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Archive for the ‘Gratitude’ Category

Savoring Happiness

It pleases me no end that savoring — just taking the time to smell the roses and truly enjoy life’s pleasures — is a scientifically proven strategy for raising our personal happiness levels.  How cool is that?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Science? Really? What science?”  Fair enough.  I have zero scientific expertise.  Instead, let me offer up the Mayo Clinic.

In an article entitled, “How To Be Happy: Tips For Cultivating Contentment,” the Clinic cautions that being happy takes “practice, practice, practice.”  They offer multiple options for “choices, thoughts and actions” to get happier, including savoring:

“Don’t postpone joy waiting for a day when your life is less busy or less stressful. That day may never come.  Instead, look for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of everyday life. Focus on the positives in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.”

Since becoming mindful of savoring, I’ve noticed that it is almost always an option, regardless of immediate circumstances and surroundings.  This makes it a particularly helpful tool.  In crabby-making situations, if I remember to look around and drink in whatever beauty or joy is at hand, I can get an immediate happiness  boost.  As I write, I can pause to more deeply appreciate the Ravi Shankar music playing on Pandora or to breathe in the aroma from a pine scented candle just to my right.  No big deal — it just takes intention and attention.

Of course, what and how you savor will likely be quite different from my choices.  My scented candle would give some of my friends a headache.  To me, that’s part of the attraction of happiness-building activities — they are based on science, but you can choose strategies that most appeal to you and apply them in your own unique way.

Another lovely aspect of savoring is that it need not be restricted to the present; you can also relish past memories and anticipate future pleasures.  Thus, as Sonya Lyubomirsky observes, “when you master this strategy, you ‘will always have Paris.'”

Lyubomirsky lists savoring as “Happiness Activity No. 9”  (out of 12) in The How of Happiness which I listened to last March while driving from Vermont to Alabama for the birth of my granddaughter.  I think I’ll always remember how much I was able to savor the beauty of a perfectly ordinary rest stop in Virgina that day.  The clouds and the wildflowers were so normal, and so sublime.  Drinking in the beauty that surrounded me filled me with gratitude.

Our little Christmas baby.

Our little Christmas baby.

Since Madeleine was born and moved in with us, I have had countless opportunities for savoring.  However, when I interviewed environmental activist Kathryn Blume for an article in Vermont Woman, she suggested I might also observe how the baby herself provides a case study for human happiness.

For example, one day I headed up the stairs to her room.  Knowing how pleased she would be to see grandma, I made lots of noises to give her plenty of time to anticipate my arrival.  When she finally saw me, she squealed and jumped with pleasure.  It was quite amusing!  I come in her room to greet her almost every day, but building in the anticipatory savoring made the experience so much sweeter for her, and me.

She has no problem savoring the ordinary.  Ordinary, extraordinary — it’s all the same to her.  One of her favorite toys right now is an old jewelry box.  It’s just decorated cardboard, but really — how charming is the silky lining, how solid it feels in the hand, and what an ingenious opening mechanism!  Madeleine reminds me daily that savoring opportunities abound.

Now that the holiday decorations are up, we have a special set of objects and experiences to savor.  Through Madeleine’s eyes I have learned that the snow in the Santa Snow Globe is actually teal, that the Santa wine bottle cover has bells that ring (and a beard that can be pulled off), and that the little blue ceramic Santa has a bell that can almost always coax a baby smile.  I’ve always loved Christmas lights, but I don’t know how much I actually savored them.  Now, following Madeleine’s lead, I take the time to hold her as we both gaze and savor the amazing reality of colored lights.  Wow!  How glorious!

And of course, I keep savoring her, storing up these precious memories — so I’ll “always have Paris.”

