Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

I’m beginning to think the Universe played at little joke on me.

Back in 2005, when I tearfully concluded that my right livelihood could no longer be found within the craft show world, I thought the Universe gave me the answer to what was supposed to come next.  In retrospect, it seemed like the Mother Superior moment in “The Sound of Music,” the moment she advised Maria, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Cue “Climb Every Mountain.”  My own window seemed to open, with or without divine intervention, in a Stockholm cafe.  I thought the message was clear: the mountain I had to climb was getting a masters degree, in mediation.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

I had flown to Sweden just days after a disastrous craft show experience, a show that led me to sob in the bathroom and promise the heavens above that I was definitely closing the craft show door.  Lucky for me, my trip to Stockholm to visit dear friends Bert and Keith was already arranged.  It was great to get away, and they were attentive hosts.  One day they both had to work, so I was on my own.  I ended up touring the Nobel Museum, an incredibly cool and deeply inspiring institution.

Afterwords, alone in the cafe, I heard the the word “mediator” jump into my head.  Seriously, that’s what it felt like — the word jumped into my head and I immediately knew that’s what I was supposed to do next.  As soon as I got home, I contacted the admissions office at Woodbury College (now part of Champlain College) and signed up to begin their brand new Master’s program.  I knew so little about formal mediation that I somehow hoped I could be a mediator without dealing with conflict — in hindsight, a wildly silly misunderstanding of what I was getting into.  Mediation is all about stepping calmly into the eye of the conflict storm.  Ultimately, I learned to do just that, but personal conflict still distresses me.

None of this is as flaky as it may sound.  Mediation in many ways suits my personality, talents, and what I was looking for professionally at that time.  I wanted to help heal the world in some way, and mediation allowed me to use my communications skills to create at least a little more peace, a little more happiness.  I  hadn’t yet taken the VIA strengths survey, but now I know my signature strengths can be valuable to both the mediation process and to establishing rapport with parties in a conflict: the ability to forgive, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to give and receive love.

Indeed, I was good enough to be asked even before I graduated to coach new mediation students at Woodbury, and have continued working with the program ever since.  I also created the position of Staff Mediator at Home Share Now, and took on various freelance mediation and facilitation gigs with some professional and personal satisfaction.  Given that healthy relationships are the number one predictor of happiness, helping folks resolve their conflicts more successfully is clearly a job that brings more happiness into the world.

And yet … lately I’ve been wondering, perhaps the Universe was really saying, “Meditation.”  What if I misheard?

Okay, I’m not that woo-woo.  The two words sound so much alike, I often trip up and use the wrong one.  The idea that I may have misheard makes me laugh.  And, the truth is, almost as soon as I finished my master’s degree — culminating with a Capstone study on “Mediation and Suffering” — I picked up Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness followed soon after by Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was already following a different career path.

Of course, productive conflict resolution is a HUGE part of individual and societal happiness.  And I learned lots of great skills to use both in my personal life and in all my work efforts.  I highly recommend the Champlain program, and the gifted teachers there. Mediation is most definitely a happiness path, a right livelihood to build greater well being on every level.

But I don’t think it’s my path.  Teaching, coaching, advocating, and writing about the whys and hows of both personal and systemic well being — including meditation — that’s my path.

I didn’t leap blindly into meditation in the same way I took up mediation.  After all, I’ve been meditating since the last century!  However, I am surprised that it has become such a prominent piece of my overall career puzzle — surprised and extremely gratified.  In all my secular meditation classes, which I call “Meditating for Happiness,” I hear the most amazing and beautiful stories about how participants are using their new meditation tools to live significantly better lives — to sleep better, to control blood pressure, to help their families be happier, to handle workplace stress and road rage, even to cope with death.  Whether it’s in the corporate environment, at a health care facility or a senior center, students in every class thank me for teaching them strategies for much greater health and happiness.  They thank me, but I also leave almost every class overflowing with gratitude.  I often think, “I have the best job in the world!”

So what does all this have to do with anybody else’s happiness?

Both mediation and meditation are extremely good for happiness — yours, mine, and ours — in so many ways, both internally and externally.  As I write this, I am struck by how much both practices rely on deep heart felt mindfulness, and especially listening — to the said, to the unsaid, to what really matters.  I am fortunate that both have been part of my happy life.

