Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Folly Beach rooftop view

The rooftop deck of the beach house we were going to rent in April 2020.

It was the morning of Thursday, March 12, 2020 when I realized my life was about to be upended. Even though that was less than two weeks ago, I can’t remember what evidence made me grasp that my plans for the next month were all for naught. I just remember suddenly knowing that Covid-19 was a real and present threat. Time to adjust.

I was at my daughter’s Wisconsin apartment at the time. My husband and I had planned to stay another week, watching our granddaughter’s gymnastics practice, visiting the gym ourselves, maybe spending Sunday afternoon at the indoor pool at the Y. Then we would drive back home to Vermont, briefly, before going south. In late March, I was scheduled lead a Unitarian Universalist service in Massachusetts, followed by visits with family in Pennsylvania, and friends in North and South Carolina, with another guest sermon scheduled for the first Sunday in April in Beaufort, SC. Then … aaaahhhh … time for Bob and me to relax for a week in Folly Beach, South Carolina. I planned to do art, read, walk the beach and just generally chill.  I expected red wine and fish tacos would be involved. I had been looking forward to this trip for several months, imagining sunsets from the screened porch and a lot of quality time on the rooftop deck. But that Thursday morning, I knew we had to head home immediately, and stay home. There would be no leisurely drive south.

The realization left me feeling shaky and weepy. Okay, so I had to cancel my trip. Big deal. It wasn’t the fact of canceling — it was the reality behind it that threw me for a loop. I knew we were all in for a collective frightening ride, that the rug had just been pulled out from all of us, with no clear idea of how bad things might get nor how long this crisis might last. Those are still giant unknowns.

One thing was clear: I had to contact the rental agency to get cancel the reservation and get

Folly Beach Screened Porch

The screened porch I daydreamed about spending time on …

our money back. I had only just paid the balance due on Monday the 9th, a mere three days before. I did not have great faith in the rental agency, a national company that had just bought out the company from whom I had originally rented the South Carolina beach house. Two years ago, this same company had bought the Florida rental agency I had used for years — and then immediately jacked up all the rates. I didn’t appreciate that I was stuck with them again. But surely, in this time of crisis, even this company with its late-stage capitalism policies, would refund our payment?

Well, no, no they would not (at least not yet — I’m not through with that battle). I tried several times to make my case to the harried young-sounding woman on the phone, while she quoted back to me the agency line: no trip insurance, no refund — though they would issue me a credit to stay with them at some future time. Agitated to begin with, I felt myself ramping up until, happily — truly, happily — compassion kicked in. I suddenly heard the distress in her voice, which allowed me to step out of my own unhappiness, and be there for her.

I stopped arguing. I said something like, “I imagine you’re having a lot of difficult conversations today.” She paused, and said, “Normally, I am talking with people who are very excited about going on vacation. Now, call after call is filled with big emotions.” This poor woman! Obviously, she wasn’t responsible for the company’s policy but nonetheless had to maintain her poise with one upset caller after another. Not only that, the company is based in the Pacific Northwest, an early hotbed of Covid-19 in the United States. I’m sure she had her own “big emotions.” We talked a bit longer, she promised to do her best for me, and I wished her well.

When I got off the phone, I almost didn’t care about the refund. It’s a chunk of money, and I still want it back — but my primary emotion was compassion for the unknown woman on the other end of call. Compassion is always a valuable commodity in our frail human lives. During the time of Covid-19, I’m sure it will be way more valuable and necessary. Fortunately, the supply is limitless.

And, compassion makes us happy. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” That, perhaps, is the number one guideline for happiness in this moment.

BTW, she called me back, twice. Both times it was late in the day on Sunday the 15th. We were driving back to Vermont (my husband was behind the wheel). The first time, she told me that she was sorry, that the manager wouldn’t budge: no refund. I was grateful for her efforts. The second time, she told me that she had tried one other avenue, but still no success. By then, she sounded so tired. When I asked if she ever got any time off, she told me that she was about to go home and rest “for a few hours.” Yikes. Honestly, at that point, I cared a lot more about her well-being than my refund. I wished her well.

And I still hold her in my heart. I want her to be happy, I want me to be happy, I want you to be happy. May it be so.

