Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Coping’ Category

Personal Happiness and Broken Systems

Periodically, I feel compelled to stress that my passion for spreading the happiness gospel is based on a fervent desire for a radically different political and economic paradigm — one that is focused on the genuine well-being of people and the planet, as opposed to a world which “has become an idolator of this god called money,” according to Pope Francis.  Like the Pope (I never thought I’d say that!), I “want a just system that helps everyone.”

The events last night that led to my granddaughter Madeleine taking care of her first ever baby doll have once again inspired me to write about the connection between personal happiness and broken systems.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My path is, of course, different from the Pope’s.  I believe that cultivating personal happiness is a key element (not the only element)  in working toward this shift.  Here are a few reasons why.  With greater understanding of personal happiness, comes a deeper appreciation of the sadness, emptiness, and destruction inherent in relying solely on Gross National Product  measurements of success.  When we internalize the knowledge that money and material goods are important but only a piece of our personal happiness, and also understand that chasing the almighty dollar can seriously undermine our enjoyment of life, we can so much more easily grasp the practical and visionary potential of a Gross National Happiness paradigm.

Further, cultivating personal happiness will strengthen the traits we need for the indescribably huge challenges of ameliorating climate change and ending the grown economy.  As we become happier individuals, we are, for starters:

  • less attached to things;
  • more optimistic;
  • more resilient;
  • more aware of what is truly going on around us;
  • more creative;
  • more compassionate: and
  • more grateful.

Oh, yes, and we are also more fun to be around — which no doubt makes us better messengers.

Okay, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and share what made me want to climb up there in the first place.  About a week ago, my daughter Jennifer’s old clunker car finally died.   She and my 20-month-old granddaughter will soon be joining us for a long Christmas break, but for a week and a half, she has had to cobble together a new transportation “system”: getting rides from friends, walking, and taking the bus.  She is fortunate to live in a city with decent public transit, but even so, last night my daughter and granddaughter spent 45 minutes on a cold, dark, and snowy Wisconsin night waiting for the bus to take them home.  It was pretty hard for Jennifer to be happy when her baby was crying from the cold.  My daughter sang to the baby to keep her calm until Jennifer’s cheeks were just too cold to keep singing.

Of course, the bus arrived eventually.  At home,  Jennifer decided it was a good time to open a Christmas present from Madeleine’s other grandmother.  That present is Madeleine’s first baby doll.   Watching her toddler practice taking care of this immediately beloved toy gave  my daughter a lot of reasons to feel much happier — gratitude, love, savoring the moment, etc.  So the story has a happy ending.

To me, this little vignette illustrates both the limits of, and the value of, personal happiness within broken systems.  For starters, cultivating our internal happiness is especially  important in the context of broken systems because, hey, this is the only life we get!  We should make the most of it, no matter the systems we live within.  I am so glad Jennifer and Madeleine got to end their evening on such a positive note.

To be clear, my daughter’s situation isn’t that bad.   She has a great job, a wonderful apartment, and a cousin who is helping her get a new car over Christmas break.  She’s only lived in Wisconsin a short time, yet she already has a group of friends who have been amazingly generous in providing rides.  Jennifer’s monetary resources may be limited, but she has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of friends and family who love her and can help when help is needed.  Which brings me to another reason for cultivating personal happiness, a la nurturing relationships: it provides us the tools to build alternatives to systems that break.

But personal happiness has its limits.  My daughter’s transportation struggles inspired me to write about Gross National Happiness because of the millions of young parents — or old grandparents, for that matter — who struggle with transportation to school, work, and child care day in and day out, in broiling heat as well as frigid cold.  Their own fatigue and discomfort, intensified by their children’s suffering, may well make “happiness” seem like a ridiculous goal.  Not everyone has presents waiting for them at home, and there is no reliable car in the immediate future for untold numbers of America’s working families.  We do not have “a just system that helps everyone.”

And then there’s the obvious: we should all be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  A political and economic system focused on the well being of people and the planet would surely be moving rapidly toward excellent systems of mass transit.

