Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Personal Happiness’ Category

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!

 

 

 

Unhappiness at the Shopping Mall

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

 

The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.

  • Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.

Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.

Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.

  • So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones.  There are some things we just have to do.

On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.

Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.

But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.

Strike one:
Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself.  At. All.  Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.

Strike two came at the playground:
Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.

Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages.  Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.

Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.

I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do?  I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents???  Or even a mall employee?

Very sad.  What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time?  Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?

Strike three:
Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.

Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.

As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.

This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.

Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation.  More mall fall-out?  Or just the way it is these days?  Either way, something is wrong here.

Strike Four: $anta Claus
Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).

So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”

But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.

Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.

Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap.  It is about commerce, not magic.

Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.

Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.

I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience.  Is nothing sacred?

  • Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”

Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire.  As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.

Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up.  Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!

All You Need Is Love … Or Some Other Signature Strength!

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

As I recall, the girl sitting next to me in home-economics class was named Diane.  She was a cheery sort, and we chatted amiably while working on our sewing projects.  I was making a pair of identical paisley print bolero vests.  One was for me, I explained, and one was for Bobby Sassaman, the love of my as-yet-very-young life.

“You like him??” she almost gasped in disbelief.  Clearly, Diane did not see Bobby as acceptable boyfriend material.  I saw way more than boyfriend potential: later this month, we’ll celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.

We still have the vests.

To be clear, when we got married, I believe a majority in the church — including me — were sure the marriage was doomed.  I was a pregnant high school senior, barely 17 years-old.  Bobby was enrolled at the local community college, but he was still just a paper boy.  Neither one of us had driver’s licenses, much less a car.  I was fired from my part time job as a short order cook because pregnant teenagers didn’t fit the restaurant’s family fun image.  Not too promising, right?  I mean, I was crazy in love, but I wasn’t stupid.

Yet, here we are.  Still crazy in love.  Nobody’s betting against our relationship anymore, especially not me.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

Perhaps that’s because the odds were in our favor all along.

Recently, I asked Bob (the extra syllable disappeared a long time ago) to take the VIA Institute on Character free online survey.  I’ve taken the “test” a few times, and used it in workshops, so I have a good idea of my top strengths.  I was curious about his, and one Sunday night he announced his results.  Turns out, we have the same signature strength: the capacity to give and receive love.  The fact that humor is also tops for him, and forgiveness is number two for me, doesn’t hurt either when it comes to maintaining a thriving relationship for the long term.

Okay, there are many other factors that helped us along the way, including the love and support of our families.  Still, I was really struck by our common survey result.

I had taken the survey again as part of my home work for the Kripalu Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  The faculty are very generous with their time and expertise, so I asked program director Maria Sirois if she thought there was any connection between the longevity of my marriage and our capacity to give and receive love.  I wondered, is the shared strength of love the chicken that laid the egg of a long marriage, or, is a long marriage the egg that hatched the chicken of love as a signature strength within each of us?  Maria responded,

“Some strengths – core strengths – seem to be with us from the beginning – I like to think of them as cellular but I don’t know that the VIA people would use that language. They simply are who we are. If you both had this as a core strength from childhood I could see how it could contribute to your longevity in relationship. And since it is a strength, at least in the recent decades, that you share, you can be sure that you reinforced it in each other and in so doing elevated other strengths that support your relationship as well. Self-esteem and competency both rise when we are in our highest strengths, and the love strength is also closely associated with generosity – which can only help a relationship. So I’d say you have a fabulous chicken and a delicious egg thing happening here.”

Thank you, Maria!

Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?

Well, no.  Nor is it from a magazine like “Cosmopolitan” or “Redbook” (are they still around?).  The VIA index stems from solid research.  According to “VIA Character Strengths – Research and Practice: The First 10 Years” by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., the index of 24 universally admired virtues and strengths “emerged from several scientific meetings led by Martin E. P. Seligman and rigorous historical analysis led by Christopher Peterson, who collaborated with 53 other leading scientists over a period of three years.”   This is serious stuff!

I initially learned about the VIA index in 2010, at my first ever positive psychology training led by Dr. Lynn Johnson.  Dr. Johnson shared the VIA list with us, and I now share it with you:  1) Creativity, 2)  Curiosity, 3) Love of learning, 4) Wisdom/perspective, 5)  Open-mindedness, 6)  Bravery, 7) Persistence, 8) Integrity, 9) Vitality, 10) Give & receive love, 11) Kindness, 12) Social intelligence, 13) Citizenship, 14)  Fairness, 15)  Leadership, 16) Forgiveness, 17) Modesty/humility, 18)  Prudence, 19)  Self-regulation, 20) Appreciation of excellence & beauty, 21) Gratitude, 22) Hope, 23) Humor, and 24) Spirituality.

You may glance at the list and immediately have a sense of your strengths, but, if you take the online test at the VIA site, you can learn so much more!  Plus, there’s lots of information about these strengths and how real people have applied them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Here’s the best part about the VIA online test: everybody has signature strengths!  Everybody is a winner!  Go ahead, take the test, find out how wonderful you are!

A couple of caveats and clarifications:

  1. First, the VIA index does not cover all my strengths, or yours.  I know, for example, that I have a facility for painting with watercolors.  Apparently, I also have very flexible shoulders.  Which is to say, we all have many gifts to share with the world and make our own lives more enjoyable.  After you get your VIA list figured out, dig a little deeper.  What else makes you wonderful?
  2. Strengths and Virtues can present in different ways.  Take bravery, for example.  A few summers ago, on a vacation trip with Bob, my sister Kathy, and her husband Rick, we climbed a waterfall trail in the wild woods of Maine.  While Rick clambored to the top of rocks overhanging a steep waterfall drop, I found a rock far, far away from the edge to sit on.  I couldn’t even look at Rick.  I was terrified.  When he was finally safe and we were walking down the hill, Rick remarked on many of the emotional risks I have taken, risks that would have terrified him.  Point taken.  Bravery wears many faces.
  3. Don’t overuse your strengths.  Tal Ben-Shahar, the primary teacher in the Kripalu program, sometimes talks about the “Lasagne Principle.” In short, he loves lasagne, but if he ate it at every meal, the lasagne would be significantly less appealing.  Just as our diets are diverse, so too are our strengths and virtues.  Love is not, in fact, all I need.
  4. Remember your weaknesses.  While our strengths deserve top billing, paying an appropriate level of attention to our weaknesses is also a good idea.  Case in point: for some reason, I am challenged in getting dates and times right.  Twice, I showed up as a weekend guest in a friend’s house a week early.  Once I took my kids to a road show of “The Sound of Music,” also a week early.  Fortunately, there are these wonderful items now called “calendars.”  It’s taken me a few years, but I have finally learned to write down appointments and also to regularly check what’s in there!

“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”

As mentioned above, the VIA index is a serious topic for research and discussion among eminent leaders in the positive psychology field — but it can also be fun!  Nancy K, one of the TA’s in the Kripalu program, demonstrated that in grand style when she posted her list of 24 music videos, one for each of the virtues and strengths.  She invited the rest of us to consider what music videos we might choose for our own signature strengths video.

Lord knows, there are a lot of love songs out there, but most of them are focused on romantic love between partners.  The capacity to give and receive love that Bob and I share is broader than that.  Yes, we love each other — and, we each love many others.  So even though love is not all I need, let me close this blog the way I began — with love.  And the Beatles amazing song, “Love Is All You Need” .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Wish I Was Walking for Happiness!

