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The Unifying Power of Happiness Dinners

madeleine-at-ami-december-2016

There’s a reason a picture of my granddaughter illustrates what is essentially an extended invitation to you — yes, you, the person reading this right now — to celebrate the 5th annual International Day of Happiness (IDOH) by hosting a Happiness Dinner.  The photo’s relevance will soon be clear. First, though, I want you to know that hosting these dinners is a wonderful, deeply meaningful experience. I was a host myself for two years in a row.  Both evenings filled me with love, gratitude, and joy.

The Happiness Dinners are even younger than IDOH; Gross National Happiness USA started this new tradition just three years ago. Since I’ll be traveling home from the World Happiness Summit, I might miss the chance to host this year. You, however, can offer your friends whatever kind of feast suits your fancy (take out, pot luck,  gourmet, you name it!) — along with the healing power of a serious conversation about happiness. Together, you and your guests can experience the unifying capacity of happiness — at least for one highlight reel evening.

We certainly need something to bring us together.

Lately I’ve been thinking, this country needs one great big mediation.  Or, possibly, millions of small ones. My Masters in Mediation training taught me that most of the bluster that rages within conflicts is merely positioning.  To get to a mutually agreeable solution, it helps to strip away the surface arguments and uncover what really matters, what the interests are that fuel the disputes.

I suspect, if we could sit down and listen with open minds and hearts to one another’s interests, we’d recognize that we’re not that far apart.  We all want economic security, a sense of safety, good health (mental and physical), a government that works on our collective behalf, and vital communities.  We want to give and receive love.  We want peace.  In other words, we want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

We have different ideas about how to meet these needs, of course.  Sometimes, our views are diametrically opposite. Still. If we could meet on the playing field of our common humanity and our shared interest in happiness and well-being, we’d be much more likely to find solutions that most of us could endorse.

Since neither the one large nor the millions of small mediations are going to happen, I suggest instead, let’s listen to one another. Forget the ranting, raving futile attempts to convince each other of the rightness of our own positions.  Move beyond that to speak our own truths and, even more importantly, hear the genuine interests of others.  Essentially, that’s what the the Happiness Dinners are about — giving and receiving the gift of listening to what matters most in life. These dinners work, in part, because sharing a good meal makes us more comfortable with one another, and in part because Gross National Happiness USA provides guidelines for keeping the conversation focused. Perhaps the most crucial ingredient, though, is good listening.

Listening can be magical, for both the listener and the one being heard.

I experienced this magic quite unexpectedly on Christmas vacation with my family. I was with my granddaughter, right after an all-you-can-eat sausage and pancakes breakfast on the beach.  We had strolled over to the playground, where she could do her four year-old thing on the play structure, and I could do my grandmother thing, watching her from a distance, and drinking in every moment.

I thought I was in a politics-free zone with other happy grandparents, one of whom asked jokingly if I had had vodka in my orange juice cup. Our chat started out friendly enough, but began edging closer and closer to possibly volatile political territory when he began complaining about government spending priorities.  Guessing that he and I likely had very different views, I became wary.  We were at the beach, for heaven’s sake. Rather than plunge into a useless debate, I endeavored to keep this encounter superficial.

Fortunately, I didn’t succeed.  I say fortunately, because he turned out to be a man in pain who really wanted to be heard.  At some point, thanks to my mediation training and my experience on the Happiness Walk, I decided it was best to just listen.  I didn’t have to agree, argue or judge. I could just hear the man.

I disagreed with him on at least one major issue, but kept my mouth shut. Surprisingly, we found common ground in agreeing that money is not the root of happiness, and that consumerism and greed have gotten way out of hand.  Mostly, though, I had the privilege of listening to this grandfather’s heartbroken story about his heroin addict son, the father of the two young grandchildren playing with my granddaughter.  “My son’s never bought so much as a diaper for them,” the grandfather sadly said.