 

 

IMG_2909How do you think things are going these days? How happy do you suppose the United States is, as a whole? Of course, the corona virus has a lot of us on edge, but what’s the bigger picture? How about Denmark? Korea? Turkey? Mexico?

You probably have a pretty good idea of how well things are going in your own country – or at least you think you do. Indeed, probably much of what you believe about the well-being in your corner of the world is likely based on solid but limited evidence, in the same way that you can step outside and know whether or not it’s raining. But what we can’t know, just by standing in the rain, is how long it will last. Is a cold front arriving? Or is warm air sweeping in from the south? Etc. For context, whether it’s weather or national well-being, we need much more information. Reliable information, that is.

Fortunately, on the well-being front, there is a great source of data: the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which released its latest report, “How’s Life? 2020 Measuring Well-being” on March 9th.

This is the fifth such report from the OECD. The data is based on over 80 indicators, from 41 countries, and it is considered within an ongoing context to determine whether life is getting better or worse. The OECD’s goal is to help “shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all” – based on the evidence. Afterall, shouldn’t public policy respond to something more substantial than stepping outside and feeling the raindrops? For that matter, shouldn’t major decisions in our own lives be more evidence-based?

That has been the goal of Gross National Happiness USA (GNHUSA) since we began in 2009: measure what matters, using a broad array of holistic indicators to cover all aspects of a meaningful life – and then enact policies based on what the measurements tell us is needed. GNHUSA is looking at data from the Happiness Walk to see how, if at all, we should change the domains and indicators originally created in Bhutan and adapted slightly in the U.S. You can see these indicators, and add your own voice to the data, at the Happy Counts index sponsored by the Happiness Alliance, a Seattle-based organization.

The OECD has moved in this direction also, with its own “well-being framework covering 11 dimensions of well-being: income and wealth; work and job quality; housing; health; knowledge and skills; environment quality; subjective well-being; safety; work-life balance; social connections; and civic engagement. The framework also considers inequalities across all dimensions of well-being, as well as the resources and risk factors that shape future well-being,” according to their website.

So what are some of the results of the OECD 2020 report? It’s a mixed bag. Household income, employment, and life expectancy are all up. Murder rates are down. But “housing affordability, voter turnout and income inequality have stagnated,” and more than “1 in 3 OECD households are financially insecure.”

Most worrisome to me, though, is this finding: “advances in current well-being have not always been matched by improvements in the resources that sustain well-being over time, with warning signs emerging across natural, human, economic and social capital.” And this one: “How’s Life? also points to emerging risks across natural, economic and social systems that can threaten future well-being. The consumption of the average OECD resident produced fewer carbon emissions than in 2010, but used more of the Earth’s materials – the total OECD material footprint increased by 1.2 tonnes per capita to 25. In 2018 only 10.5% of the OECD’s energy mix comes from renewable sources, and in almost half of OECD countries thousands of species are at risk of extinction.”

Those are terrible numbers. But the data makes it clear, we have much more work to do for the long-term, sustainable well-being for all people, animals, and the planet. Anybody who thinks, maybe we’re doing okay on the environmental front, can instead look at the numbers and consider ways of doing much, much better.

BTW, the OECD data is not just in the aggregate. You can click on individual countries, like the United States, for example, to get detailed information broken down for each of the countries in the report. The report will note how a given country is doing in terms of such indicators as lack of social support, overall negative affect, and the gender gap in feeling safe. You can see not only how the country you are interested in ranks compared to other OECD countries, but you can also learn whether there is consistent improvement or consistent deterioration.

Truly, this report is a veritable gold mine of data! More data than you can shake a stick at! If you want to really know how well we’re all doing – dive right in.

But don’t take too long, because another report is due out soon. The World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, gets a lot of attention when it comes out on March 20th each year because it ranks how happy each country is. The reigning champion is Finland. I suspect that, when the 2020 report comes out, it will show that the U.S. trend down the happiness list is continuing. But who knows? No need for guesswork. The data will tell the story.

Guest preacher Ginny Sassaman

Ginny outside the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Society of Barnard, VT July 2017

I can hardly believe it’s been almost a year since I last posted an essay here!

It’s not that I haven’t been busy doing my best to spread the happiness message — I have been, very busy.

