Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

… and that’s okay right now. Indeed, it’s necessary.

Organizing thousands of postcards to voters in key states

I think it’s comfortable for many of us to embrace meaning as  a crucial element of happiness, but pleasure is not to be scoffed at. We are biological creatures with physical needs and desires, which no doubt have important evolutionary tasks. Even if they don’t, life is hard. Why not also embrace joy and pleasure? 

My primary positive psychology teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, encouraged us to look at happiness as a blend of both pleasure and meaning. He envisioned a “Hamburger Model of Happiness,” so-called because Tal initially drew the concept on a napkin in a restaurant while pondering healthy and/or tasty burgers. It is a quadrant with four choices, with meaning and pleasure taking the place of healthy and tasty: 

  • The first quadrant, with high meaning but low pleasure, is a rat race. Sometimes we need to live that way—for example, when starting a new and very demanding job, or caring for a dying loved one. It’s grueling and not very happy to stay there permanently. 
  • The second quadrant, with high pleasure but little or no meaning, is hedonism. Though reveling in worry-free pleasure may feel good for a vacation, it can feel empty in the long run. If you doubt me, try it yourself. I just don’t think any of us can go too long without doing something helpful. 
  • The third quadrant, no pleasure or meaning, is just plain bleak.
  • Finally, the fourth quadrant is high meaning, high pleasure. That sweet spot, says Ben-Shahar, is where happiness thrives.

Ideally, we could all stake out a balance between meaning and pleasure. But, as noted above, sometimes we have to forsake pleasure for meaning. For long term well-being and happiness for self and others, choosing meaning (wearing a mask and social distancing) over pleasure (carefree hugging without the encumbrance of face coverings) is clearly the appropriate choice.

We hope we don’t have to live this way for too long, but our current reinforce the importance of meaning to well-being. Indeed, choosing meaning can be an investment in happiness. Just as tending to an infant’s needs now can result in a more thriving child (and happier parents) later, so too can our Covid prevention efforts (meaning) result lead to less grieving (unhappiness) and a faster return of pleasures like public singing and dancing (happiness).

It reminds me of something else I learned about from Ben-Shahar: the famous “Marshmallow Experiment” led by Stanford University Professor Walter Mischel in 1972. In this experiment, children were offered one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they could wait for the delayed gratification. I’m not going to get into the results here, but let’s just say, having the patience to wait for two marshmallows is preferable.

But what if that first marshmallow, that first taste of pleasure, meant not only one less treat but also added suffering?

That, my friends, is the question I believe we must all confront right now in the context of the November 2020 election. Are we willing to sacrifice pleasure in the moment not only for greater future pleasure (imagine the possible joy on election night!) but also to avoid the significant and widespread suffering which would surely be a hallmark of a second Trump presidency? 

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For me — and for many of you, too — the answer is definitely yes. A shout-it-from-the rooftops yes. With roughly eight weeks to go before an election with frightening implications, I am indeed willing to give up a variety of daily pleasures while instead finding enormous meaning in doing everything within my power to elect Democrats up and down the ticket.

Michele Obama put it this way at the Democratic National Convention, “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me — they can, and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.”

I’ve been a political junkie since my mid-teens, but I have never felt caught up in such a dire moment. My fears have been heightened by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I’m wondering if her reporting might also serve as a warning of how things can get worse, and how much worse they can get. She writes of the days following Reconstruction after the Civil War, when:

  • Blacks in the South, accustomed to the liberties established after the war, were hurled back in time …One by one, each license of freedom accorded them was stripped away. The world got smaller, narrower, confined with each new court ruling and ordinance. Not unlike European Jews, who watched the world close in on them, slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism,” Wilkerson continues, “colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go … (including) nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions.” (p.38, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration).

Wilkerson offers a breathtaking amount of statistics and stories to illustrate just how bad it got — a deterioration, I want to emphasize, came after a period of seemingly great improvement and advancement in rights and equality. Which is to say, take no comfort in the fact that we recently had a Black president.

Here’s just one gut-wrenching measurement of the post-Reconstruction horror: “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929” (p. 39, Suns).

Oh, but that was then. It couldn’t possibly get that bad again, could it?? Or could it? Literally seconds after I typed the above line about lynching, I saw this post on the internet:

“CBS Boston reports:

New Hampshire State Representative James Spillane is under investigation by the State Attorney General for a comment he made on Facebook. Spillane, a Republican, wrote, ‘Public Service Announcement: If you see a BLM [Black Lives Matter] sign on a lawn it’s the same as having the porch light on for Halloween. You’re free to loot and burn that house.’”

Um, that sounds bad. Inciting arson over Black Lives Matter signs? In quaint New England? We’re in trouble, people.

You could say that Spillane is just another rogue whacko, but you cannot say the same for the Social Progress Index, which according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof “collects 50 metrics of well-being [worldwide]— nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life.” In a September 10, 2020 column entitled, “We’re No. 28! And Dropping!“, Kristof reports that this Index found “that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.”

The United States was 19th in the world in 2011. Now, our quality of life ranks 28th. Kristof quotes Michael Porter, the chair of the Social Progress Index advisory panel as observing, “The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action.” 

Consider me called to action. Yet, I know there is reason to hope.

