Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

pipeline-protest-1

The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota access pipeline.  Photo by Little Redfeather Design/Honor the Earth

 

In 2005, after I had applied for the Masters in Mediation program at Woodbury College, I sat down with the Admissions Director for an informational interview.  “Would the program involve much conflict?” I asked her.  In retrospect, how embarrassing.  A mediator’s main job is to be calm in the midst of sometimes stormy conflicts, helping disputants move toward mutually acceptable solutions.

I got in the program anyway and fell in love with conflict theory, my first deep foray into brain science and human behavior. One of my favorite books was The Power of A Positive No  by William Ury.  For many of us, saying “no” is just as welcome as entering into conflict.  In fact, it sometimes is entering into conflict, or at least bringing the dispute to light — even if the whole thing is only within our own heads (“no, you cannot have that cake!” “but I want it!”).  Ury makes saying “no” much easier by asking us to consider, when we say no, what are we saying “yes” to?power-of-positive-no

That may be a simplification of Ury’s book, but this basic question has served me well whenever a no was emotionally difficult, inconvenient, and/or requiring some level of sacrifice.  Though Ury’s subtitle, Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No, focuses on interpersonal conflict, I have found the positive no formula helpful in many situations. For example, I have said no to quite a few things that I previously enjoyed — nail polish, hair driers, meat (mostly), clothing driers, etc. — because the “yes” is so much bigger: a clean, livable climate for future generations. Then again, we all are in relationship with the climate, with the generations who will follow us, even with our own consciences.  Maybe it is all about relationships after all.

In any case, this is not just a personal tool — saying no to get to yes can be powerful with big picture disputes as well.  The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline is an inspiring example. I don’t want to speak for the determined water protectors, but what I see is a strong no to the pipeline, no to fossil fuel infrastructure, and no to the possibility of a devastating pipeline break and oil spill — all based on an unwavering yes to water, to life, to future generations, and to sacred lands and spiritual traditions.

Of course, a positive no is more complex than simply focusing on yes,  because we all are in relationship with one another. It is often both desirable and advisable to consider other options.  For the global climate action movement, for example, it is insufficient to just say no to the hardworking women and men in the fossil fuel industry. We do need to say no to fossil fuels, for sure — but these folks need jobs and incomes. For sure.  Thus the climate action movement also advocates for a just economy with alternative livelihoods for these families and communities — such as, building green energy infrastructure.

On a personal happiness level, sometimes yes is just yes.  Whether it’s practicing meditation, being a better listener, or simply smiling more, many positive psychology tools don’t require saying no.

Frequently, though, no has an important role to play.  I love pretty clothing and shiny trinkets, but I can usually reject their lure thanks to my well-rooted yes to saving the planet as best I can.  My no to stuff is sometimes challenging, but it ultimately makes me happy for at least three reasons:

  1. Our brains are not happy when we act in discord with our values and morals. Doing what my own brain believes is the right thing increases my happiness.
  2. The happiness hit from buying stuff is short lived.  There are always prettier clothes and shinier trinkets.
  3. Limiting my spending also means liberating some of my time.  Since I am not working simply to pay a department store credit card, I am freer to choose a career based on passion, not paycheck.

Sometimes the yes precedes an inevitable no.  When my daughter was nearing the end of her pregnancy, I absolutely said yes to driving from Vermont to Alabama to be there for her in the weeks before and after she gave birth. This meant saying no to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience, an enterprise I had started less than six months earlier.  I shut it down for two months, just when I should have been building the new business.  Instead, I built a closer relationship with my daughter and a deep, deep bond with my grandchild.  It was a good happiness choice for us all.

Back to the systems level, I think the power of a positive no may be even more helpful as we move toward a gross national happiness paradigm.   To embrace policies and political and economic philosophies based on a holistic “yes!” to the maximum well being for all people and the planet will require some really tough “no’s” to the dominance of a consumerism-obsessed, money focused, growth economy-insistent, gross national product way of thinking.  To state the obvious, it will not be easy.

Big jobs are easier broken into bite size pieces.  The Bhutanese, who have a gross national happiness system in place, have done that for us, dividing the big picture into nine “domains” — areas where government policy can best support well being.  The nine are: psychological well-being, physical health, time balance, community vitality, education, culture, environment, good government, and standard of living.

 

Not that any of these is really bite sized.  Still, this division makes it a bit easier to envision what to say no to, and what the yes might be.  Take trust in government for example.  I suspect there is a broad consensus for saying no! to the corrupting influence of money in politics, in order to say yes to healthier democracy.  However, since, campaigns will still need to be financed, the no is insufficient without an alternative vision — like public financing of congressional campaigns.

