Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

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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.

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

60127246-miami-beach-ocean-boulevard-art-deco-district-in-florida-usa-yellow-cabThe teachings of two of my favorite happiness teachers — the Dalai Lama and Tal Ben-Shahar — recently merged in Miami, Florida. The Dalai Lama’s unforgettable wisdom came from a book I can no longer remember:  in our every interaction, we can increase either the happiness or the unhappiness of the other person, or people.  On the other hand, I know exactly where Tal Ben-Shahar’s teaching came from: Module 10 in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I took in 2015-2016, and again in his keynote speech in Miami last month. Tal taught us that, in every moment, we can choose to increase or decrease our own happiness as well.

Tal’s keynote rocked the house at the first World Happiness Summit (WoHaSu), the reason I was in Miami. Along with my GNHUSA friends and colleagues, I spent an amazing four WoHaSu days learning, connecting, and celebrating.  This left me even more highly attuned than usual to positive thinking and acting; naturally, I ended up having memorable experiences outside WoHaSu as well, in interactions where at least one of us chose happiness.  Here are four of those stories.

Story #1: The Generous Cabdriver.  It was my first morning in the city, and I was nervous about getting from my airport motel to the downtown venue.  I had hoped for a shuttle, but no such luck; the motel clerk directed me to a waiting cab.  The driver seemed nice enough, it was warm and sunny, and I was headed for what I expected would be an awesome day, so I soon lightened up and started chatting about the happiness summit. He asked thoughtful, complex questions and shared his own life perspective.  It was a great discussion.  At some point, I mentioned that I was stressed about money and keeping an anxious eye on the rapidly rising meter tab — but, I was still choosing to be happy and enjoy the beautiful day.  I only shared the meter story to give my happiness decision some context, to stress that choosing happiness is never about seeking perfection in life. I wasn’t complaining.

When we arrived at my destination, the meter read $27.50.  I dug $35 out of my wallet, but the cabdriver insisted, $20 only.  Only.

I think it was his way of saying thank you for the happiness conversation. Whatever prompted his unexpected generosity, it was a gift that filled me with joy. We both made the happiness choice that morning, from both the Dalai Lama’s and Tal Ben-Shahar’s perspectives. The memory still makes me smile.

Story#2: Paula at the Cafe. Sunday morning, the last day of WoHaSu, it was my friend and chief Happiness Walker Paula Francis who deliberately chose happiness. We Cup of take out coffeewere paying for coffee at an unexpectedly wonderful cafe (unexpected, because it was housed in a gas station) when Paula asked the clerk, “Has anything really great happened for you today?” He rose to the bait brilliantly, throwing his hands up in the air, and gushing, “I’m alive!  It’s a beautiful day! I can see!” We all smiled and laughed with delight.

Paula’s choice to create a happiness boost for the clerk filled each of us with contagious positivity — which turned out to be very helpful when she and I boarded a city bus just a few minutes later.

Story#3: A Crowded and Grumpy Bus Ride. Since I would later be leaving WoHaSu for the airport, I had both my suitcase and my cup of coffee with me when I sank into the bus seat.  The woman next to me did not like either of these items.

“Don’t let that touch me,” she said unpleasantly, pointing to the suitcase. “I have to go to work. Don’t get me dirty.” After I assured her that I was holding the suitcase tightly between my knees, she pointed at the coffee. “You’re not allowed to have that here.  Didn’t you see the sign? No food. No drink.”  Though her tone was decidedly hostile, she had a point. The coffee cup appeared to be against the rules. I apologized, explained that I didn’t know it was forbidden, and I wouldn’t do it next time.  She glared back at me. “You’re American,” she practically hissed.  “You should know!”

Okay. So there we were. Seat mates for another 10 or 15 minutes. I could let her get to me, and bark back with some witty insult I’d regret later. I could ignore her, which would still be uncomfortable — not only for me, and maybe her, but also the others immediately surrounding us.  The negative energy of this encounter was infecting them, too.