A Serendipitous Note

Gratitude is another one of my favorite happiness tools, and this morning I was reminded of a person to whom I owe much gratitude:  Dr. Lynn Johnson, who introduced me to the importance of savoring.  In November 2010, I took a daylong seminar from him (“Happiness: How Positive Psychology Changes Our Lives”) and later read his book, Enjoy Life.  Today I received a link to his own blog also on savoring.  Naturally, Dr. Johnson’s take is very different from mine (warning: it may make you hungry).  Between his words and mine, perhaps you’ll have a whole new approach toward smelling roses, literally and metaphorically.

What Are You Grateful For?

Gratitude.  Aaaahhhhh.  I just love moments of gratitude.  How fortuitous, then, that practicing gratitude is a scientifically proven method of deepening one’s own well of happiness.

Many years ago, long before I’d even heard of positive psychology, I had a gratitude practice: noting in a daily journal what I was thankful for.  But I confess, I only journalled for a few days, which couldn’t possibly have done me much good.  In The How of  Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirksy stresses the importance of choosing happiness activities that will keep you engaged for a significant period of time in order to actually make a difference.  Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author,explains the brain science involved in an article called “How To Trick Your Brain For Happiness.”  Here’s an excerpt from that article, recently shared through The Daily Good web feed:

“Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.”

Happily, while listening to Lyubomirsky’s book during my long drive from Vermont to Alabama last spring, I had an “aha moment” — rather than write about happiness, I would pull out my watercolors and create a weekly gratitude painting.  Perfect!

Okay, so the weekly painting turned into a monthly painting and I skipped April altogether (hmmm, could that have something to do with helping my daughter care for a newborn???) — but I stuck to it.  It’s working.  I have weeks to contemplate the subject of my next painting; thus, gratitude is frequently on my mind.

My first gratitude painting. I am often surprised by the subject matter that comes to the top of the list when I sit down to paint.

So my mental pump was primed when I stumbled on Ken Wert’s “Meant To Be Happy”  blog list of 48 unconventional things for which he is grateful.   His list  ranges from toilet paper (this makes me smile) to gears (yeah, okay, I can see that) to color (yes, yes, my heart is singing!) to hugs and voice (deep sighs of appreciation).  It’s a pretty darned good list.

Wert’s list, and the many expressions of gratitude I heard at the Happiness Conference in Seattle, made me wonder: what are other people grateful for?

To find out, I put out a few group emails, and changed the question on the blackboard in front of The Happiness Paradigm to, “What Are You Grateful For?”   Naturally, the blackboard collected shorter answers: “Obama,”  “Fall in Vermont,” and “blankets.” The written answers, on the other hand, are wonderfully thoughtful — perhaps precisely because writing takes more thought, and perhaps because almost everyone who responded is involved in some way with the happiness movement.

Their responses are below.  Before you read them, though, I’d like to ask, what are YOU — the person reading this, right now — grateful for?  This collection is neither scientific nor comprehensive, but the more answers the better, because this is good food for thought for all of us.  So please feel free to post a comment or send an email with your own answer to this question.

Now, in no particular order, here are some gratitude answers thus far:

  • Grateful for the fact that I’m alive and well each day. And grateful for the opportunity to work on this (happiness) movement 🙂
  • I am grateful for my Mom who taught me I can do anything!
  • Immense gratitude to all who call forth the most thriving possibilities for humanity and the fullness of life. The call to happiness and compassion has deep roots even beyond the measurable and our time together was soul food.
  • Grateful for all the help from near and far in taking care of a new baby — babysitting, onesies, toys, students taking care of the baby, support from family, etc.  Can barely name it all!
  • I am thankful for old clothes that seem to melt into my body this cold September morning, one that marks the beginning of Fall, a season I love best in New Mexico. And I am grateful for the happiness class I began teaching last week on the anniversary of September 11th. I am grateful that in spite of such darkness in the world we can gather in places like Albuquerque, Seattle, and Maple Corner,Vermont to promote happiness.
  • I am grateful for: 1)  My spiritual teacher Sant Kirpal Singh, and my meditation practice.  2)  Fran Joseph’s uplifting Laughter Yoga Certified Leader training last weekend–and Laughter Yoga itself.  3)  My kindred-spirit office mates.
  • Sleep — it’s like a miracle every night.
  • Shooting stars, and being able to see the Milky Way.
  • I am grateful to have such a good friend in YOU!
  • I am grateful that the conditions of my life allow me to participate in the arena of enhancing happiness, compassion, community, and  creativity; I am grateful that I am surrounded my many whose lives are about lifting the spirit of those that they touch; I am grateful that I live in a place where I have access to nature, culture, and really good food; I am grateful that there are so many people in my life that I love and appreciate; and I am grateful for the authors and film makers that create or capture stories that are captivating and meaningful.