This example, like so many others, provides no panacea. Money will find a way to seep back in.  John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once quipped that those who reform systems and those who scheme to undermine those reforms should make an appointment to meet up several years after the reforms are passed — because, by then, it will time for new reforms.

Obviously, gross national happiness advocates are not trying to create a utopia. Rather, while we say no to a framework that no longer supports well being for either people or the planet, we say yes to new definitions of success that are more complete, more sustainable, and much happier for many more people.

It’s going to be a heckuva journey getting there, but journeys start today with one small step.  You can make that small but significant step today: say yes to happiness by signing the Charter for Happiness.  There will be plenty of time to say no all along the way.  Right now, all you need to do is say yes.  Yes, yes, yes!

Walk in the Woods

After decades of practicing meditation, four years of teaching happiness meditation classes and workshops, and now leading weekend retreats, I finally wrote my own guided meditation, “A Walk in the Woods.”  Being in nature makes us happy, but it isn’t always possible to physically be outside drinking up the sights, sounds, and smells of hiking on a wooded trail.  We can, however, savor the forest sensations in a very mindful way by taking the time to mentally create or recreate that experience in as much detail as possible.

I was inspired by the local Calais Trails Committee and by the transformative Helen Keller essay, “Three Days to See.”   With gratitude to them, I offer the following meditation to you.  Please make it your own.  I’ve based the meditation on a summer walk in the Vermont woods, but your walk may be in the fall, spring or winter, on a real or imaginary trail.  Create or recreate the experience that best suits you.  The following is more a series of suggestions than a road map.

A Walk in the Woods

I invite you to start by easing into your meditation practice.  With your eyes closed, let your breath out with an audible sigh.  Do this several times if you like.  Take a moment to notice all the places your body is in contact with the floor, chair, or cushions.  Appreciate the support of the furniture and the building you are in, as well as the strength of the earth, making it safe for you to relax into your meditation time.  Next, in an easy gentle fashion, focus on your breath, for a few minutes, until you feel ready to proceed. Take as much time with this transition as you want.

When you are ready, imagine you are at the trail head, ready to step in among the trees.  Before you begin your walk, take time for gratitude.  You may be grateful to have an able body.  You might thank those who built the trail, or the landowners who share their property with the public.  Perhaps your gratitude is for the weather, or for a strong pair of sneakers and good socks.  What are you grateful for? Again, take your time.  There is no need to hurry.

Remember to breathe.

Now, stepping into the woods, where do your feet land?  What does the trail look like? Are there trail blazes or other markers on the trees?  Who made them?  Are there roots or rocks you might stumble over?  Fallen branches?  Are ferns or maybe even poison ivy growing near the trail? Is it a sunny day?  What kinds of patterns does the play of light through the tree canopy make?  Look around, what can you really see?

When we practice mindfulness, we can try to use all our senses.  Right now, for example, what do you hear in your own little forest?   Maybe leaves crunching underfoot?  Or birds — is there a variety of bird calls if you really listen?  Is it a still day, or is a breeze blowing?  What does that sound like?  Other animals?  Insects whirring by your ear or chirping from afar?  Maybe even traffic or construction noises off in the distance?  Mindfulness is about more than appreciating beauty — it is, deeply observing what truly is.

Still breathing?

What does the air smell like?  Did it rain recently?  Are there rotting logs nearby?  Do you smell your own shampoo, or toothpaste?  Maybe there are flowers, or berries — do you want to lean in and breathe in their aroma?

And touch — is the air on your arms and face cool from the shade, or is it a hot sultry day even in the woods?

Even taste — did you bring a water bottle along?  What does the water taste like?  Any leftover meal flavors still lingering in your mouth?  Did you pick a berry to eat?  Was it sweet, sour, overripe?

Breathing deeper now, and looking more carefully around you.  You’re surrounded by trees, but what species?  Have any blown over, from the wind or maybe lightning? What bark do you see around you?  Patterns?  Growths on trees?  Any holes in the trees? Perhaps holes made by animals, or perfect for animals to crawl into. And of course the leaves, or pine needles — different shapes, various shades of green? Are there also browns, and reds — trees in distress, or maybe autumn is coming on.  It’s time to see the trees themselves, not just the forest.  Are there any very old trees?  Or very young ones?  Any competing for the sunlight? What else?

Where would we be without trees?  Can you feel gratitude for them?

Still remembering to breathe, turn now to the rocks and stones. Do you see ledge, or quartz? What sizes — boulders? Pebbles?  Do you have to climb over any rocks?  Are they moss-covered?  Sharp, rounded?  Maybe you can even spot one that is heart shaped.