Serving as President of Gross National Happiness USA — an organization I helped start up in 2009 — took a lot of time, attention, and energy. Last September, I resigned from the GNHUSA governing board (I’m now on the advisory board) to devote needed time to writing my book, tentatively titled Preaching Happiness: Secular Sermons for Everyone Who Wants a Happier World.

I have a publisher, and the book is scheduled for a May 2020 release. So exciting!

Let me tell you a bit about it. Back in 2013, I was first invited by my own church, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier (UCM) to deliver a sermon on personal and collective happiness. I was thrilled, and accepted immediately. Since then, I’ve delivered sermons on multiple aspects of both systems change (ie, the Gross National Happiness paradigm) and the ways nurturing personal happiness skills can make life better for ourselves, and serve the greater good.  It has been a great privilege to share this knowledge with multiple churches in Vermont, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Together, these sermons — and five more I’m writing for the summer of 2019 — will comprise the new book, along with an intro chapter explaining just how and why someone who never attended seminary ended up preaching happiness.

My most recent sermon was back at UCM, which recorded what I had to share on the subject of kindness. UCM has been invaluable to me on my happiness journey in so many ways, not least of which has been the opportunity to watch and learn from a profoundly powerful minister, Rev. Joan Javier-Duval, week after week. We are so fortunate to have her in our community!

There’s another church which has played a particularly important role in my lay preaching career: The First Unitarian Universalist Church and Society of Barnard, Vermont.  It’s a lovely historic building, housing a congregation that meets just eight weeks each summer and therefore relies on guest preachers rather than a settled minister. They do, however, have an awesome music director! Barnard is also a vibrant summer town, with one of the best general stores in Vermont and Silver Lake state park just across the street — so it’s been a real joy to lead 11 services there. In 2019, I’m leading five more services there, and really looking forward to it.

Preaching repeatedly to the same wonderful group of folks has afforded me the opportunity to dig a little deeper into each happiness topic, and repeatedly connect the dots between cultivating personal and systems change. Topics so far include the growth economy, social comparison, mindfulness, and the interconnections between animal and human well-being (thanks to Beth Allgood and the International Fund for Animal Welfare).

Upcoming topics are learning, nature, beauty, resilience, and, the big question: can happiness save us? (Spoiler alert: yes, it can, but will it?)

So that’s what I’ve been up to, what I’m still up to. I love, love, love sharing my happiness teachings from the pulpit! And I’m very excited to get the collected sermons out there in book form.  Please email me at HappinessParadigm@gmail.com if a) you think I might be a good fit with your congregation and/or b) you want to make sure your name is on the list for pre-ordering the book. I’ll get back to you promptly, and with gratitude.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender (50)

We are in heartbreaking times. When yet another unarmed black teenager gets gunned down running from police, when the president of the United States terms immigrants fleeing from hunger and deadly gang violence as “animals” and an “infestation,” when the poor are denied life-saving health care, and Muslims and LGBTQ folk are targets of hate crimes and hateful Supreme Court rulings … people, we have a problem.

When one TV pundit mocks a 10 year old immigrant girl with Down Syndrome, separated from her parents, with the extremely inelegant, “Womp Womp” and another talking head dismisses the children’s cages and aluminum foil blankets by saying, “They are not our children,” we have a problem.

When Puerto Ricans perish in astonishing numbers due to neglect from their own country! following a ravaging hurricane, and when Flint, Michigan STILL!! doesn’t have drinking water, oh, lord, do we have a problem.

Really, of course, we have many many problems, including the unrelenting pressure of brutal capitalism. Perhaps because of that heartless force, I believe we suffer from another gigantic and unnecessary problem — fear, often hatred, of “the other.” We suffer, and we cause suffering — hardening our hearts to others inevitably hardens our hearts, period.  When we embrace fear and hatred, we are all less happy.

One of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson notes poetically, “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.”  The same is true of fear and hatred.

But I don’t want to lecture. I want instead to share an insight on the happiness of diversity, an insight that took me totally by surprise. In the most unlikely of places, I realized that opening our hearts and accepting others can be a joy, a liberating action which allows us to open our hearts to our own selves as well. It doesn’t need to be a chore, something the diversity training officer tells us we must do.

