Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

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!

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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.

 

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*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.

 

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PERMA

GNH measuring what matters

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.