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Archive for the ‘Personal Happiness’ Category

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.

The Christmas Blog I Don’t Have Time to Write

Me and my Yankee Gift Exchange prize a few years ago.

Me and my Yankee Gift Exchange prize a few years ago.

Back in the 1980’s, before my plunge into working as a full time watercolor artist ate up every ounce of my creative time and energy, I used to make our annual Christmas cards.  I spent months playing around with ideas as part of my endeavor to make every card clever and quirky, especially after feedback from friends about how much they anticipated the yearly Sassaman Christmas card.

One year, the pressure was just too much.  Instead of making cards, I photocopied Edvard Munch’s haunting painting “The Scream,” and typed a little message of apology, noting that I was just too busy to make cards that year.  Word to the wise: “The Scream” is a poor choice for a holiday card!  I tried to soften it up by putting foil stars on the eyeballs, but it was still pretty horrifying.  Nonetheless, that non-card card was one of my favorites.

Over the decades, I’ve shed a lot of the Christmas season “shoulds.”  No more cards, for example.  No Christmas cookies.  No wreath on the door.  No careful arranging of the Santa Claus collection, and stocking up on candles. Fewer and less grand presents.  I like to give and receive presents, and I don’t want to be a Scrooge but a) out of control consumerism is wrecking the planet, so that’s a poor way to celebrate peace and love and b) research has shown that we get a much bigger bang for our happiness buck by buying experiences rather than things.  My family and I are happy to honor that research with a Christmas-at-the-beach vacation.

Still, I’m feeling pressure!  Once again, the pressure is self-created, stemming from my drive to create.  Maybe because I’ve been newly accepted into The Huffington Post’s blogging community, my brain is on fire!  There is so much I want to write.  The blogs and the book outline are piling up in my grey matter.

For example, I really wanted to write a blog about the importance of receiving.  I was going to question, when there’s so much emphasis on generosity as key to our personal happiness, don’t we need folks on the other end to do the receiving?  I would have written that receiving is also giving.  I would have suggested reviewing what has been giving to you recently — compliments, wisdom, household help, meals, hugs, cards, invitations, hosts.  I would have urged you to be gracious and grateful receivers, to smile and say thank you (rather than, “oh, it’s nothing”) — though, not all the time. I would have explained why “no” sometimes makes common and moral sense, referring to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s precautions in The How of Happiness chapter on kindness.

Oh, it would have been sublime! I’m sure of it — heartfelt and inspiring.  Sigh. I just don’t have time to write it.

One reason I am out of time is that I spent the last two days cleaning my house.  I’m not that interested in the minutia of life, including housecleaning, but last night I hosted the 10th annual “Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange.” I live on a dirt road, and we heat with a wood stove.  Believe me, I had to clean. I mean, we can take “permission to be human” just so far.

As the cleaning ate up all my writing time, I began to get resentful.  I knew I’d appreciate a clean house and that I’d enjoy the annual holiday gathering, but without the party, I could have been writing.  Instead, I had lists of things to do — including writing, which never got crossed off.

Though to-do lists get a bad name, to a certain extent, they bring me comfort.  I love crossing items off; it gives me a sense of achievement. I even add items after the fact just so I can cross them off, ideally, with a thick dark marker.  Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. research is fun to consider once again, since the “A” stands for accomplishment.  Of course I like crossing off completed tasks.  It’s science!

Still, on my hands and knees washing the far corners of the kitchen floor, I had plenty of time to think about what I was not accomplishing.  Thankfully, with still more time, on my hands and knees scrubbing the living room carpet, I flipped that thinking around.  Rather than perseverate over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a good idea to appreciate what an awesome year of accomplishments and adventures I have had.  You may be familiar with this Mark Twain quote, or others like it: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more.  If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”  This seems just as applicable to what we do.  If we look only at what we haven’t done, we will never, ever be satisfied.

Which brings me to hedonic adaptation.  Humans are amazingly adaptable.  Good fortune, misfortune — whatever hits us, we adapt.  In many ways, this is a wonderful healing trait, as it enables us to find our footing and our smiles once again when life has slammed us into a wall.  The flipside is also the downside: what once excited us, what once brought us pleasure, over time becomes ordinary — which leaves us pursuing new excitement and pleasure elsewhere, often at great expense.

However, with an awareness of this process — that is, with mindfulness — we can take steps to maximize our pleasure and minimize the hedonic greying of what brings us joy.  Taking time to savor what I’ve already done, rather than pining for what is not going to happen in this moment, is a way to reclaim some excitement from the hedonic dustbin.

Yesterday I realized that my relationship with the yankee swap had also fallen victim to hedonic adaptation.  When my friend Nel and I started this party 10 years ago, I was thrilled to have found a place in the Maple Corner calendar of annual traditional events — right up there with Heidi and Lewis’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration, Nancy and Artie’s Mardis Gras (not to mention Barnstock!), Julie’s Channukah pot luck, Maria’s caroling, and JC’s New Year’s Eve blow out.  From the first, the Yankee Swap was a huge success — crowded, funny, and even environmental sound.  Everyone brought a wrapped present that was something she already owned — no new shopping allowed.  Redistributing those presents is where the fun comes in.  All of these parties are also a critical element in building community, the kind of community we need when the not-fun times come along.

Fortunately — maybe thanks to my ongoing meditation practice — I realized yesterday that I had adapted to the excitement of hosting this great event.  To reclaim some of my previous joy, I turned to gratitude.  Yay gratitude!  It so often can pull us out of an unnecessary slump.  Coming from a stance of gratitude, it is easy to appreciate how incredibly blessed I am to not only live in such a fun and supportive community but also to have my own ways of contributing. Really, I am lucky to host this party, together with my new co-host Roni.  Plus my kitchen floor hasn’t been this clean in years.

Last night’s party was the biggest, most boisterous one yet.  It was an evening filled with special moments, like welcoming brand new neighbors to the sisterhood of Maple Corner women; the dancing penguin Christmas ornament that made me laugh to the point of tears; an unexpectedly funny exchange about dyeing hair; a wrapped present that looked like a Dr. Seuss book; and a poignant moment, when one woman’s integrity demanded she “steal” back a present which had broken, a present which she had anonymously given in the first place.  Her generosity in reclaiming the broken gift resulted in a flood of presents to her at the end.

I am deeply grateful to provide the physical and emotional space for these magical happenings.

One final note about hedonic adaptation.  For years and years, the only thing I wanted in this world was beyond my grasp: I ached to become a grandmother. In 2012, that miracle happened with boatloads of joy, love, excitement, etc.  But time moves on relentlessly.  Our little newborn is now three years old, an accepted fact in our lives.  Sure, she’s not the exciting new infant she once was — but when I take the time to step back, to be mindful, to be grateful — my heart nearly explodes with happiness.

Soon, I will be with my granddaughter and other family members for two weeks.  No more to-do lists, no pressure (I hope) — but lots of savoring and gratitude.  We are all likely to be awash in holiday happiness.

May you as well find your way to a peaceful and joyous holiday.