Now we’re walking next to a mountain brook.  Is your brook full and flowing forcefully?  Maybe it just rained?  Or is it late summer, with only a trickle? Pause and put your hand in.  How cold is it? What does the brook sound like?  What patterns do you see, in the way the water falls, and on the rocks below the surface?  Linger by the brook as long as you’d like.

When you’re ready, notice that the trail is going up hill.  What are the sensations in your muscles?  Are you winded?  Sweaty? Thirsty?  How is your body doing on this hike?  Or is it more of an easy going walk for you?  Even on this mental journey, can you listen to your body’s experience?

In this moment, we’ve stepped out of the woods into a meadow.  It may be sunny, or overcast.  Is it hotter?  Or is there a wind blowing, making your skin cooler? Looking up, what do you see in the skies?  Have the sounds in the meadow changed from those in the woods?  And sights — perhaps here you might see butterflies.  What else is different on this part of the walk?

Finally we’ve arrived at an overlook, where conveniently there’s a bench to sit on and savor the view.  What do you see?  A lake in the distance?  Mountains?  A city?  Is the view awe-inspiring? Does the larger vista give you a sense of place in the world, maybe putting your own cares in perspective? Can you pay attention to your feelings as well as the view? Just accepting your feelings, not trying to change them or judge them in any way.

Spend as long as you want sitting on the bench, taking in whatever is present for you in this moment.

Finally, let’s end this meditation the way we began: with gratitude.  Grateful perhaps for beauty, for public policies that have preserved park land, for your own self to take this time to flex your mindfulness muscles and nurture your connection with the natural world.  Who and what are you grateful for?

When you are ready, open your eyes and gently return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Have a wonderful day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flowers were among the much appreciated gifts of kindness I recently received.

Flowers were among the much appreciated gifts of kindness I recently received.

I began writing this piece as a reflection on rebounding from some personal trauma, but I am a slow writer and events overtake me.  My challenges actually coincided with the Orlando shootings.  Of course, trouble and pleasure are both constant visitors on the micro level (stubbed toes and flowers) and the macro (an awesome Pope and drowning refugees).  And, they’re inter-connected: our personal happiness or lack thereof dramatically affects our ability to contribute to the greater good, while the greater good or seeming lack thereof similarly impacts our own capacity for joyful living.  That is why I advocate as strongly as possible for both personal happiness and a Gross National Happiness paradigm.  Both matter. A lot.

Still, following the killings of black Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — as you all probably know, two seemingly unjustified executions by police officers — and then the targeted executions by a sniper of five police officers keeping the peace at a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest, my personal musings just seem so damned trivial. Yet, where else can we start but in our own hearts and souls?

So I continue with my story on kindness, resilience and post traumatic growth, wishing that the same factors writ large may help our deeply troubled nation evolve.  (Please dear god may our country also experience post traumatic growth!)

To transition, I offer this wisdom from one of my go-to authors, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferruci, author of The Power of Kindness:The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life: “Kindness? It may strike us as absurd to even approach the subject: Our world is full of violence, war, terrorism, devastation.  And yet life goes on precisely because we are kind to one another. No newspaper tomorrow will tell of a mother who read a bedtime story to her child, or a father who prepared breakfast for his children, of someone who listened with attention, of a friend who cheered us up, of a stranger who helped us carry a suitcase. Many of us are kind without even knowing it. We do what we do simply because it is right.”

My story starts with a winter memory of kindness, a day several passing motorists stopped to help get my car unstuck from an ice-coated driveway.  When I thanked them, one of the strangers thanked me right back, for giving him the opportunity to be helpful.

These last few weeks I’ve been remembering that normal, “simply because it is right” interaction because it left me focused on the “helper’s high” the kindness giver may feel, rather than the profound gratitude that may flood the recipient. For that learning, I apparently needed more than the minor annoyance of a stuck car.  A threat to my left eye created a mile-wide vulnerability ability to receive kindness.  I am sure the loving kindness that enveloped me hastened my emotional recovery.  Indeed, accepting and appreciating that kindness is a definite benefit of my frightening encounter with (limited) vision loss.

Since the incident is still fresh, I don’t yet have perspective. I don’t know for sure if the treatments will work, though the doctor assures me the odds are “heavily stacked” in my favor.  I don’t know if the sight in my left eye will ever improve.  Meanwhile, the possibility of the same problem arising in my right eye is very real, although here again the doctor is reassuring.  That’s a lot of unknowns.  Rather important unknowns.

