sustenance of love.  Maybe that’s because, like all humans,  we all suffer, and we know that we will suffer more.  Further, those of us who are actively trying to make the world a better place also carry the knowledge that the earth and the people on it are suffering intensely.  “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely,” writes Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life, “And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.”

Even in our little corners, we can’t do it alone.  We need relationships.  We need community.  We need love.

Fortunately, love comes in  a wide variety of packages — from what Barbara Frederickson calls “micro-bursts” of love which can occur even between two strangers who are momentarily connected, to long term relationships with intimate partners and best friends.

Indeed, the day before I left for New York and the Climate March, I was on a conference call as part of the yearlong certificate in positive psychology I’m earning through Kripalu.  The conference call was focused on the importance of relationships to our personal happiness.  At the close, lead instructor Tal Ben-Shahar wished us all, “many micro-bursts of love.”

And in a way, that’s what the whole trip was — giving and receiving micro-bursts of love, as well as weaving deeper more loving relationships with the people who are near me in the river.  This was especially true for Ginger,  a friend from central Vermont who generously shared her New York City apartment with me and my  happiness colleagues Linda and Paula — who are now Ginger’s friends, too.  Ginger met me at Penn Station, thus soothing my fears of having to negotiate the streets of New York City on my own.  Paula arrived a little later, and Ginger fed us both a wonderful dinner.  We watched a very funny video Saturday morning before a full day playing in a sunny NYC — a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry, a free walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and indescribably delicious street food at an Italian Street Festival.  Then we welcomed Linda for a lovely evening of pizza and wine.  Sunday, we had a hearty breakfast before heading uptown to march.

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Thanks to a day of being good to each other, and celebrating, we arrived at the march fully supported (and supporting) in loving kindness.  Once there, we were all able to be our best.   When asked to help make and distribute signs, all four of us cheerfully and energetically jumped in and worked for at least an hour and a half.  The march started very late, but it didn’t matter — our spirits were high.  I felt at my best — able to be a happy, well-behaved member of a large crowd, take it in more fully, absorb it, and more ready to share and live the message of the march when I got home.

Okay, honestly, I wasn’t actually at my very, very best for the entire march.   Toward the end of the climate march, there was a small group of individuals holding anti-abortion signs. I thought, if you’re really pro-life, you should be in the march!! We’re talking about trying to save all human life — and most animals and plants, too — from extinction. How pro-life can you be?? But I wisely kept my mouth shut.

A few steps later, though, stood another “protestor” holding a sign, something to the effect of “Come to Jesus.” All I could think was, seriously? Don’t you think Jesus would be marching with us? Annnndddd … that came bursting out of my mouth. I hollered, “Jesus is over here.” Surprise, surprise, that was not well received. He yelled back at me “no over here” and I yelled something like, “no, over HERE!” It was not a particularly sophisticated or mature exchange.

But I was not in the river alone.  I could just feel my friends looking at me.  Imagining my behavior through my friends’ eyes helped me step back from my unhelpful behavior.  I took a deep breath, and returned my focus to the march.

Thank goodness for friends!  I guess we need them in the river with us sometimes to throw us life preservers.  That, too, is important.

 

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