    My gratitude painting for May — grateful for yoga!

  • While eating corn on the cob last night I realized how grateful I am for my teeth…many of which are implants.
  • I’m grateful to be reminded how happiness and gratitude go hand in hand ….  And that you keep me on your email & Facebook lists. I’m really appreciative of the work I have, even when it keeps me fairly close to home.
  • Ginny, I’m grateful for your regular messages on happiness and your ongoing curiosity about what creates it; I am so grateful to be here in Vermont where people still work at “creating a more perfect union,” as Bill Clinton reminded us yesterday was a goal of our nation’s founders. I am also very grateful for an amazing partner with a heart bigger than problems we’ve faced together. Together! I’m grateful for that word.
  • Silence, even though I love music.
  • Antibiotics that kill Lyme disease.
  • Right now I am feeling grateful for the people that have a passion and act — you in your store and how you reach out with your great loving positive energy, Linda and Paula and their big walk and listening hearts, and just a ton of people I read about and listen to that open their eyes to understand, then open their hearts for generous selfless action.
  • I always come back to gratitude for the most basic things.  I am again and again overwhelmed with gratitude for my senses – –  For being able to see (beauty of all kinds) and smell (roses, lavender, verbena, pine, chocolate) and hear (music, rain) and feel and taste.   I am also frequently grateful for having a soft clean bed to sleep in, a roof over my head and a safe, warm and dry place to call my own, and a fridge full of wholesome food whenever I open the door.  So many others are not this lucky.

    In June, gratitude for the trees my neighbor planted.

  • To all this wonderful gratitude others have expressed, I will add something to just reflect that gratitude can be for big deep things, but it can also be for little things:  today I’m grateful for pure maple syrup!
  • Today I’m grateful for this space in time:  a few hours to listen to my inner messages, to detach from the pull of outer events, & to process emotions.  So, really, I’m grateful to my Self for choosing to give me this gift in spite of all the pressing “shoulds.”
  • Our own little savings and loan down the street that only makes local loans.
  • Skype.
  • I am truly grateful to be able to be doing this work. Part of it is because of the wonderful people. Part because of the learning experiences. But mostly, because we are so very lucky to have the opportunity to do this work. It’s a grace not many people on this planet get.
  • I just got back from a short meditation retreat in Canada.  While there I got the news that two different old friends had died in last few days, greatly heightening my appreciation and grateful was for my Buddhist practice.  The outlook is so precious in preparing for decline and death, which we all must do; to have a path of joy in such reality is a great gif
  • I’m grateful that my husband thought to take my RAV4 to our neighbor when I drove it ’til there were no more brake pads, and he was able to earn some extra cash, and I was able to avert driving into a ditch.  I’m grateful that we have a generator as we just lost all power with this rain storm.  I’m grateful that I’ve been sober 11+ years, and I’m able to be of service to women who struggle with alchoholism.  I’m grateful to have a Mother-In-Law who is full of joy and laughter.
  •  I am grateful for so much, including my life and that of all beings (may all be at peace).   I am grateful for  connection, blessings, challenges and the opportunity to grow and share.

And me?  So many many things, from that first cup of coffee each morning to the glory of puffy white clouds in azure autumn skies and opportunities to be of service to others.  But, right now, having a six month old granddaughter (who lives with us!) trumps all else.  I am in love, I am happy, and I am grateful for this precious new life.

