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Archive for the ‘Personal Happiness’ Category

Happiness in the Time of Covid, Part 4: Cajoling Your Brain with Stickers

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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GNH measuring what matters

 

 

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19: Part 2, Meditation

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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:

Do Not Despair: Happy Endings Are Possible

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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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Choosing Happiness With Strangers: Four Miami Vignettes

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.

The Unifying Power of Happiness Dinners

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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.

 

 

 

The Power of a Positive No to Increase Happiness

pipeline-protest-1

The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota access pipeline.  Photo by Little Redfeather Design/Honor the Earth

 

In 2005, after I had applied for the Masters in Mediation program at Woodbury College, I sat down with the Admissions Director for an informational interview.  “Would the program involve much conflict?” I asked her.  In retrospect, how embarrassing.  A mediator’s main job is to be calm in the midst of sometimes stormy conflicts, helping disputants move toward mutually acceptable solutions.

I got in the program anyway and fell in love with conflict theory, my first deep foray into brain science and human behavior. One of my favorite books was The Power of A Positive No  by William Ury.  For many of us, saying “no” is just as welcome as entering into conflict.  In fact, it sometimes is entering into conflict, or at least bringing the dispute to light — even if the whole thing is only within our own heads (“no, you cannot have that cake!” “but I want it!”).  Ury makes saying “no” much easier by asking us to consider, when we say no, what are we saying “yes” to?power-of-positive-no

That may be a simplification of Ury’s book, but this basic question has served me well whenever a no was emotionally difficult, inconvenient, and/or requiring some level of sacrifice.  Though Ury’s subtitle, Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No, focuses on interpersonal conflict, I have found the positive no formula helpful in many situations. For example, I have said no to quite a few things that I previously enjoyed — nail polish, hair driers, meat (mostly), clothing driers, etc. — because the “yes” is so much bigger: a clean, livable climate for future generations. Then again, we all are in relationship with the climate, with the generations who will follow us, even with our own consciences.  Maybe it is all about relationships after all.

In any case, this is not just a personal tool — saying no to get to yes can be powerful with big picture disputes as well.  The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline is an inspiring example. I don’t want to speak for the determined water protectors, but what I see is a strong no to the pipeline, no to fossil fuel infrastructure, and no to the possibility of a devastating pipeline break and oil spill — all based on an unwavering yes to water, to life, to future generations, and to sacred lands and spiritual traditions.

Of course, a positive no is more complex than simply focusing on yes,  because we all are in relationship with one another. It is often both desirable and advisable to consider other options.  For the global climate action movement, for example, it is insufficient to just say no to the hardworking women and men in the fossil fuel industry. We do need to say no to fossil fuels, for sure — but these folks need jobs and incomes. For sure.  Thus the climate action movement also advocates for a just economy with alternative livelihoods for these families and communities — such as, building green energy infrastructure.

On a personal happiness level, sometimes yes is just yes.  Whether it’s practicing meditation, being a better listener, or simply smiling more, many positive psychology tools don’t require saying no.

Frequently, though, no has an important role to play.  I love pretty clothing and shiny trinkets, but I can usually reject their lure thanks to my well-rooted yes to saving the planet as best I can.  My no to stuff is sometimes challenging, but it ultimately makes me happy for at least three reasons:

  1. Our brains are not happy when we act in discord with our values and morals. Doing what my own brain believes is the right thing increases my happiness.
  2. The happiness hit from buying stuff is short lived.  There are always prettier clothes and shinier trinkets.
  3. Limiting my spending also means liberating some of my time.  Since I am not working simply to pay a department store credit card, I am freer to choose a career based on passion, not paycheck.

Sometimes the yes precedes an inevitable no.  When my daughter was nearing the end of her pregnancy, I absolutely said yes to driving from Vermont to Alabama to be there for her in the weeks before and after she gave birth. This meant saying no to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience, an enterprise I had started less than six months earlier.  I shut it down for two months, just when I should have been building the new business.  Instead, I built a closer relationship with my daughter and a deep, deep bond with my grandchild.  It was a good happiness choice for us all.

Back to the systems level, I think the power of a positive no may be even more helpful as we move toward a gross national happiness paradigm.   To embrace policies and political and economic philosophies based on a holistic “yes!” to the maximum well being for all people and the planet will require some really tough “no’s” to the dominance of a consumerism-obsessed, money focused, growth economy-insistent, gross national product way of thinking.  To state the obvious, it will not be easy.

Big jobs are easier broken into bite size pieces.  The Bhutanese, who have a gross national happiness system in place, have done that for us, dividing the big picture into nine “domains” — areas where government policy can best support well being.  The nine are: psychological well-being, physical health, time balance, community vitality, education, culture, environment, good government, and standard of living.

 

Not that any of these is really bite sized.  Still, this division makes it a bit easier to envision what to say no to, and what the yes might be.  Take trust in government for example.  I suspect there is a broad consensus for saying no! to the corrupting influence of money in politics, in order to say yes to healthier democracy.  However, since, campaigns will still need to be financed, the no is insufficient without an alternative vision — like public financing of congressional campaigns.

This example, like so many others, provides no panacea. Money will find a way to seep back in.  John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once quipped that those who reform systems and those who scheme to undermine those reforms should make an appointment to meet up several years after the reforms are passed — because, by then, it will time for new reforms.

Obviously, gross national happiness advocates are not trying to create a utopia. Rather, while we say no to a framework that no longer supports well being for either people or the planet, we say yes to new definitions of success that are more complete, more sustainable, and much happier for many more people.

It’s going to be a heckuva journey getting there, but journeys start today with one small step.  You can make that small but significant step today: say yes to happiness by signing the Charter for Happiness.  There will be plenty of time to say no all along the way.  Right now, all you need to do is say yes.  Yes, yes, yes!