Or, I could choose happiness.  Really, after Paula’s beautiful example and my own overflowing happiness cup, how could I choose otherwise? So, I turned on my mediator training/active listening skills. “You’re not American?” I asked her.  “Where are you from?” Rome, she answered. “Oh, Italy! How wonderful!” I talked about my favorite Italian writer, Piero Ferrucci, and the melodious quality of Ferrucci’s language in his kindness book.  Ah, yes, she agreed — it is a beautiful language.  I found out that she was going to work in her church.  That her mother was only half Italian, having grown up in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia — where my daughter lived for many years, so we had something in common.  We chatted about that coincidence.

Rather quickly, my seatmate’s iciness thawed even though she remained worried I’d spill my coffee on her. I have to say, those who know me know that’s a legitimate worry! I definitely did not want to spill the coffee on her white skirt; I was being extra careful with how I held my cup.  Then my neighbor seemed to absolve me of all wrong doing.  Pointing at the cup, she said, “It’s not your fault.  The bus driver should have told you when you got on.”

All was well.  Thanks to my conscious decision to at least attempt to increase everyone’s happiness, Paula and I got off the bus smiling as our new Roman friend wished us a good day.  She was smiling, too.

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My brand new Live Happy t-shirt.

Story#4: Happiness at the Airport.  

When I left for the airport (in my first Uber ride ever, thanks to the very kind Brian Kaminer, the third member of our GNHUSA WoHaSu team), I was wearing a brand new t-shirt purchased from the Live Happy WoHaSu team.  The two teams had just enjoyed lunch together, and now I was on my way home sporting a shirt that says happiness in 13 languages.  I was leaving sun, warm temperatures, and an amazing summit — but I was headed for a loving home and community, with a head full of new ideas for spreading the GNHUSA message.

Once again, my spirits were high as I approached the ticket counter.

This time, maybe it was the shirt that chose happiness.  It certainly inspired the agent on the other side of the counter.  He told me that he loved the shirt, because he recognized the Arabic writing, and was pleased to see such an inclusive message.  Well, one thing led to another, and soon we were hugging — not an easy thing to do when there’s an airline counter in the way! Then I headed merrily for security.

Four perfectly normal and simultaneously extraordinary interactions — all turned into wonderful memories, thanks to the super power we all possess: the ability to choose happiness, for ourselves and all we meet. You don’t even need a cape.

madeleine-at-ami-december-2016

There’s a reason a picture of my granddaughter illustrates what is essentially an extended invitation to you — yes, you, the person reading this right now — to celebrate the 5th annual International Day of Happiness (IDOH) by hosting a Happiness Dinner.  The photo’s relevance will soon be clear. First, though, I want you to know that hosting these dinners is a wonderful, deeply meaningful experience. I was a host myself for two years in a row.  Both evenings filled me with love, gratitude, and joy.

The Happiness Dinners are even younger than IDOH; Gross National Happiness USA started this new tradition just three years ago. Since I’ll be traveling home from the World Happiness Summit, I might miss the chance to host this year. You, however, can offer your friends whatever kind of feast suits your fancy (take out, pot luck,  gourmet, you name it!) — along with the healing power of a serious conversation about happiness. Together, you and your guests can experience the unifying capacity of happiness — at least for one highlight reel evening.

We certainly need something to bring us together.

Lately I’ve been thinking, this country needs one great big mediation.  Or, possibly, millions of small ones. My Masters in Mediation training taught me that most of the bluster that rages within conflicts is merely positioning.  To get to a mutually agreeable solution, it helps to strip away the surface arguments and uncover what really matters, what the interests are that fuel the disputes.

I suspect, if we could sit down and listen with open minds and hearts to one another’s interests, we’d recognize that we’re not that far apart.  We all want economic security, a sense of safety, good health (mental and physical), a government that works on our collective behalf, and vital communities.  We want to give and receive love.  We want peace.  In other words, we want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

We have different ideas about how to meet these needs, of course.  Sometimes, our views are diametrically opposite. Still. If we could meet on the playing field of our common humanity and our shared interest in happiness and well-being, we’d be much more likely to find solutions that most of us could endorse.