 

 

 

In the Shadow of Terrorism: Loving Kindness and Permission to be Human

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Here’s what I ate the weekend ISIS attacked Paris: pizza on Friday night; leftover pizza for breakfast, a big bowl of buttered rice and veggies at lunch, and pasta for dinner on Saturday; and on Sunday, granola for breakfast, ravioli for lunch, and more rice and dal for dinner.

Here’s how much I exercised: not much. Mostly I was a love seat potato.  I sat bundled under a blanket, just me and my laptop, with its images and articles about the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks.  I made myself watch the disturbing home video of the exterior of the Bataclan Concert Hall, a video shot as concert goers escaped the killing.  I forced myself to read a lengthy March 2015 feature in The Atlantic, “What Isis Really Wants” and other articles that spelled out how globalization and climate change would continue to create conflicts over scarce resources.

As I immersed myself in learning, I questioned my choices.  Should I really be drenched in so much negativity? After all, I consciously never watched any Isis beheadings.  I felt the same way for a long time about watching videos of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police officers.  Eventually I decided that it was my responsibility as a United States citizen to watch some of those videos.

Saturday, I felt that same responsibility as a citizen of the world.  As soon as I heard about the carnage in Paris, I believed we had slipped into something like what Pope Francis called a “piecemeal third world war. I had to know more –and even more, when I found out about Beirut.  Why wasn’t that city receiving the same media coverage and sympathy?  Do Parisian lives really matter more than Lebanese?  What was going on? I plowed doggedly through the weekend, with my body taking on what my mind wouldn’t let me feel.

Not that all this information provided answers.  It is a big, nasty, complex mess requiring tough choices by people with higher pay grades than mine.  However, it is clear to me that both systemic and personal happiness thinking and strategies have important roles to play in the upcoming days, weeks, and years.  When you combine climate change with its droughts and natural disasters, along with the demands of an insatiable growth economy, the result will be wars, famine, and refugees.  Warning lights are flashing and the sirens are going off: we need to move toward a new economic paradigm of well being, much like that advocated by Gross National Happiness USA.

On the personal side, to stay sane and productive no matter how all this plays out, we need to invest in: nurturing and savoring relationships, growing community,building resilience, living with gratitude and meaning, practicing forgiveness (maybe not of ISIS just yet, I’m no saint), experiencing joy in the here and now, and tending to practical matters like getting a good night’s sleep.

Perhaps the two most important personal happiness strategies are kindness and permission to be human.

In the preface to Piero Ferrucci’s The Power of Kindness, the Dalai Lama wrote,  “It is clear that our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people.  … our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others.  Similarly, if society suffers, we ourselves suffer.  On the other hand, the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become.  Therefore, we cannot avoid the necessity of kindness and compassion.”

Some of the necessary kindness will be on a grand scale, like the Beirut father who tackled a suicide bomber, thus sacrificing his own life but saving scores of others, including his own little girl.  Some kindnesses will become viral, like the man who saved the pregnant woman’s life in the Bataclan video.  But for most of us, most of the time, our kindness and compassion will be small because we are only human.

I learned the phrase “permission to be human” from the fabulous Tal Ben-Shahar.  He helps happiness students understand that we can do ourselves and others a big favor by embracing the fact that we are beings with bodies, biology, emotions and sometimes very whacky brains.  Permission to be human does not mean permission to misbehave, or to hurt another.  It means sometimes being a lot angrier than we would like — or feeling a myriad of other less than desirable emotions.  Last Saturday it meant my body compensated for all the work my brain was doing by demanding comfort food and lots of carbs.  Permission to be human — that is where kindness can start.  Cut our own poor hearts a little bit of slack.

Then, with more compassionate hearts, we can radiate greater kindness and understanding to friends and loved ones.  That day with my laptop, I was frustrated with friends who seemed too strident with their Beirut postings. Their reactions were different from mine, but no less valid. Permission to be human.  The next day, when I asked a friend why he was only talking about Paris and not Beirut, he was shocked.  He hadn’t heard about the Beirut suicide attackers.  Not omniscient?  Permission to be human, my friend.

The next layer is sharing kindness and compassion with our broader communities.  Later that day, I had the opportunity to do just that, when I found myself walking next to a friend of a friend.  He was weighed down by personal troubles and shared some of his sorrow as we walked.  Before going our separate ways, we hugged for a long time.

Hugs.  What a great expression of mutual kindness.

Finally, in prayer and meditation, political action and choices, and our use of social media, we can extend our kindness and compassion to wider and wider circles — even to those we don’t understand, who infuriate and frighten us.

But there are caveats and limits.

First, being kind is not being spineless, as was powerfully demonstrated by the reaction of Parisians holding a vigil for victims of the ISIS attacks.  When confronted by anti-immigrant protesters, the larger crowd rose up in love and forced the hate mongerers to back off.

I also want to shout “Boo! Boo!”– and plan to do essentially that tomorrow at a counter protest in front of the Vermont Statehouse.  In response to a previously scheduled anti-Syrian refugee, Islamaphobic protest, the word has gone out to rally in support of justice, fairness, and accepting Syrian refugees into our cold but loving state.  I will be there.

Sometimes kindness is hugs.  Sometimes it is saying loudly and non-violently, “Your actions are unacceptable!!”

Second, there are limits.  When I played Barbara Frederickson’s inspiring “Loving All” guided meditation for a meditation class this week, I just could not extend loving kindness wishes to “all.” Though Fredrickson urged listeners to emphasize “all,” I thought not only of ISIS but also of the hate-spewing, anti-Syrian, so-called political leaders.  At this point in time, I just cannot open my heart to people engaged in such mean-spirited and dangerous tactics.

Cultivating kindness and compassion is a lifelong practice.  It can be challenging in the best of times, much less in these anxious days.  I would never deliberately hurt anyone, but just now, if my heart isn’t as open as I would like it to be, so be it.  Permission to be human.  

 

 

 

Funerals: An Important Piece of the Happiness Puzzle

Deviled eggs for the reception following my friend Melanie's memorial service.

Deviled eggs for the reception following my friend Melanie’s memorial service.

My friend Melanie passed away about a month ago.  Though she died of natural causes, it still seemed sudden. Certainly she was much too young — only 56.

Her memorial service was sad.  Her widower and young adult children put on brave faces, but we could all feel their heartache, along with our own sorrow.  Yet, paradoxically, funerals like Melanie’s can be an important piece of the happiness puzzle.  This may not be true for all funerals.  When my friend Kathy was murdered by her husband (who then committed suicide), her service was a wrenching river of sobs.  Also, for the immediate family and closest of friends, the weight of grief and shock may be overwhelming for some time to come — though even for them, in the midst of pain, there is ample room for gratitude.  For the rest of us, when people who are not children die because their bodies give out, funerals and memorial services can strengthen our individual and collective happiness muscles.

Not that I was happy at the end of the day. I wasn’t.  I was weary, and wanted to do nothing other than take a hot bath and drink a glass of wine.  Spending my day making a couple dozen deviled eggs for the post-memorial service reception, then attending the service and reception, before collapsing sadly at home is not my idea of a good time.  However, to live a meaningful life (without which true happiness may well be impossible), we have to do a lot of things we’d rather not.  Just look at the other end of the life spectrum, and ask parents of newborns how much they enjoy sleep deprivation and all the other sacrifices they are making to raise flourishing children. Love, relationships, integrity — all come with a price tag.