Polls actually show the Biden-Harris ticket with a strong lead, and the Democrats could have major victories in the House and Senate. That is calming, but most everyone I know is hopeful and terrified at the same time. We just don’t don’t what will happen.

Paradoxically, the “not knowing” can also be a source of comfort. Because I did a recent google search for readings on the topic of being present, I recently came a “Brain Pickings” edition featuring the wisdom of a first century philosopher, Seneca. Seneca counseled:

  • “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality … What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as f they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet. … Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not. In the meantime, it is not. So look forward to better things.”

And I am looking forward to better things! I have made three different week long reservations on nearby Lake Champlain for summer 2021. I visit those websites frequently, and savor the experiences I imagine having there with my family. But, I made sure every reservation could be canceled, and I could get my money back. Because, who knows???

The life trick seems to be holding both the hope and the genuine concern at the same time. To find meaning, and maybe also happiness. Here’s what that looks like for me:

  • On behalf of organizers on the ground in key states, I have spent months overseeing dozens of volunteers, who each needs  is a lot of work. Making sure each other volunteers writing close to 10,000 postcards to Get Out the Vote and/or provide critical registration information, especially to voters of color. You’d be surprised how many details are involved in this effort! But it makes me happy to see my front porch filled with packages for friends and neighbors to pick up. One time we even provided painted rocks as a thank you. That was very happy making.
  • I also write postcards myself, to voters in Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. The scripts are always provided, and I have to write small but legibly. I’m starting to think I need a new glasses prescription! Here, there is such a sense of accomplishment! Also happy making.
  • Textbanking — and this is the part that hurts a little bit. Again using initial messages crafted by local groups to achieve a particular goal with voters in their states, I engage in text conversations with anyone who responds. There is much enthusiasm (I’ve recruited a lot of volunteers) but also some truly nasty insults against the candidates and me, the volunteer. I think the ugliness is bad for my health; I know it has caused insomnia on more than one night. But I will keep at it because it is a valuable tool. The meaning is worth it.
  • Phonebanking — okay, I’ve only done this once so far. I don’t like to phone bank. But again, I’ll do it, because it matters so very very much.
  • Fundraising — My group has hosted some awesome fundraising concerts in years past. Now, it’s virtual, and highly successful. Thanks to the leadership of my amazing friends at Lean Left Vermont, strategic giving has never been easier. In fact, Lean Left VT has made all of these activities accessible to hundreds of us. You are welcome to join us.

Here’s something else I probably have in common with many of you: my life in these times of Covid-19 already had extra layers of meaning. Our empty next has turned into multi-generational housing. A great blessing, to be sure, but not without a lot of extra stress.

Maria Popova, the intellectual powerhouse behind Brain Pickings recently pondered the relationship between meaning and pleasure. “Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love?,” she wrote. “We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.”

For me, some of that ballast is provided by being around an eight year old granddaughter. One recent day, she wanted an audience for her latest exploit: using cardboard to turn the stairs into a sliding board. With her bike helmet on, she sat on a cushion at the top of the stairs, afraid to start.

“Hurry up,” I pleaded, as she had interrupted my texting. “I have to save democracy.”

“Okay,” she said. “You save democracy, I’ll save happiness.”

Meaning and pleasure. Each in their own time.

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I was gifted this package of lavender, lemongrass and marjoram candles to ease my way on my second sad trip of the week.

When I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I was once again grieving, with the sure knowledge that I would bounce back. And so I have. Though I am finding the restrictions of Covid to be more and more disheartening, I’m basically fine. Still, I like the ideas I was jotting down then, so let’s return to the week of July 20, 2020, back to a time of sadness:

I’ve been pretty happy this summer, but emotions are never linear. Neither happiness nor sadness is a destination to arrive at, and declare the journey over. These emotions and an abundant bouquet of other human feelings are constants throughout our lives, especially during this time of Covid, which is both exacerbated by and is also exacerbating political chaos. That chaos last week, in particular the storm troopers set loose on Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon, gave me plenty of feelings: fear, horror, anger, dismay, empathy, hope, and inspiration. And, sadness. I believe we may well need to traverse some exceptionally muddied (bloodied, even) waters before arriving safely at a happier collective tomorrow, so I try to hold on to the long view. Ultimately, I hope, all will be well. But, oh, the suffering between here and there! We will need to cling tenaciously to happiness to not drown in the sorrow.

Richard

My brother-in-law, Richard Sassaman

No matter the big picture, we each have lives filled with our own private happinesses and sadnesses. Last week gave me plenty of both, though ultimately sadness won out. My family and I started the week in coastal Maine, saying goodbye to my brother-in-law Richard, who died suddenly a year ago. I’ve done some grieving, but not enough. I don’t think I’ve fully processed the fact that he is gone. The send-off was a sweet family affair on the edges of Acadia Park — simple and loving. There were many smiles. Yet, the act of literally scattering my husband’s brother’s ashes was devastating. It was pretty darn concrete evidence that Richard no longer exists in his familiar bodily form. I shed a few tears during the car ride back to Vermont.

At home, happy news awaited: I was interviewed about my new book for a really cool podcast, “The Leftscape: The Shape of Progressive Conversation” AND learned that Action for Happiness (an awesome grassroots happiness group endorsed by the Dalai Lama) had just published an excerpt from the book! And … I only had a few days at home before packing for my next trip, on another profoundly sad family mission.