A happy day in 2012 when I got to walk with Paula Francis (left) and Linda Wheatley (right).

A happy day in 2012 when I got to walk with Paula Francis (left) and Linda Wheatley (right).

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”  I’m not sure who said it, but this quote is so ubiquitous that you can even buy a wall plaque from Amazon emblazoned with this wisdom.  I suppose that’s both good news and bad news.  Good, to reinforce the abundance we already have.  Bad, of course, because it’s all about the shopping!!

Anyway, all week I have been feeling a low-grade yearning for something I don’t have — or, more precisely, what I am not choosing to do.   There is plenty of joy and happiness staring me in the face with all that I have chosen to do.  For the most part, I am not only appreciative of but sometimes also dumbfounded by my amazing life path.  Still, I’m a little bit sad this week that I am not walking for happiness with my friends Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley.

Okay, so be it.  As my positive psychology teacher Tal Ben-Shahar puts it, “permission to be human.”  I’m human, I feel some regret at the road not taken.  Literally.  Since this past Monday, when Paula and Linda began the third leg of their Happiness Walk, I have watched their Facebook and Twitter posts with anticipation, joy for them, and, my own pangs of desire.  You see, I know from personal experience just how magical their walk really is.

The Happiness Walk. Theirs is a very ambitious project! As co-founding members of GNHUSA, we all know how urgently we need, as their site puts it,  “an expanded set of true progress indicators – one that views economic and material well-being as part of a broader definition of progress.”  To get a better sense of what those indicators should be — ie, how to measure what really matters to regular folks in this country, in 2012 Paula and Linda decided to walk from Stowe, Vermont to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.  As they walked, they also listened — collecting stories day after day after day about what happiness truly means in people’s daily lives.  You can see photos and listen to the stories at the Happiness Walk website — they are delightful and sometimes quite moving.

After a successful 2012 walk, in 2013 Paula and Linda  set their sights on a week’s trek from Stowe to Montreal, Canada.  Now, they have a much, much bigger goal: by 2017, they will have walked all the way to San Francisco and back!  On Monday, they began this part of the project by prancing down the steps of the Jefferson Memorial and following the road toward Norfolk, VA.

True confessions. I admit, at first I didn’t get it.  Really, I thought it was a waste of time, energy, and money.  I mean, we have a planet to save and a baby movement to grow!  What good can be accomplished by just walking?  Yes, Paula and Linda schedule some events along the way, but really, they are mostly just walking.  How does that help? I didn’t even appreciate the value of collecting stories, because I didn’t see that as valid research.  Just anecdotes — as in, so what?

But then, they started reporting back, and I could just feel that something very special was going on. Turns out, the experience of listening to people about their deepest, most precious values — listening from a heartfelt place, with no request for money — is a profoundly moving experience for both the speakers and the listeners.  What made me think this wasn’t valid qualitative data?  Sure it is.  Plus, wearing their special, brightly colored “Serious About Happiness” shirts, Linda and Paula shared love and gratitude wherever they went — and were everywhere showered with goodness and generosity in return.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

My turn to walk. Paula and Linda left Stowe in August, 2012.  I finally joined them for two days southwest of Philadelphia, PA in October.  When I arrived, they were at a fabulous little cafe in Kennett Square, and I learned another reason the Happiness Walk is so special: food!!  When you walk @ 20 miles a day, you get to eat a lot of goodies!  Not only that, but at that cafe — as at so many others along their walk — the restaurant owner insisted on comping our check.

As we walked, we took time to meditate, to talk with one another about the happiness movement and our own lives, and to answer questions from the various random strangers who stopped to ask what these “Serious About Happiness” shirts were all about.  Even on the second of my two days, which turned out to be the rainiest one of the whole walk, the magic shone through.  At a diner in rural Maryland, I got to be the listener, as the hard working waitress shared with me her stories of personal happiness.  Magical!

Both nights, our hosts were a family of five — all, until the moment we arrived, complete strangers to us.  Friends of friends of friends, learning of the Happiness Walk through a church listserv, and volunteering to give us a place to sleep and sumptuous meals to eat.  These five embraced us into their family, showering us with love and joy — all because we were walking for happiness, theirs and ours.

Let me tell you, 20 miles a day is a lot of walking!  Because I regularly walk the dirt roads around my house, I thought I was in pretty good shape, but, whoa baby.  By the end of day two, I barely made it back to the house.  Paula and Linda were practically carrying me, even though I had walked five miles fewer than they did (we met up at the diner).  But, in pain, dripping wet, totally exhausted — it was as if the sun burst through when the children of our hosts came running out to meet us with hugs, happiness, and gifts of homemade duct tape jewelry.

So do I want to be with Linda and Paula right now, soaking in more of that magic?  Why, yes, I do.  I definitely do want that.  But it is not to be.  Not right now, at any rate.

My welcoming committee, united by happiness

My welcoming committee after Day 2, united by happiness

Not without cost. There is a price to pay for choosing to walkabout on a happiness mission.  I, for one, lost two toenails as a result of my two day walk!  LOL, that’s not important.  But Paula and Linda are giving up a lot, especially time at home with their families and friends, and the opportunity to work at jobs where they could actually earn money (yes, we all still need money!). Indeed, it costs a lot of money to do what they are doing.  Even though so much is donated, much is not — like trips back and forth to Vermont to reconnect with loved ones.  Want to help with a donation?  They’d love it.

Want to walk with them?  Or help with housing or transportation?  I believe I can speak for them when I say, all help gratefully received.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also add that I have a vested interest in Paula’s and Linda’s success on their highly aspirational walk.  When my happiness gal pals meet with groups in all the many wonderful, varied cities they visit, they plan to offer me up as one of their resources — as in, I can come to these same cities and beautiful people for happiness skills trainings and sermons. It would bring me great joy to play that role, so for that and many other reasons — also coming from a place of love — I am cheering Linda and Paula on from afar.

One of these months — maybe even more than one — I will again join them for a few precious days.  In the meantime, let’s end on a musical note, with Pete Seeger’s “Step by Step.” The longest march can be won, together — singly none, singly none.

The People’s Climate March: We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

Our new friend -- a young lady we met on subway, then saw in the March seven hours later.

Our new friend — a young lady we met on subway, then saw in the march seven hours later.  Thanks to Paula Francis for this photo.

Traveling to New York City for the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  Yes, it made me happy.  Intensely, deeply, indescribably happy.  I was absolutely in the right place at the right time — not only for myself, but for all life on our precious planet.  I was flooded and overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone around me who made the effort to show up for this desperately needed wake-up call; pride that I was one of them; hope that maybe we can save the human race after all; and flat-out joy being in the presence of such a diverse, beautiful, celebratory crowd.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

From a science of happiness standpoint, there’s no question why I would feel such a high — a transformative high, I believe — from this march.  Pick your happiness researcher and theory, and I can pretty much check it off the list. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and flow, or having a peak experience?  Ha! This was a lifetime peak experience!  Tal Ben-Shahar and his teachings on living in concordance with our values?  Yes, big time. Barbara Frederickson and the positivity ratio?  My ratio of positive to negative experiences that day was off the charts.   Chris Peterson and the theory of greater happiness by acting from our personal strengths?  My signature strength is the ability to give and receive love, and this day was all about the love.