Before you know it, we were hugging. I have to say, I felt so much love for that man — and his wife, who moved in and out of the conversation.  Politics and religion were 100% irrelevant. We were all just frail humans with our joys and sorrows, at the beach with our grandchildren on Christmas Eve morning.  Their stories reminded me, again, we all want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

The stories you’ll hear at a Happiness Dinner will hopefully not be quite so sad — though they might be, as times of sorrow and pain can also lead to a deeper appreciation of happiness.  In any case, I’ll wager that almost all the stories will be moving. In the safe space of a Happiness Dinner, you and your guests will likely be speaking from your hearts — and that, my friend, is a very special place.

 

 

 

Oh the Food! The Happiness Walk Lands in the Happiest City

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

It was Mardi Gras season, and I was excited to rejoin The Happiness Walk in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  We were headed west toward Houston, right through Lafayette, Louisiana — the Happiest City in America.  Since the Happiness Walk is all about gaining a deeper understanding of individual happiness, we made Lafayette our headquarters for a week.

Let’s just say I didn’t lose any weight.

Clearly, food is a big part of the happiness recipe here. One woman told me, “If we’re not eating, we’re planning our next meal.”  From beignets to etoufee, shrimp gumbo (did you know you can put potato salad in gumbo instead of sour cream??) to boiled crawfish and white chocolate bread pudding, and other delectables I enjoyed tremendously but don’t remember how to pronounce or spell, Louisiana food is heavenly.

Savoring is a highly recommended happiness strategy, and lots of savoring goes on in the Lafayette environs — even a seemingly ordinary convenience store was filled with enticing aromas, emanating in part from the tastiest onion rings I’ve ever eaten.  Additionally, food here seems often to be created and dished out lovingingly, as well as received gratefully.  Pleasure and kindness combined.  All good.

Is it really coincidence that five other Louisiana cities made the top 10 list in a 2014 academic report?  The researchers used data from the highly respected Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. In contrast, my food assertion is founded largely on non-scientific, non-rigorous personal experience — which also tells me there’s more to the story than food.  The full Louisiana happiness recipe contains many other ingredients.

A Listening Tour: Let me back up and explain a bit about The Happiness Walk, which is part of GNHUSA. Essentially, this step-by-step enterprise is one big qualitative research project. From Stowe, Vermont in August 2012 to Washington, D.C., down the eastern seaboard to Jacksonville, Florida before turning west, The Happiness Walk records thousands of interviews with “regular” people all along the way.  By the time we hit Los Angeles, then Seattle, and finally arrive home in Vermont in late 2018, we will have listened to many, many thousands of people share what matters most to them in life.  The interviews will be transcribed, and the data analyzed by academics.

Our listening is heartfelt, and the interviews are voluntary.  Here as elsewhere, not everyone wanted anything to talk with us.  Wherever we listen, it’s not a quantitative scientific sampling.  Still, we did find Lafayette to be especially happy.

I even have some data to back up our personal observations: in Lafayette, we had more offers of hosts, meals, and drivers than we could actually use.  That has never happened before.  Though individuals are amazingly generous to us wherever we go, the collective and varied Louisiana generosity reached a new level.  In addition to food, rides, and housing, we received:

  • Gifts of time, as groups of locals joined us on the Walk and evening gatherings;
  • Gifts of knowledge, with arranged walks to NUNU (which is pioneering a shared arts economy and reviving the area’s French heritage) and to Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is made (and where we sampled jalapeno ice cream);
  • Unsolicited cash donations; and
  • A surprise trip to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, topped off with a souvenir gold lame pantsuit!

Beyond the data, there was an intangible joie-de-vivre (joy of life) on this trip.  Everywhere, the motto seemed to be laissez les bons temps roulez (let the good times roll) — no matter life’s very real challenges. 

That spirit was on full display when we arrived at our host Jeannette’s house just in time for a party with gumbo, etoufee, and King Cake.  Many of the guests that night belong to the “Bluebirds,” a cancer survivor’s group.  They were celebrating one Bluebird’s birthday — but they were also celebrating and grieving Cecile, another Bluebird who had died of breast cancer just a month earlier.