More to to the point though, is the belief that living our best possible lives means choosing the best possible livelihoods.  It allows us to experience days filled with both pleasure and meaning.  Funny, I touched upon this from a very different angle in my previous essay (on The Happiness Walk).  I quoted Aristotle then, and I’ll quote him again: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  It’s hard to beat Aristotle, but here a few other insightful takes on making good work choices:

  • Balzac had a more literate touch, when he wrote: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”
  • A more modern view comes from the wise and loving educator Parker Palmer: “A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self…”
  • Then there’s everyone’s favorite Sufi poet, Rumi: “Discover vocation and creation. And joy will come like clairvoyance, where blindness was before.”

So the question is, what is your right livelihood, your vocational path to happiness? Perhaps you are already well ensconced in your own colorful and joyful crossroads between your talents and the world’s needs (of which, lord knows, there are plenty!).  If not, perhaps you too can go to the Nobel Museum and sit in a Swedish cafe to hear what the Universe wants to tell you.  Or at the least, you can meditate on it.


My new walking shoes!

My new walking shoes!

“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”  — George Carlin

Ah, George Carlin. Since 2009, when I began following my personal and gross national happiness path, I’ve tried to wean myself off shopping.  Among the many reasons to do so is a desire to get off the hedonic consumer treadmill.  An even more powerful motivation came from Annie Leonard, whose “Story of Stuff” video first opened my eyes to the planetary and culturally destructive effects of thoughtless, wasteful shopping.  Individually and collectively, we pay an unacceptably high price to accumulate possessions — much worse than merely taping sandwiches all over our hungry selves.

Plus, stepping aside from a regular career path to follow my happiness calling dramatically curtailed my disposable income.  Tellingly, my life satisfaction has risen.  Partly, that’s because my shopping is in greater concordance with my beliefs.  As I see it, corporate profit derived from constant pressure on all of us to buy, buy, buy is the leading driver behind climate change and income inequality.  The less I buy of a whole host of products I don’t need, and never needed in the first place, the more I can release the corporate grip on my life — freeing me for a life lived in greater harmony with my values.

Of course, it’s not that I don’t do any shopping.  These are aspirational values, not always realized.  However, I do strive to keep it local, used, or something I really want/need.  Which brings me to the brand new walking shoes pictured above.  I haven’t bought new shoes for five years.  But in a month I’ll be going on an internal and external journey, and, for both aspects, I need good shoes. You see, I will be rejoining The Happiness Walk for nine days and 100 miles through northern Florida in mid-September.  And I know from previous experience that it is wise to invest in good shoes!

I was last part of this adventure in October 2012 for two magical yet gruesome days (see this blog for a description).  My heart and soul were singing, but my toenails were in the process of falling off.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

This time, I decided to invest in decent shoes, as well as socks and moleskin to put on any budding blisters. Happiness may be an inside job, but we ignore the mind-body connection at our peril.  It would be much harder for me to have a transformative internal journey if my feet were screaming in pain.

Why Would Anybody Want to Walk 100 Miles Through Rural, Hot Florida?

There are a lot of reasons not to walk, starting with the weather. Mid-September in Florida is bound to be hot, hot, hot — and humid to boot.  Meanwhile, the Vermont weather I’ll leave behind will be glorious.  September is quite possibly Vermont’s best month. Leaves are starting to turn, but we can still swim and kayak –though not for much longer! Knowing that time is running out makes Vermont sunny September days especially precious.

Another reason to stay home is loyalty to my church, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which shuts down for the summer and will just be starting a new church year when I leave for Florida. My little family within the church is the choir.  Last year was rough and sad for us.  We not only sang but also cried together, throughout our beloved choir director’s terminal illness and death.  Now, we have a really terrific new choir director.  I want to be there with my choir family as we regroup and begin anew.  Instead, I’ll be trudging through desolate Florida scenery.

Hmmm.  Interesting how the words “trudge” and “desolate” snuck into that paragraph.  I guess part of me really wants to stay home!  Maybe because I don’t want to leave my husband.  And I don’t want to fly, because of the negative environmental impact.