I’ve written before about the value in recognizing and accepting our inevitable grief. What I want to suggest at the moment is that it is also important to embrace our happiness. Sometimes I think that is harder for us. When we see so much hurt and injustice all around is, it may feel almost immoral to be personally happy.  You may even think you don’t deserve to be happy.  But we really do need to claim our happiness, for ourselves and others because it is good for us in so many ways. Crucially, it’s important to remember that happiness improves our capacity to minimize the pain and suffering. To build a better world. To love. To laugh. Embracing happiness is a very moral path.

In my book, in sermons, in workshops, in previous blogs, I’ve quoted many an expert on this theme — for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, who, with other researchers found that myth that “happier people have more confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, likeability, sociability, and more originality. They are more active. Happier people also have better physical well-being, stronger immune systems, and more energy. And, happier people are more flexible and cope better with challenges and stress.”  

Or former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.  During the Obama Administration, Murthy made happiness part of his public health agenda. He emphasized happiness as one of the main ways humans can prevent disease and live a long, healthy life.  

I greatly appreciate the experts, but I also take comfort from homegrown wisdom. I sometimes reflect back on a conversation one hot summer day years ago with my friend Felicia. We swam across the lake and then sat on a neighbor’s dock, our legs dangling in the water. I told Felicia that I felt like I couldn’t be happy, even though I had plenty of reasons to be, because both my adult children were going through rough times. Felicia set me straight. She told me that my children’s journeys were their own, and I had to seize my happiness when it was available to me. She assured me that I would have plenty of time to feel sad, too.

Such wise advice. I will always be grateful. Indeed, I have had — and will have — plenty of time to feel sad, including the trip I took on July 23rd. I have a sibling who is now on hospice. No need to go into the details, but I needed to make the drive to another state (less Covid free than either Vermont or Maine) to visit with this sibling for what could be the last time. So off I drove, by myself this time. Another weekend, another goodbye to another sibling.

Obviously, this was a recipe for sadness, but even this period of time was interspersed with a variety of positive emotions. Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Feeling them both at the same time is one of the many paradoxes of the human existence.

Here’s one of the positive experiences that made me happy: I am a huge Shankar Vedantam fan (of course! he’s all about the brain science!) and had loaded lots of Hidden Brain podcasts on my phone. I listened to Hidden Brain after Hidden Brain and learned lots of cool stuff.  Learning cool stuff makes me happy.

Even more — much more — I got to spend quality time with another sister and her husband. I love them both, and savored our time together.

My time with my dying sibling was also precious. Poignant. Difficult. Unforgettable. I’m so glad I made that trip.

Then, I was sad the whole drive home — all 10 hours behind the wheel.  Once again, Shankar Vedantam rescued me. More Hidden Brains gave me the equilibrium I needed to stay safe behind the wheel. On one episode, he discussed a very interesting concept, all new to me: our internal “hot and cold empathy gap.” That is, when we’re feeling a really hot emotion (say, anger or desire), it’s hard to remember the cooler emotion (non-anger, or prudence). But when it comes to happiness and sadness, I think we can remember, and that it is helpful to do so.  When I am very happy, I know that it is a fleeting sensation — and vice versa.

I actively cultivate happiness because I think it is helpful, as well as more enjoyable. But we have all our emotions for a reason. So let’s have them all, within reason.

 

 

 

 

 

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Masks and sanitizer on a table by the front door.

Anybody else making mistakes lately?

How could we not? We’re all being squeezed by virtue of living in an incredible moment in time, with so many pressures already bearing down on us (did someone say climate change?) even before the full-blown Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was still playing havoc with our social norms and expectations when the murder of George Floyd set off a massive Black Lives Matter uprising,  both close to home and worldwide. Life in the United States in 2020 is breathtaking and disorienting. Our brains are on overdrive. I assume I’m not the only one exercising poor judgment from time to time.

Fortunately, when I mess up, I’m able to call to mind and heart Tal Ben-Shahar, my number one happiness teacher. Tal has a number of wise sayings, including “permission to be human.”  This is a succinct reminder that we are all biological creatures — animals, actually — with complex brain wiring designed for evolutionary purposes that may or may not be helpful in the 21st century. We often have only a rudimentary understanding of what is going on inside us, and why. Thus, even in the best of times, we are bound to make mistakes aplenty. 2020 is clearly not the best of times — though, I am hopeful, we are transitioning to a time when we can vastly improve our systems, if not our wiring. We shall see.

In the meantime, we might as well get comfortable with the idea that we’re going to make mistakes. Permission to be human, thank you very much. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cause harm, emotional or physical. We may in fact accidentally do that, and if we do, we must make amends in some way if possible. As one of my favorite conflict books, Difficult Conversations puts it, intent does not equal impact.  Still, understanding that we are all humans who simply cannot help but mess up with regularity might allow us to ease up on judging of self and others. We can choose compassion and kindness instead. Yes, I still want to do my best. The same is probably true for most of you. It just doesn’t always work out that way.

Which is to say, one of the keys to happiness in the time of Covid is accepting our basic humanity, our very natural tendency to goof up. As usual, this not only about happiness for self — it also encompasses others. When we can look at ourselves and others with more compassion, we put down the burden of unreasonable expectations for all of us. That can open the door to greater understanding, easier communications, and happier relationships.