However, I do know some things.

First, I know that it was a traumatizing shock to hear that I was in danger of losing all vision in my left eye without immediate, frightening treatments.  My response to be quiet, turn inward, and focus on my own feelings and healing was apparently both appropriate and effective, as my spirits rebounded substantially within a week of the first treatment.  Whatever the reality of my vision, I feel like myself again. Research shows that happier people may be more resilient.  Perhaps I had the science of happiness on my side.

Second, the treatment wasn’t as bad as I expected.  Obviously no one wants a shot in the eye.  For some reason, I assumed the injection would be in the pupil, a particularly distressing prospect. But it wasn’t the pupil, it wasn’t that painful, the eye wasn’t even especially sore afterwords.  A little freaky, but I can let go of ruminating over an unfounded fear.

Third, I know I am lucky to have insurance coverage for this doctor and these treatments. This was almost financially disastrous.  The first retina specialist my optometrist connected me with is outside my insurance coverage region, which would have meant an $1800 deductible followed by an ongoing 30% co-pay.  Both a retina specialist and the vision-saving drug are likely exceedingly expensive.  If the current doctor had not been available, I would obviously have gone to the first recommended specialist.  There would have been no real choice, even if saving my vision led to bankruptcy.  I am simultaneously grateful for my own good fortune and horrified that the minefield I dodged exists at all!

Fourth, Facebook and other social media were a godsend. While I am an extrovert who generally gets a lot of energy from face-to-face relationships, for about a week, I needed to cocoon.  Social media provided a way for me to reach out, and for others to respond. The morning of my first treatment, when I read the outpouring of caring responses to the blog I published the night before, I wept with appreciation.  The love I needed was there for me, thanks to the oft-maligned internet.

Fifth, I know that both the duration and intensity of my trauma were minimal compared with what many people endure. My thoughts on Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) refer only to my own experience.  Actually, as a non-therapist, I don’t know that much about Post Traumatic Growth, though it is a topic we touched on during the Certificate in Positive Psychology training.  Wikipedia says PTG, or “benefit finding”:  “refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. … Post traumatic growth is …. undergoing significant ‘life-changing’ psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful.”

Though only time will tell how life-changing this episode will be in my life, I can certainly say it contributed to “a personal process of change that is deeply meaningful.”  I believe I will look back at this time with a sense of peace, love, gratitude, and even joy. I foresee no reason why this trauma should be triggered in a negative way in the future, thanks to an awareness of the many gifts that supported me, including:

Gift of time.  My husband, friends, and the nature of my work and responsibilities at this stage of life allowed me to back off from everything that did not serve my needs. Again, I know I am fortunate.  And grateful.

Gift of writing. Sometimes writing feels like a burden to me.  In this case, writing allowed me to articulate the experience as I saw and felt it, giving me some sense of control over my own story.  I was so grateful to be a writer, especially when others told me that my story somehow inspired or helped them.  Amazing!  To be able to help others in my own time of pain, it blows me away.

Gift of reduced negativity. My initial diagnosis happened the day before the Orlando massacre.  While I normally follow the news pretty closely and cry with much of the world’s heartbreaks, this time, I limited my exposure.  Being a good citizen is important to me, but I had to take care of myself first.  This, by the way, is a gift each of us can give to ourselves when we need it.

Gift of modern medicine. Big pharma gets a bad rap for greed and money-fueled lobbying, but today I am very thankful for the drug industry.  Until recently, doctors had no way to help patients who developed the same condition I have.  My doctor told me, “We could only watch helplessly as they went blind.” The drug that is saving my eyesight has been in use for just 10 years.  Wow. So grateful. So lucky.

Gift of Good Luck.  Ferruci notes in his kindness book, that luck is largely a result of mindfulness, of noticing the goodness in life.  In addition to the medicine and the insurance, here’s another piece of luck I noticed: the flashing symptoms that sent me to the optometrist in the first place. Those symptoms were unrelated to the condition that exam discovered, yet without them,  don’t know when I would have noticed that the vision in my left eye was deteriorating.  Since my right eye was working overtime to compensate for the left, what luck to have flashing! Again, I am grateful.

Above all, gifts of love.  My husband, who spent many hours waiting in doctors’ offices with me; my friend Ulrike who told me to go ahead and cry at her birthday brunch if that’s what I needed (I did); the flowers, gift certificate, offers of whatever help I needed; even my son’s compliment on my writing skills — the gifts came in many forms.  I savor them all.  Each alone and all together, they mean so much.