No — even in the face of so much bigotry, sometimes you can catch more flies with honey — and the place to start, as always, is with ourselves.  In this case, the honey was harvested in a milieu I have rarely frequented: the gym. To be specific, the Planet Fitness in Racine, Wisconsin.

I had gone to the famed tropical locale of Racine for the month of February 2017 because our daughter, a single mom with exceptionally heavy professional responsibilities that month, needed our help. Her apartment is right on Lake Michigan which means bitter cold winter winds. I needed to exercise, but my usual choice of long outdoor walks was less than appealing. So, in a slight state of disbelief, I joined the gym.

For the first two days, I went to the treadmill with my head down, embarrassed, not wanting anyone to see me and not wanting to look at anybody else, either.  Finally, on day three, I looked up. What a beautiful revelation: everyone was there! Well, not everyone — there were no little children. But there were all kinds of bodies, ages, colors and genders.  I even saw someone on crutches, and someone else in a wheel chair.  Everyone. That meant I, too, with all my human foibles — some of them uncomfortably on display — fit right in.  We were all, essentially, equal. As far as I could tell, privilege of any sort got checked at the door.

I was kind of astonished. I felt like I had stumbled on an oasis in this mixed up country of ours, a place where everyone could just be accepted for who and what we actually are.  I was also delighted.  Drinking in the diversity, on a level playing field, not only pleased me intellectually but also loosened some of my own emotional chains. I could stop judging! I could stop worrying about being judged! I could stop judging myself! 

No wonder I felt happy.

It’s important to point out, the Planet Fitness atmosphere is not accidental.  Everywhere you turn inside this gym, the national chain has large, friendly signs posted urging, “No judging.” “No gymtimidation.” “We love you for who you are,” etc. It doesn’t hurt that the signs are purple, either. The staff also appears to walk the talk, with a warm and friendly welcome for everyone. I feel so welcome there! And it is my belief (and maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just my white privilege speaking ) that everyone else feels welcome too — even, because this is a chain with a low fee/high participation marketing model, those who don’t have a lot of extra money to spend.

This all felt so good to me, I joined my local Planet Fitness when I returned to Vermont in March. Thus, it is a gift that keeps on giving, as I take better care of my body on a more regular basis — which is happy making in and off itself. It also appears to be an excellent business practice, as the gym is almost always crowded.

Of course, society is not a gym, where each of us is doing our own thing. We may be equal, but we’re also separate.  Also, obviously, a good workout is not going to end racism, classicism, ageism —  though it is both an excellent coping mechanism and a great boost in helping us keep up the resistance for the long haul.

Still, I wonder, why does the diversity within the gym bring me such joy? I think there are two main reasons. First, we humans need each other, we need connections. Doesn’t it therefore make sense that putting up walls against other people also makes us unhappy? That tearing down those walls and allowing for connection resonates naturally as a positive experience?

Second, when we are working so hard to build up our judgy muscles against others, we are also training those muscles to judge our own selves. Quite harshly, in most cases, wouldn’t you agree? Whereas, accepting others does the opposite — it trains our brains (and hearts!) to accept our own selves as well.

So, yes I am heartbroken, even despairing at times. Other times, I pack my gym bag and head to my purple haven, my place of non-judging, and devote a few hours to building a softer heart and harder muscles.  Though the possibility of six pack abs is several decades behind me (but no judging!), I can still work toward greater love, acceptance, and — even in these sad days — happiness.

 

 

The view greeting chief Happiness Walker Paula Francis on the Happiness Walk in April 2018.

When the residents of Portland, Oregon or Olympia, Washington or any of the other cities on Leg 13 of the Happiness Walk see Paula Francis and other walkers in their neon “Serious About Happiness” vests, they will likely not realize that they are witnessing a wide-ranging research project.  They also won’t know that the Walk in front of them originated in Stowe, Vermont and has logged nearly 6,000 miles on foot so far — unless they stop and engage in conversation with the walkers. They might even agree to become research participants themselves by answering one fundamentally important question: “What matters most in life to you?”