These are all important happiness considerations — exercising in nature, nurturing spirituality and community, cherishing my marriage, and taking climate action. Still, I am going, because the happiness factors from participating in the walk — for a short period of time, not the kind of commitment Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley have made — outweigh the happiness of staying home.

Before I get into the why’s for me, I invite you to consider what the why’s might be for you.  This is not an exclusive activity.  From fellow walkers to hosts along the route to funders, there are many ways you can be involved, if The Happiness Walk also calls to you. Now, why it calls to me …

First: Right Livelihood. Long before the advent of positive psychology research, Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness, including this: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  The world definitely needs more happiness, well being, meaning, joy — whatever you want to call it, we need more of it.  As for my talents, I spend a lot of time walking the happiness talk — but this is different.  The Happiness Walk is about showing up, asking the right questions, and listening wholeheartedly.  Fortunately, these are just the skills (talents, even) that have been honed in my mediation and coaching work.  I love people, and am tremendously curious about everyone’s stories.  Listening is something I can do, with my head and my heart.  This is good work for me.  It will make me happy.

Second: P.E.R.M.A. Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. framework for individual happiness seems to be my go-to way of assessing life choices.  Using this perspective, The Happiness Walk passes with flying colors:

  • Positivity: Spending nine days listening to others — our hosts, people on the street, waitresses, anybody and everybody we meet — describe what makes them happy?  And talking with them in turn about the happiness movement?  It just doesn’t get any more positive than that.
  • Engagement: From my (hopefully happy) toes, to my heart, soul and mind, I will be fully engaged with the task at hand.  This is field research, as well as an opportunity to spread the paradigm-shifting gospel — both of which are at the core of my life’s work.  Engaged?  Oh, yes. Yes, yes.
  • Relationships: This one is interesting.  In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson talks about the “micro-bursts” of love that can occur between strangers.  The Happiness Walk is just one big micro-burst of love after another.  These relationships are short, but deeply meaningful.  And of course, I’ll be growing my relationship with fellow walker and happiness activist, Paula Francis.  Thus, relationships will also be a significant part of the experience.
  • Meaning: Big time.  I do this work because I believe firmly that the current gross national product (GNP) paradigm is trashing the environment, feeding the flames of greed and income inequality, and causing or exacerbating all kinds of wrong headed policies and actions on both the systemic and personal level.  In other words, the happiness movement is urgently important.  Meaningful?  Yes, so much so that I am deeply grateful to have found this path.
  • Accomplishment: No, and yes.  I suspect that the work of building a movement will not be finished for a long time.  Maybe never.  Instead, I have to find my sense of accomplishment in all the small steps along the way  (small steps, ha ha ha).  When my part of the walk is over, I will feel very accomplished!  And very happy.

Third: The Hamburger Principle. This one comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, and it, too, is one of my favorite frames for considering happiness.  The cheeseburger part is a long story, but basically, Tal lays out four quadrants to illustrate four options for living life. The idea here is, humans need both pleasure and meaning to be happy — a combination that resides in just one of the quadrants, which are:

  • The Rat Race. This quadrant can be all about meaning, but doing the work in such a single minded way as to leave little time for all else that makes life enjoyable.  While being in rat race mode for a time is okay, it is insufficient to lead a thriving life.
  • Hedonism. This, of course, is all about the pleasure.  I imagine most of you, like me, have indulged in hedonistic episodes (a.k.a., vacation!).  Again, this is fine in spurts. But a hedonistic lifestyle is shallow and also insufficient for a thriving life.
  • Nihilism. In this sorry quadrant, one has neither meaning nor pleasure.  This is a bleak life.  Let’s get out of here, fast!
  • Happiness. And the winner is, that sweet spot where one has a balance of meaning and pleasure.  We are physical as well as spiritual beings who need both purpose and joy to thrive.  And thrive I will, my friends, at least during the happiness walk when I will be solidly in this most desirable quadrant.

Fourth: Self Concordant Goals.  Now, how about a little Nietzche?  He said, “when there is a what for, every how becomes possible.” The what for is, once again, meaning — but we also need the how, we need to take action, we need goals.