Happiness And The Kindness Of Strangers

The Tennessee Williams quote “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” makes me smile, thanks to the brilliant satirical musical “Streetcar!” on “The Simpsonsback in the 20th century.  Marge sang the lead, with absolutely fabulous back-up singers who belted out, “You can always depend on the kindness of strangers … A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met.  Streetcar!”

This blog, though, is sober — deadly serious, in fact.  Two days ago, the kindness of a stranger may have saved my son Ben’s life.  The stranger’s kindness has filled my family with gratitude (a key happiness tool) and has spared us from immeasurable pain.  We don’t know who he is, and he will never know how profoundly he helped Ben — but his actions illustrate how interconnected our lives are, and how our choices can impact the happiness of others.

Ben on his first birthday, 38 years ago this month. He’s still pretty cute, though.

Here’s the story:

Thanks to another gift — a very, very small inheritance check from his grandfather — Ben bought a new-to-him pick-up truck from a dealer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, about an hour and a half away.  I drove him to pick up the truck.  We decided not to convoy on the return trip, as he needed to stop for gas.  Also, he observed, I had my cell phone so he could always call if for some reason he needed help.

Or not.  In this part of rural Vermont, cell coverage is highly sketchy.

Did I mention the tornado warnings?

Right before we left home, I learned from The Weather Channel that our entire area was under a tornado watch.  And as we drove north, I kept the radio on, just in case the dreaded emergency broadcast signal began.  It did, with warnings of a severe thunderstorm headed toward in the same direction as we were.

So when we left the dealership, I was eager to skedaddle south as quickly as possible — radio still on, with more warnings.  Tornadoes, this time, in the towns I had just driven through.  I quickly calculated that, even stopping for gas, Ben was probably through those towns, too.  All was well.

At home, I breathed a sigh of relief and then looked at my cell phone.  Ben had called twice.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Anxiously, I called back.

He was stressed, though alright.  He, too, had been trying to drive out of the tornado zone — but ran out of gas and was stranded along the interstate, in the bull’s eye of the oncoming storm.  Minutes before it hit, the stranger picked up my son and dropped him off at a gas station in town.

The tornado touched down nearby, taking out hundreds of trees and one chimney — but, as it turned out, that wasn’t the real danger.

When Ben finally got back to his truck hours later, it was … gone.  As in, totally destroyed.  And shoved several hundred yards farther down the highway shoulder.  During the fierce storm, another trucker had accidentally rammed into the back of Ben’s new truck, completely wrecking it.*  Without the kindness of the earlier stranger, Ben would have been in the truck at the moment of impact…

Okay, that’s all my mother’s heart can bear to write.

I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama‘s wisdom that, in every interaction with every person, we can either contribute to that person’s happiness or contribute to that person’s unhappiness.  Usually I interpret that as sharing smiles, pleasant greetings, or maybe a hug.  Not, saving someone’s life.

I’m reminded, too, of an incident many years ago when Ben may well have saved the life of another stranger.  It was a cold November evening and Ben was outside having a cigarette (that’s another story!).  From somewhere in the woods at a bit of a distance from our house, he heard — or thought he heard — a very faint cry for help.  Together with his dad, Ben took off running toward the voice, which belonged to a hunter who had fallen from a tree and broken his leg.  The hunter was alone and unprotected.  The night was about to turn freezing.  Thanks to Ben, emergency personnel got the hunter to safety.

None of us know who that man was, either.

I have on my bookshelf Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, a review of morality and happiness by the very thoughtful Sissela Bok.  I have thought about the concept of morality of happiness from the viewpoint that our happiness choices might have a negative effect on others — ie, drinking non-fair trade coffee could lead to suffering and exploitation of those who pick the beans in countries far from me.

But the truck incident has turned my thinking around.  Our moral choices, decisions made from kindness or a generosity of spirit — say, picking up a driver stranded by the side of the road — could well enhance the happiness of others far beyond our knowing.