We all make mistakes, whether it’s negotiating Covid-19, white supremacy, or standard life challenges. Pretty serious stuff, but it still reminds me of a song from Sesame Street: Everyone Makes Mistakes.” 

Here’s another positive to seize on: we can learn from our mistakes, as I did recently. It was an early May evening. Vermont was still mostly shut down and those of us who could stay home did so, except for essential trips, like buying groceries. Nobody had been inside my house, except the six of us who live here, since late February. But that night a neighbor called with an urgent request. She needed a bed for the night. I was the only one she could call.

Almost reflexively, I told her to come over. Yes was the obvious answer in pre-Covid times. After I hung up, though, I wondered, should I have said that?? It went against our household rules for decision-making during Covid.  So I guess that was a mistake. But I did tell the neighbor she needed to wear a mask inside our house. She also brought her own bedding. After she got settled on the sofa bed in my office, she came downstairs to the living room to catch up. Without a mask on.

I was uncomfortable as we sat facing each other, about four feet apart, maskless. I didn’t think this was okay, but I also didn’t want to be rude to a guest in my house, and say, “please put your mask back on.” This was definitely a mistake. In retrospect, I see that a pandemic may be a good time to adjust what being polite looks like. Perhaps it is not actually polite to allow germs to spread to one’s family.

While we sat there, my husband Bob walked through the room. (BTW, I write this with his permission.) Bob rarely gets angry, especially not at me. That May evening was an exception. He was furious. After the neighbor went off to bed, I found him lacing up his shoes, preparing to head out. He was too angry at me for having potentially brought Covid into our house, without even checking with anybody else, to talk about it or even stay inside. He headed out for a walk.

It was a rough night in our relationship, but by morning were able to talk it through. I felt he made a mistake or two also (he agreed), but we were both understanding, and I was definitely contrite for not consulting him and for not insisting that the neighbor wear a mask. I learned from my mistakes, I apologized, and I didn’t beat myself up for having exercised poor judgment. I was behaving under old rules. I haven’t quite figured out the new Covid-19 rules yet.

At this point, after nearly 50 years of marriage, I’m pretty comfortable making mistakes around my husband. I am much less comfortable making mistakes as a white person eager to be a good ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this, I think, is due to identity — another really valuable concept discussed in the book Difficult Conversations. I consider myself to be a good person, a social justice activist, someone who strives to be open and loving, and definitely not racist. Difficult Conversations teaches that some of us (including me) can have an “identity quake” when one of our self-defining concepts is threatened.  Ugh. That’s definitely me. Some mistakes — like saying or doing something that seems to prove that I’m a bad white ally — leave me wanting to hide under the blankets.

But hiding under the blankets is not an option. This is the time we all need to be stepping it up in the fight for racial justice, not nursing our wounded identities in a corner somewhere. Instead, I need to take a breath and grant myself permission to be human. Though I will try my best to do my part to help dismantle systemic racism, I will inevitably say or do the wrong thing. Again, how could I not? Just as I hold onto old, pre-Covid behavior rules in my head and just as we are all governed by stone-aged wiring in our brains that we don’t even know is there, so, too, am I a product of a white supremacy system. There are surely implicit biases wired in there somewhere.

I saw a wise essay on a friend’s Facebook post, but I cannot remember who either the author or the poster was so I cannot give credit. The gist of the wisdom, from an author of color, was something like this: “White people, I know you’re confused. You’ve heard from people of color both to read more books and this moment isn’t about white people being in book club; reach out to your black friends and tell them you care and I don’t want one more of my white friends reaching out to me like this; and, you have to speak up and you have to shut up and listen.” The writer noted (again paraphrasing), “I know it’s exhausting, it’s been exhausting for us black folks for a long time. But you can figure it out.”

It’s hard to imagine figuring it out without cozying up to the idea that I’ll make mistakes. I’m not thrilled about making mistakes, but if I don’t help do the work of ending white supremacy, I will not be living my values, and that will make me unhappy with myself. Doing the work and making mistakes, and then beating myself up about making mistakes, will also make me unhappy with myself. Further, if we all ran away from the work for fear of making mistakes, that would mean enormous continued unhappiness in this country for oppressed peoples of color.

It is clear: for my happiness and yours, I must allow myself to be the human I am, and make the mistakes I will inevitably make. Maybe yours, too — maybe I can give you permission to be human, too. This being human thing isn’t all that easy. No need to make it unnecessarily harder for anybody by pretending we’re better equipped and differently wired than we actually are.

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Preface: The following essay, which is longer than usual, was also harder than usual to write, more painful, less happy. But I really wanted to write stories about my own growing awareness of white privilege in a way that might help other readers who identify as white investigate your own privileged experiences.  My hope is that we can use our stories to help other white folk better understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and to deepen our own commitment to stand up for racial justice as allies. There are so many ways to do this work; you can read a list of 75 options here.  And what does all this have to do with happiness? To me, it’s a no brainer. While my anguish at seeing killing after killing of unarmed black people in this country can hardly compare with the pain felt by people of color, the murders and other evidence of ongoing racism do, in fact, make me unhappy. And why wouldn’t they? We are interconnected and interdependent.  Most of us are empathetic. We are all sentient beings equally deserving of love, compassion — and economic, political, and cultural systems which provide maximum support for our well-being. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now more than ever, that means love.  “In times like these,” according to Representative Antonio Delgado, love is “justice in action … grounded in the moral observation that we are all one.” In this moment in time, love and compassion mean: Black.Lives.Matter. For everyone to have a greater opportunity for happiness, we need to see it, feel it, and make it so.