It is easy to be happy in happy circumstances.  It is much harder to find the joy and beauty in life under difficult circumstances.  I am beginning to believe this ability is a key distinction between happier people and less happy people. During times of normal sadness (not extreme circumstances) two strategies may be particularly helpful:

  1. Benefit finding — more popularly known as looking for the silver linings; and
  2. The power of “and” — that is, the capacity to hold onto more than one concept at the same time, even if they seem contradictory (for example, both sweetness and sorrow).  Indeed, maybe the “and” is necessary.  As Francis Bacon said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”

Also, I write this with all due respect to Melanie, who was a writer herself.  Not only that, Melanie studied happiness with me and even taught it to her high school English students.  Melanie loved learning, and inquiry into human affairs.  She had two Master’s degrees, one in English Literature from Oxford.  I’m pretty sure she would appreciate the Francis Bacon quote, and my introspection.  So, allowing for the sorrow and the benefits, here are some silver linings from her memorial service and reception:

1. Funerals allow us to feel our feelings.  When I learned that Melanie had died, I sort of went numb.  I was entertaining out-of-town visitors for several days, and had to focus on their needs and welfare.  All I could think about Melanie was, “this makes no sense.”  She was supposed to have joined me for a meditation class the evening before she died.  I just could not wrap my head around the fact that she was dead. I knew I should be crying, but the tears wouldn’t come.  Finally, finally, as I sat in a pew waiting for the service to begin, I could feel my tears begin, too.

The crying was important. As Tal Ben-Shahar points out in his book Being Happy:

  • “All our feelings flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. … Painful emotions are an inevitable part of the experience of being human, and therefore rejecting them is ultimately rejecting part of our humanity.  To lead a fulfilling life — a happy life — we need to allow ourselves the range of human emotions.  In other words, we need to give ourselves the permission to be human.”

2. Funerals help us be good.  Back in 2005, a woman named Deidre Sullivan shared her “This I Believe” essay on NPR, an essay entitled “Always Go to the Funeral.” Though I love the “This I Believe” series, Sullivan’s essay is the only one I can remember — not the words, just the profound importance of showing up in these critical moments.  A few years ago, my son gave me a book of “This I Believe” essays, including Sullivan’s.  Here’s part of what she wrote:

  • “‘Always Go to the Funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it.  I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to.  I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy.  You know, the painfully unattended birthday party.  The hospital visit during happy hour.  The shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles.  In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been between good versus evil.  It’s hardly so epic.  Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

I wouldn’t say I definitely didn’t want want to attend the service, exactly.  I knew that would be a time to learn more about Melanie’s life, and to give and receive love with fellow mourners. What I didn’t want to do was make the deviled eggs.  Yet that too is love, and necessary.  Nor did I want to make dinner to take to the grieving family.  I’m not much of a cook, so these were the inconveniences for me.  In my humdrum battle of “doing good versus doing nothing,” both heart and conscience dictated that I choose good.

3. Funerals build community. The deviled eggs and meal train obligations weren’t just for Melanie and her family — I was also upholding my community obligations. In 2001, we moved to this corner of Vermont because we wanted to live in a strong community, and boy, do we!  When word of Melanie’s death spread, so did the phone calls and emails: who will sing in the pick-up choir?  What meals does the family need, and who is organizing? How about the reception — how do we sign up for that?  How about setting up, and cleaning up? What else does the family need?

Our ability to come together is no accident.  We work — and play — at building community, all year long, year after year, probably for several centuries now.  We all do our part, in ways large and small, from helping to organize the winter Mardis Gras, marching in the Fourth of July parade, setting up tables for the Corn Roast — and, showing up for the funerals. Melanie’s service both displayed the strength of our community, and further strengthened it.

Perhaps appropriately, a toddler’s birthday party took place in our community center just a few hours before the post-memorial service reception.  The full panoply of life, made better by community.

During the service itself, I marveled at and felt grateful for everyone in attendance.  Melanie’s community.  My community.  We can all count on it, because we all show up.  I was overwhelmed by the love and also the awareness that each of us is here only temporarily.  At the reception, I hugged two (of many) cherished community members and friends, told each that I loved her and was grateful for her, and received similar warmth in return.  I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen doing the dishes, because this is what community is all about.

For Melanie, here’s another Francis Bacon quote: “There is no man that imparteth his joy to his friends, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his grief to his friends but he grieveth the less.”

We share the joy, we share the grief, we share the cooking and cleaning up.  We build community.

4. Funerals open the door to valuable introspection. A few winters back, I took a week long online happiness course from the Pursuit of Happiness folks. One of the assignments was to consider what we wanted the speakers at our own funerals to say.  I think this is an incredibly valuable exercise, and one that naturally arises while attending a memorial service.  What will be said about me?

Maybe that sounds narcissistic, but I actually find it a helpful touchstone.  As we go through our ordinary days, adding up to our lifetimes — what do we want that final tally to look like?

That’s one aspect of introspection.  The other is, what do you not want to regret at death’s door?  You, me — who wants to be dying and say, but wait!!  I always meant to (fill in the blank).  Too late, then.

In 2012, a palliative care nurse named Bonnie Ware published the results of her inquiry into the regrets of hospice care patients.  Her study, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” found these five common themes: “1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

When I die, I want to say, I am satisfied, not “I wish.”  I want to be comfortable with having led a full, rich life.  One that included funerals and deviled eggs.  A life of love, service, fun, and courage.  One that was as happy as possible.  That’s what I’m working on.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

Mediation or Meditation? Which Is My Happiness Path?

I’m beginning to think the Universe played at little joke on me.

Back in 2005, when I tearfully concluded that my right livelihood could no longer be found within the craft show world, I thought the Universe gave me the answer to what was supposed to come next.  In retrospect, it seemed like the Mother Superior moment in “The Sound of Music,” the moment she advised Maria, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Cue “Climb Every Mountain.”  My own window seemed to open, with or without divine intervention, in a Stockholm cafe.  I thought the message was clear: the mountain I had to climb was getting a masters degree, in mediation.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

I had flown to Sweden just days after a disastrous craft show experience, a show that led me to sob in the bathroom and promise the heavens above that I was definitely closing the craft show door.  Lucky for me, my trip to Stockholm to visit dear friends Bert and Keith was already arranged.  It was great to get away, and they were attentive hosts.  One day they both had to work, so I was on my own.  I ended up touring the Nobel Museum, an incredibly cool and deeply inspiring institution.

Afterwords, alone in the cafe, I heard the the word “mediator” jump into my head.  Seriously, that’s what it felt like — the word jumped into my head and I immediately knew that’s what I was supposed to do next.  As soon as I got home, I contacted the admissions office at Woodbury College (now part of Champlain College) and signed up to begin their brand new Master’s program.  I knew so little about formal mediation that I somehow hoped I could be a mediator without dealing with conflict — in hindsight, a wildly silly misunderstanding of what I was getting into.  Mediation is all about stepping calmly into the eye of the conflict storm.  Ultimately, I learned to do just that, but personal conflict still distresses me.