My daughter Jennifer wrote on Facebook of her gratitude to the stranger who saved her brother’s life:

“So I say: THANK YOU with all my heart to the man who potentially saved my brother’s life yesterday by being generous and giving him a ride.
And I invite you to think about what you can to with small gestures that make a world of difference.”

Indeed.  Sometimes we need a kind stranger, sometimes we’re called upon to be that kind stranger.  Happiness may depend on how, or whether, we answer that call.

* The other driver was uninjured, and Ben’s truck was insured.

Gratitude! (and not just because of Thanksgiving)

Happiness is both unique and universal.  One universality is the importance of gratitude.  As I embark on my blog journey,  gratitude is no stretch.  Indeed, I am overflowing with thankfulness for the many people who have showered me with generosity recently.

I don’t want this blog to be about me.  It will be about all of us, as we work together to create greater happiness on the micro and macro levels.

To start, though, I will be personal.  I’m going to name names:

First, my son Ben toiled for months turning the slightly decrepit A-frame in our backyard into a warm, colorful, and welcoming happiness oasis.  Gone is the disgusting carpet, the sagging walls, the broken heater filled with mice souvenirs.  The A-frame is now filled with color and joy — and, as we enter a long Vermont winter — heat!

Judy and Jenny stopped by to help me paint the polka dotted display pieces.  Jenny delivered Happiness Paradigm posters all over Central Vermont and then volunteered to provide beautifully arrayed opening day refreshments.

Roni baked chocolate chip cookies, described by one visitor yesterday as “happiness in a circle.”  Debbie surprised me with another batch of cookies.  Renee was going to help Roni bake, but with a 10-week old baby (the totally perfect Charlie) that didn’t work out — so she brought a supply of chocolate candy instead.  Rob brought a cupcake, and Paige brought a cake fresh from her mom Karen’s oven.  Laurel brought M&M’s, AND gave me one of her upcycled bags.  Ulrike and John shared wine, cheese and crackers at the end of a very long grand opening.

My sister Peggy in New Jersey has been scouring sources for happy items and interesting books that would be perfect for the store, and her son Timmy is working on a Wikipedia article about The Happiness Paradigm.

Lynn, Kairn, Jeannette, Cheryl and Liz all pitched in to edit the all important first Happiness Paradigm press release.

Megan and my other former colleagues at Home Share Now were an amazing and constant source of used colored paper for me to shred and turn into recycled paper art.  I learned how to do that just last February, thanks to Christina and her friend Carrie who volunteered to teach a paper making class.

Amy, Kathleen, and Marianne have all agreed to come to the store and lead sessions on non-toxic cleaning (Dec 3), healing through sound waves (Dec 17), and how to wear recycled saris (Dec 10), respectively.  In January, Linda is ready to teach reiki techniques, and Edward will lead us in laughing yoga.

Betsy gave me boxfuls of books to stock the “lifelong learning” free lending library.  Janet is sharing her magical paper mache art.   Nel, the queen of making art from things other people throw away, brought some of her gems to sell on consignment.  Another Renee delivered colorful and warm hats knitted from recycled yarn — and, interviewed me on her WGDR radio show.

I can’t imagine how I could have gotten to this point without Kayla’s  unwavering healing touch.  And I’m blessed with smart, creative, and loving friends (insert long list here!!) who helped me find the courage to take risks.

My daughter Jennifer is my long distance cheerleader, especially on Facebook.  In the spring, she’ll make me very, very happy when she gives birth to my granddaughter.

Best for last: Bob.  Even though I was just barely 17 when we got married, somehow or the other I managed to get hitched to a really, really nice man who always trusts me to forge my own path.  Plus, he’ll cook dinner, help with a multitude of tasks, figure out my computer needs (including setting up this blog).  Not only that, he’s agreed to lead monthly ukulele sessions at The Happiness Store and Experience. That makes both of us happy.