There are some caveats here.  First, the happiness of goals lies in the journey, not in arriving at the destination. It’s about being in the present and knowing where you’re going, and why.  This seems a particularly apt point for my upcoming participation in The Happiness Walk, since it is literally a journey.  Though my final destination is Live Oak, Florida, that destination is not at all the point.  It is definitely the day-to-day, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other journey that excites me.

The second caveat is, not all goals are happy making.  Think, for example, of a bright young student striving to get into medical school because that’s what her parents want.  Doesn’t sound so happy, does it?  Now consider “self-concordant goals,” goals which are personally, deeply meaningful.  Tal Ben-Shahar says  self-concordant goals are:

  1. Aligned with personal interests and values (check!)
  2. Freely chosen goals (check!)
  3. Want to vs. Have to (check!)
  4. What do you really, really want to do (and check!)

So, once again, while Paula and I don’t yet know where we’ll be spending the night for most of the time I’m walking with her, this much is clear: following this happiness path seems destined to make me a happier person.  Paula, too, I’m pretty sure.

Fifth and Finally: The Gift of Giving. We all know that acts of kindness, full-hearted giving and tending to others are reliable strategies for feeling better ourselves. Further — looping back to the beginning of this essay, and my desire to step away from shopping — there are so many very special gifts we can give that cost us only our time and attention. For example, there is the gift of listening. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen observes:

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. ”

And the beautiful thing is, the listeners — in this case, the Happiness Walkers — will get just as much happiness as those who are sharing their stories with us. All this and more … reason enough to leave Vermont in September. In fact, the connections will be so powerful, I will likely want to keep walking. Fortunately, there will plenty of happiness arguments to compel me to come home because, you know what? Happiness is where you look for it.

One final gift, for you! A very special offering — “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” by poet John Fox:

When Someone Deeply Listens to You
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.


I like my coffee dark, but yowza.  On the final morning of my nine-day full-time grandmothering trip, my decision to use all the remaining coffee grounds for that one last pot definitely resulted in too much of a good thing.

Any one who makes coffee, or cooks with garlic, or indeed cooks or eats anything at all, knows that too much of a good thing is no longer all that good.  My coffee that day was more swill than the hoped-for elixir.  In positive psychology terms, it’s what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Lasagne Principle.  Tal explains that he loves the lasagne his mother cooks, and savors the opportunity to eat his mom’s lasagne on a regular basis.  Regular, but not every night.  Having to eat even the best lasagne meal after meal after meal would soon become altogether unappetizing.

Here’s what I love: my 3 year-old granddaughter Madeleine.  Living in a different state from this beloved child, I both anticipate and savor opportunities to spend quality time with her on a regular basis.  However, on that nine-day trip, I began to feel as though I was having metaphorical lasagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.  Morning and afternoon snacks, too.

I was round-the-clock grandmothering because my daughter was attending an important professional conference thousands of miles from home.  We both knew her extended time “at work” would be very challenging for Madeleine to weather.  Thus, I chose to put on my “Bama” hat and help both my daughter and granddaughter flourish during their time apart. It was a good decision, and … at times, it felt like too much of a good thing.

Like any metaphor, the lasagne comparison falls short.  Choosing to care for Madeleine in her own environment was a great deal more textured than sitting down for a heaping helping of Tal’s mother’s lasagne. Still, I’ll carry the metaphor just a little further, perhaps to the straining point, to note that there were plenty of side dishes as well.  For example, my husband Bob (AKA, “Poppa”) volunteered to come with me.  He put in his regular work week at an office about 40 minutes away, but his presence in the evenings and on the weekends was immeasurably helpful — even though Madeleine continued to want my attention most of the time.  Though she was especially clingy in her mother’s absence, and I was especially solicitous for the same reason, Poppa nonetheless provided respite.

From Metaphor to Reframing

We can find the good in almost any difficult circumstance — or, conversely, spotlight the negative in even the best situations — by the frames we put around our experiences.  One way of framing these nine days of intense child care (24-7, thanks to co-sleeping) is to label it a sacrifice.  It cost us thousands of dollars to make the trip, I gave up at least $600 in paid freelance gigs (and, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, it’s not like we have lots of spare thousand dollar bills lying around), and lots of my work did not get done (classes not planned, sermons not written, movements not organized …).  It was not an inexpensive trip.  Plus, I had to choose between helping my daughter get to an important professional conference or going to my own important professional conference.  Goodbye, International Positive Psychology Association 2015 conference.