So now I know.  Receiving kindness can be just as sweet as giving it.  May we all embrace both, wholeheartedly.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I'm not pretending.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I’m not pretending.

I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times.  It’s part of life, I say aloud.  Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”

Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument.  Bad times have arrived.

All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble.  The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away.  Not a good sign.  Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont.  More foreboding.  Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said.  “First we need pictures.”

Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech.  Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living.  I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.”  Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored.  Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink.  It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated.  Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye.  The doctor assures me, this will hurt.  I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away.  Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself.   I don’t, actually.  This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives.  Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute.  Bad times take many different forms.  Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.

The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation.  I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office.  I don’t know why.  Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry.  My left eye is irreversibly damaged.  I almost lost my vision completely in that eye.  That is worth grieving over.  That is worth many tears.

I know I’ll be done crying soon.  From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it.  There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there.  However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too.  Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic?  I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not.  Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun.  It might not even work.  It might happen in the other eye.  But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War.  He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism.  Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.

Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”  So be it.  Faith, yes.  And, tell me the truth.

I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse.  Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps?  Or their optimism isn’t reality based?

So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality.  That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend.  I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight.  I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist.  I will forgive myself.  Not yet, though.

Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness.  Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight.  Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn’t do it.  I just needed to be sad.

It’s dark, rainy and cold today.  Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return.  Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well.  Maybe not.  Either way is okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vermont's Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

Vermont’s Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

For my granddaughter Madeleine’s fourth birthday, my husband gave her a Sound of Music DVD.  She was pleased enough, but when we sat down to watch this family favorite together a conflict arose.  Madeleine insisted on Star Wars instead, with us. Since we most definitely did not want to watch Star Wars ourselves, unpleasantness was brewing.  So I dusted off my mediator skills — yes, these tools can work even with pre-schoolers — to determine why Madeleine was going to the mat for Star Wars.  The answer? Darth Vader, a major league bad guy.

Ah. Easy to solve. We had convinced Madeleine that Sound of Music was a happy, singing, dancing love fest when she is currently much more fascinated with monsters of all stripes.  When I explained that Sound of Music actually has some of the worst bad guys in history — real ones, led by the evil monster Hitler — Madeleine was satisfied.  She changed into a princess costume, and we settled in for an afternoon of nuns and Nazis.

Madeleine enjoyed herself, but with that set-up, I found Sound of Music to be a very disturbing movie.  It was unsettling at the least to watch the characters on screen — based on real people — go merrily about their lovely lives with picnics, puppet shows, and a gala ball despite the fact that their country was about to be devastated.  So much suffering was just around the corner, yet no one seemed to know or care, except the Captain.  Even he, though, seems completely absorbed in his own life.

The problem is, that’s kind of where we are right now — singing, dancing, falling in love, and having parties while the climate change monster is on our very doorstep, at best.  In many places, the ravages of climate change have already barged right through the front hall with never-before-imagined fires, droughts, super storms, and crazy temperatures.

Life where I live often seems normal, but it isn’t — and it isn’t normal where you are, either.  We can keep pretending that all is well – but that doesn’t change the fact that the telegraph boy singing to our daughter in the garden is a Nazi, metaphorically speaking.  Peril is upon us.  Beating back that peril will take a great deal more than the Captain’s defiant yanking down of the Swastika flag hanging from his villa. We have to rise up and take creative, strong, bold, and united action.

Montpelier, Vermont may not be as stunning as Salzburg, Austria where the Sound of Music takes place — but it is heartbreakingly lovely here, especially in the spring when the sun returns, the frogs again begin their loud mating rituals, and the Farmer’s Market comes back outside.  Sometimes, it is so hard to remember and appreciate that we are living under such a dire threat.  But we are.  We are.  We are.

Of course the comparison to the Sound of Music can only go so far.  How many of us actually make play clothes out of draperies any more?  And I by no means wish to imply that all the hard working men and women in the fossil fuels industry are Nazis.  We are all complicit in building and maintaining the system.

Here’s the good news, the really really good news: the climate justice movement is huge, a worldwide collaboration — growing not only numbers but also in audacity. Soon, from May 4-15, 2016 you can look for and participate in an unprecedented global wave of mass actions targeting the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects to keep coal, oil, and gas in the ground and accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable energy.

This tremendous resistance is called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” led by local and international organizations, grassroots groups, and regional coalitions  — all determined to stop fossil fuel projects with more than a dozen major mobilizations on six continents.  Excitingly, for my friends and readers in Vermont, one of these actions will be just across the border from us, in Albany, on May 14th.  You can get on a bus to head over there for this historic day!  All the info you need is here.