Then there’s Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. which I used to predict my happiness at this event in another essay last month.  In reality, at the People’s Climate March, I was seeped in P.E.R.M.A.:

  • Positivity — oh, yes, everywhere, all weekend, even in the long long bathroom lines.
  • Engagement — fierce engagement, with the issues, with the future, with the city of New York, with the people all around me.
  • Relationships — yes, with the friends new and old with whom I was marching, and with all the other marchers, too — we were all connected.
  • Meaning — are you kidding me?  Fighting for the future of the planet?  It doesn’t get any more meaningful than that.
  • And accomplishment?  The organizers of this historic march hoped for 100,000 participants and four times that many showed up — 400,000 of us!  We did it!

All of this and more shaped that momentous day.  Now, back in my Vermont home, my heart and spirit are clinging to purpose, shared community, optimism, and mutual love for the planet and each other — a blend encapsulated by the most moving chant of the march, this piece of a prayer by a Hopi elder:

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Oh my god, yes.  We are!  And, just to be clear, by “we,” I mean you, too — any and all of you who were at the march in body or spirit, or

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

will be at the next one, or are doing your best to fight climate change on your home turf.  There is no one who can swoop in and magically fix this disastrous situation — literally disastrous, and likely to grow worse.  As one sign put it, “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”

Sunday, it felt like everyone did indeed show up.  For so long, I’ve been wondering when Americans were going to rise up, take to the streets, and demand environmental and economic justice.  Finally, finally, we the people were out in glorious, loud, forceful numbers.  Yes, there were some justifiably famous climate warriors near the front of the march  — like Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, and our own beloved Senator Bernie Sanders.  They weren’t at the very front, though, because that spot was reserved for the indigenous peoples and others in the United States and around the world who are already suffering from climate change.  I felt humbled to be marching behind these front line warriors.  We need them, and they need us.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The chant sent me back to re-read the Hopi prayer:

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered. Where are you living? What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time for the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle from you attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Sacred!  That’s a piece I was missing — the march was sacred, and celebratory.  We were all good to each other.  We were all the leader.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Perhaps coincidentally — perhaps not — just a few days after the march, it was announced that Bill  McKibben will be one of the recipients of this year’s international “Right Livelihood” award in Stockholm this December.  On a much smaller coincidental scale — or maybe we’re just all swimming in the same river — I used the Hopi prayer to open and close my first guest service at the Montpelier Unitarian Church.  The thrust of that sermon was the need to cultivate personal happiness in order to better prevent and cope with climate change.  Is this prayer speaking to many of us now?  Is it part of your life?

Me, Marta Ceroni, Linda Wheatley, and Paula Francis offering a new sustainable paradigm for people and the planet.

Me, Marta Ceroni, Linda Wheatley, and Paula Francis offering a new sustainable paradigm for people and the planet.  Thanks to Marta Ceroni for this photo.

Something else that became clear to me on the march — or maybe during my conversations with Linda Wheatley on the train ride home — is that a gross national happiness paradigm is the road map we’ve been waiting for.  Both before and during the march, many people expressed their very strong beliefs that capitalism must be destroyed in order for the planet to be saved.  I share their view that the current corrupt capitalist system is driving many destructive practices, environmental and otherwise.  Further, we can obviously no longer afford a growth economy — a GDP driven economy is driving us over the climate change cliff, and causing massive unhappiness.  Without a doubt,  we need huge systemic changes.

However, “down with capitalism” is not sufficient.  If capitalism is destroyed, what will replace it?  As Marta’s sign says, we need to move beyond GDP, to an economic system based on the well being of people and the planet — a system that could include elements of capitalism and all the other ism’s if and when those elements demonstrably support well being.  To get there, we need a strong gross national happiness movement.  Very personally, in this subset of the larger movement for climate justice, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  And we have a lot of work to do!

In his book “The Great Disruption: Why Climate Change Will Bring On An End to Shopping and the Birth of a New World”, Paul Gilding writes that the end of a growth economy will not come without dreadful suffering and loss — loss of millions of lives, of entire species, of countries which will end up underwater — as we pay the price for “a world economy based on consumption and waste, where we lived beyond the means of our planet’s ecosystems and resources.”

Though his prediction is grim, Gilding is simultaneously quite optimistic.  He believes that we humans will rise to the challenge with “compassion, innovation, resilience, and adaptability.” On the other side of the Great Disruption, he says, “we will measure ‘growth’ in a new way. It will mean not quantity of stuff but quality and happiness of life.”

In other words, a GNH paradigm.

I initially read Gilding’s book sitting in the warm Alabama sun while visiting my very pregnant daughter.  About to give birth to a brand new person, she didn’t enjoy hearing about the “millions of people dying” prediction.  I, however, was much more struck by Gilding’s emphasis on economies of happiness.  Really, I was stunned when I read that millions and millions of people around the planet are already working on developing economies of happiness.

It was an amazing moment for me, realizing that I was one of those millions, that I am not at all alone, that I am part of an immeasurably large, organic, worldwide movement.  For all of us — including each of you — the Hopi elder’s words ring prophetic:

“It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!”

We ARE the ones we’ve been waiting for!

 

Still a Happy Flyer (With a BIG Caveat)

TSA PRE status?  Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

TSA PRE status? Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

Here’s the caveat: After my recent blog about focusing on the positive aspects of being a passenger on a commercial airliner, a blog which came on the heels of my musings about why attending the People’s Climate March in New York City will make me happy, my friend George found the juxtaposition odd.  He asked me how could I write about my passion for protecting the environment and then just a few days later write about the joys of airline travel, given that flying is about the worst thing we can do in terms of our carbon footprint?

Good question, George.  Here are my answers:

  1. First, I am not a purist. I have made many, many changes in my life — using a clothesline, buying local, eating less meat, etc.  But we are all products of the systems we live in.  That is one reason I support a Gross National Happiness paradigm and the People’s Cllimate March — because we need new systems.  Those planes would all have taken off without me on them. The problem is too big for any of us to fix by our individual actions.
  2. Second, I do take such issues into consideration.  Two out of three of my trips to visit my daughter and granddaughter since they moved half a country away have been by train, rather than plane, for both economic and environmental reasons (the third was by car, and there were three of us in that car, so that seemed a fair choice). Truthfully, I’ve flown very rarely.  My recent trip was only the 15th time I’ve flown.  Ever.  And I’m not that young.
  3. Third, I went to North Carolina for important relational reasons.  Relationships are tremendously important, not only in terms of personal happiness but also to exchange ideas and help us all move forward.  I shared tales from the Gross National Happiness movement, and learned much in return. One friend, for example, showed me a new pond she had dug next to her off-the-grid cabin.  The pond is stocked with fish, to provide a sustainable source of protein for her family.  For me, that’s food for thought.
  4. My point with the previous flying blog was not to encourage flying, but rather to encourage a positive outlook toward an incredible option in our lives that most people treat with grousing rather than gratitude.  Really, the environmental concerns about flying only add to the need for a positive attitude when one does choose to fly.  Choosing to have such a negative impact, and then complaining about it, seems particularly self-indulgent.  If you’re flying, the least you can do is appreciate it!

All in all, I’m grateful to George for raising this important point.  Our individual choices can add up.  I think the preponderance of organic choices in almost all grocery stores is testimony to that.