To date, the Walk has conducted many thousands of these interviews; GNHUSA is in the process of transcribing and analyzing the data from the Walk’s earlier days. Those of us who’ve walked know that the overwhelming answer for Americans of all stripes is some form of relationship and love. But we also know that regional differences are likely to emerge on various themes. Take religion and spirituality as an example. When I joined Paula for several weeks in the Jacksonville, Florida area, there was an emphasis on Jesus. In Louisiana, I noted a general talk about religion but it was more Catholic in tone and less specifically focused on Jesus. Then in Santa Fe, the talk shifted to more of a mindfulness-centered spirituality. Who knows what will show up in interviews when I join the Happiness Walk again in Portland?

The data will tell us! As Carl Polley, PhD, an instructor at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, and a new member of the GNHUSA advisory board notes,”The data collected via Happiness Walk interviews serves as a valuable record of how individuals in many different areas across the United States think about and talk about happiness.”

So why are we walking all these miles and asking so many people the same question? Particularly given the amount of research over the last few years on the science of personal happiness?

Paula Francis, center, with two walk interviewees in northern California.

The answer lies, at least to start, in Bhutan. In 2008, when Bhutan very methodically set about creating a Gross National Happiness system to measure collective well-being, they surveyed all Bhutanese citizens to determine what actually made them happy. Using this data, the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed nine domains where optimal happy-making conditions could be supported by government policy. It’s even part of Bhutan’s constitution: “the State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”

The Bhutanese research was exhaustive and exhausting: six hour interviews with every citizen!  From those interviews they determined the nine domains: psychological well being; material well being; good governance; health; community vitality; education, cultural diversity and resilience; balanced time use; and ecological diversity – in other words, a diverse set of holistic measures.  Major decisions are run through an extensive grid measuring multiple factors within each domain to determine if a particular law or policy is likely to increase or decrease the people’s happiness.

It’s still a young system, and movement. The entrenched obstacles are obviously significant – but GNH is spreading. Even the United Arab Emirates has a Minister of Happiness! Countries worldwide recognize the urgency in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message on happiness. He said, “Happiness is neither a frivolity nor a luxury. It is a deep-seated yearning shared by all members of the human family. It should be denied to no-one and available to all. This aspiration is implicit in the pledge of the United Nations Charter to promote peace, justice, human rights, social progress and improved standards of life.

“Now is the time to convert this promise into concrete international and national action to eradicate poverty, promote social inclusion and inter-cultural harmony, ensure decent livelihoods, protect the environment and build institutions for good governance,” Ban Ki-moon continued. “These are the foundations for human happiness and well-being.”

Rolling out the welcome mat for the Happiness Walk in Crescent City!

We at GNHUSA wholeheartedly agree. The time is now, to use a holistic set of alternative indicators as the north star for personal and collective well being. But, what should those indicators look like here in the United States? We are a very different country from Bhutan — and obviously, no one in the United States is going to attempt six hour interviews of every adult living here!

Laura Musikanski and other colleagues at the Happiness Alliance have been working on this question since 2011, and have compiled quite a lot of compelling data already. GNHUSA, in collaboration with the Center for Rural Studies at University of Vermont and other partners in the Vermont Data Collaborative, has been doing the same thing on a localized Vermont level; that collaborative recently published its 2017 survey on happiness and well being in Vermont.

The Happiness Walk, with its multitude of transnational interviews, seeks to complement and build on research being done by others. Indeed, we are even complementing our own Walk data with an online survey on our website. Click here and add your voice to the research!

There is another interesting scientific aspect to the Walk: “micro bursts of love.” We get that term from Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and the principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  She is also the former president of the International Positive Psychology Association — so definitely a leading light in the positive psychology research world.  In the Daily Good Frederickson wrote,

“Love, as your body experiences it, is a micro-moment of connection shared with another. And decades of research now shows that love, seen as these micro-moments of positive connection, fortifies the connection between your brain and your heart and makes you healthier. […] It can seem surprising that an experience that lasts just a micro-moment can have any lasting effect on your health and longevity. Yet there’s an important feedback loop at work here, an upward spiral between your social and your physical well-being. That is, your micro-moments of love not only make you healthier, but being healthier also builds your capacity for love. Little by little, love begets love by improving your health. And health begets health by improving your capacity for love.”

On the Happiness Walk, we experience frequent micro bursts of love. These moments seem magical. In reality, they spring from the connecting power of listening. We listen with open minds and hearts to what matters most in people’s lives. We aren’t asking for money, or votes. We aren’t proselytizing. We’re just listening. The interviewees, in turn, open their hearts and minds, and from their mouths flow the most amazing stories and poignant observations. We all fall in love with each other. Then we say goodbye and continue on our separate journeys.