However, there are many ways of framing this story. In most life situations — including this one –we can choose between focusing on the positive aspects instead of, or as well as, the negative.  So let me reframe those nine days: what an amazing opportunity for my granddaughter and me to grow even closer.  Since she and her mom lived with us for Madeleine’s first 16 months of life, we have a very tight bond.  But babies — they just keep growing!  And they don’t remember all the hours devoted to their infant care.  Now, Madeleine may be old enough to remember the time Bama came and took care of her while Mama was away.  I hope I will long remember how precious she was at this three year old stage.  It’s just astonishing how fast young children develop.  It will only be a few weeks till we’re together again, but I’m sure she’ll be very different already.

Here’s one more frame: much of the work we do in building and strengthening relationships is, indeed, work.  The same is true of parenting and, sometimes, grand-parenting.  Although I disagree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (because, happily, my daughter and her daughter actually have a lot of fun together), raising children is very hard work. But rather than focus on this trip as a sacrifice, I like thinking of this time as an investment — in our relationship and in helping to shape her as a happy, healthy, empathic, emotionally intelligent, and just generally awesome human being.

For me, the truth of the situation meant using all three frames.  I’m okay with that, life is complex.  There were sacrifices and there were joys and there was hard work in the now as an investment in the future.  Not a bad mix, really.

Even so, after a few days I started to feel an undercurrent of unhappiness.

That’s okay.  I’m not one to run away from unhappiness.  Though I never wish to wallow, I embrace unhappiness as part of life’s journey.  However, given my perch as a student and advocate of greater happiness on both the personal and systemic levels, I often wonder at and explore my unhappiness.  Plus, when I posted on Facebook that I was having some grandmothering struggles, one of my sisters expressed surprise at my complaining tone.  My daughter also emailed me to ask what was going on, why was I having a hard time.

Good question.  First of all, we had a rough day.  I had thought I could put Madeleine in day care for a few days, for her sake (I thought she might be more comfortable with some of her normal routine) and mine (I could get some work done).  But when I left her at”school,” she was so distraught that I drove away shaking and close to tears.  After talking with my daughter and with the school, I decided to go back and pick her up.  I didn’t have to do work that day, and her pain was too big a price for me to pay.

One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Aristotle: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  Compassion for her meant no day care during my visit.  Compassion for me meant accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get any work done.  Letting go of expectations is a classic Buddhist prescription for limiting our suffering, but western happiness scientist Rick Hanson suggests the same thing.  In his Foundations of Well-being program, neuropsychologist Hanson espouses the value of accepting what we cannot change.  Or, in this case, choose not to change.  With that acceptance, I grew calmer.

Second, I thought often of Christine Carter.  Carter starts her amazing book Raising Happiness (a highly recommended guide to growing deeply happy children) by emphasizing the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first.  Those nine days, I mostly could not even find my oxygen mask.  Much of what I do to keep my happiness muscles toned — such as, getting a good night’s sleep, a daily meditation practice, singing in the church choir, going to yoga and bone builders classes, keeping a daily gratitude journal — fell by the wayside.  I was aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Really, it was a good experiment: the absence of my happy exercises was so noticeable, it highlighted their value.

Of course, on the flip side, there was more play, more touch, more laughter, and ongoing gratitude practices (something the whole family does each night at dinner).  Still, if this were an ongoing situation, in order to best teach and model happiness for my grand child, I would definitely need to put that oxygen mask back on.

Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.

At the time, my thoughts were very focused on the internal, personal factors enhancing or detracting from Madeleine’s and my happiness.  But upon reflection, I began to wonder if some of the stress and distress I was felt was because I have inevitably internalized the values of a Gross National Product paradigm.  I’m not sure … but I think it’s helpful to examine just how deeply imbued those values can be, even for those of us who have been striving for years to move toward a happiness paradigm.