None of this is as flaky as it may sound.  Mediation in many ways suits my personality, talents, and what I was looking for professionally at that time.  I wanted to help heal the world in some way, and mediation allowed me to use my communications skills to create at least a little more peace, a little more happiness.  I  hadn’t yet taken the VIA strengths survey, but now I know my signature strengths can be valuable to both the mediation process and to establishing rapport with parties in a conflict: the ability to forgive, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to give and receive love.

Indeed, I was good enough to be asked even before I graduated to coach new mediation students at Woodbury, and have continued working with the program ever since.  I also created the position of Staff Mediator at Home Share Now, and took on various freelance mediation and facilitation gigs with some professional and personal satisfaction.  Given that healthy relationships are the number one predictor of happiness, helping folks resolve their conflicts more successfully is clearly a job that brings more happiness into the world.

And yet … lately I’ve been wondering, perhaps the Universe was really saying, “Meditation.”  What if I misheard?

Okay, I’m not that woo-woo.  The two words sound so much alike, I often trip up and use the wrong one.  The idea that I may have misheard makes me laugh.  And, the truth is, almost as soon as I finished my master’s degree — culminating with a Capstone study on “Mediation and Suffering” — I picked up Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness followed soon after by Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was already following a different career path.

Of course, productive conflict resolution is a HUGE part of individual and societal happiness.  And I learned lots of great skills to use both in my personal life and in all my work efforts.  I highly recommend the Champlain program, and the gifted teachers there. Mediation is most definitely a happiness path, a right livelihood to build greater well being on every level.

But I don’t think it’s my path.  Teaching, coaching, advocating, and writing about the whys and hows of both personal and systemic well being — including meditation — that’s my path.

I didn’t leap blindly into meditation in the same way I took up mediation.  After all, I’ve been meditating since the last century!  However, I am surprised that it has become such a prominent piece of my overall career puzzle — surprised and extremely gratified.  In all my secular meditation classes, which I call “Meditating for Happiness,” I hear the most amazing and beautiful stories about how participants are using their new meditation tools to live significantly better lives — to sleep better, to control blood pressure, to help their families be happier, to handle workplace stress and road rage, even to cope with death.  Whether it’s in the corporate environment, at a health care facility or a senior center, students in every class thank me for teaching them strategies for much greater health and happiness.  They thank me, but I also leave almost every class overflowing with gratitude.  I often think, “I have the best job in the world!”

So what does all this have to do with anybody else’s happiness?

Both mediation and meditation are extremely good for happiness — yours, mine, and ours — in so many ways, both internally and externally.  As I write this, I am struck by how much both practices rely on deep heart felt mindfulness, and especially listening — to the said, to the unsaid, to what really matters.  I am fortunate that both have been part of my happy life.

More to to the point though, is the belief that living our best possible lives means choosing the best possible livelihoods.  It allows us to experience days filled with both pleasure and meaning.  Funny, I touched upon this from a very different angle in my previous essay (on The Happiness Walk).  I quoted Aristotle then, and I’ll quote him again: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  It’s hard to beat Aristotle, but here a few other insightful takes on making good work choices:

  • Balzac had a more literate touch, when he wrote: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”
  • A more modern view comes from the wise and loving educator Parker Palmer: “A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self…”
  • Then there’s everyone’s favorite Sufi poet, Rumi: “Discover vocation and creation. And joy will come like clairvoyance, where blindness was before.”

So the question is, what is your right livelihood, your vocational path to happiness? Perhaps you are already well ensconced in your own colorful and joyful crossroads between your talents and the world’s needs (of which, lord knows, there are plenty!).  If not, perhaps you too can go to the Nobel Museum and sit in a Swedish cafe to hear what the Universe wants to tell you.  Or at the least, you can meditate on it.

 

The Happiness Journey: Meaning and Joy in Florida!

My new walking shoes!

My new walking shoes!

“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”  — George Carlin

Ah, George Carlin. Since 2009, when I began following my personal and gross national happiness path, I’ve tried to wean myself off shopping.  Among the many reasons to do so is a desire to get off the hedonic consumer treadmill.  An even more powerful motivation came from Annie Leonard, whose “Story of Stuff” video first opened my eyes to the planetary and culturally destructive effects of thoughtless, wasteful shopping.  Individually and collectively, we pay an unacceptably high price to accumulate possessions — much worse than merely taping sandwiches all over our hungry selves.

Plus, stepping aside from a regular career path to follow my happiness calling dramatically curtailed my disposable income.  Tellingly, my life satisfaction has risen.  Partly, that’s because my shopping is in greater concordance with my beliefs.  As I see it, corporate profit derived from constant pressure on all of us to buy, buy, buy is the leading driver behind climate change and income inequality.  The less I buy of a whole host of products I don’t need, and never needed in the first place, the more I can release the corporate grip on my life — freeing me for a life lived in greater harmony with my values.

Of course, it’s not that I don’t do any shopping.  These are aspirational values, not always realized.  However, I do strive to keep it local, used, or something I really want/need.  Which brings me to the brand new walking shoes pictured above.  I haven’t bought new shoes for five years.  But in a month I’ll be going on an internal and external journey, and, for both aspects, I need good shoes. You see, I will be rejoining The Happiness Walk for nine days and 100 miles through northern Florida in mid-September.  And I know from previous experience that it is wise to invest in good shoes!

I was last part of this adventure in October 2012 for two magical yet gruesome days (see this blog for a description).  My heart and soul were singing, but my toenails were in the process of falling off.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

This time, I decided to invest in decent shoes, as well as socks and moleskin to put on any budding blisters. Happiness may be an inside job, but we ignore the mind-body connection at our peril.  It would be much harder for me to have a transformative internal journey if my feet were screaming in pain.

Why Would Anybody Want to Walk 100 Miles Through Rural, Hot Florida?

There are a lot of reasons not to walk, starting with the weather. Mid-September in Florida is bound to be hot, hot, hot — and humid to boot.  Meanwhile, the Vermont weather I’ll leave behind will be glorious.  September is quite possibly Vermont’s best month. Leaves are starting to turn, but we can still swim and kayak –though not for much longer! Knowing that time is running out makes Vermont sunny September days especially precious.

Another reason to stay home is loyalty to my church, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which shuts down for the summer and will just be starting a new church year when I leave for Florida. My little family within the church is the choir.  Last year was rough and sad for us.  We not only sang but also cried together, throughout our beloved choir director’s terminal illness and death.  Now, we have a really terrific new choir director.  I want to be there with my choir family as we regroup and begin anew.  Instead, I’ll be trudging through desolate Florida scenery.

Hmmm.  Interesting how the words “trudge” and “desolate” snuck into that paragraph.  I guess part of me really wants to stay home!  Maybe because I don’t want to leave my husband.  And I don’t want to fly, because of the negative environmental impact.

These are all important happiness considerations — exercising in nature, nurturing spirituality and community, cherishing my marriage, and taking climate action. Still, I am going, because the happiness factors from participating in the walk — for a short period of time, not the kind of commitment Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley have made — outweigh the happiness of staying home.

