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Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7: Feeling All the Feels


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

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

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


My brother-in-law, Richard Sassaman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Eating Our Way to Happiness

Food.  One can’t very well have an integrated approach to happiness without considering what we put in our bodies.

It’s a big topic.  There’s a lot to ponder.

Yet it wasn’t on my mind until this week when my friend and fellow choir member Dave Grundy gave me a copy of  Prevention magazine’s  “Happiness Diet.”

I was a tad skeptical at first, but the article makes a science-based case for why certain foods and drinks enhance our mental and emotional well being.  A brief excerpt:

“Food is directly linked to three areas of brain function that create your ‘happiness ability.’  The first is your capacity to focus, think, plan and remember (we call them ‘foods for thought’).  The second is emotional regulation (‘foods for good mood’).  And third are foods that give you the ability to power through a deadline and control anxiety (‘foods for energy’).”

I’m particularly pleased to note that some of my favorites — coffee, blue or red skinned potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic — all made the list!

So what we eat affects how happy we feel — simultaneously, how happy we feel affects what we eat. Three days after Dave brought the happiness diet to my attention, the Happiness Initiative posted a link to a happiness weight loss video from an annual conference in Australia.  The sound quality of this video is challenging, but if you can hang in there, Professor Tim Sharp — Chief Happiness Officer of the Happiness Institute in Sydney — explains how to use the “primacy of positivity to achieve a healthier weight.”  Makes sense.

An integrated happiness approach also means making the connection between how our eating choices affect the rest of the planet.   For me, that means choosing vegetarian options roughly 95% of the time to help  stem climate change.

There are many, many other issues — from fair trade coffee to the rights of immigrants on our dairy farms.  I want to highlight just one wonderful way to eat fresh, organic, and local — very local — even in the depths of winter.  Thanks to Peter Burke and his workshops at the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, my husband Bob now grows a variety of nutritious and tasty sprouts all winter long.  I love watching this little garden grow on the window sill, with snow and ice on the other side of the glass.  What a treasure!

Who we eat with can also build our happiness levels.  When I worked at Home Share Now as staff mediator, I grew to appreciate how lonely it can be to eat alone, and what a relief it was for folks in a new home share match to once again have someone with whom to share meals.  Food is a connector, dining is a relationship builder.

Food also provides an opportunity for a sustained gratitude practice.  Years ago, Bob and I began lighting candles at dinner every night, even in the summer when it doesn’t get dark till 10 PM.  At each dinner, we toast someone or something — an idea, the weather, happy news, a person in pain …  We didn’t consciously establish this ritual, much less set out to do a nightly gratitude practice.  But that’s how it’s evolved.

Now, when I think about our winter toasts next to the wood stove, or the summer toasts on our screened porch, and the smiles or sadness we share as our glasses touch, and the simple food we’re about to enjoy (almost always with his home grown garlic), it fills me with contentment, joy,  and gratitude.  In other words, happiness.

Maximizing the Happiness Miracle

When I was interviewing for the job of Assistant Director of Media Communications at Common Cause 30 years ago, I was of course asked why I wanted to work there.  I responded that my head was in the clouds but my feet were on the ground, and I thought that was a good fit for the lobby group’s ideological/practical blend.  I got the job and, after a bumpy start, it was indeed a good fit.  My struggles and persistence in figuring out what was expected of me, and the organization’s persistence in sticking with me till I found my way, paid off for all of us.

I think the much younger me had it right.  I still have faith, and I still think we need to put our noses to the grindstone.  Miracles can slip away if we don’t roll up our sleeves and do our job.  Sometimes happiness wanders in unexpectedly, but frequently happiness is not easy.

Rainbow in Vermont

One of my favorite jokes revolves around our own responsibility to seize miracles.  In the joke, a gentleman whose house is about to flooded gets a knock on the door from the police who urge him to evacuate. ” No,” he says, “the Lord will take care of me.”  After the waters have overwhelmed the street, rescue workers in a boat again urge him to come with them to safety.  “No,” he replies, “the Lord will take care of me.”  Eventually, the flood forces him to his roof, where he’s spotted by a helicopter.  The crew tries to airlift him, but, you guessed it, he once more says no, the Lord will take care of him.  Finally, as the waters rise to his head, he cries out, “Lord, Lord, why didn’t you help me?”  The Lord’s voice booms back, “I sent you the police, a boat, and a helicopter.  What more did you want?”

From the ridiculous to the sublime … That joke reminds me of a Helen Keller quote, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens.  But often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

We’ve got to do our part, and, we’ve got to pay attention.

Here’s another favorite joke (and I apologize if it sounds a tad sexist): Two construction workers sit down to eat lunch.  One opens his lunch pail and says, “Darn!  Peanut butter and jelly again.  I hate peanut butter and jelly!”  The next day, same two workers, same lunch pail.  Again the worker says, “Oh, no, peanut butter and jelly again!!  Drats!!”  The third day (you probably can guess where this is going), there they are again.  Once more, the pail is opened.  “Peanut butter and jelly!” the worker cries.  “Arrrrggghhhh!”  Finally his co-worker can’t take it any more and says, “If you hate peanut butter and jelly so much, why don’t you ask your wife to make you something else for lunch?”  The first worker is incredulous.  “My wife?!?  My wife?!?! I made these sandwiches.

The wisdom in this joke has served me well for decades.  On countless occasions, when I’ve been in a situation not altogether to my liking, and started to complain, either my husband observed, or I noted myself, ” I know, I know, I made this peanut butter sandwich.”

Funny thing, though, I realize as I write this that I only ascribe that joke to non-happy situations.  I need to start giving myself credit for making something else — maybe VT cheddar and apples? — in good times!  You and I and everyone else — we make our own happy choices, and do the work required to fulfill their promise.

We can further maximize the miracles by helping others learn to be happier.  Last week, I had the opportunity to do some mediation work with Jeff Mandell, founder of the Vermont Institute on Health.  This Institute is a camp for teenagers who want to learn more about genuine well being.  Jeff is helping these kids build a foundation for a lifetime of happiness.   As you can see in his video, there are a lot of miracles at his camp — along with mindfulness and hard work.  Go Jeff!! (more…)