At home, I found myself reviewing my experience through Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. lens.  As usual, I found this theory of flourishing helpful.  My grandmothering intensive had plenty of positivity (the “P” in P.E.R.M.A.), though there were some tears and several very sad hours.  As for “E,” I was often very engaged in our activities, though (here again there is a “but”) three year-olds like repetitive play a lot more than 60+ year-olds.  Sometimes, I was just plain bored.  “R,” for relationships, was nothing but strong, with both Madeleine and Bob/Poppa.  Meaning, the “M” word, was also powerful.  Since the point of the trip was to help my daughter’s professional development and my granddaughter’s emotional development during her mother’s absence, the entire experience was deeply meaningful.

It’s the “A” that I found particularly enlightening.  I realized that much of my stress came from a sense that I wasn’t accomplishing anything.  Yes, yes, caring for a young child is meaningful — but it’s not like at the end of the day I could check the “done” box.  I think that’s part of why I felt the pressure of wanting to do my own work.  I wanted to accomplish something!  I wanted to cross something off my list.

Also, despite the hard work, I wasn’t getting paid for anything.  This is where my questions about internalized GNP values come into play.  Did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything because I wasn’t contributing to the GNP?  And, therefore, everything that I poured into being the best grandmother I could possibly be was less valuable to society than a wide range of other well paid activities?  Certainly, I don’t think grand parenting is a high prestige occupation.

I don’t have any answers.  Maybe it was just me.  I really do like to tick off my accomplishments at the end of the day.  Maybe it is also the money- and material-oriented paradigm that hangs over us all.  For me at least, it is worth taking time to think about this.  As much as possible, I want my own personal decisions to be based on genuine well-being — not on accumulating more money or trying to meet GNP-oriented definitions of success.  Trying to understand where the traps lie is a helpful exercise.

But I don’t want to end it there …

… because I’d much rather focus on the magic.  I know I am blessed to have such an awesome little human in my life, blessed to have such a strong bond of love between us, blessed to share her very precious three year old world.  Each day at nap time, for example, as we lay down together, Madeleine would point to the ceiling and whisper in a tone of awe, “Look!  There are millions and millions of stars!”  Then we found stars of various colors.  She always captured the purple one, brought it down from the heavens, and put it in her belly.  When Poppa joined us for this activity, he grabbed a blue one, and put it in her pocket.  Fortunately for me, there was another purple star for me to reach.  I put mine in my heart, for more loving kindness.  Our last afternoon together of this trip, Madeleine predictably caught another purple star, but unpredictably, put this star in her heart, for more loving kindness.

This kind of magic? Priceless.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Our connections with fellow humans — either fleeting or lasting for many decades — are the sine qua non of happiness (ie, without relationships with others, there is no happiness, and that’s about it for my 8th grade Latin).  Simultaneously, these connections can be vexing, painful, or unpleasantly surprising.  However, because we do in fact need each other, it makes sense to heed the Dalai Lama’s advice when it comes to our interactions with others.

This is the advice I have in mind, from one of the Dalai Lama’s books I read years ago: in every interaction we have, we can make the other person happier, or less happy.  That is powerful.  Every single time we make a human connection, we can either add to or decrease the other person’s happiness.

Not that we are responsible for others’ happiness entirely.  But it is quite a moral responsibility when put in those terms.

And, it may also be highly practical, because, well, you never know.

Let me tell you a little story, one of my favorites.  I’m quite pleased to find a happiness hook that gives me an excuse to share it.

The story takes place way back in 1968, when I was 14 years-old.  I was third of six kids, and we didn’t have a lot of money.  So the fact that I was by myself in our living room, listening to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was unusual.  I loved that album, which I bought with hard-earned babysitting money.  Loved, loved. I was happily singing along with all my blissed-out teenage heart when a friend of my oldest sister walked through the room.  Let’s call him Paul.  Paul was handsome, witty, charismatic.  I had a bit of an unrequited crush on him.  When Paul paused at the front door and turned to speak to me, I was all a flutter, thrilled that he was stooping to talk to me!

“Do you know my definition of stupid?” he asked.

“No,” I quickly replied.  “What is it?”

“People who sing along to the Beatles,” he responded before turning around and exiting my house.

All these years later, I can’t quite remember how little and unworthy that remark made me feel. Instead, this story has become a family joke.  You see, just three years later, I married Paul’s younger brother Bob.  When Paul made that offhand remark to me, he could never possibly have imagined that I would be his sister-in-law for, oh, just about 45 years so far — and that I would never let him forget that brief interaction!