Before I get into the why’s for me, I invite you to consider what the why’s might be for you.  This is not an exclusive activity.  From fellow walkers to hosts along the route to funders, there are many ways you can be involved, if The Happiness Walk also calls to you. Now, why it calls to me …

First: Right Livelihood. Long before the advent of positive psychology research, Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness, including this: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  The world definitely needs more happiness, well being, meaning, joy — whatever you want to call it, we need more of it.  As for my talents, I spend a lot of time walking the happiness talk — but this is different.  The Happiness Walk is about showing up, asking the right questions, and listening wholeheartedly.  Fortunately, these are just the skills (talents, even) that have been honed in my mediation and coaching work.  I love people, and am tremendously curious about everyone’s stories.  Listening is something I can do, with my head and my heart.  This is good work for me.  It will make me happy.

Second: P.E.R.M.A. Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. framework for individual happiness seems to be my go-to way of assessing life choices.  Using this perspective, The Happiness Walk passes with flying colors:

  • Positivity: Spending nine days listening to others — our hosts, people on the street, waitresses, anybody and everybody we meet — describe what makes them happy?  And talking with them in turn about the happiness movement?  It just doesn’t get any more positive than that.
  • Engagement: From my (hopefully happy) toes, to my heart, soul and mind, I will be fully engaged with the task at hand.  This is field research, as well as an opportunity to spread the paradigm-shifting gospel — both of which are at the core of my life’s work.  Engaged?  Oh, yes. Yes, yes.
  • Relationships: This one is interesting.  In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson talks about the “micro-bursts” of love that can occur between strangers.  The Happiness Walk is just one big micro-burst of love after another.  These relationships are short, but deeply meaningful.  And of course, I’ll be growing my relationship with fellow walker and happiness activist, Paula Francis.  Thus, relationships will also be a significant part of the experience.
  • Meaning: Big time.  I do this work because I believe firmly that the current gross national product (GNP) paradigm is trashing the environment, feeding the flames of greed and income inequality, and causing or exacerbating all kinds of wrong headed policies and actions on both the systemic and personal level.  In other words, the happiness movement is urgently important.  Meaningful?  Yes, so much so that I am deeply grateful to have found this path.
  • Accomplishment: No, and yes.  I suspect that the work of building a movement will not be finished for a long time.  Maybe never.  Instead, I have to find my sense of accomplishment in all the small steps along the way  (small steps, ha ha ha).  When my part of the walk is over, I will feel very accomplished!  And very happy.

Third: The Hamburger Principle. This one comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, and it, too, is one of my favorite frames for considering happiness.  The cheeseburger part is a long story, but basically, Tal lays out four quadrants to illustrate four options for living life. The idea here is, humans need both pleasure and meaning to be happy — a combination that resides in just one of the quadrants, which are:

  • The Rat Race. This quadrant can be all about meaning, but doing the work in such a single minded way as to leave little time for all else that makes life enjoyable.  While being in rat race mode for a time is okay, it is insufficient to lead a thriving life.
  • Hedonism. This, of course, is all about the pleasure.  I imagine most of you, like me, have indulged in hedonistic episodes (a.k.a., vacation!).  Again, this is fine in spurts. But a hedonistic lifestyle is shallow and also insufficient for a thriving life.
  • Nihilism. In this sorry quadrant, one has neither meaning nor pleasure.  This is a bleak life.  Let’s get out of here, fast!
  • Happiness. And the winner is, that sweet spot where one has a balance of meaning and pleasure.  We are physical as well as spiritual beings who need both purpose and joy to thrive.  And thrive I will, my friends, at least during the happiness walk when I will be solidly in this most desirable quadrant.

Fourth: Self Concordant Goals.  Now, how about a little Nietzche?  He said, “when there is a what for, every how becomes possible.” The what for is, once again, meaning — but we also need the how, we need to take action, we need goals.

There are some caveats here.  First, the happiness of goals lies in the journey, not in arriving at the destination. It’s about being in the present and knowing where you’re going, and why.  This seems a particularly apt point for my upcoming participation in The Happiness Walk, since it is literally a journey.  Though my final destination is Live Oak, Florida, that destination is not at all the point.  It is definitely the day-to-day, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other journey that excites me.

The second caveat is, not all goals are happy making.  Think, for example, of a bright young student striving to get into medical school because that’s what her parents want.  Doesn’t sound so happy, does it?  Now consider “self-concordant goals,” goals which are personally, deeply meaningful.  Tal Ben-Shahar says  self-concordant goals are:

  1. Aligned with personal interests and values (check!)
  2. Freely chosen goals (check!)
  3. Want to vs. Have to (check!)
  4. What do you really, really want to do (and check!)

So, once again, while Paula and I don’t yet know where we’ll be spending the night for most of the time I’m walking with her, this much is clear: following this happiness path seems destined to make me a happier person.  Paula, too, I’m pretty sure.

Fifth and Finally: The Gift of Giving. We all know that acts of kindness, full-hearted giving and tending to others are reliable strategies for feeling better ourselves. Further — looping back to the beginning of this essay, and my desire to step away from shopping — there are so many very special gifts we can give that cost us only our time and attention. For example, there is the gift of listening. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen observes:

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. ”

And the beautiful thing is, the listeners — in this case, the Happiness Walkers — will get just as much happiness as those who are sharing their stories with us. All this and more … reason enough to leave Vermont in September. In fact, the connections will be so powerful, I will likely want to keep walking. Fortunately, there will plenty of happiness arguments to compel me to come home because, you know what? Happiness is where you look for it.

One final gift, for you! A very special offering — “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” by poet John Fox:

When Someone Deeply Listens to You
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Too Much of a Good Thing, Or Where Did I Put My Air Mask?

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Ugh.

I like my coffee dark, but yowza.  On the final morning of my nine-day full-time grandmothering trip, my decision to use all the remaining coffee grounds for that one last pot definitely resulted in too much of a good thing.

Any one who makes coffee, or cooks with garlic, or indeed cooks or eats anything at all, knows that too much of a good thing is no longer all that good.  My coffee that day was more swill than the hoped-for elixir.  In positive psychology terms, it’s what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Lasagne Principle.  Tal explains that he loves the lasagne his mother cooks, and savors the opportunity to eat his mom’s lasagne on a regular basis.  Regular, but not every night.  Having to eat even the best lasagne meal after meal after meal would soon become altogether unappetizing.

Here’s what I love: my 3 year-old granddaughter Madeleine.  Living in a different state from this beloved child, I both anticipate and savor opportunities to spend quality time with her on a regular basis.  However, on that nine-day trip, I began to feel as though I was having metaphorical lasagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.  Morning and afternoon snacks, too.

I was round-the-clock grandmothering because my daughter was attending an important professional conference thousands of miles from home.  We both knew her extended time “at work” would be very challenging for Madeleine to weather.  Thus, I chose to put on my “Bama” hat and help both my daughter and granddaughter flourish during their time apart. It was a good decision, and … at times, it felt like too much of a good thing.