Wherever in the world you are, you can look to Break Free’s planned actions as an outstanding illustration of the perseverance and courage of citizen activists all across the planet.  Thank god for their willingness to put their bodies on the line!  I am deeply grateful, and heartened by the movement’s willingness to escalate resistance to free us all from the unspeakable suffering of climate change.

Equally important, Break Free is working to build a brighter future for all.  Certainly there are viable solutions.  In fact, in his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding says creating this better future should be easier than vanquishing the Nazis, once we’re all on board.

But we’re not all on board.  Despite December’s Paris climate agreement, governments remain irresponsibly slow to take real climate action — so we the people have to step it up.  Break Free proponents say we are close to an historic, global shift in our energy system.  The way we get there is by peaceful direct action that confronts those who are profiting from climate change and takes power back for the people.  This will often mean arrest, and creating situations that inconvenience and/or confuse others.

Not too long ago, there was an action in Montpelier which shut down a street and a critical office building in an effort to stop a fracked gas pipeline in my state.  I visited some of those camped out in the street, in the rain, offering them companionship and gratitude.  Other people dropped by to bring them food.  They had plenty of food.

The next night, I was stunned when a woman in my yoga class — a woman who works in the shut down office building — made snide and derogatory remarks about this same group of climate warriors.  We were preparing for yoga, a peaceful, respectful time, so I kept my mouth shut.  But I wanted to shout, they are trying to save the planet for godsakes!  Who cares if you’re inconvenienced at work for a few hours???

So I know not everyone will applaud those taking part in the Break Free actions.  But here’s the thing.  It is easy now to look back to the time of Sound of Music, and the war that followed, and applaud all the disobedience and resistance against the Nazis any and every citizen mustered.  Even, wish there had been more. How much more will that be the case in the future, as our grandchildren’s children reflect back on our actions?  Particularly since none of us can climb over a mountain to reach safety?  There is no safety.  If ever resistance and disobedience were called for, the time is now.

A final note.  What does this have to do with happiness?  Everything, it has everything to do with happiness.  You may have seen the meme floating around the internet proclaiming that “Happiness is an inside job.”  Well it is — and it is also an outside job.  Just how happy do you think the von Trapps were in exile, as they learned how many of their friends and neighbors back in Salzburg had been killed by the Nazis?  As they themselves struggled to build their new life?  And what of love and compassion?  How happy do you think I feel when I consider the world my beloved Madeleine will grow up to inherit?  Oh, yes, and food.  Food makes me happy.  What if climate change destroys the crops? Etc. Ad nauseum.

I’ll wrap up with one more look at the von Trapps.  Their love, music, play, resilience, and courage were all excellent coping qualities in extremely hard times, even if their lack of awareness and action was almost deadly for them.  Our challenge is to emulate their strengths as we face the peril of our age. Fine, let’s be playful: I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again — besides which you see I have confidence in the climate justice movement!  Seriously, I do.  May it be so.

 

Raccoons in your house? Not happy making at all.

Raccoons in your house? Not happy making at all.

Though we may sometimes feel like hard hats would be helpful, happiness isn’t a road construction project.  Metaphorically, it’s transportation related — you know, it’s the journeys we take, traversing the highways and byways of life.  We’re never finished — until, of course, we’re really finished.  (Hmmm, maybe happiness does resemble road maintenance after all …)

In any case, I’ve always appreciated the highway signs suggesting we chill out about the temporary inconvenience of driving delays and focus instead on the “permanent” improvements the highway crew is working so hard to create. Very positive attitude, very zen.  I like it.

Those signs have been on my mind lately, because I’m in the process of pushing through a personal “inconvenient” situation on the road to more-or-less permanent improvement — an improvement which is also, not coincidentally, a tiny drop in the ocean of changes we need for a happy, healthy planet.

My personal/collective temporary inconvenience has to do with weatherizing our house.  Reluctantly, I finally started the weatherization process by taking advantage of a free, community home energy visit.  I expected the visit to be unpleasant, which it was, even though the two energy experts were rational and personable grown-ups.  But sealing my house to minimize our consumption of fossil fuels, and maximize the effectiveness of whatever energy sources we do use, is not my idea of a good time.  It is expensive, aesthetically displeasing, and tedious.  Financially and time-wise, it is certainly inconvenient — at least in the short term.  Long term — that’s a different story.  Long term, it is a definite improvement, even a moral imperative.

In short, here’s the moral of this story: happiness is something we sometimes have to invest in, sacrifice for, work on.  There are a few subtexts — looking for silver linings, calming the ego down, appreciating what we have or have accomplished rather than what we think we’re lacking — but mostly, I’ve been mulling over the fact that building and maintaining happiness is not always easy or fun.