So this a quest full of hope, a Walk that directly engages the public in building awareness and support for a new paradigm — one that will steer individual decision making and public policy making away from the grip of GDP and consumerism to focus instead on true well-being for all humans, animals, and the planet, stirs something within all of us. We know that we can do better — and with love and research, we will.

This post was originally published on the Happy Brain Science website as part of a collaboration with HBS Founder and Chief Happiness Officer Scott Crabtree. Happy Brain Science, based in Portland, OR, empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work. It has also been published on the website of Gross National Happiness USA, of which I am currently president.

 

10001133_10202686602098589_1523565275819288905_o

With my husband Bob and Common Cause Chairman Archibald Cox in the 1980’s, when I finally got to a happy ending.

Okay, so maybe despair is not totally avoidable. Maybe, in fact, pain and suffering are sometimes necessary on the journey toward a more positive future.  Certainly, the happy ending in this blog post would not have happened without the spur — the gift, even — of a desperate situation.  This is a story of tears, yes — followed by resilience, hard work, and the willingness to let go of plans and expectations to embrace new possibilities instead. In other words, hope, grounded in reality.

I have been reflecting on this episode from my younger days recently because despair is again nibbling at my heels.  It is an altogether natural response to the loss of morality, truth, justice, decency, compassion, common sense, and even the barest hint of democracy among the GOP House and Senate thugs, and the wildly out-of-control Trump administration. Remembering the story below has beaten back the despair for now because it reminds me that 1) happy endings are still possible; 2) the dreadful awful terrible news of the moment may ultimately be a gift; and 3) we don’t know what the future holds.

An important caution: happy endings are by no means guaranteed, no matter how good we are or how diligently we strive for the best. Countless lives have already been grievously disrupted, or cut short, by the politics of class, hate, and exclusion which have turned our country into a dystopia.  Doubtless, there will be enormous suffering, including deaths, before we turn this ship around. Still, ultimately, for those of us left standing when the sun shines again (which may or may not include me, or you), I have hope for a better future. It may well be that we collectively have to go through these dark times in order to do the work required to create a more just, happy, and sustainable future. In any case, we’re here now.

On a small personal scale, those are the messages from this true story — two stories, really — which played out more than 30 years ago.

ACT ONE: Getting and Losing My Dream Job

My first real post-college job was writing for a public television station continuity department. Think, “That’s Sesame Street, tomorrow afternoon at 4:00!” Because that position left me with extra time, not to mention un-tapped creative potential, I initiated various other projects, like producing filler videos for when shows ran short, and producing new station sign-on and sign-off videos. I loved producing, even at this very dysfunctional station. Hey, it was television! And public television at that, so I was on the side of angels…

One day, I was asked to be co-host and associate producer of a new public affairs program focused on women and minorities. Of course I said YES!! There were multiple catches. First, no raise. It wasn’t in the station’s budget, even though the male co-host and associate producer earned substantially more than me. Second, no title change. I was officially still just a continuity writer, because the Board never approved my position. Third, I still had to meet all my continuity department assignments — so I had considerably more work to do than my much higher paid co-host (who was a really nice guy). Not only that — both supervisors warned me that I had to do superlative work in each job, or, bye-bye co-hosting/producing dream job.

Great deal, right?? Still, I said yes.

The arrangement didn’t actually last all that long, maybe six months. Oh, I did superlative work, alright — and my family and I paid the price. The hours were long, the stress incredible. I kept asking, please, at least just give me a new title! But nothing. Just the admonition that, if I couldn’t keep up, I would be replaced.

Finally I decided to file a sex discrimination lawsuit. I was far from the only person at that station being treated poorly. The lawsuit beckoned my Don Quixote soul as a way to seek justice for myself and others. The lawyer told me I had a very strong case.

However, for better and for worse, I have always had a big mouth. Though I will never know exactly what happened, someone must have told station management about my lawsuit plans. Days before the suit was due to be filed, I was called into the president’s office. He told me, “It’s just not working out.” I knew it was because of the lawsuit; in fact, months later the president told me that I had actually been much better with the show than anyone expected. Even the day he delivered the devastating news of no more co-hosting and no more associate producing, he let me know I was still welcome to continue with the show as an assistant producer. I declined. My dream was shattered.