Not that I blame the funny, self-assured 18 year-old that he was then.  It was a long, long time ago, and that moment in time has been superseded by many another loving and supportive word or act (like driving Bob and me to the hospital to have our first baby, and doing Ed Sullivan imitations along the way).

No, the reason I love this story is, it clearly shows, when we connect with people, making them happier or less happy, we have no idea what roles we might play in each other’s lives in the future.  So being nice is both good common sense, and good karma sense.

Consider the case posted on Twitter last month about an angry man who cursed at another commuter on London’s Tube.  Not only did the angry man add to someone else’s unhappiness in the moment — he added to his own.  He arrived at a job interview a little while later and discovered that the man he had just cussed at was the interviewer.  He did not get the job.

That’s a very graphic — and karmic — illustration of how interactions can affect our own happiness as well.  As Donovan so beautifully warbled many years ago, happiness runs in a circular motion.

It’s also interesting to think about what might have happened if the angry man in the Tube had somehow connected with the interviewer in a more positive way during their commutes.  Perhaps he would have gotten the job?  Perhaps they would have had an ongoing, positive relationship?

Certainly, connections do not need to be lengthy to be significant.  Two summers ago, I was wearing one of my favorite dresses (very happy, covered in blue daisies) as I walked toward the library.  A woman I had never seen before, or since, was walking in the opposite direction.  As she neared me, she said, “You look very nice today, ma’am.” That’s all.  But she made me smile, and feel good.  I beamed a very genuine, “Thank you!” in her direction.

Certainly I’ve been on the proactive side of the equation many times. Recently, while vacationing with our cute-as-a-button two year old grandchild, we sang to and for total strangers in an open-hearted way that is hard to imagine without an innocent babe involved.  We were received in the same open-hearted way, again no doubt thanks to our granddaughter’s presence.  Otherwise, we grown ups aren’t normally this sweet to folks we don’t know.

That’s kinda sad.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines “connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, hear, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”  She also states, “we are wired for connection.  It’s in our biology.  From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.”

Even without cute babies, strangers can give that to each other.  Tal Ben-Shahar tells a story of an early, early morning at an airport, a morning at the start of a long flight, a morning when he was not at his happiest — until a woman who worked at the airport bestowed a warm and kind smile on him.  That brief but genuine connection cheered him up so much, he continues to tell the story year after year as part of his lecture on making the choice to smile more often.  I love it.  Done judiciously, it’s such an easy win-win.

Of course, our most meaningful connections are found in relationships of longer duration — but every relationship has to start somewhere.  Some connections we’re born into.  Most, we have to establish.  I remember the beginning of my friendships with two of my dearest friends in Vermont, Judy and Eric.  We had lived here only a few weeks, and I felt lost among the many happy strangers at the Maple Corner Fourth of July bash — until this kind and interesting couple took the time to chat with me, the newcomer, the stranger.  None of us knew that a deep and abiding friendship was being born.  I was just grateful that these two were being nice to me, seeing, hearing, and valuing me.  Connection.

It’s all about the nice, within limits. The point is to add to the world’s supply of happiness — yours included.  As a recent meme on Facebook put it, “you are not required to provide heat to others by setting yourself on fire.”  Sometimes the best we can do is not infect others with our glumness.

There is also the question of authenticity.  Who are you?  What is the best way for you to make connections — deeper connections with loved ones, new and even one-time connections with strangers?  Who may or may not end up married to someone in your family. Or giving you a job.

For most of us, it would be inauthentic to like the man in the photo, a fellow visitor to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last September.  He wasn’t on staff, he wasn’t leading any workshops — he just wanted to give hugs.  He was so sensitive about it, too.  No one got a hug who didn’t want one.  He just wore this sign while he was there, and hugged whoever responded.

They were good hugs, too.  Oh, yes, I took advantage of this opportunity to connect.  He made me happier.  He made lots of people happier.

That is my aspiration, too — I want to make lots of people happier. It’s a choice we all can make, each of us in our own style.

Good common sense. Good karma sense. Just plain good.



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!


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