Like any metaphor, the lasagne comparison falls short.  Choosing to care for Madeleine in her own environment was a great deal more textured than sitting down for a heaping helping of Tal’s mother’s lasagne. Still, I’ll carry the metaphor just a little further, perhaps to the straining point, to note that there were plenty of side dishes as well.  For example, my husband Bob (AKA, “Poppa”) volunteered to come with me.  He put in his regular work week at an office about 40 minutes away, but his presence in the evenings and on the weekends was immeasurably helpful — even though Madeleine continued to want my attention most of the time.  Though she was especially clingy in her mother’s absence, and I was especially solicitous for the same reason, Poppa nonetheless provided respite.

From Metaphor to Reframing

We can find the good in almost any difficult circumstance — or, conversely, spotlight the negative in even the best situations — by the frames we put around our experiences.  One way of framing these nine days of intense child care (24-7, thanks to co-sleeping) is to label it a sacrifice.  It cost us thousands of dollars to make the trip, I gave up at least $600 in paid freelance gigs (and, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, it’s not like we have lots of spare thousand dollar bills lying around), and lots of my work did not get done (classes not planned, sermons not written, movements not organized …).  It was not an inexpensive trip.  Plus, I had to choose between helping my daughter get to an important professional conference or going to my own important professional conference.  Goodbye, International Positive Psychology Association 2015 conference.

However, there are many ways of framing this story. In most life situations — including this one –we can choose between focusing on the positive aspects instead of, or as well as, the negative.  So let me reframe those nine days: what an amazing opportunity for my granddaughter and me to grow even closer.  Since she and her mom lived with us for Madeleine’s first 16 months of life, we have a very tight bond.  But babies — they just keep growing!  And they don’t remember all the hours devoted to their infant care.  Now, Madeleine may be old enough to remember the time Bama came and took care of her while Mama was away.  I hope I will long remember how precious she was at this three year old stage.  It’s just astonishing how fast young children develop.  It will only be a few weeks till we’re together again, but I’m sure she’ll be very different already.

Here’s one more frame: much of the work we do in building and strengthening relationships is, indeed, work.  The same is true of parenting and, sometimes, grand-parenting.  Although I disagree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (because, happily, my daughter and her daughter actually have a lot of fun together), raising children is very hard work. But rather than focus on this trip as a sacrifice, I like thinking of this time as an investment — in our relationship and in helping to shape her as a happy, healthy, empathic, emotionally intelligent, and just generally awesome human being.

For me, the truth of the situation meant using all three frames.  I’m okay with that, life is complex.  There were sacrifices and there were joys and there was hard work in the now as an investment in the future.  Not a bad mix, really.

Even so, after a few days I started to feel an undercurrent of unhappiness.

That’s okay.  I’m not one to run away from unhappiness.  Though I never wish to wallow, I embrace unhappiness as part of life’s journey.  However, given my perch as a student and advocate of greater happiness on both the personal and systemic levels, I often wonder at and explore my unhappiness.  Plus, when I posted on Facebook that I was having some grandmothering struggles, one of my sisters expressed surprise at my complaining tone.  My daughter also emailed me to ask what was going on, why was I having a hard time.

Good question.  First of all, we had a rough day.  I had thought I could put Madeleine in day care for a few days, for her sake (I thought she might be more comfortable with some of her normal routine) and mine (I could get some work done).  But when I left her at”school,” she was so distraught that I drove away shaking and close to tears.  After talking with my daughter and with the school, I decided to go back and pick her up.  I didn’t have to do work that day, and her pain was too big a price for me to pay.

One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Aristotle: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  Compassion for her meant no day care during my visit.  Compassion for me meant accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get any work done.  Letting go of expectations is a classic Buddhist prescription for limiting our suffering, but western happiness scientist Rick Hanson suggests the same thing.  In his Foundations of Well-being program, neuropsychologist Hanson espouses the value of accepting what we cannot change.  Or, in this case, choose not to change.  With that acceptance, I grew calmer.

Second, I thought often of Christine Carter.  Carter starts her amazing book Raising Happiness (a highly recommended guide to growing deeply happy children) by emphasizing the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first.  Those nine days, I mostly could not even find my oxygen mask.  Much of what I do to keep my happiness muscles toned — such as, getting a good night’s sleep, a daily meditation practice, singing in the church choir, going to yoga and bone builders classes, keeping a daily gratitude journal — fell by the wayside.  I was aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Really, it was a good experiment: the absence of my happy exercises was so noticeable, it highlighted their value.

Of course, on the flip side, there was more play, more touch, more laughter, and ongoing gratitude practices (something the whole family does each night at dinner).  Still, if this were an ongoing situation, in order to best teach and model happiness for my grand child, I would definitely need to put that oxygen mask back on.

Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.

At the time, my thoughts were very focused on the internal, personal factors enhancing or detracting from Madeleine’s and my happiness.  But upon reflection, I began to wonder if some of the stress and distress I was felt was because I have inevitably internalized the values of a Gross National Product paradigm.  I’m not sure … but I think it’s helpful to examine just how deeply imbued those values can be, even for those of us who have been striving for years to move toward a happiness paradigm.

At home, I found myself reviewing my experience through Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. lens.  As usual, I found this theory of flourishing helpful.  My grandmothering intensive had plenty of positivity (the “P” in P.E.R.M.A.), though there were some tears and several very sad hours.  As for “E,” I was often very engaged in our activities, though (here again there is a “but”) three year-olds like repetitive play a lot more than 60+ year-olds.  Sometimes, I was just plain bored.  “R,” for relationships, was nothing but strong, with both Madeleine and Bob/Poppa.  Meaning, the “M” word, was also powerful.  Since the point of the trip was to help my daughter’s professional development and my granddaughter’s emotional development during her mother’s absence, the entire experience was deeply meaningful.

It’s the “A” that I found particularly enlightening.  I realized that much of my stress came from a sense that I wasn’t accomplishing anything.  Yes, yes, caring for a young child is meaningful — but it’s not like at the end of the day I could check the “done” box.  I think that’s part of why I felt the pressure of wanting to do my own work.  I wanted to accomplish something!  I wanted to cross something off my list.

Also, despite the hard work, I wasn’t getting paid for anything.  This is where my questions about internalized GNP values come into play.  Did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything because I wasn’t contributing to the GNP?  And, therefore, everything that I poured into being the best grandmother I could possibly be was less valuable to society than a wide range of other well paid activities?  Certainly, I don’t think grand parenting is a high prestige occupation.

I don’t have any answers.  Maybe it was just me.  I really do like to tick off my accomplishments at the end of the day.  Maybe it is also the money- and material-oriented paradigm that hangs over us all.  For me at least, it is worth taking time to think about this.  As much as possible, I want my own personal decisions to be based on genuine well-being — not on accumulating more money or trying to meet GNP-oriented definitions of success.  Trying to understand where the traps lie is a helpful exercise.

But I don’t want to end it there …

… because I’d much rather focus on the magic.  I know I am blessed to have such an awesome little human in my life, blessed to have such a strong bond of love between us, blessed to share her very precious three year old world.  Each day at nap time, for example, as we lay down together, Madeleine would point to the ceiling and whisper in a tone of awe, “Look!  There are millions and millions of stars!”  Then we found stars of various colors.  She always captured the purple one, brought it down from the heavens, and put it in her belly.  When Poppa joined us for this activity, he grabbed a blue one, and put it in her pocket.  Fortunately for me, there was another purple star for me to reach.  I put mine in my heart, for more loving kindness.  Our last afternoon together of this trip, Madeleine predictably caught another purple star, but unpredictably, put this star in her heart, for more loving kindness.