Now, when I do fly, I feel even more duty bound to focus on the positive. 

 

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Counting The Flying Positives, Part Two

The positive framing of my flight to North Carolina was so powerful, I felt like I had changed my brain.  I mean that quite literally. Thanks to neuro-plasticity, I probably  did, at least a little. One of the mot impressive aspects of the education I’m receiving from Tal Ben-Shahar and the Certificate in Positive Psychology program at Kripalu is learning how seemingly small interventions can have a long-lasting, powerful impact.

So it’s a strong possibility that I wore a new groove in my brain — the “flying is fun” neuro-pathway. Creating positive neuro-pathways is excellent for both our short term and long term well being.   Plus, focusing on the positive absolutely made my flight to North Carolina a much more enjoyable experience.  For those reasons, and because I wasn’t about to purposely focus on the negative,  I decided to repeat my experiment to focus on the positives during the journey north.

It was definitely tougher going on the way home.  I was, after all, returning from vacation, which for me was a bit of negative double whammy.  First, that meant it was time for some of the fun and games to end.  Even more impactful, I was wrapping up a week of way more sugar, caffeine, and wine than usual, and, sometimes less sleep than I need.  Thus I arrived at the airport tired, a little sad, headachy, slightly sick to my stomach, and dehydrated.

Plus, it was not my happy little Burlington airport but rather the very busy (ie, stressful) hub airport in Charlotte.  And I kept feeling that my time in the Smokey Mountains with my friend Jeannette — who I stayed with for the second part of my trip — just wasn’t long enough.

Aaaannnndd … I was headed home to my dear husband Bob and the Vermont I love so much — two giant positives.  Maybe the ledger was even.

So, time to start counting the positives for that journey.

  1. Jeannette drove me three hours to the airport — a six hour round trip for her!  That is friendship.  Yeah, that is a friendship that started when we were only 11 years old.  Sweet.
  2. Not only that, on the drive there Jeannette shared with me invaluable insight and information about the publishing process — exceptionally positive for me because (you heard it here first) I am about to embark on the writing-a-book path.
  3. When Jeannette dropped me off at the curb (we were running late, no time for her to park), I felt like I won the air traveler’s lottery!  I dashed up to the curbside check-in with no line at all where a very friendly airline employee took my bag and gave me a ticket smoothly and quickly.  He then pointed to my boarding pass, and the letters “TSA-PRE.”  He said, “When you get to security, go the TSA-PRE line.”  I thanked him, and rounded the corner where there were long lines for all the security checkpoints — except TSA-PRE where the line was non-existent! I went up to the lone employee there and showed him my boarding pass.  I said, “I don’t know why I was given this, I’m just an ordinary passenger.”  He smiled, checked my ID, and sent me right to the X-Ray area where I started to take my laptop out of its case.  I was told, no, no, you don’t need to do that.  And, I didn’t even have to take off my shoes!  I whisked through security in less than five minutes.  Amazing, just amazing.
  4. Later, on the plane, I read about the TSA-PRE program.  There was a bulleted list of categories of eligible passengers.  I was not in any of the categories!  (Did someone tell the airlines I was writing about my experience???)  (I must say, BTW, that the airline in question was United — though I think the positivity exercise would probably work equally well with any airline.)
  5. I had a mini (mini, mini) happy “reunion” when my seatmate turned out to be the woman who had moved her bags out of my way to give me a seat in the gate waiting area.
  6. Lift off — thanks to my meditative mode — was an almost blissful sensation, one of gliding to the heavens.
  7. Outside the window, I saw a cloud formation that bore a striking resemblance to a cement lion, the kind that might guard a driveway, bridge, or la-di-dah front entrance.
  8. It was once again quiet enough for me to meditate.  I was still feeling a little crappy, so it was harder to lean into that experience, but it was still okay — it’s good to try!
  9. I didn’t spill anything on my seatmate.
  10. I had consolidated my packing to make it quite unlikely that I’d lose my laptop again.  Hey, I learned something from my previous travels — woo hoo!
  11. Making my connecting flight was very stressful  — barely enough time to get from my arriving gate to my departing gate, plus lots of unhappy looking people, and other sights I didn’t enjoy (like, rampant destructive consumerism). BUT I was determined to look at the positive, and I found it, especially in relationships.  Adult children taking care of elder parents in wheelchairs, laughing children, people holding hands.  There was a lot of love on display.
  12. I made my flight to Burlington!
  13. My seatmate was active duty military, a very conservative and exhausted fellow returning home from a long overseas flight.  It soon became clear that our views on many topics were miles apart.  Yet, we had a civilized and respectful conversation and, quite wonderfully, found ourselves in fundamental agreement on the concept of Gross National Happiness.  Coming from opposite sides of the political divide, we agreed that measuring societal success solely based on money and materialism is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst.  Further, he shared that his personal happiness is all about time spent with his wife and young children — family and relationships, just like the rest of us. We would never have had this very positive conversation without the airline throwing us together as seatmates.
  14. Finally — you may have guessed — my husband was waiting for me.  We went out to dinner at a great farm-to-table organic localvore taco restaurant, and drove home through the lush late summer Vermont scenery.

Aaaahhh … there’s no place like home!

Home — which I am leaving again tomorrow morning, by train, to go to the People’s Climate March.  There is no way I can count the positives for this trip — they will be uncountable, I am sure.  I am no longer nervous about going, as I am traveling with friends, and staying with another dear friend.  No matter the trip, relationships are awesome.

More on the Climate March later!

 

 

Only Three Positive Things?Or, Remembering to be Happy While Flying

 

A hopeful sign of moving in the right direction: O'Hare airport's vegetable garden!

A hopeful sign of moving in the right direction: O’Hare airport’s vegetable garden!

Last Saturday morning, I had an early flight to western North Carolina to celebrate a friend’s 70th birthday.   I’ve been trying to say “yes” to life’s opportunities more often, so when the invitation came from my friend Lynn, I figured out a way to afford the airfare.  I also love that part of North Carolina.  These friends live about an hour east of Asheville, where the mountains are spectacular.  Plus, I have another dear friend — a high school era BFF — an hour west of Asheville.  This was a chance to spend time with her, too.  It was all very last minute, but I said, “yes!”  Yes, to a pleasant, meaningful, happy trip.

Then in the car, I started complaining to my husband as he drove me to the airport.  I said, I’d be much more excited if I was driving*, not flying — because, of course, everyone “knows” flying is just no fun anymore.  It wasn’t major complaining, but I was definitely leaning into my brain’s negativity bias (which, by the way, your brain has, too!).

Yet,  about an hour later, when I heard the pilot speak in a delightful Irish brogue, I realized, “I’m having fun! I’m enjoying my air travel experience!”

That realization made me think about the power of intention, and attention.  In any given moment, we  choose (usually sub-consciously) what we pay attention to — and what we don’t pay attention to, don’t even see.  It is simply impossible to pay attention to everything all the time.   We can consciously choose to focus on the positive, or we can choose the negative.   If you doubt the power of attention, try this quick video test.  I’ve seen other versions, but I think this gets the message across.

In turn, that led me to mull over  one of the fads currently making the rounds on Facebook.  I’ve been repeatedly challenged to “name three positive things” each day for a week.  I’m not at all opposed to the “three positive things ritual,” but buckled in my seat and waiting for take-off,  I thought, “Why just three?  What if I count all day?  How many positives will I rack up?”