Since neither the one large nor the millions of small mediations are going to happen, I suggest instead, let’s listen to one another. Forget the ranting, raving futile attempts to convince each other of the rightness of our own positions.  Move beyond that to speak our own truths and, even more importantly, hear the genuine interests of others.  Essentially, that’s what the the Happiness Dinners are about — giving and receiving the gift of listening to what matters most in life. These dinners work, in part, because sharing a good meal makes us more comfortable with one another, and in part because Gross National Happiness USA provides guidelines for keeping the conversation focused. Perhaps the most crucial ingredient, though, is good listening.

Listening can be magical, for both the listener and the one being heard.

I experienced this magic quite unexpectedly on Christmas vacation with my family. I was with my granddaughter, right after an all-you-can-eat sausage and pancakes breakfast on the beach.  We had strolled over to the playground, where she could do her four year-old thing on the play structure, and I could do my grandmother thing, watching her from a distance, and drinking in every moment.

I thought I was in a politics-free zone with other happy grandparents, one of whom asked jokingly if I had had vodka in my orange juice cup. Our chat started out friendly enough, but began edging closer and closer to possibly volatile political territory when he began complaining about government spending priorities.  Guessing that he and I likely had very different views, I became wary.  We were at the beach, for heaven’s sake. Rather than plunge into a useless debate, I endeavored to keep this encounter superficial.

Fortunately, I didn’t succeed.  I say fortunately, because he turned out to be a man in pain who really wanted to be heard.  At some point, thanks to my mediation training and my experience on the Happiness Walk, I decided it was best to just listen.  I didn’t have to agree, argue or judge. I could just hear the man.

I disagreed with him on at least one major issue, but kept my mouth shut. Surprisingly, we found common ground in agreeing that money is not the root of happiness, and that consumerism and greed have gotten way out of hand.  Mostly, though, I had the privilege of listening to this grandfather’s heartbroken story about his heroin addict son, the father of the two young grandchildren playing with my granddaughter.  “My son’s never bought so much as a diaper for them,” the grandfather sadly said.

Before you know it, we were hugging. I have to say, I felt so much love for that man — and his wife, who moved in and out of the conversation.  Politics and religion were 100% irrelevant. We were all just frail humans with our joys and sorrows, at the beach with our grandchildren on Christmas Eve morning.  Their stories reminded me, again, we all want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

The stories you’ll hear at a Happiness Dinner will hopefully not be quite so sad — though they might be, as times of sorrow and pain can also lead to a deeper appreciation of happiness.  In any case, I’ll wager that almost all the stories will be moving. In the safe space of a Happiness Dinner, you and your guests will likely be speaking from your hearts — and that, my friend, is a very special place.

 

 

 

what-makes-you-happyt

I realize my timing might be off.  Posting this happiness booster just two days after a presidential election that left many of us — including me — devastated and exceedingly concerned about the future, may be long before many people are ready to read about happiness. I myself feel a low-grade stomach ache. The threats are real on almost every front, from bullying to grave damage to democracy itself to the big question, will Trump’s actions on climate change lead inevitably to an unlivable planet?  Never have we more desperately needed a gross national happiness approach to measuring governmental success, but that is surely not currently in the cards.

On the other hand, perhaps a dose of happiness will be a helpful diversion, as we breathe, recover, and prepare to advocate with all our hearts for well being for the ill who need health insurance, for the brave souls at Standing Rock, for the Black Lives Matter movement, for the LBGTQ community, for Latinos and Muslims, for the environment, even well being for future generations.  We need to be our personal best to do this work, and as discordant as this may sound right now, greater personal happiness — ie,hope, energy, confidence, compassion, resilience, and creativity — will help us succeed.

Thus I share with you the informal “poll” I took the Saturday before Election Day, when I exhibited at the annual Wellness Fair hosted by Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vermont. The centerpiece of my booth was a simple colorful poster asking, “What Makes You Happy?”

