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Archive for the ‘Personal Happiness’ Category

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.

____

  • 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.