It was immediately apparent that counting all the positives is impossible.  I mean, the sun rises and my heart beats and I have running water.  Not to mention, I was about to be, as comedian Louis C.K. puts it, “partaking in the miracle of flight.” I also wake up almost every day in Vermont, a place that is so special to me and where I am always grateful to live.  The scenery between my house and the airport is stunningly beautiful.  On a more personal note, I wake up most days next to a loving and devoted husband, to whom I am also enormously grateful.  Etc.  Life overflows with positives.  With all that as a baseline, here are just a few positives from August 30, 2014:

  1. Yay for a 7:30 AM flight! Many flights leave Burlington at 6:00 AM.  It is ever so much more civilized to leave the house at 5:30 AM than to leave at 4:00 AM.
  2. For some reason, I was totally prepared and ready to roll out of bed and into the car.  Patting myself on the back!
  3. Bob offered to accompany me into the airport, not just drop me off outside.  So sweet.  So Bob.
  4. The check-in was totally smooth and pleasant.  I didn’t even have to use one of those automatic machines which make me anxious.  Instead, I got to deal with a pleasant and helpful human being.
  5. Yay for Skinny Pancake!  It makes me happy to have this Vermont franchise, with its emphasis on local and organic products, in the airport gate area.  Plus, I could buy bottled water from them in a resusable glass battle!  Awesome.eat-more-kale-sticker
  6. Coffee!! ‘nuf said.
  7. Pleasant interaction with a woman and her young adult son waiting to board.  They were flying to Colorado for the start of  his college career.  Fun to wish them both well.
  8. Pleased to have a seatmate who doesn’t want to talk (though, I would probably also be pleased to have a seatmate who does want to talk!)
  9. Phew!!  Especially pleased that this seatmate (a young man) seems to have a pleasant disposition.  That is, he didn’t get upset when I spilled water all over him.
  10. Good thing it wasn’t coffee.
  11. Flying over my beloved Vermont and seeing some special spots from the air (like Shelburne Pond).
  12. Glad I chose only yogurt at the Skinny Pancake and not a muffin.  I always seem to gain weight while traveling.  At least I’m off to a good start.
  13. Happy also to fly over the Adirondacks, a magnificent wilderness area I can often see from the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.  Though I would love to spend some time on the ground in the Adirondacks, we never do, because Vermont’s mountains  constantly beckon.  So it’s nice to get a good view of the Adirondacks this morning.
  14. It is a beautiful summer day.
  15. I laughed out loud (but not too loud) when the flight attendant announced, “For the comfort of other passengers, please securely close the door behind you when you use the lavatory.”
  16. I was inspired to write!  I so love it when I am visited by inspiration.
  17. An article in the in-flight magazine about Dutch aeronautical student Boyan Slat, who has developed a method of cleaning up the massive floating plastic garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean, fills me with hope.
  18. Traveling with a bathroom.  Really, that’s soooo much better than mile after increasingly stressful mile in the car, wondering where I can possibly stop to use the restroom.
  19. Feeling like such a goofus on the plane — bumped my head, scrawled some ink on the back of the seat in front of me, and of course spilled water on my seatmate — but (and here’s the positive) — feeling so okay with this.  Sometimes I get to be in a group where I am the wise one or sparkle in some other way.  Sometimes, I’m the goofus.  It is really okay.
  20. Plenty of peacefulness on the plane, making it easy to meditate.
  21. Appreciating the fact that meditation has become a joy and not a chore, and that I no longer worry about whether I’m doing it “right.”  I know it’s right by how I feel, even squished into a tiny seat on a crowded plane.
  22. More signs of hope.  They are everywhere, it seems.  Solar panels, windmills, and, in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, of all places, a poster about the airport’s own vegetable garden.  Awareness seems to be growing re sustainability changes we all need to make.
  23. I love Vermont but it is exceptionally homogenous.  It is fun for me to see such a diverse population as the passengers in O’Hare.
  24. Talking with my granddaughter on the phone — really, talking with my daughter, because my granddaughter was too happy playing in the background for a phone call right now.  I think that’s great.  I’m happy she’s happy.
  25. Fun exchange with the flight attendant about the fact that non-dairy creamer is a poor substitute for half-n-half.
  26. I did NOT lose my laptop in the Charlotte airport!  I put it down near the baggage claim area, to call my friend Lynn and let her know my status.  After I grabbed my suitcase from the carousel and started walking away, I realized I no longer had my laptop with me!  Mild panic set in, but I went back to where I made the phone call, and there was my laptop.  So, so relieved.  That would have put a real damper on this positivity list!  Instead, it’s one of the highlights.
  27. Yay for “Eat More Kale” stickers!  Montpelier artist Bo Muller-Moore hands out free, mildly subversive  “Eat More Kale” stickers.  I had stuck one on the plain black suitcase I borrowed from Bob, so this suitcase would stand out from all the others just like it on the baggage claim carousel.  It worked!  I spotted the bag right away.
  28. When Lynn picked me up, I really enjoyed looking at her simple but effective turquoise drop earrings and her matching turquoise blouse.  Very pretty.
  29. With an hour drive to her house, Lynn and I had time to reconnect in the car after four years of not seeing each other.
  30. Then when we arrived at their house, I could reconnect with Mark, the birthday boy — once also known as my college adviser.  Very special.
  31. Later, all three of us sat out on the deck drinking wine and eating crackers and cheese.  Delightful.
  32. Lynn made a simple but scrumptious stir fry dinner, with chicken, bok choy, and rice.  Perfect.
  33. The guest bed is super super comfortable!!
  34. With the windows wide open, I can hear the crickets chirping as I fall asleep.

 

All in all, a good day made so much better by focusing on the positives — so much better, in fact, that I feel like my brain has been at least a little bit re-wired.  I honestly look forward to my flight back home to see what joy it brings me.

This was such an easy exercise.  Let me know if you try it — I’d love to see your list!

 

 

 

* Of course, driving would have been a terribly selfish choice, environmentally.  I know some folks I know refuse to fly on environmental grounds, but nurturing relationships with lifelong friends seemed like a good enough reason to fly in this case.

 

Predicting Happiness, Or, Will Participating in the People’s Climate March Make Me Happy?

Taking the Gross National Happiness Conference to the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert Rally in 2010

Taking the Gross National Happiness message to the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert Rally in 2010

I am no stranger to the protest march.  I’ve been hitting the streets in support of, or opposed to, various causes and issues since high school.  In fact, it was during one of those high school era marches — the 1969 Moratorium on the Vietnam War — that my husband (far left in the above picture) and I fell in love.  Raising our voices in this manner has been a consistent thread throughout our 40+ years together.  Of course, not all the protests were as much fun as the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert gathering in 2010, which was truly joyous as well as hopeful (that’s me on the far right above). Still, I usually feel exhilarated by participation.  I did something.  Maybe not enough, maybe just a drop in the ocean — but I believe in drops. Eventually,they can become tidal waves.  I’m a believer in Martin Luther King Jr.’s compelling observation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Marching is an act filled with happiness-inducing components: optimism, community, a sense of meaning (working for a purpose greater than oneself), being fully present and in the flow, and at the end, the reward of accomplishment.  It’s not that the struggle is over — the arc on all these issues is long! — but there is a satisfaction in knowing that, at least for this moment, I was part of a job well done.  In his most recent book, Flourish, Martin Seligman put forth a new theory on happiness — P.E.R.M.A., standing for Positivity, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.  All of those elements will be present when I join the (hopefully) millions and millions of people coming to New York City on September 21st for the People’s Climate March, part of the Global Weekend of Action for Climate Justice.