Seventy-three boys, girls, women, and men took the time to write or draw their responses, and it was a beautiful experience.  A friend started it off with “Standing With Standing Rock” which later earned a “Me too.”  She had just participated in a march on a local bank which has ties to the North Dakota Access Pipeline.  I, too, have felt the happiness of meaning and community in marching for climate justice.  Her word provided an auspicious beginning.

In fact, I could personally appreciate a lot of what people wrote: “yoga!”, “a cup of coffee!” “the ocean,” “singing,” “books,” “a really good book,” and “sunshine,” for example.  They all make me happy, too.

Here’s what really made me happy — interacting with all these people, as they thoughtfully wrote their responses. Not one person mentioned money, power, or material possessions.  Young and old, they took the spirit of the exercise to heart, thus filling my heart with joy — a classic happiness upward spiral.

The number one answer, you can probably guess, was relationships.  Two young women, seemingly quite smitten with one another, wrote each other’s names, with little hearts. There were two “loves,” one “hugs,” two “family,” one “my family,” a “family and friends,””connecting,” “relationships,” “twelve grandchildren,” “Grammie” (with a heart dotting the i), “Granddaughter!” and “Being with my mom.”  There were also some variations: “Road tripping with my best friend”(with two hearts) and “Being outdoors with friends and sharing nature with them.”  I suppose you could even include “sex” in the relationship category.

One family stopped for a while.  While the dad cuddled a sleeping nine month old, the mom wrote, “chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.” When I laughed, she said, “It’s a special dessert he makes for me.” So I guess that was about relationships, too.

Dogs beat out cats by a long shot.  There was only one cat, but it was a cute drawing husband and wife both contributed to.  As for canines, there were three “dogs,” two “puppies,” one “fluffy puppies,” a “dogs and gardens,” and “Hiking in the woods with my dog.”

Given that we were at a fair focused on healthy living, with an emphasis on food, it isn’t surprising that food loomed large: one, “food,” two “Good food,” one “local food,” and one “cooking good food.”  In that same vein, perhaps, are “gardening” and “gardening and compost.”  And then there were a few location specific responses: “Vermont,” “Montpelier,” “Vermont’s natural beauty,” and “Vermont classical radio.”

Here’s another one that’s not exactly specific to Vermont, but does have a rural bent: “Fresh air, plants, mud, birds at the feeder, even a Grosbeak today!”

One answer was very time specific: “I already voted!” Sigh. Ah, for the pre-election anxiety — so much better than the current reality.

Some of the answers were philosophical, including one that makes me wish I’d seen the person writing it: “comfortable silence” (I was probably too busy talking).  Als0, the sheet contains a drawn peace sign, “inner peace,” a “Peace, Progress, & People over profit,” “Compassion,” “freedom,” “Expressing creativity” (another one with a heart), and “Life in general.” Two young girls, maybe nine or 10 years old, blew me away.  The first one put down a numbered list: “1. Life. 2. Family. 3. God.” Her friend wrote, “1. Hope. 2. Food. 3. Being Alive.” Wow, just wow.

Of course there was beauty: “Rainbows,”  two “Music” plus two specific music favorites (“The Grateful Dead” — with their logo and “Clash of … [something illegible]” from a young boy), “Poetry,” “Sunsets,” and two very similar descriptions of one of my favorite natural sights: “Sunlight reflected in pools of water” from another pre-teen girl and “Light reflection of waves of water — diamond light” from a self-described very happy middle aged man.

Sports showed up: “baseball,” “soccer and basketball,” from young ones.  From a more mature person, a “good massage.”

A young child had his mother draw and spell, “Balloons.”

Finally, one person wrote my name!!  I was touched.  And I have to say, right backatcha. All of them, and all of you.  We need other people in order to be happy, and they need us, too. After this election, oh, how much we need each other! One man asked me at the end of the fair, “Will you be happy if Trump wins?” I said I didn’t know — but I do.  Yes, of course, after some grieving time, I’ll straighten out my happiness attitude and get back to work. I do hope you’ll join me.