This is not fake, pasted-on-smiles happiness.  These folks are not in denial of the bad stuff life dishes out.  Since Lafayette is an oil town, and that industry is struggling, the area is facing serious economic turmoil with foreclosures and lay-offs.  We heard all too many cancer stories.  And we were told of widespread poverty in the region. There’s plenty to cope with.  Letting the good times roll seems to be a well-tuned coping mechanism.

I’m not an anthropologist, and we were only there for a week.  That said, here are other factors that seem to be at the core of Louisiana happiness:

  1. Heritage.  The whole trip, we were in the thick of French Acadian, or Cajun, culture.  At Jeannette’s party, I asked one of the guests how other people could be as happy as they all seemed to be.  “You have to be born here,” was the reply.
  2. Families. Everywhere we go, we hear how important families are, but there was a different flavor here.  Seemingly, Acadian families stay close together — all the better to let the good times roll.  We met a man in nearby Krotz Springs who was paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident.  Yet he told us he is a very happy man, in part because he’s built a wheelchair accessible party room and deck, with space for boiling crawfish with all the grandchildren.
  3. Fun. Then there was Andrew in Arnaudville.  He showed us his newly-renovated family homestead, complete with a huge deck and covered cooking area, and camper hook-ups, so his whole family can come have fun together.  And let us not forget the distinctive Cajun music and dance, which we enjoyed very much on a night out with Jeannette.
  4. Faith.  We hear this a lot, too, especially in the South.  Here, though, people didn’t seem to wear their faith on their sleeves as much as other places, perhaps because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion.  It all felt much more laissez-faire.

My biggest takeaway? I’m not Catholic, I don’t speak French, and, sadly, I don’t think there’s much hope for me in the food department.  Instead, I want to lift up the joy.  I want to celebrate more!  Last Saturday, I donned the gold lame and Mardi Gras beads.  I just might wear them this coming Saturday, too.  It’s not a natural fit, but you know what they say: laissez les bons temps roulez!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funerals: An Important Piece of the Happiness Puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

From Metaphor to Reframing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t want to end it there …

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

This kind of magic? Priceless.

Human Connections, Human Happiness

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s kinda sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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” .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love and Relationships: Keeping the Activists Happy

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

Getting ready to march with Bernie Sanders in the Warren, VT Fourth of July parade in 2012.

The focus on relationships in the prayer from the Hopi elder (see previous blog on the People’s Climate March) has me thinking about love. “What are your relationships?” the prayer asks.  “Are you in right relation?”  Then later, “Be good to each other.” And still later, “The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river … And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.”

I’m in the river with some pretty good people, which makes a huge difference in my life.  The support I feel from loving friends, family, colleagues, and community gives me strength and courage to do the happiness work I feel called to do.  They are good to me, we are in right relation for the most part,  sometimes we get to celebrate.  Hopefully, most of you can say the same.   Relationships are the number one predictor of happiness.  We need love to flourish under the best of circumstances.  As we move forward to combat climate change and push for a shift away from dysfunctional capitalism toward a well being paradigm, we will need that love even more.

All the loving kindness that flowed through the vast river that was the People’s Climate March brought to mind some experiences I’ve had in the presence of another warrior for well being, Senator Bernie Sanders.  Talk about being in the river!  He’s like the painting of George Washington standing up in the boat crossing the Delaware River.  I know many of you who live outside Vermont are cheering this 21st century leader onward.  Rest assured, on the home front in Vermont, there are throngs of people eager to celebrate his courage, tenacity, and heart in standing up for economic and environmental justice.  Yes, it’s true: we love Bernie.

Twice I’ve had the opportunity to march with Bernie in Fourth of July parades when he was campaigning for U.S. Senate.  The first time was in 2006 in Montpelier, Vermont.  My friend Judy and I were asked to march right behind Bernie because the organizer liked our sign (Women of Maple Corner for Bernie).  As we marched, Bernie would inspire wave after wave of enthusiastic loving appreciation.  The crowd’s energy, directed at Bernie, also landed on us just a few feet behind him.  It was intoxicating and invigorating, to feel the energy of love like that — just awesome.