So I should be happy about my planned participation, right?

But I’m not.  Okay, as I write this, I’m starting to get excited!  My, my, my, the power of our brains to choose whether to be positive or negative is so awesome.  But when I sat down at my laptop, I wasn’t happy about this upcoming trip — I just knew I would ultimately be happy with my decision to go.

Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness (the first happiness book I ever read, back in 2007), writes that we are particularly bad at predicting our own happiness.  He is an engaging speaker, and gives a very entertaining TED talk on this topic.

I’ve watched that TED talk several times, in addition to reading the book, so perhaps some of his wisdom has been sinking in.  For weeks, I’ve recognized a strong “I don’t want to go” sensation every time I think about the People’s Climate March.  Part of it is inertia.  Part of it is our intensely, amazing, gorgeous Vermont Septembers — definitely the best time of year to be here.  It is also a time when tasks loom large.  Winter is starting to breathe down our necks.  It is time to put gardens to bed, to stack firewood, to get in those last few swims and kayak rides before the water gets too cold.  Part of it is money: I just don’t feel like I have the extra dollars lying around to pay for a trip to New York.  And a large part — very large! — is fear.  I don’t mean fear of violence — I expect that day to be peaceful and loving.

No, I’m afraid I’ve become a country mouse.  Even though I lived for several decades in Washington, D.C. (a puny town compared with New York), I have become quite used to the ways of Vermont.  The population of the whole state is just slightly more than the population of D.C.  Montpelier, my closest city, is also the smallest capital in the nation, with a population numbering fewer than 8,000.  I am happy to travel from quiet place to quiet place (say, my sister-in-law’s house in coastal Maine) but the idea of having to navigate New York City like a grown up is totally overwhelming.

But, and here’s where Daniel Gilbert’s work comes in handy, I know if I don’t go I will really wish I had.  There is nothing, nothing, more important than standing up to world leaders and demanding major, huge, significant action to ameliorate climate change right now!  All our work on personal happiness and systemic happiness will do no good at all if the climate deteriorates to the point where human life is no longer possible.  On September 21st, what on earth could be more important for me to be doing than adding my voice to millions more, rising up to call out for climate justice?  Another ride in my kayak?  Mulching a blueberry bush?

Obviously, taking the steps to feel personally happier are not always the same as the path of pleasure — especially under my happiness paradigm, which encompasses not only my personal joy but also the well-being of people, animals,  and the planet.  To truly be happier, we need to act in accordance with our values and beliefs — do the right thing even when it is uncomfortable.  My values say, I must do everything I possibly can to stop climate change — but there’s just so much I can do.  By myself, I can’t get the oil companies to stop drilling for Tar Sands.  I can’t afford a hybrid car.  I contribute to the problem in many ways, and I need governments and big industry to establish the big systems that make future life possible.  I hang my clothes up to dry, I buy local, I do what I can individually.  At this point in time, individual action is no where near enough.  There must be, must be massive collective action.  Including me.  And you, by the way.

So I will be there, and I will be damned glad I am.

And guess what?  I will also have fun.  I will hitch a ride with friends (in their hybrid car), I will spend the night with other friends.  I will enjoy their company.  I will enjoy the massive stimulation of New York City.  Good food is a strong possibility. I will feel elated with hope.  I will be part of a global community with a much greater reach than central Vermont.  I will probably sing, and maybe even dance.  I will feel an incredible sense of meaning, and at the end of the day, a rewarding sense of accomplishment.  It will be a happy weekend.

I will not “stumble” on this happiness.  No, I will face my fear, and act from love — love for the planet, love for future generations, love for us all.

I hope to see you there.  You can give me a hug to let me know everything’s all right.

 

 

 

Social Comparison: The Cause of So Much Unhappiness

(Warning: the post below does not necessarily show off the author’s finest qualities.  Even worse, I’m hoping you’ll see yourself in these behaviors, because awareness of the unhappiness caused by constantly comparing ourselves with others is the first step toward freeing ourselves from social comparison’s grip on our psyches [and wallets].  Furthermore, since social comparison is a root cause of much environmental devastation, loosening its grip is good medicine individually AND collectively.  But never fear.  If you make it to the close of this little essay, you’ll find some ideas for breaking free or at least harnessing social comparison for the better. )

Mary Jane's extra beans.

Mary Jane’s extra beans.

Last Sunday evening, my friend Mary Jane brought a bag of extra green beans from her garden to share with other attendees at our weekly meditation gathering.  I gratefully accepted half the bag (there was one other taker) as Mary Jane enthused about how well her vegetables are growing this summer.

My garden is NOT doing well.  We’ve never bothered with a fence, but after this year — as all the peas and various other vegetables get eaten by unknown wild animals — we’re starting to think that might be a good investment.  Even my blueberries, which thrived last year, had a lackluster summer.  Could it be because I was a lackluster weeder?

In fact, the blueberries are my only crop.  Unlike almost all my women friends here in Vermont, I am a sorry excuse for a gardener.  Comparing myself to them … I just have to keep my mouth shut and not let anyone know I’m really not in their league.   I hardly ever even come to the ballpark.  It’s embarrassing.

My husband Bob is the real gardener of the family.  Speaking of my husband, he and I have both been trying to lose weight.  It’s discouraging to compare my progress with his, as he is doing significantly better than I am.  I am losing weight, but at our weekly check-ins, I am only down a few ounces,  while he can gleefully exclaim that he’s at a record low for the past five years.

Of course, I can take comfort in knowing I’m still doing better than our friends, another couple, who are part of this challenge with us.

Ugh.  What am I doing with all this social comparison?  Making myself unhappy, of course.  Why can’t I enjoy my husband’s success without also berating myself for my less diligent path?  And why can’t I just admire Mary Jane’s gardening bounty, accept her offer graciously, and not feel “less than” because I’m not a good gardener? And how pitiful to try and elevate my own self-esteem by noting that I am doing better than my friends — they’re my friends, for heaven’s sake.

Garlic social comparison

Not only that, but some of Bob’s gardening is yielding wonderful results.  He is harvesting another year’s worth of garlic, and the potatoes are doing better than ever.  His garlic bulbs are so big and succulent … I found myself looking at yet another friend’s just-harvested garlic and thinking, “your bulbs aren’t as big as Bob’s!”

What???  Petty, ridiculous, mean-spirited.  Okay, I’m not perfect — or as my friend Diana used to put it, “your halo’s slipping a bit” — but I don’t like this in me.  It is downright unpleasant.

Sadly, I could trot out an endless array of this kind of whiny, self-centered comparison — especially after I’ve left the comfort zone of central Vermont and spent time in an urban environment.  Then the flood gates of social comparison burst open, up and down, left and right.  I’m worse than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  No, wait — I’m better than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  It’s a lose-lose mindset.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in The How of Happiness,” social comparison can be a pernicious destroyer of our happiness.  “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” she observes.  Nor can one be happy while disrespecting others.  While social comparison is inevitable and can serve a positive purpose — we can be inspired by others to do better ourselves — it is definitely a big problem for me.  I see it as the weakest link in my personal happiness chain.