Hello despair. I went home and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. I stayed away from work for the next three days to grieve and weigh my options. The lawyer informed me, I no longer had a strong case. So I had these options: quit immediately, give two weeks notice, or hang in there until I had a better job. I chose number three. No running away for me. Not that I knew it at the time, but I now believe this resilience is one of the keys to hope: face the reality head-on, and then dig deep to work hard toward a better situation. 

ACT TWO: Common Cause, more despair, and more resilience

It was another tough six months from February to the August date when I was offered, and accepted, a position as Assistant Director of Media Communications in the Common Cause national office in Washington, DC.  By accepting that job, I let go of my plans to have a future in television, and opened myself up to a whole new career path — a decision I have never regretted. Also, I would never have sought the Common Cause job if I hadn’t been kicked off the show, so in retrospect, getting kicked off the show was a gift. Both of these feel like additional key aspects of hope: we can’t hold too tightly to our previous scripts. We must be willing to take risks, and find new openings. And, what appears to be misfortune in the moment may actually be a blessing. 

Those last months at the station were, of course, challenging. I remember a few sour things about those months — like a few of my close friends at the station saying they were afraid to be publicly associated with me anymore — but other colleagues went out of their way to tell me how much they admired my strength. I even sometimes found joy in that workplace, and can fondly recall some special moments in those closing months.

Nonetheless, the day I resigned, I literally danced into my boss’s office and sang, “I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit.”

Not surprisingly, I arrived at Common Cause with a chip on my shoulder toward authority. I was thrilled to be there but was also too confrontational for the culture and well-entrenched hierarchy. Still, I was stunned when my boss told me there were problems with my job performance — problems significant enough to extend my three-month parole another three months. If I still couldn’t clean up my act … well, that alternative was unthinkable.

Again I went home, sobbed, and weighed my choices: a) hand in my two weeks notice or b) figure out just what I had to do to succeed, and friggin do it. I desperately did not want to fail again. And I had just uprooted my whole family to move to DC — a move none of them were happy about at that time. What real choice did I have? It took a bit of ranting and raving, but ultimately I chose b.

ACT THREE: Finally! My happy ending. 

Thank god, and whoever or whatever gave me the capacity to do that work, I did do it. I succeeded. I loved Common Cause, the organization and the people — and they loved me. Common Cause was filled with the best and the brightest — people of integrity, ideals, brains, and high spirits — led by chairman and a true American hero Archibald Cox.  Fred Wertheimer, who was president for the full six years I was at Common Cause, is a brilliant lawyer who could have made a fortune in the private sector but chose instead to devote his life to strategizing and lobbying for a better Democracy. I have so much love and admiration for both these men. Archie has passed away, but Fred is still at it. Talk about determination! Amazing.

It was an honor and a privilege to work there. The entire staff and extraordinarily dedicated volunteer corps worked hard — this time, truly on the side of angels — and we had fun, loads of it.  Many of my lifelong friendships were born then, including, a bit of a shout-out: Karen Hobert Flynn, the current president of Common Cause.

To be clear, life at Common Cause was not fairy tale perfection. No, this was a real-life happy ending, the only kind we can possibly hope for. It was plenty good enough.

EPILOGUE: Now It’s All of Us

Today, the magnitude of the problem, the daily deluge of injustices — it’s breathtaking. Incomprehensible. A reality that is excruciatingly hard to face: we live in a country where it seems almost a crime to be poor, elderly, female, young, non-straight, Muslim, Jewish, an immigrant, in the media, disabled, and/or — especially, even — a person of color. It is not hyperbole to say Democracy is teetering on the edge of collapse. Even former President Barack Obama recently warned of Hitler-like symptoms in our current body politic.

And if that’s not frightening enough, thanks to climate change, our very survival as a species is threatened.

Still, we can only dare hope for a large scale happy ending if we first look reality square in the eyes. It is a very sob-worthy situation. And then, like that young woman who felt she had no choice but to fight like crazy to succeed at Common Cause, the answer to giving up or fighting back is painfully clear: there is no real choice. Failure is not an acceptable alternative. There will be no running away. We all simply must fight back.