Investigating White Privilege:

When my son was 14, he had a sleepover birthday party. I remember the event so fondly. He and his friends were still ever-so-slightly little boys, innocents on the verge of full blown adolescence. There were lot of giggles, burps and farts (and jokes about burps and farts), and pancakes. By his 15th birthday, it was a whole different scene. But that year, at 14, they were still so young. One of the party guests was Ben’s friend Calvin*. Calvin was very tall. I remember looking way up at him when he came to our door. He was still a child, but because he was black, and so tall, I sometimes worried that people meeting him on the streets would be afraid of him. This was long before 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down, so I never actually worried for Calvin’s physical safety. I just felt sad to think that people would be afraid of him. This sweet innocent tall boy.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see white privilege in this story.  I could and did feel bad for someone else’s son, but I never once worried that anyone would be afraid of my own child — much shorter, yes, but more to the point: white.

A couple of decades later, I had the white privilege of being only the slightest, tiniest bit worried as my pregnant daughter more-or-less breezed through both pregnancy and childbirth. She might disagree with the verb “breezed,” but there was never anything to be seriously afraid of.  I didn’t think of it as a white privilege, though, until six years later. That’s when I read an April 2018 article in The New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.” Oh. My. God. This article is a must read. A healthy pregnancy is a privilege.

Perhaps the phrase “white privilege” is uncomfortable to you. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept this description of all the many many ways being white in this society makes our lives easier. Since some of the realities of racism were brought to my attention when I was 14 years old, I don’t think I ever doubted the concept of white privilege — though, it’s taken decades to realize even partially how pervasive it is. It’s just that privilege to me felt like something that belonged to the world of very rich people. It should not be a privilege to believe that your son is likely to come home alive, or that your daughter’s pregnancy is likely to be safe. Those should be more or less normal.

But of course that’s not the reality. In our white supremacy culture, so much of normal life is a privilege not available to all, especially people of color. Recently, when I was writing a sermon on kindness, I was stunned to read a section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me, that illustrated how even receiving kindness from a stranger can be a matter of white privilege. Kindness! I found that devastating. Talk about dehumanizing!

Ultimately I realized it was of zero importance whether not I like the term white privilege. Maybe my rejection of the words was a form of white fragility. I don’t know. What I do know is that is urgently important to get it, to better understand white privilege — my own and others — and then, take whatever steps I can take to help change the system.

As I reflect back, however I named it, sometimes the privilege was immediately visible. When my children were teens, they each brought a friend for a week long family beach vacation. As it happens, both friends were people of color. One night, we went out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I can’t remember the specifics of the incident, but both friends were upset at how the staff treated them, presumably based on the colors of their skins. I think we walked out, but I’m not sure. Later that week, though, we definitely walked out of an arcade, after our son’s friend felt unsafe due to racist threats. Lesson learned: in that particular beach town, feeling safe in a restaurant or an arcade might just rest on having white skin.

Just a couple of years ago, I got pulled over for speeding. By this time, not only had I heard the phrase “driving while black” many times, but Sandra Bland’s death was also very fresh in my mind. Throughout the incident, I was well aware of my white privilege. As the officer approached my car, I fully expected to be treated with respect, and I was. I kept wondering, what would I feel right now if I was a black woman? Would I be afraid?

There’s a stop sign on the dirt road in front of my house. For some reason, many people — white people, as far as I can tell — run that stop sign with great regularity. I have often wondered, would these drivers so blithely break the law without the protection of white privilege?

When I take the time to look, at past and present, there are so many other stories where white privilege stands out — like the time I learned taxis didn’t like to stop for black women in Washington, D.C… Or just last Saturday when I decided to check out the lake front property we’ll soon be renting for vacation. It occurred to me that I might not have felt safe walking up the empty driveway if it weren’t for my white skin. Of course, none of this makes me happy. It’s just all so wrong.

One example of white privilege that I’ve thought about over and over was a Gross National Happiness USA project, the Happiness Walk.  That Walk covered 10,000 miles over eight years, on foot, often relying on the kindness of strangers. I participated in that walk myself for about 300 miles, and was the recipient of much generosity from scores of very diverse people. Again, though, I often wondered, how many people would have stopped to help — with offers ranging from buying us bug spray to providing housing for multiple nights — if more of the walkers** had been people of color? And how safe would a black walker have felt in accepting those offers? I cannot know, but I think it’s clear that white privilege was on the Walk with us.

My final example is a biggie: voting. Voting in the 21st century should absolutely not be a white privilege. But. The GOP has been systematically gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in many other ways that land especially hard on people of color, who often vote with the Democratic party. This past winter, I saw the movie “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” several times; one of the groups I am active with sponsored the showings as a fundraiser for Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight. “Suppressed” is a documentary of how Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and others systemically robbed voters of color of their fundamental right to vote in 2018, when Kemp ran for governor against Stacey Abrams. The film is horrifying. I’ll admit, I was shocked at how brazenly Republicans are stealing the right to vote! from people who fought so damned hard to get that right. In this case, there are very specific ways white allies can help fight back. My activist friends and I have not only supported Abrams’ group, Fair Fight but have also volunteered for Reclaim Our Vote and contributed to the Black Voters Matter Fund. Additionally, we have canvassed, texted, and written postcards for candidates of color — some of whom, like Antonio Delgado, have won.