It’s a moral that matters, not just for ourselves, but for a happy planet. As I’ve been tossing this personal happiness issue around my brain, I’ve appreciated how much the “temporary inconvenience, permanent improvement” mantra also applies to fighting climate change.  Certainly, much of the consumer-driven capitalist system is convenience-based — buying new rather than repairing, the ease of tossing clothes into a dryer rather than hanging them on the line, the comfort of seat warmers in the car during winter rather than tolerating the cold for a few extra minutes, etc., ad infinitum.  Paper napkins and disposable plastic forks.  Leaf blowers.  For god’s sake, can’t we just use rakes?  Or even let a few leaves decorate our sidewalks?

Of course, we all know — on some level, at least, we all know — the earth cannot afford our wasteful ways.  Heck, we personally can barely afford our wasteful, spendthrift ways.  But to change all this … oh, how inconvenient. How dreadfully inconvenient.  (And, please be assured, I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to you!)

Clearly, we need to embrace the road sign view of inconvenience — it’s temporary.  And then life gets better. Whereas, if we don’t embrace inconvenience … well, just look around at the state of our infrastructure. Might that slogan be, “Permanent convenience, permanent disrepair?”

Embracing the road to improvement doesn’t mean it won’t be a bumpy ride.  The day of our unhappy home energy visit,  I was close to tears most of the time.  Every time the earnest conservation advocates found another energy-inadequate part of the house, I felt personally at fault.  Silly ego.  I can work on that.  The real problem is, my house is a money pit.  Being forced to face that fact yet again — when we are already strapped for funds — was painful.  I tried to be grateful and focus on the good, but I could not stop wallowing in unhappiness.

But leaky houses are a major Vermont contributor to climate change; audits show homeowners how to tighten up their homes to stop wasting energy (fossil fuels or from other sources).  I can’t just march for climate change; I have to do my best to walk that talk.  Otherwise, among other things, I would be out of coherence with my own belief system, which would surely make me unhappy.  In this case, that means insulating and sealing attic spaces where, coincidentally, raccoons have recently taken up residence.

In case you don’t know, raccoons are not nice and not cute when they invade your home.  They are clever, persistent, brazen, destructive, and loud!  In our case, they had ripped off siding to shimmy into our nice warm eaves — creating an opening to let them in and heat out.  A double problem for us.

So here’s the silver lining: our weatherization efforts will eliminate the raccoons’ ability to get inside our house.  Not only that, enrolling in an energy efficiency program means we will qualify for special tax incentives and low interest loans.   When I called Efficiency Vermont to get started, I was reassured that we can tackle our long term weatherization project in a step-by-step, kaizen kind of way.  It will still be inconvenient and expensive, but I’ll sleep so much better knowing I’m keeping the heat in — and the raccoons out!

Furthermore, the very nice contractor I spoke with would not buy into my self-pity party about my house.  He kept re-framing the issue as an opportunity.  “You have a lovely house in a great neighborhood,” he told me.  “And now you have the opportunity to make it energy efficient.”

Isn’t the same thing true with the bigger planetary picture?  Don’t we have a lovely planet in a great neighborhood?  And if we embrace the inconvenience of “weatherizing” our planet, so to speak, what silver linings might we find along the way?  I’m thinking now of metaphoric raccoons: the persistent and pernicious advertisements, come-ons, lures, and gimme’s that urge us to buy things we don’t need, with money we can’t afford to spend, for things that collectively are driving the climate change engine.  Aaahhhh …. Just imagine!  Our mental and literal attics would be so much cleaner and happier if we kicked those raccoons out, too.  That’s an inconvenience and improvement I can definitely be zen about!

 

 

 

 

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

It was Mardi Gras season, and I was excited to rejoin The Happiness Walk in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  We were headed west toward Houston, right through Lafayette, Louisiana — the Happiest City in America.  Since the Happiness Walk is all about gaining a deeper understanding of individual happiness, we made Lafayette our headquarters for a week.

Let’s just say I didn’t lose any weight.

Clearly, food is a big part of the happiness recipe here. One woman told me, “If we’re not eating, we’re planning our next meal.”  From beignets to etoufee, shrimp gumbo (did you know you can put potato salad in gumbo instead of sour cream??) to boiled crawfish and white chocolate bread pudding, and other delectables I enjoyed tremendously but don’t remember how to pronounce or spell, Louisiana food is heavenly.