There is plenty of room for hope. All around us, there is both good and evil. Certainly, this victory will be hard-earned, but we can do it!  When you’re ready, put away despair (though you may visit it from time to time) and focus instead on doing what must be done. This is the fight of our lives, people. Though there are no guarantees, let’s aim together for that happy ending.

One final note. A few days ago I was asked, doesn’t all my resistance work get in the way of my happiness work? Heck no — this is my happiness work!

 

 

 

 

On t

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18882110_10211729718771146_1523341805040108306_n

Ginny Sassaman, President of GNHUSA, talking about Truth in Governance at the Montpelier, VT Truth in Government Rally, 6/3/17

One of the great benefits of the way I experience grief is, my house gets cleaner. The news of the United Airways/Chicago police assault of an innocent passenger who just wanted to get home and to take care of his patients hit me hard.  So out came the broom, off of the bed came the sheets — sweeping, mopping, while my brain and heart tried to process what had happened and why it filled me with such sorrow.  In part, it’s an issue of trust. Can we trust the policymakers who exert so much control over our lives — including corporate policymakers — to prioritize our collective well being and happiness in their decision making process? The answer that day was, no: dollars matter more than people.

That incident was on my mind a few weeks later as I prepared my remarks for the March for Truth rally in Montpelier, Vermont on June 3, 2017.  Although Gross National Happiness USA decided not to co-sponsor the event due to its appearance of partisanship, as President of GNHUSA, I was eager to speak out about trust in governance. Not only is it one of the nine domains of happiness within the GNH framework, lack of trust in governance is a commonality across the political spectrum. Similarly, coming together to increase trust in governance by adopting a non-partisan GNH approach to community well being could be a shared path to happiness.

And so I addressed the rally. It was my first time speaking at such an event and I was a little nervous. There’s a video of my remarks, or, you can read here what I had to say:

“I want to do five things in my brief remarks:  1) broaden the concepts we’re discussing today; 2) share what this has to do with happiness; 3) step away from partisanship; 4) look briefly at the nub of the problem; and 5) share a long term solution.

First, from a GNH perspective, we look at the issue not just as truth in government but as trust in governance, including corporate decisions which can have a major impact on our well being. We should trust, for example, that when we pay hundreds of dollars for an airline ticket, we won’t get dragged off that plane by police because the flight is overbooked.

Obviously policies like that, and lies and deception from elected officials, make us unhappy. That’s why we’re here today. But there is also research. Gross National Happiness is a data-driven approach. Data found nine key areas where governments can create conditions that make us much happier or much less happy. One of those is trust in governance.

Year of Living DanishlyIn fact, Helen Russell reported in her book, The Year of Living Danishly, that trust in governance is one of the most important reasons Denmark consistently ranks as a very happy country.

We also have data for this country, and Vermont. Vermonters rate trust in governance as one of our least happy domains, at least one it comes to federal governance.

Throughout America, red state, blue, or purple. there is deep distrust of governance. We don’t necessarily distrust the same officials or believe the same “truths,” but this is a non-partisan commonality. Trust in governance could be a unifying principle. It could bring us together.

So why such untrustworthy behavior? No doubt one reason is greed, which may be innate. I think think the real villain is the GDP-driven growth economy which demands greed for money and material goods, sometimes in the name of happiness. But it doesn’t work. Over the last couple of decades, the GDP has risen but happiness has flat-lined. You know what has risen? Suicide rates. For all age groups.

It’s time to be greedy for happiness.*

Unlike the very narrow GDP goal posts of success, a GNH framework is comprehensive and inclusive. The idea is, you run policy decisions through a matrix to determine impact on the environment, equality, health, education and more — all the things that make us truly and collectively happy and well. Then, with holistic data, you can make the right choices.

In 1968, during his ill-fated presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy said of the GDP, it measures everything “except that which makes life worth while.” It’s just plain wrong, that that’s how we make policy!

A government that took the people’s right to pursue happiness seriously; governance based on well being for all people — including future generations, and animals, and the planet; a government that valued those things which make life worth while — that would be trustworthy governance.

I invite you to join the happiness movement by signing our Charter for Happiness at GNHUSA.org.

Thank you.”

* This is the line that got the most applause!