I’ve been passionate about politics since the second grade, so this is an obvious arena for my involvement. That might not be your preferred way to get involved. Fine. Find something else to do. We all need to do more than post “Make it stop!” in response to yet another video capturing a sickening racist incident. Turns out, we — the big collective we, with people of color leading the way — are the ones who must make it stop. History has its eye on us. We are in a unique moment in time, when we just might be able to make a real and lasting difference. Let’s seize the opportunity to make this country a much happier place for everyone. Black lives matter.

 

* Not his real name.

** To be clear, there were only a handful of walkers the entire time. Paula Francis, who is white, walked most of the Walk alone.

IMG_3003Forward: This tale of tricking my brain to jump start my stalled yoga practice may seem like it doesn’t apply to you, if you either don’t do yoga or do it literally quite religiously. Ah, but it does! For the story here is both literal and metaphorical, and applies not only to each of us individually but also to our communities at large. What we focus on, measure, and hold ourselves accountable for makes a huge difference in what we actually do. If we want happier selves, and a happier planet, we need to make good accountability choices. So, yogini or nogini, please feel free to follow along!

Gratitude journal.YOGA

My gratitude painting for May 2012

Seven weeks into quarantine time, I finally turned on a Pandora yoga music channel; arrayed my mat, blocks, and cushion in the middle of my bedroom carpet; got on the floor, and, hallelujah! — actually did yoga again. Thanks to the trip I took right before Covid-19 hit, it had been nine weeks since my last yoga session — a very long time for me to not do yoga. I love yoga, especially the meditation in motion aspect of focusing on both the breath and the asanas, or poses. It is clear — sometimes painfully so — that my (ahem) maturing body needs yoga to stay flexible and reasonably fit. Some years back, when I was painting a monthly gratitude watercolor, yoga even made the cut. It means that much to me.

Yet, with no in-person yoga class, day after day, and then week after week, I kept not doing yoga. My body tried to tell my brain, “Yo! We need to do this!” Maybe it was grief,  inertia, or an upset household schedule, but I just could not make myself get on that mat.

Fortunately, the science of happiness got me back on track. The mind-body connection is such a wondrous thing. I knew that if I could convince my brain that I truly wanted to do yoga, my brain would lobby my body to get going. And I knew just what would do the trick with my brain: colored stickers. I promised myself I would put a sticker on the calendar for every day I practiced yoga. So far, it has worked: I’ve done between 15 and 40 minutes of yoga poses ten nights out of the last twelve*. Because if I don’t: no sticker.

How silly is that? But it works.

Truthfully, I used several other tricks, as an insurance policy:

  1. IMG_3011Earlier in the day, I put my yoga equipment in the middle of the bedroom floor, where I would have to specifically step over it in order to ignore it. I learned this in-your-face trick from my friend Braco Probic, whose book Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits is full of excellent tips to help us all change our ways.
  2. Another trick from Braco’s book: don’t aim too high. The Japanese have a term for this: kaizen, or improvement by successfully taking small steps (which pleases the brain and makes it want to continue) rather than failing with grander ambitions (which frustrates the brain and makes it want to give up). I want my brain to continue being my yoga cheerleader, so I only have to do one yoga pose to earn my sticker reward. Of course, once I start, one pose flows into another. Thus, each night I can easily surpass my minimal goal, and bask in that accomplishment.
  3. Then there’s accountability — so powerful, I doubled down on it. I IMG_3012not only wrote “do yoga” on my weekly to-do list but also told my husband what my yoga plans were so he could “hold me accountable,” if need be. Really, the list is the more powerful motivator because I am very goal oriented — as long as the goals are my choice (intrinsic) and not a burden put on me by someone else (extrinsic).

There are other tricks, but here’s what you shouldn’t rely on: willpower. Willpower is much more subject to external forces than you may realize, and may even be a limited resource, at least on a daily basis. If you use all your willpower on not eating pancakes at breakfast, you might not have any left to carry you through the rest of the day — especially these days. Sometimes just getting out of bed takes all the willpower we’ve got.

From a more positive perspective, one of my favorite scientific grids comes from Martin Seligman, the unofficial father of positive psychology. Seligman developed the PERMA theory: five core elements that can guide each of us toward more thriving and happier lives. The elements are positive emotions (P); engagement in life (E); relationships (R); meaning (M); and accomplishment or achievement (A). Knowing that accomplishment is such a vital part of human well-being helps explain to me why stickers, to-do lists, and other forms of accountability work. Our brains like achievement.

Another way of looking at all this mental trickery is this: stickers and to-do lists are fundamentally measures, proving on a personal level that what we choose to measure matters because that is what we pay attention to. This is the same basic theory behind the Gross National Happiness movement to change what we measure on a policy making level from focusing obsessively on the GDP and economic growth to a more holistic and inclusive well-being framework.

