Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Personal Happiness’ Category

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness, Resilience and Post Traumatic Growth

 

Flowers were among the much appreciated gifts of kindness I recently received.

Flowers were among the much appreciated gifts of kindness I recently received.

I began writing this piece as a reflection on rebounding from some personal trauma, but I am a slow writer and events overtake me.  My challenges actually coincided with the Orlando shootings.  Of course, trouble and pleasure are both constant visitors on the micro level (stubbed toes and flowers) and the macro (an awesome Pope and drowning refugees).  And, they’re inter-connected: our personal happiness or lack thereof dramatically affects our ability to contribute to the greater good, while the greater good or seeming lack thereof similarly impacts our own capacity for joyful living.  That is why I advocate as strongly as possible for both personal happiness and a Gross National Happiness paradigm.  Both matter. A lot.

Still, following the killings of black Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — as you all probably know, two seemingly unjustified executions by police officers — and then the targeted executions by a sniper of five police officers keeping the peace at a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest, my personal musings just seem so damned trivial. Yet, where else can we start but in our own hearts and souls?

So I continue with my story on kindness, resilience and post traumatic growth, wishing that the same factors writ large may help our deeply troubled nation evolve.  (Please dear god may our country also experience post traumatic growth!)

To transition, I offer this wisdom from one of my go-to authors, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferruci, author of The Power of Kindness:The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life: “Kindness? It may strike us as absurd to even approach the subject: Our world is full of violence, war, terrorism, devastation.  And yet life goes on precisely because we are kind to one another. No newspaper tomorrow will tell of a mother who read a bedtime story to her child, or a father who prepared breakfast for his children, of someone who listened with attention, of a friend who cheered us up, of a stranger who helped us carry a suitcase. Many of us are kind without even knowing it. We do what we do simply because it is right.”

My story starts with a winter memory of kindness, a day several passing motorists stopped to help get my car unstuck from an ice-coated driveway.  When I thanked them, one of the strangers thanked me right back, for giving him the opportunity to be helpful.

These last few weeks I’ve been remembering that normal, “simply because it is right” interaction because it left me focused on the “helper’s high” the kindness giver may feel, rather than the profound gratitude that may flood the recipient. For that learning, I apparently needed more than the minor annoyance of a stuck car.  A threat to my left eye created a mile-wide vulnerability ability to receive kindness.  I am sure the loving kindness that enveloped me hastened my emotional recovery.  Indeed, accepting and appreciating that kindness is a definite benefit of my frightening encounter with (limited) vision loss.

Since the incident is still fresh, I don’t yet have perspective. I don’t know for sure if the treatments will work, though the doctor assures me the odds are “heavily stacked” in my favor.  I don’t know if the sight in my left eye will ever improve.  Meanwhile, the possibility of the same problem arising in my right eye is very real, although here again the doctor is reassuring.  That’s a lot of unknowns.  Rather important unknowns.

However, I do know some things.

First, I know that it was a traumatizing shock to hear that I was in danger of losing all vision in my left eye without immediate, frightening treatments.  My response to be quiet, turn inward, and focus on my own feelings and healing was apparently both appropriate and effective, as my spirits rebounded substantially within a week of the first treatment.  Whatever the reality of my vision, I feel like myself again. Research shows that happier people may be more resilient.  Perhaps I had the science of happiness on my side.

Second, the treatment wasn’t as bad as I expected.  Obviously no one wants a shot in the eye.  For some reason, I assumed the injection would be in the pupil, a particularly distressing prospect. But it wasn’t the pupil, it wasn’t that painful, the eye wasn’t even especially sore afterwords.  A little freaky, but I can let go of ruminating over an unfounded fear.

Third, I know I am lucky to have insurance coverage for this doctor and these treatments. This was almost financially disastrous.  The first retina specialist my optometrist connected me with is outside my insurance coverage region, which would have meant an $1800 deductible followed by an ongoing 30% co-pay.  Both a retina specialist and the vision-saving drug are likely exceedingly expensive.  If the current doctor had not been available, I would obviously have gone to the first recommended specialist.  There would have been no real choice, even if saving my vision led to bankruptcy.  I am simultaneously grateful for my own good fortune and horrified that the minefield I dodged exists at all!