This kind of magic? Priceless.

Human Connections, Human Happiness

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Our connections with fellow humans — either fleeting or lasting for many decades — are the sine qua non of happiness (ie, without relationships with others, there is no happiness, and that’s about it for my 8th grade Latin).  Simultaneously, these connections can be vexing, painful, or unpleasantly surprising.  However, because we do in fact need each other, it makes sense to heed the Dalai Lama’s advice when it comes to our interactions with others.

This is the advice I have in mind, from one of the Dalai Lama’s books I read years ago: in every interaction we have, we can make the other person happier, or less happy.  That is powerful.  Every single time we make a human connection, we can either add to or decrease the other person’s happiness.

Not that we are responsible for others’ happiness entirely.  But it is quite a moral responsibility when put in those terms.

And, it may also be highly practical, because, well, you never know.

Let me tell you a little story, one of my favorites.  I’m quite pleased to find a happiness hook that gives me an excuse to share it.

The story takes place way back in 1968, when I was 14 years-old.  I was third of six kids, and we didn’t have a lot of money.  So the fact that I was by myself in our living room, listening to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was unusual.  I loved that album, which I bought with hard-earned babysitting money.  Loved, loved. I was happily singing along with all my blissed-out teenage heart when a friend of my oldest sister walked through the room.  Let’s call him Paul.  Paul was handsome, witty, charismatic.  I had a bit of an unrequited crush on him.  When Paul paused at the front door and turned to speak to me, I was all a flutter, thrilled that he was stooping to talk to me!

“Do you know my definition of stupid?” he asked.

“No,” I quickly replied.  “What is it?”

“People who sing along to the Beatles,” he responded before turning around and exiting my house.

All these years later, I can’t quite remember how little and unworthy that remark made me feel. Instead, this story has become a family joke.  You see, just three years later, I married Paul’s younger brother Bob.  When Paul made that offhand remark to me, he could never possibly have imagined that I would be his sister-in-law for, oh, just about 45 years so far — and that I would never let him forget that brief interaction!

Not that I blame the funny, self-assured 18 year-old that he was then.  It was a long, long time ago, and that moment in time has been superseded by many another loving and supportive word or act (like driving Bob and me to the hospital to have our first baby, and doing Ed Sullivan imitations along the way).

No, the reason I love this story is, it clearly shows, when we connect with people, making them happier or less happy, we have no idea what roles we might play in each other’s lives in the future.  So being nice is both good common sense, and good karma sense.

Consider the case posted on Twitter last month about an angry man who cursed at another commuter on London’s Tube.  Not only did the angry man add to someone else’s unhappiness in the moment — he added to his own.  He arrived at a job interview a little while later and discovered that the man he had just cussed at was the interviewer.  He did not get the job.

That’s a very graphic — and karmic — illustration of how interactions can affect our own happiness as well.  As Donovan so beautifully warbled many years ago, happiness runs in a circular motion.

It’s also interesting to think about what might have happened if the angry man in the Tube had somehow connected with the interviewer in a more positive way during their commutes.  Perhaps he would have gotten the job?  Perhaps they would have had an ongoing, positive relationship?

Certainly, connections do not need to be lengthy to be significant.  Two summers ago, I was wearing one of my favorite dresses (very happy, covered in blue daisies) as I walked toward the library.  A woman I had never seen before, or since, was walking in the opposite direction.  As she neared me, she said, “You look very nice today, ma’am.” That’s all.  But she made me smile, and feel good.  I beamed a very genuine, “Thank you!” in her direction.

Certainly I’ve been on the proactive side of the equation many times. Recently, while vacationing with our cute-as-a-button two year old grandchild, we sang to and for total strangers in an open-hearted way that is hard to imagine without an innocent babe involved.  We were received in the same open-hearted way, again no doubt thanks to our granddaughter’s presence.  Otherwise, we grown ups aren’t normally this sweet to folks we don’t know.

That’s kinda sad.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines “connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, hear, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”  She also states, “we are wired for connection.  It’s in our biology.  From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.”

Even without cute babies, strangers can give that to each other.  Tal Ben-Shahar tells a story of an early, early morning at an airport, a morning at the start of a long flight, a morning when he was not at his happiest — until a woman who worked at the airport bestowed a warm and kind smile on him.  That brief but genuine connection cheered him up so much, he continues to tell the story year after year as part of his lecture on making the choice to smile more often.  I love it.  Done judiciously, it’s such an easy win-win.

Of course, our most meaningful connections are found in relationships of longer duration — but every relationship has to start somewhere.  Some connections we’re born into.  Most, we have to establish.  I remember the beginning of my friendships with two of my dearest friends in Vermont, Judy and Eric.  We had lived here only a few weeks, and I felt lost among the many happy strangers at the Maple Corner Fourth of July bash — until this kind and interesting couple took the time to chat with me, the newcomer, the stranger.  None of us knew that a deep and abiding friendship was being born.  I was just grateful that these two were being nice to me, seeing, hearing, and valuing me.  Connection.

It’s all about the nice, within limits. The point is to add to the world’s supply of happiness — yours included.  As a recent meme on Facebook put it, “you are not required to provide heat to others by setting yourself on fire.”  Sometimes the best we can do is not infect others with our glumness.

There is also the question of authenticity.  Who are you?  What is the best way for you to make connections — deeper connections with loved ones, new and even one-time connections with strangers?  Who may or may not end up married to someone in your family. Or giving you a job.

For most of us, it would be inauthentic to like the man in the photo, a fellow visitor to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last September.  He wasn’t on staff, he wasn’t leading any workshops — he just wanted to give hugs.  He was so sensitive about it, too.  No one got a hug who didn’t want one.  He just wore this sign while he was there, and hugged whoever responded.

They were good hugs, too.  Oh, yes, I took advantage of this opportunity to connect.  He made me happier.  He made lots of people happier.

That is my aspiration, too — I want to make lots of people happier. It’s a choice we all can make, each of us in our own style.

Good common sense. Good karma sense. Just plain good.

 

 

Meditation Saved My Marriage!!

My husband Bob going volcanic

My husband Bob going volcanic

“If at bottom we are fighters and flee-ers, greedy and addictive, and envious and mean-spirited, then we need to be kept in line by powerful authority figures, strict rules, and heavy guilt and shame.  On the other hand, if underneath it all we are even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted, then we can live more freely, more guided by our own conscience and caring.”  — Rick Hanson, Hardwiring for Happiness. (p.32)

I’m happy to report that, apparently, underneath it all, I am even keeled and warm hearted.  Indeed, I have evidence that my actions can be more guided by caring than by the need to fight.  I can state all this today, on a grey late winter Saturday afternoon, because one week ago my husband’s actions had me at a crossroads.  Down one road lay a fight.  Down the other was compassion.  I am quite sure that in years past, I would have been very pissed, and would have initiated some kind of marital battle.  Instead, I’d say I chose compassion — but the truth is, compassion chose me.  I wanted to feel angry, I felt I should be angry — but it just wasn’t there.  My brain has changed.