Another obvious point: transportation is just one of our many broken systems.  That is why, this Christmas season, I will be spending lots and lots of time with my family and friends — giving and receiving, singing, playing in the snow, laughing, meditating, and doing my best to live a happy life.  At the same time, I’ll be working with my friends at Gross National Happiness USA and The Happiness Initiative to move towards a world of greater peace and justice, a world that does more than pay lip service to well being for all.

As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”  Everyone.

And now I have to go bake cookies.

The “Happiness Lady” Is Sad

I was momentarily at a loss for words after choir practice last week.  I had just introduced myself to a new choir member who smiled and said, “Oh, yeah, you’re the happiness lady, right?”

I was briefly taken aback because I didn’t feel that happy.  In truth, I was sad.  Of course, cultivating happiness is not about dismissing or ignoring negative emotions.  They are valuable contributors to the palette of life.  So I quickly recovered my equilibrium enough to smile back and say, sure, yeah, I guess  I am the happiness lady.

My sadness is still with me today, and I’m okay with that.  I just had two major losses in my life: 1) I closed my Happiness Paradigm store and 2) my baby granddaughter, who had lived with us for almost all her first 17 months of life, moved with her mother to a distant state.

My granddaughter "helping" me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

My granddaughter “helping” me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

Though both events are positive developments, there is nonetheless grief.   My daughter landed an excellent job, which is critical to the long term well being of her and her daughter.  Still, I deeply miss having a beloved baby under my roof.  How could I not?

As for the store … one reason I closed it was to open a new space in a more populated area where I can do workshops, mediations, coaching, and writing.  But my new office is still being built from two old closets and isn’t ready yet.  I’m feeling un-moored.

Plus, it’s fall and the darkness is closing in.

So, what is a sad “happiness lady” to do?  Or you, for that matter?  It’s a fundamentally important question, not only for my current minor distress but also for the much more daunting pain and struggles we will all be forced to grapple with sometime (s).

Indeed, small challenges are also opportunities for us to practice the coping skills that we will need to endure the really tough suffering.

What might those skills look like?  For starters, they might look like the previous paragraph: shifting one’s perspective to find the positive aspects in a negative situation (ie, challenges are also opportunities).  In my mediation training, we called this “reframing;” you could just say it’s looking for the cloud’s silver lining.

Being aware of, and present to, our sadness is vital — as is humor.  Comedian Louis C.K. combines both in this timely video my daughter alerted me to (a video that will be especially entertaining to Bruce Springsteen fans).  Louis C.K. also highlights ways not to deal with sadness — another valuable lesson.

I’ve cried on and off these past few weeks, and that’s good,  too.  In another timely internet offering, neuroscientist Mark Brady’s new blog on “Crying In Restaurants” observes that “tears of grief are filled with neuro-toxins and crying is one way the body is built to move them out of our system.”  Tears are a great gift — if we give ourselves the time and space to cry them.  I’ve found the time to do that, choosing to stay home alone or with my husband and just be with the sadness.

There are so many other ways to cope, and your choices will be different from mine.  My coping strategies include singing in the church choir (which combines community, spirituality, service, learning, and the transformative power of music); hard work (a huge home improvement project, designed to simplify our lives and substantially curtail our personal contribution to climate change); service to others (through another church committee, “Lay Pastoral Care”); and exercise (yoga, bone builders, and kayaking).

And then there are my two favorite happiness strategies: gratitude and savoring.  It is, after all, autumn in Vermont.  When Bob and I kayaked on one of our favorite local lakes, the sweetly named “Peacham Pond,” it was a brilliantly sunny, cool, and windy Saturday.  Perhaps because the water was choppy, we had the lake to ourselves — except for a half dozen loons.  I was in love that day with Vermont, with Peacham Pond, with the tantalizing beauty of the foliage just starting to change, with my husband, with life.  So much to be grateful for, so much to savor.  My current bout of sadness isn’t through with me yet, but it sure did leave me alone for that glorious afternoon.