Here, too, on the macro-level, Covid-19 times seem to be making room for a different set of measures. On May 10, 2020 The Guardian reported that a majority of Britains now want quality of life indicators to take center stage in policy making, thus prioritizing “health and wellbeing over economic growth.” That is an exciting development, but I’m not sure they — or we — have earned our stickers yet. Okay, maybe one sticker.

But let’s bring it back to you, and your happiness during this time. Please understand, I don’t want to push anyone into trying to do something you’re not yet ready for. Maybe you’re working too hard. Or you are still too down. Not only that, the tricks that work for my brain might not appeal to you. Maybe you don’t even like stickers! I just want you to take care of yourselves as best you can. And if any of these tricks or suggestions do help you, that will make me happy.

 

_____

*I could only do yoga on my own because I’ve been taking classes for 20+ years, including almost 20 years from Susi Wahlrab. Her teachings are etched in my brain and body. If you need or want instruction, there are many yoga videos to choose from.

 

A

 

PERMA

GNH measuring what matters

 

 

IMG_2984

A Kathy Washburn birch trees platter

In April of 2014, I was riding an exceptionally happy wave in my life. Then, abruptly and shockingly, the wave plummeted, propelling me into the world of grieving instead.

There were many reasons for my happiness high back then, including a week-long residence at Kripalu— a yoga and meditation retreat in the mountains of western Massachusetts — as part of the Certificate in Positive Psychology program with Tal Ben-Shahar and the Wholebeing Institute.  My sister-in-law met me at Kripalu so we could drive together to a beach house we had rented on the North Carolina Outer Banks for our “Joyful Creativity Retreat.” Both weeks were very happy-making.

Back home, more happiness awaited. With my Gross National Happiness USA and Happiness Alliance colleagues, I was part of the planning team for a national happiness conference to be held at the end of May. I wasn’t just planning — I was writing my keynote speech for the opening session on why activists in the Gross National Happiness movement should also cultivate personal happiness. It was all pretty heady, and, again, happy.

Plus, it was spring.

Then, a few days after I got home, the other side of life showed up. I learned that, while I was away, my dear friend Kathy Washburn had been murdered by her husband, who then took his own life. At first, I could not — literally, could not — believe that it was true. It simply made no sense. But it was true.

I’m no expert on grief, but I was told that losing someone through a violent act is harder to cope with than other forms of death. I’ve been wondering lately if losing a loved one to Covid-19, with its very lonely, isolated last moments, might similarly create a harder kind of grief. In any case, Kathy’s funeral was the most upsetting memorial service I’ve ever been to. I sobbed copiously. So did many other mourners.  It just didn’t make sense that Kathy was gone.

IMG_2980

Kathy’s mother hen and chick design, here on a mug.

I didn’t know the others at the service very well, since Kathy and I lived on opposite sides of a Vermont mountain range and didn’t share overlapping social circles. We first met at an out-of-state craft show. Kathy was a potter, who painted designs like birch trees and moose on her mugs and platters. She was a dog lover, a former special education teacher who loved to take young adults under her wing, and a big laugher. She laughed frequently and enthusiastically. I think her laughter is what she will be most remembered for.

When I left the craft show world to go to mediation school, Kathy hired me as one of her painters. We talked for hours as we painted. We were the same age, had similar world views, and could safely be open and candid with one another. She loved my grad school stories, and had great faith in my ability to be a good mediator. We were kindred spirits.

Her death hit me hard.

I’ve been thinking about Kathy and those grief filled days lately thanks to Covid-19, and the national epidemic of grief we’re all feeling, in varying degrees. There is so much to grieve for, most especially the lonely deaths of loved ones, and, in a different but also profound way, the loss of jobs and any semblance of financial security.  I think of the daily struggles of medical staff, grocery store clerks, and the unsung heroes who keep all the essential facilities clean brings grief, too. You all know what’s been lost: “normalcy,” a sense that everything was maybe kind of okay, lots of fun stuff — and even activities we never looked forward to, like grocery shopping or going to the dentist.

The other day, our family dentist called to tell us that she will not re-open until June of 2021! I was surprised to find myself feeling distressed that I couldn’t go to the dentist! Which brings me to the children. How many of them are surprised to realize how badly they want to return to school? I hope that this pandemic will actually, ultimately, lead to a brighter future for all our children. Still, in the short term, what has made me saddest is observing how social distancing has affected my eight year old granddaughter — robbed suddenly of her friends, her school, and her biggest passion in life, gymnastics. Her tears break my heart.

But here’s the comfort, perhaps: you can feel free to embrace your grief because your happiness will return. Indeed, during my Kathy grief, knowing what steps I could take to cultivate personal happiness when I was finally ready to do so gave me freedom to cry and sleep as much as I needed. I’ve learned that it works the other way, too: embracing the reality of suffering better equips us to be happy, because we can’t turn off the sad without also turning off the happy. As Golda Meir put it, “Those who do not know how to to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

This does not necessarily mean that we ever get back what we lost. Perhaps, if you lost a job, you may end up in a more satisfying position. Or, on the macro level, our whole world may be evolving to be a better place. But, let’s keep it real: the 65,000 people who have officially died of Covid-19 in the United States as of this writing are never coming back. Our children will never have these months of schooling back. The losses will remain true, forever.