Not only that, I believe social comparison is also at the core of many problems facing the planet as a whole.  Lord knows, advertisers play up social comparison to the hilt to get us to buy more stuff, which can have devastating impacts on our lives, the quality of lives of workers in far off countries, and the environment. I’ve shared this link before, and I’m sure I’ll share it again, but if you want a quick primer on how our hunger to “keep up with the Jones'” affects the world around us, check out Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”

Even without looking at the bigger picture, social comparison can fuel endless wanting.  From the Buddhist perspective, that’s synonymous with endless suffering.

Naturally, Bruce Springsteen captured the tug of social comparison in one of his songs.  In “Badlands,” he sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”  There you go — social comparison all the way around.   I used to compare my poor husband’s arms with the super-buff Bruce, but even while doing so, I knew it was totally unfair to compare my real life regular guy with a mega-celebrity.  Yet, how many people get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves with celebrities — favorably or unfavorably?  I suspect it’s a major cause of unhappiness.

Even in the virtual world, social comparison can be a real downer: last year, a University of Michigan study found that Facebook makes users sadder.  According to an NPR report, research co-author John Jonides, a cognitive neuroscientist, noted:  “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

Happily — really, literally, happily — we can loosen the grip of social comparison.  A few suggestions follow.

First of all, turn it around — I/we can look at ways that we’d like to improve and see if there are others who inspire us.  For example, I wonder about all the ways I can help stave off (or at least ameliorate) climate change.  I know we need big systemic change to do this effectively — and, at the same time, I know that there are many, many small steps each of us can take.  To find out what others are doing,  two days ago I started a new Facebook group called, “Saving the Planet One Small Step at a Time.”  Already, I can compare myself to those who are using very fundamental cleaning supplies (plain baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of store bought shampoo) and with a friend of friend whose blog, “The Non-Consumer Advocate,” focuses on ways we can all end our soul and planet destroying wasteful consuming ways.

I want to compare myself with these folks — they help me aspire to do better.

Even here, though, the comparison needs to be thoughtful.  Recently, when a post showed up on Facebook about a recent study showing that Vermonters spend less time grooming themselves than residents of any other state, I was quite pleased at this distinction.  So were many of my Vermont friends.  One could argue that this shows a heightened connection with nature and an awareness of the chemicals in cosmetics, etc.   Or … could it just be unhealthy Vermont exceptionalism?  I’m not sure.

Sometimes, I strive to be the one others look up to.  When I’m teaching meditation classes, I try to lead by example (ie, meditating every day).  When I mediate, I work at being the calm eye in the midst of a raging conflict storm.  Like most mediators, I try to model productive conflict strategies.

Here, too, it is important to be self-aware.  We are all on journeys.  I myself have a lot to learn about meditation.  And I also can get caught up in personally challenging conflicts.  Even while modeling, I need to remain humble, which is not easy.

Second, we can reframe how we view our own situations.  For example, I have a lot of social comparison issues with my house.  All too often I look at others’ homes and think, I wish I had your house, not mine.  Yet my house has many wonderful aspects.  As a former barn, it is unique, special, interesting, artsy, roomy, and comfortable.  My house is situated in the heart of a thriving, supportive community and across the street from a beautiful Vermont lake.  It is not perfect.  Neither am I.  Lately, when I catch myself obsessing about my house’s shortcomings, I try to reframe my thinking to focus on all its plusses instead.

Third, if you catch yourself thinking that your house — or whatever else — is better than, that is a fine time to practice gratitude.  Feeling grateful for is much more positive than feeling superior to.

Fourth, I’ll turn back to Annie Leonard and her more recent offering, “The Story of Solutions.”  On a personal level, on a systems level, can we turn away from “more” and focus on “better” instead?  Better choices, that is — not “better than.”  This simple formula for re-defining our goals is particularly powerful in curbing materialistic social comparison cravings.

Fifth, try making your own “Positivity Portfolio.”  I learned about this technique in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  Instructor Tal Ben-Shahar introduced us to this happiness tool, first developed by James Pawelski at the University of Pennsylvania.  The idea is to focus on a way in which you would like to change for the better, and then assemble a package of pictures, quotes, music, etc. — whatever stirs your heart and inspires you in this area.  I did a power point Positivity Portfolio on the theme of abundance, to counteract my social comparison tendencies.

At first the project was awesome!  I was so excited listing the abundance in my life, and finding photos to illustrate the list.  But then, the list got too big and the project dragged on and on.  It took me days to build my portfolio. I just have too much!  I mean that in a good way.  Clearly, life is incredibly abundant.  It was an excellent project.

Fifth, perhaps most importantly: meditate.  In order to loosen the grip of social comparison in our lives, we have to first develop an awareness of its existence within.  I can think of no better tool to heighten self-awareness than a regular meditation practice.  Meditation can also help us become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, instead of “less than” or “better than.”

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

In any case, despite what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I think I am improving my ability to recognize social comparison creeping into my thinking.  When I recognize it, I am more likely to lean into my own abundance, and let go of envy.

For example, a few weeks back, during a Bone Builders class, I glanced at the shoes of the woman next to me.  This woman is also a friend, a lovely person who happens to have a lot more money than I have.  She had spiffy new shoes.  Not over the top, but very stylish.  Then I looked back at my own shoes, which are old, with a lot of mileage and one noticeable dot of teal paint on them.  It was a ripe moment for social comparison.  Instead, rather than covet my friend’s shoes — or even worse, resent her affluence — I found the whole situation humorous.  Kind of sweet, even.  My own shoes are just fine.  They do the job.  I like the paint spot.  I do not need to buy new shoes.  All is well.

One final thought: abundance comes in many guises.  True, it has not been a good year for my blueberries.  But there were enough berries this summer to go outside with my two year-old granddaughter almost every day and pick blueberries together.  This was a special activity for just the two of us, and it is a memory I can savor forever.  That, my friends, is abundance.

 

 

 

Gross National Happiness:Now It’s Getting Personal

Breastfeeding-004

As a co-founder of GNHUSA and one of the organizers of last month’s conference, “Happiness and Wellbeing: Building a National Movement,” I obviously endorse the efforts to adopt a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm.  And I have more than a basic understanding of why what we choose to measure can exert such a powerful influence in our lives.

Nonetheless, I felt a real jolt of personal understanding during Gwen Colman’s keynote speech on happiness and public policy at the ccnference.  Gwen,  who developed the Youth Program at GPIAtlantic (a non-profit research and education organization that created a Genuine Progress Index for Nova Scotia), was contrasting what gets counted under a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) paradigm with what doesn’t get counted — and, therefore, doesn’t count.   First, she showed a slide of baby getting a bottle.   According to Wikipedia, the worldwide baby formula industry is worth an estimated $7.9 billion industry.  Certainly, there are many valid reasons why babies are fed bottles, and it is a blessing under any metric that formula is available when needed.  In any case, plenty of money gets exchanged, so bottle feeding counts.