All of which tells me that you, too, are “underneath it all” those same good qualities, because I believe my brain changed due to a regular meditation practice.  Nothing remarkable, and nothing you can’t also do. In fact, I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with all my meditation classes last week, to let my students know that my personal experience proved to me the truth of research around the benefits of meditation. Not that I doubted Harvard, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin … Still, it was quite exciting to say to my students, if I can do it — and I did — so can you.

Before I describe what happened, I hasten to reassure you (especially any family members reading this!) that, to say that the headline of this blog is an exaggeration is itself a gross understatement.  And that picture of him “going volcanic” is really … ummm … quite a few decades old.  I’m just having a little fun here.

The incident itself was only fun for one of us, and that one was not me.

Bob, on the other hand, had a blissful Saturday night at the annual Men of Maple Corner “Scotch Slop.”  This traditional event began several years ago in response to the annual Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange, to which no men are invited because, after a quick survey, we determined no men wanted to come.  Plus, we never schedule the women’s event on a “date night.”

Anyway …

The timing of this year’s event was unfortunate for two reasons.  First, Saturday was the night we turned the clocks back, thereby automatically losing an hour of sleep.  Second, I was scheduled to deliver a sermon on happiness at my Unitarian Church of Montpelier the next morning — a very big event for me.  This was also a semi-big event for Bob, because he and the rest of the Montpelier Ukulele Players were an important part of the service.  They were on tap for the prelude (“When You’re Smiling”), special music (“What a Wonderful World”), and postlude (“Happy Trails”).  In other words, Bob and I could both use a good night’s sleep.

So, in the days leading up to the Scotch Slop, I repeatedly asked Bob, “please don’t get drunk.”  Not that Bob is any way a drunkard, but I really really didn’t want him to be hungover on this particular Sunday morning.  His reply to me was, “I usually do pretty well.”  Which seemed fair.  He hasn’t come home stinking drunk before.

Before last Saturday, that is.

That night, I went to bed early and slept for a few hours before waking up and realizing Bob wasn’t home yet.  Not a good sign.  My fears about a) how drunk he might be and b) how safe he might be (he was walking home, and it was seriously cold and the roads — covered in sludge which had melted during the day but frozen again after dark — were slick and difficult for even a sober person to navigate) quickly had me wide awake.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he walked in the door.  I asked, “How drunk are you?”  He responded, loopily and happily, “Preeeettttty drunk!  It was so happy!  So many nice people!” Then he fell asleep, loudly.  Stinking of Scotch.

I did not fall back asleep, not for hours.  I left the bedroom and tried the sofa.  After a bit, I left the sofa in favor of the guest room.  No luck there, either.  As you can imagine, this did not make me happy.

Yet, that’s when the magic happened. Or at least, appreciation of the magic that has already happened in my brain.

As I lay there, trying every meditation trick I could think of to get back to sleep, I was intensely aware that my time for sleep — before my big morning in the pulpit — was slipping away.  I also realized, amazingly, that I was not pissed off.  Instead, I felt compassion for Bob.  Not compassion as in “suffering with” — he certainly wasn’t suffering — but more a sharing of joy that he had enjoyed a night of fun companionship with the men of our community.  Maple Corner has a lot of good men, and I was glad for all of the Scotch Sloppers that night.  They do their best to do the right thing — for the planet, for the community, for their families.  If one night a year they gather and get drunk, fine.  Totally fine.

As for Bob specifically, he’s an introvert who didn’t really have friends of his own before we moved to Vermont.  He certainly didn’t participate in the community (not that there was much of a community to be part of).  I am proud of, and happy for, how he has grown here.  He took his responsibility to attend the Scotch Slop seriously.  It was really kinda cute.  Also, he didn’t purposefully rob me of sleep.  Though his choices that night had a negative impact on me, he is normally exceptionally helpful and supportive.  So, it was one bad night. Big deal.

This lack of anger — a clear contrast to how I would have reacted in the past — stands out for me as clear proof that meditation has changed my brain structure for the better.

Meditation isn’t my only happiness practice.  I have a daily routine, which includes watching (& singing and dancing to) inspirational videos; these two by Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen are current favorites.  I also have a daily anticipations journal, a reminder bracelet, a savoring alarm on my phone, and an evening gratitude journal — really, it’s a wonder I have time to do anything else in my life, what with all these sincere  attempts to walk the happiness talk.  Also, because I teach happiness skills, and coach, and write about it … well, the general topic and all that it entails (living a life of meaning and pleasure, being kind, all that good stuff) are never far from my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Presumably, all this has changed me.  Sometimes I respond to life in ways that surprise me.  Last week, for example, walking on a snowy trail through the woods that opened up onto a sunny, snow covered meadow, I found myself bursting into little ballerina twirls of happiness.  Like a child, just breathing into spontaneous joy.

But who can really tell cause and effect?  Is one particularly fierce hurricane due to climate change?  No one can say.  Still, when there is a pattern of extreme and weird weather conditions (how much snow did Boston get this year??), then maybe something is really going on.

Nonetheless, I specifically attribute my calm and compassionate thoughts and feelings in the sleepless hours of Saturday night to my meditation practice. In particular, I’ve been doing a lot of meditation which corresponds to the three different operating systems in our brains, as discussed by neuro psychologist Rick Hanson in a book I think everyone should read,  Hardwiring for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Hanson explains that the three major layers of the brain (brain stem, subcortex and cortex) correspond with three operating system that 1) avoid harm, 2) approach rewards, and 3) attach to others.  These systems function to meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection — or, writ large, as Hanson himself does in a guided meditation as part of his online Foundations of Well-Being course, “peace, contentment, and love.” I have modified that somewhat to “peace, love, safety, and abundance” — four words that I breathe in and out on a nearly daily basis.

My understanding, based on Hanson’s book and course, is that this meditation is like putting money in the bank for each system, thus allowing my brain to respond to a perceived “crisis” in a calm and compassionate manner, rather than flare up in an intense reactive mode.

And my belief is that I have, to a certain extent at least, re-wired my brain, exactly as Hanson promises. I’m also reminded of this video by Dan Harris, who states that the science favoring a regular meditation practice “is really compelling” including studies that show meditation leads to a growth of the part of our brains responsible for compassion while also shrinking the reactive amygdala.  No wonder, as Hanson says, meditators can become more “even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted.

I have to say, I am convinced.

The next morning, by the way, Bob was not hungover and both the ukulele players and the sermon itself went smoothly and were well received.

Afterwards, in the back of the sanctuary, I was talking with some of my choir friends about the sermon, and some of the ways positive psychology suggests we can cultivate personal happiness.  One of my friends asked, “But does it really work? Are you happier?”

I smiled and said, why yes, yes I am.  In fact, I have proof.  Let me tell you a story from last night …

Thus has my sleepless night turned into a gift, a learning tool I can share with others.  I am actually grateful to Bob for the learning opportunity he provided me.

I am also grateful the Scotch Slop only happens once a year!