Fourth, Facebook and other social media were a godsend. While I am an extrovert who generally gets a lot of energy from face-to-face relationships, for about a week, I needed to cocoon.  Social media provided a way for me to reach out, and for others to respond. The morning of my first treatment, when I read the outpouring of caring responses to the blog I published the night before, I wept with appreciation.  The love I needed was there for me, thanks to the oft-maligned internet.

Fifth, I know that both the duration and intensity of my trauma were minimal compared with what many people endure. My thoughts on Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) refer only to my own experience.  Actually, as a non-therapist, I don’t know that much about Post Traumatic Growth, though it is a topic we touched on during the Certificate in Positive Psychology training.  Wikipedia says PTG, or “benefit finding”:  “refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. … Post traumatic growth is …. undergoing significant ‘life-changing’ psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful.”

Though only time will tell how life-changing this episode will be in my life, I can certainly say it contributed to “a personal process of change that is deeply meaningful.”  I believe I will look back at this time with a sense of peace, love, gratitude, and even joy. I foresee no reason why this trauma should be triggered in a negative way in the future, thanks to an awareness of the many gifts that supported me, including:

Gift of time.  My husband, friends, and the nature of my work and responsibilities at this stage of life allowed me to back off from everything that did not serve my needs. Again, I know I am fortunate.  And grateful.

Gift of writing. Sometimes writing feels like a burden to me.  In this case, writing allowed me to articulate the experience as I saw and felt it, giving me some sense of control over my own story.  I was so grateful to be a writer, especially when others told me that my story somehow inspired or helped them.  Amazing!  To be able to help others in my own time of pain, it blows me away.

Gift of reduced negativity. My initial diagnosis happened the day before the Orlando massacre.  While I normally follow the news pretty closely and cry with much of the world’s heartbreaks, this time, I limited my exposure.  Being a good citizen is important to me, but I had to take care of myself first.  This, by the way, is a gift each of us can give to ourselves when we need it.

Gift of modern medicine. Big pharma gets a bad rap for greed and money-fueled lobbying, but today I am very thankful for the drug industry.  Until recently, doctors had no way to help patients who developed the same condition I have.  My doctor told me, “We could only watch helplessly as they went blind.” The drug that is saving my eyesight has been in use for just 10 years.  Wow. So grateful. So lucky.

Gift of Good Luck.  Ferruci notes in his kindness book, that luck is largely a result of mindfulness, of noticing the goodness in life.  In addition to the medicine and the insurance, here’s another piece of luck I noticed: the flashing symptoms that sent me to the optometrist in the first place. Those symptoms were unrelated to the condition that exam discovered, yet without them,  don’t know when I would have noticed that the vision in my left eye was deteriorating.  Since my right eye was working overtime to compensate for the left, what luck to have flashing! Again, I am grateful.

Above all, gifts of love.  My husband, who spent many hours waiting in doctors’ offices with me; my friend Ulrike who told me to go ahead and cry at her birthday brunch if that’s what I needed (I did); the flowers, gift certificate, offers of whatever help I needed; even my son’s compliment on my writing skills — the gifts came in many forms.  I savor them all.  Each alone and all together, they mean so much.

So now I know.  Receiving kindness can be just as sweet as giving it.  May we all embrace both, wholeheartedly.

My Turn to Embrace Unhappiness

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I'm not pretending.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I’m not pretending.

I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times.  It’s part of life, I say aloud.  Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”

Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument.  Bad times have arrived.

All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble.  The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away.  Not a good sign.  Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont.  More foreboding.  Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said.  “First we need pictures.”

Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech.  Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living.  I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.”  Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored.  Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink.  It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated.  Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye.  The doctor assures me, this will hurt.  I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away.  Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself.   I don’t, actually.  This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives.  Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute.  Bad times take many different forms.  Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.

The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation.  I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office.  I don’t know why.  Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry.  My left eye is irreversibly damaged.  I almost lost my vision completely in that eye.  That is worth grieving over.  That is worth many tears.

I know I’ll be done crying soon.  From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it.  There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there.  However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too.  Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic?  I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not.  Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun.  It might not even work.  It might happen in the other eye.  But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War.  He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism.  Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.

Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”  So be it.  Faith, yes.  And, tell me the truth.