A Gift for You: Walk in the Woods Meditation

Walk in the Woods

After decades of practicing meditation, four years of teaching happiness meditation classes and workshops, and now leading weekend retreats, I finally wrote my own guided meditation, “A Walk in the Woods.”  Being in nature makes us happy, but it isn’t always possible to physically be outside drinking up the sights, sounds, and smells of hiking on a wooded trail.  We can, however, savor the forest sensations in a very mindful way by taking the time to mentally create or recreate that experience in as much detail as possible.

I was inspired by the local Calais Trails Committee and by the transformative Helen Keller essay, “Three Days to See.”   With gratitude to them, I offer the following meditation to you.  Please make it your own.  I’ve based the meditation on a summer walk in the Vermont woods, but your walk may be in the fall, spring or winter, on a real or imaginary trail.  Create or recreate the experience that best suits you.  The following is more a series of suggestions than a road map.

A Walk in the Woods

I invite you to start by easing into your meditation practice.  With your eyes closed, let your breath out with an audible sigh.  Do this several times if you like.  Take a moment to notice all the places your body is in contact with the floor, chair, or cushions.  Appreciate the support of the furniture and the building you are in, as well as the strength of the earth, making it safe for you to relax into your meditation time.  Next, in an easy gentle fashion, focus on your breath, for a few minutes, until you feel ready to proceed. Take as much time with this transition as you want.

When you are ready, imagine you are at the trail head, ready to step in among the trees.  Before you begin your walk, take time for gratitude.  You may be grateful to have an able body.  You might thank those who built the trail, or the landowners who share their property with the public.  Perhaps your gratitude is for the weather, or for a strong pair of sneakers and good socks.  What are you grateful for? Again, take your time.  There is no need to hurry.

Remember to breathe.

Now, stepping into the woods, where do your feet land?  What does the trail look like? Are there trail blazes or other markers on the trees?  Who made them?  Are there roots or rocks you might stumble over?  Fallen branches?  Are ferns or maybe even poison ivy growing near the trail? Is it a sunny day?  What kinds of patterns does the play of light through the tree canopy make?  Look around, what can you really see?

When we practice mindfulness, we can try to use all our senses.  Right now, for example, what do you hear in your own little forest?   Maybe leaves crunching underfoot?  Or birds — is there a variety of bird calls if you really listen?  Is it a still day, or is a breeze blowing?  What does that sound like?  Other animals?  Insects whirring by your ear or chirping from afar?  Maybe even traffic or construction noises off in the distance?  Mindfulness is about more than appreciating beauty — it is, deeply observing what truly is.

Still breathing?

What does the air smell like?  Did it rain recently?  Are there rotting logs nearby?  Do you smell your own shampoo, or toothpaste?  Maybe there are flowers, or berries — do you want to lean in and breathe in their aroma?

And touch — is the air on your arms and face cool from the shade, or is it a hot sultry day even in the woods?

Even taste — did you bring a water bottle along?  What does the water taste like?  Any leftover meal flavors still lingering in your mouth?  Did you pick a berry to eat?  Was it sweet, sour, overripe?

Breathing deeper now, and looking more carefully around you.  You’re surrounded by trees, but what species?  Have any blown over, from the wind or maybe lightning? What bark do you see around you?  Patterns?  Growths on trees?  Any holes in the trees? Perhaps holes made by animals, or perfect for animals to crawl into. And of course the leaves, or pine needles — different shapes, various shades of green? Are there also browns, and reds — trees in distress, or maybe autumn is coming on.  It’s time to see the trees themselves, not just the forest.  Are there any very old trees?  Or very young ones?  Any competing for the sunlight? What else?

Where would we be without trees?  Can you feel gratitude for them?

Still remembering to breathe, turn now to the rocks and stones. Do you see ledge, or quartz? What sizes — boulders? Pebbles?  Do you have to climb over any rocks?  Are they moss-covered?  Sharp, rounded?  Maybe you can even spot one that is heart shaped.

Now we’re walking next to a mountain brook.  Is your brook full and flowing forcefully?  Maybe it just rained?  Or is it late summer, with only a trickle? Pause and put your hand in.  How cold is it? What does the brook sound like?  What patterns do you see, in the way the water falls, and on the rocks below the surface?  Linger by the brook as long as you’d like.

When you’re ready, notice that the trail is going up hill.  What are the sensations in your muscles?  Are you winded?  Sweaty? Thirsty?  How is your body doing on this hike?  Or is it more of an easy going walk for you?  Even on this mental journey, can you listen to your body’s experience?

In this moment, we’ve stepped out of the woods into a meadow.  It may be sunny, or overcast.  Is it hotter?  Or is there a wind blowing, making your skin cooler? Looking up, what do you see in the skies?  Have the sounds in the meadow changed from those in the woods?  And sights — perhaps here you might see butterflies.  What else is different on this part of the walk?

Finally we’ve arrived at an overlook, where conveniently there’s a bench to sit on and savor the view.  What do you see?  A lake in the distance?  Mountains?  A city?  Is the view awe-inspiring? Does the larger vista give you a sense of place in the world, maybe putting your own cares in perspective? Can you pay attention to your feelings as well as the view? Just accepting your feelings, not trying to change them or judge them in any way.

Spend as long as you want sitting on the bench, taking in whatever is present for you in this moment.

Finally, let’s end this meditation the way we began: with gratitude.  Grateful perhaps for beauty, for public policies that have preserved park land, for your own self to take this time to flex your mindfulness muscles and nurture your connection with the natural world.  Who and what are you grateful for?

When you are ready, open your eyes and gently return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Have a wonderful day.