Next up was a slide of a mom breastfeeding her baby.  How much money gets exchanged in that transaction?  Ergo, how much is breastfeeding worth according to GDP measures? Well, not quite nothing because there are nursing bras and breast pumps to be purchased.  But the actual act of breastfeeding?  That’s worth nothing.  Zero.  Zilch.  It doesn’t count.

This struck me personally because my daughter is currently a breastfeeding mom.  Watching my granddaughter thrive as a breast fed baby, I have no doubt that a GNH paradigm would enthusiastically endorse breastfeeding children to give them the best possible start in life.  But in our GDP-dominated culture,  my daughter has sometimes run into flack and disapproval when nursing her hungry or cranky daughter in public.  Despite laws in all 50 states supporting the rights of moms to breastfeed their children, many moms feel a kind of shaming pressure to hide this basic act of love and nurturing.  In January 2014, even a Victoria’s Secret store (of all places!) banned a mom from breastfeeding inside the store.  Perhaps if breastfeeding “counted” — ie, was included as something valuable in GDP measures — the public might be more supportive of this fundamental wellbeing activity.  This example underscores the pervasiveness of GDP thinking throughout our lives, and therefore the importance of GNH work on a deeply personal level.  Not all interventions to support greater happiness and wellbeing can or should happen at the governmental level.  Some need to happen in our own hearts and minds.

As an experiment, I spent one day last week examining my own activities, with an eye toward what adds to my wellbeing  and what counts under a GDP metric — you know, the kind of “positive” NPR is referring to when it relentlessly reports whether the GDP has gone up or down.  The GDP does not care at all whether money is spent for a positive or a negative — whether it’s a baby shower or a nuclear weapon, the only good here is money. So how did my day stack up, GDP-wise?  Not so good.  GNH-wise, though, it was a pretty wonderful day.

I began my day with a couple cups of coffee — good for the GDP, and, as far as I’m concerned, good for my happpiness, too.

Next came my daily meditation.  Because I like to play the Tibetan bells on YouTube in the background while I meditate, which means a little increase on the electricity bill which I’ll have to pay later, that was ever so slightly good for the GDP.  Plus I like to light a stick of incense — another wee boon for GDP.  But the bulk of my activity — a walking meditation around the house and out on the sunny deck — was cash free, and enormously good for my personal GNH.  Further, I’ll wager that my regular meditation practice may well save me money on medical care over the long term, as meditation may reduce the severity, or delay the onset of, expensive chronic conditions.  So really, my meditation practice as a whole is a negative on the GDP scale.

As I walked on the deck, I passed my husband’s laundry flapping in the breeze.

Letting the sun dry our clothes

Letting the sun dry our clothes

Using the sun and the wind to dry laundry is 100% worthless in the ruthlessly focused GDP metric.  Never mind that using a clothesline instead of an electric or gas dryer conserves energy and therefore does not contribute to climate change and other environmental devastation.  Never mind, either, that hanging laundry involves some physical effort, which is good for our health.  And then there’s that fresh air smell in clothes that have been hanging outside … worthless.

Indeed, in our GDP world, many jurisdictions and condo associations actually see clotheslines as a negative, and forbid them.  Vermont, I am proud to say, passed a law a few years back barring any such prohibitions.  In a world of pervasive GNH thinking, perhaps such laws wouldn’t be necessary, because we would be more aware of, and appreciative of, actions that are good for people and the planet.

Next up for me was my morning walk on the three mile loop around my neighborhood, a walk that looks like this:

My morning view

My morning view 

And this:

Another view on my walk

Another view on my walk

… but counts for nothing, according to the GDP metric.  If I had chosen instead to take a scenic drive, burning fossil fuels and contributing to climate change, I might well have had to buy gas.  In GDP terms, that would have been a much better choice.

As I walked, on an admittedly exceptionally beautiful June day, I was struck by the profusion of ferns and wildflowers — so, so beautiful and so, so worthless if all that matters is the exchange of money.  I took a few photos:

Lush ferns ...

Lush ferns …

Wild roses, which also smell divine ...

Wild roses, which also smell divine …

Also in pink and white ...

Also in pink and white …

 Ever-cheerful daisies ...

Ever-cheerful daisies …

... and elegant wild irises.

… and elegant wild irises.

Taking the time to stop and savor these beauties and so much else that nature generously displays for us each summer is a tremendously valuable personal happiness booster.  And even though I’m not a naturalist, I know these flowers are important in the eco-system — important for bees, for birds, for life in general.  But the money is to be found in the flower industry, not out here by the road side in my back yard. Oh, no, cut flowers often have to travel long distances to arrive at their destinations.  Once again, according to Wikipedia:  many flowers are “grown far from their point of sale … (including) roses in Ecuador and Colombia, mainly for the US market, and production in Kenya and Uganda for the European market. Some countries specialize in especially high value products, such as orchids from Singapore and Thailand.”

Did somebody say, fossil fuels?  Peak oil?  Climate change?  But, hey, that’s a lot of money being exchanged — and that’s what matters, right?

With the worthless wildflowers on my mind, I took a look around my garden when I got home.  There were some annuals, some pansies that I had planted a few weeks earlier, definitely adding to the GDP:

My pansies, with a pinwheel.

My pansies, with a pinwheel.

But even the flowers we plant have a limited GDP value.  Perennials only matter the year they are bought.  No matter how beautiful their blooms may be in succeeding years, they, too, become worthless — even in the hands of my neighbor Bev who coaxes these lush poppies and many other plants to bloom again and again and again:

Bev's poppies.

Bev’s poppies.

Okay, I won’t go on in detail about my whole day.  I did spend time writing (and playing Scrabble) on my computer (electricity again) and I received a check from a client. Both of these experiences were happy making for me in terms of working toward goals and having a purpose in life.  And both were of some value to Vermont’s GDP — not much, but still they count.

I can’t remember any more if I went swimming that day, but it’s certainly possible.  We live just across the road from one of Vermont’s many ponds and lakes, and often swim or kayak in this beautiful body of water:

The public swim area at our local lake.

The public swim area at our local lake.

Since there is no money exchanged when we dive into these waters, the GDP is not impressed with these activities.  Worse: since swimming and kayaking help keep us healthy, and that once again might mean less money spent on health care over the long term, this is another negative on the GDP side of the ledger.

Of course, if we paid money to go to a swimming pool, that would be good, GDP-wise.  And it would probably also be good, on a personal GNH scale– especially in the many, many months when outdoor swimming is not an option in Vermont.

Similarly, I love both libraries and book stores, especially our local independent bookstores.  I mention this combination because the final item of note for me on the day I paid special attention to my GDP footprint was a Facebook posting from one of my sisters.  She was alerting her neighbors that funding for their local library might be cut so drastically that their library would be forced to close.  Certainly libraries have value in GDP terms — payroll, building costs, buying books and magazine subscriptions, etc.  But all those books being borrowed at no cost?  Worthless!  I mean, sharing for heaven’s sake — how does that help the economy?

In a GNH world, would we be shutting down libraries?

Those are just a few snippets from one summer day.  I know I could — and hopefully, will — examine my life and my choices much more thoroughly.  What about you?  What is truly worthwhile in your life?  What brings you happiness, and increases your wellbeing?  How much of your life is needlessly tied up by what a GDP paradigm says is important and worthwhile?

As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we want to see happen in the world.  Want to see a shift to a gross national happiness metric on a large scale?  Perhaps we should all start by picking some wildflowers.