Nonetheless, you are still likely to be happy again. There’s a theory that we all have a “set point for happiness,” kind of like a thermostat. When we experience marvelous and joyful events, our happiness will spike. Likewise, in times of sorrow and pain, our happiness plunges. Either way, our level of happiness eventually winds up back at that natural set point. Superman actor Christopher Reeve, for example, is said to have been a very happy man at the end of his life, despite the accident which left him a quadraplegic. I have to imagine he experienced a period of grief and rage … but, after a time, returned to his apparently high set point.

 

IMG_2986

Some of the books I’m currently reading.

BabySteps: You can rewire your brain to be an overall happier person, with a higher set point. That takes time and a commitment to happiness practices, which you can do even now in the throes of grief, albeit perhaps in small doses. I have good days and bad, days when I desperately need a good cry or just go back to bed after lunch. Nonetheless, I have my current happiness practices: meditation (several days a week), gratitude (both in a nightly journal and observations throughout the day), beauty and savoring, exercise (most days), and spending time with loved ones (virtually or at home, even when it’s hard, every day). There’s one more practice that gives me great comfort: learning.

The New Economics Foundation say learning is one of the five keys to wellbeing, and that is how I bookend my days. After my morning coffee, I spend about a half hour learning Spanish with Duolingo, an online language platform. At night, I am currently reading Bill Bryson’s in-depth, non-fiction exploration of the human Body. Next up is John McPhee’s daunting tome on geology. There are no external forces compelling me to study Spanish or read science books. I do both because it makes me feel better.

 

And that is plenty good enough in this times.

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A favorite meditation site in summer

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that meditating regularly is good for your physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. For example, here’s an article in the Washington Post quoting a Harvard neuroscientist on how meditation reduces stress; another article citing former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on meditation, health, and happiness; and here, from 2003, is the Time magazine cover story on the science of meditation. A quick google search will yield many, many more nuggets on the benefits of meditating. I also devote a full sermon/chapter to exploring the connection between mediation and happiness in my new book, Preaching Happinesswhich the publisher will be mailing out in a few weeks.

The point of this blog is not to repeat all that’s already out there. Rather, I want to stress, from my own experience as both a meditator and a teacher of meditation:

  1. You can do this;
  2. It will likely make you feel much better;
  3. It will help you navigate the incredibly anxious Covid-19 time with greater ease; and
  4. Your ease and calm will enable you to better assist others, in whatever ways you contribute to the greater good.

I hate to use the word “should,” so I’ll just say, you will do yourself a big favor if you meditate at least several times weekly during this crisis. It may be hard to find the time and space to do this if you have young children who are now present all the time, but, challenging logistics aside, most everybody is capable of meditating.  It does not matter whether you are religious, spiritual, or an avowed agnostic; meditation can be an integral part of any religious practice but it can also be straight up secular. It does not matter if you have a very busy mind; in fact, we all have busy, busy minds. You don’t have to have a ton of extra time at your disposal — the benefits of meditation are cumulative, but just a few minutes here and there can be helpful. It doesn’t even matter if you can’t sit still for a long period of time; you can lie down, stand up, or try walking meditation instead. If you have never meditated before, that does not matter either. You can do it now. I will tell you how.

Here are a few pointers:

  1. Meditation is about the breath, and some form of attention or intention.  Breathe, and focus. That is all.
  2. It is a common temptation to judge ourselves harshly for thinking too much instead of maintaining focus. You may well feel frustrated, and think, “I am a bad meditator.” Nonsense. All our minds wander again and again. Ad infinitum. No worries. Just make a mental note, “oh there’s a thought,” and come back to your object of intention or attention. No judgment necessary.
  3. If you are trying, if you are practicing, even a few minutes a week, then yay. Good for you! Keep it up.

Now, here are a few practices.

Exhale twice as long as you inhale. That is all. You can do this with your eyes open or closed. I like to inhale to the count of four or five, and exhale to the count of eight or ten. Do whatever is most comfortable for you and your lung capacity.  Do this for five minutes, or 30, or an hour. Don’t push too hard, be at ease and relaxed. Hopefully, this will leave you feeling much calmer — no matter the daily news!

Three deep breaths. Again, you will want to be taking relaxed deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling fully. With each breath, focus on a positive word. When I do this practice — which is frequent — I breathe in, “peace, peace, peace, peace, peace,” and breathe out, “peace, peace, peace, peace, peace,” I do the same with the words “abundance” and “love.” Each of the three words corresponds with a different part of the brain, but you can use any three positive words you want. This is another one you can do for just a couple of breaths, or, for a much longer time. Totally your choice.

Focus on your breath. One of the great things about meditation is that the only tool you need is your breath! This is perhaps the most classic form of meditation: noting gently the inhale as you breathe in, and noting gently the exhale as you breathe out. I like to add a pause in between each inhale and exhale. Make it your own, in an easy going way. Thoughts will come and go — just come back to the breath.

Guided meditations. There are so very many ways to meditate. Conveniently, in the 21st century, you can turn to many different teachers online. One of my favorites is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading positive psychology researcher, who has a whole page of guided meditations on her website. Sink into her words, experience the magic of loving kindness — and come back again and again.

Another favorite of mine comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, perhaps best known for his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) trainings. You can find many of his guided meditations online; this one is the one I like best.

So there you go, several options. If you want more choices, drop me an email.

But seriously, for your happiness, for a better world, I truly hope you give it a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, here’s why it matters:

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.