I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse.  Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps?  Or their optimism isn’t reality based?

So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality.  That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend.  I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight.  I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist.  I will forgive myself.  Not yet, though.

Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness.  Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight.  Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn’t do it.  I just needed to be sad.

It’s dark, rainy and cold today.  Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return.  Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well.  Maybe not.  Either way is okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Pleasure of Brussel Sprouts

An unexpected pleasure: brussel sprouts for lunch.

An unexpected pleasure: brussel sprouts for lunch.

It’s been five months since I was last on the road with The Happiness Walk — a project I love being part of — so I was naturally eager to fly to Baton Rouge today to once again join lead walker Paula Francis.  I had managed to carve out two weeks walking time, just barely enough to cover 150 miles to the Texas border.  Since I’ve never been in either state, I look forward to richly experiencing Louisiana and seeing at least a sliver of Texas.  That’s geekily exciting.  Plus, a third brand new happiness walker — my friend and neighbor Marilyn — is traveling with me, which guarantees even more good times.

Yesterday while I packed, my mind was primarily focused on Louisiana’s weather.  The 10-day forecast shows swings from 36 degrees some mornings to the high 70s one or two afternoons.  That’s quite a range when you’re walking, and carrying everything in a backpack*.  Deciding what clothes to take occupied a lot of my grey matter.

Still, going somewhere means leaving someplace else behind.  In this case, I am leaving home, temporarily stepping away from my husband, choir, yoga class, snow shoeing — and, a perfectly good batch of plump brussel sprouts.  The sprouts gave me a moment’s distraction when I realized they would go bad in my absence.  My husband’s hate of brussel sprouts is legendary among his siblings; he certainly won’t eat them.  But … I had no time to eat them yesterday, and I had a plane to catch today.

Or so I thought.

Apparently there was this little snowstorm over the weekend?  A little blizzard that shut down Broadway? Not a drop fell in Vermont.  Nonetheless, when Marilyn and I arrived at the Burlington airport we were informed in no uncertain terms that we were not flying anywhere today. Of course, I wasn’t totally surprised.  Marilyn was even less surprised than me.  We had gotten an email two days before letting us know that part of our itinerary — the part involving Newark — had been canceled.  Still, I was hopeful.  I guess I overlooked the fact that Burlington is a very small airport, with limited options to begin with.

And no options today.

Here’s where the happiness training kicks in.

In the stating-the-obvious-department, I’ll note that it is easy to be happy when everything is flowing smoothly.  The rewards of a regular happiness practice to cultivate one’s inner resources show up in life’s bumpier moments.  Today, for example.  I was naturally a little disappointed, but I was also grateful.  The woman behind the counter made it clear just how lucky Marilyn and I are to be able to fly out tomorrow.  So, yay for that.

Gratitude is so powerful, and also a strategy that most anyone reading this blog is probably quite familiar with already.  There is usually so so much to be grateful for, from the macro (I mean, holy cow, what a great trip we get to go on tomorrow!) to even more macro (we both have such lovely husbands, one of whom delivered us to the airport and one who brought us home).  And I had a lovely cup of English Fog tea while we waited — an opportunity for savoring and gratitude.

Then there’s perspective, which you could also term mindfulness.  This storm caused massive inconvenience and disruption to millions of folks up and down the East Coast.  We weren’t exactly singled out.  Again, you could put this in a much bigger perspective — as in, talk about first world problems.  A trip delayed by one day?  Not even worth sighing over.

And then there’s reframing, or benefit finding.  I remembered that Paula had not felt well yesterday, so could see a possible silver lining here: waiting for us to arrive, Paula can take a full day to recuperate if she needs to.

Not only that, I could eat the brussel sprouts!  I kid you not, when we were settled in the car heading home, I happily told Marilyn and Larry all about the brussel sprouts waiting in my fridge.  I didn’t actually do a great job of cooking them, but I savored my lunch nonetheless.

And, I get to go to yoga tonight!

Life is good, even if now I might not get to Texas.  And, if I’m not on that plane tomorrow, I might have to dig a little deeper.  But for now, I can go do downward dog with a smile on my face.

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  • Hopefully, we won’t have to carry our packs while we walk.  Part of the Walk’s magic is all the helpers we meet, including those who transport our stuff.