Savoring is a highly recommended happiness strategy, and lots of savoring goes on in the Lafayette environs — even a seemingly ordinary convenience store was filled with enticing aromas, emanating in part from the tastiest onion rings I’ve ever eaten.  Additionally, food here seems often to be created and dished out lovingingly, as well as received gratefully.  Pleasure and kindness combined.  All good.

Is it really coincidence that five other Louisiana cities made the top 10 list in a 2014 academic report?  The researchers used data from the highly respected Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. In contrast, my food assertion is founded largely on non-scientific, non-rigorous personal experience — which also tells me there’s more to the story than food.  The full Louisiana happiness recipe contains many other ingredients.

A Listening Tour: Let me back up and explain a bit about The Happiness Walk, which is part of GNHUSA. Essentially, this step-by-step enterprise is one big qualitative research project. From Stowe, Vermont in August 2012 to Washington, D.C., down the eastern seaboard to Jacksonville, Florida before turning west, The Happiness Walk records thousands of interviews with “regular” people all along the way.  By the time we hit Los Angeles, then Seattle, and finally arrive home in Vermont in late 2018, we will have listened to many, many thousands of people share what matters most to them in life.  The interviews will be transcribed, and the data analyzed by academics.

Our listening is heartfelt, and the interviews are voluntary.  Here as elsewhere, not everyone wanted anything to talk with us.  Wherever we listen, it’s not a quantitative scientific sampling.  Still, we did find Lafayette to be especially happy.

I even have some data to back up our personal observations: in Lafayette, we had more offers of hosts, meals, and drivers than we could actually use.  That has never happened before.  Though individuals are amazingly generous to us wherever we go, the collective and varied Louisiana generosity reached a new level.  In addition to food, rides, and housing, we received:

  • Gifts of time, as groups of locals joined us on the Walk and evening gatherings;
  • Gifts of knowledge, with arranged walks to NUNU (which is pioneering a shared arts economy and reviving the area’s French heritage) and to Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is made (and where we sampled jalapeno ice cream);
  • Unsolicited cash donations; and
  • A surprise trip to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, topped off with a souvenir gold lame pantsuit!

Beyond the data, there was an intangible joie-de-vivre (joy of life) on this trip.  Everywhere, the motto seemed to be laissez les bons temps roulez (let the good times roll) — no matter life’s very real challenges. 

That spirit was on full display when we arrived at our host Jeannette’s house just in time for a party with gumbo, etoufee, and King Cake.  Many of the guests that night belong to the “Bluebirds,” a cancer survivor’s group.  They were celebrating one Bluebird’s birthday — but they were also celebrating and grieving Cecile, another Bluebird who had died of breast cancer just a month earlier.

This is not fake, pasted-on-smiles happiness.  These folks are not in denial of the bad stuff life dishes out.  Since Lafayette is an oil town, and that industry is struggling, the area is facing serious economic turmoil with foreclosures and lay-offs.  We heard all too many cancer stories.  And we were told of widespread poverty in the region. There’s plenty to cope with.  Letting the good times roll seems to be a well-tuned coping mechanism.

I’m not an anthropologist, and we were only there for a week.  That said, here are other factors that seem to be at the core of Louisiana happiness:

  1. Heritage.  The whole trip, we were in the thick of French Acadian, or Cajun, culture.  At Jeannette’s party, I asked one of the guests how other people could be as happy as they all seemed to be.  “You have to be born here,” was the reply.
  2. Families. Everywhere we go, we hear how important families are, but there was a different flavor here.  Seemingly, Acadian families stay close together — all the better to let the good times roll.  We met a man in nearby Krotz Springs who was paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident.  Yet he told us he is a very happy man, in part because he’s built a wheelchair accessible party room and deck, with space for boiling crawfish with all the grandchildren.
  3. Fun. Then there was Andrew in Arnaudville.  He showed us his newly-renovated family homestead, complete with a huge deck and covered cooking area, and camper hook-ups, so his whole family can come have fun together.  And let us not forget the distinctive Cajun music and dance, which we enjoyed very much on a night out with Jeannette.
  4. Faith.  We hear this a lot, too, especially in the South.  Here, though, people didn’t seem to wear their faith on their sleeves as much as other places, perhaps because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion.  It all felt much more laissez-faire.

My biggest takeaway? I’m not Catholic, I don’t speak French, and, sadly, I don’t think there’s much hope for me in the food department.  Instead, I want to lift up the joy.  I want to celebrate more!  Last Saturday, I donned the gold lame and Mardi Gras beads.  I just might wear them this coming Saturday, too.  It’s not a natural fit, but you know what they say: laissez les bons temps roulez!