Even better, though, was the Fourth of July parade in Warren, Vermont in 2012 when Bernie was running for re-election.  This time, I was one of the volunteers holding Bernie’s banner, just in front of the Senator himself.  Over and over again, as large chunks of the parade watching crowd shifted their attention from the float in front of us to the campaigning Senator, massive cheers erupted — and again, the waves of love and gratitude washed over all the volunteers as well.  I heard the same enthusiastic shouts repeatedly, through the entire parade: “We love you, Bernie!” “Thank you Bernie!”  And the occasional, “Bernie for President!”  The love and gratitude were overwhelming.

And, critically important. A few weeks later, after the parade season ended, Bernie launched his town meetings right next door, at the Maple Corner Community Center.  Unlike most other Washington politicians, Bernie does not charge admittance to these events.  Quite the opposite.  He actually provides a free dinner to everyone who shows up!  Amazing.  But the salad and lasagne were not the reasons why the audience that night was enthusiastic.  We were enthusiastic because of Bernie’s record.  Like the parade crowd, we were filled with gratitude and love for Bernie and his staff because of the work they do.

Before the Senator spoke, his staff member expressed his gratitude for our expressions of gratitude.  He said, essentially, Bernie needs your love, needs to hear your cheers and your cries of thanks because, in D.C., Bernie’s work is damned hard.  He needs to come back in Vermont, take a swim in the river with his supporters here who will celebrate with, and be good to, him.  Like most relationships, it’s circular: we need Bernie, and Bernie needs us.

Right relation.  Being good to each other.  Celebrating.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

My daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Madeleine with Bernie Sanders in Maple Corner in 2012, just after his presentation and moments before the baby melted down.

Afterwards, before leaving Maple Corner, Bernie  paused to share the love with my daughter and four-month-old granddaughter.  I’d say two out three of them were happy to have their picture taken together!  Anyway, I’m grateful for the photograph.

We all need to share the love.

Bernie may need the love more than the rest of us, because he’s the target of so many more slings and arrows.  But all of us who choose to be activists — for happiness, for justice, for the environment, for a new economy — need the sustenance of love.  Maybe that’s because, like all humans,  we all suffer, and we know that we will suffer more.  Further, those of us who are actively trying to make the world a better place also carry the knowledge that the earth and the people on it are suffering intensely.  “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely,” writes Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life, “And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.”

Even in our little corners, we can’t do it alone.  We need relationships.  We need community.  We need love.

Fortunately, love comes in  a wide variety of packages — from what Barbara Frederickson calls “micro-bursts” of love which can occur even between two strangers who are momentarily connected, to long term relationships with intimate partners and best friends.

Indeed, the day before I left for New York and the Climate March, I was on a conference call as part of the yearlong certificate in positive psychology I’m earning through Kripalu.  The conference call was focused on the importance of relationships to our personal happiness.  At the close, lead instructor Tal Ben-Shahar wished us all, “many micro-bursts of love.”

And in a way, that’s what the whole trip was — giving and receiving micro-bursts of love, as well as weaving deeper more loving relationships with the people who are near me in the river.  This was especially true for Ginger,  a friend from central Vermont who generously shared her New York City apartment with me and my  happiness colleagues Linda and Paula — who are now Ginger’s friends, too.  Ginger met me at Penn Station, thus soothing my fears of having to negotiate the streets of New York City on my own.  Paula arrived a little later, and Ginger fed us both a wonderful dinner.  We watched a very funny video Saturday morning before a full day playing in a sunny NYC — a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry, a free walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and indescribably delicious street food at an Italian Street Festival.  Then we welcomed Linda for a lovely evening of pizza and wine.  Sunday, we had a hearty breakfast before heading uptown to march.

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Ginger, me, Paula, and Linda getting ready to march!

Thanks to a day of being good to each other, and celebrating, we arrived at the march fully supported (and supporting) in loving kindness.  Once there, we were all able to be our best.   When asked to help make and distribute signs, all four of us cheerfully and energetically jumped in and worked for at least an hour and a half.  The march started very late, but it didn’t matter — our spirits were high.  I felt at my best — able to be a happy, well-behaved member of a large crowd, take it in more fully, absorb it, and more ready to share and live the message of the march when I got home.

Okay, honestly, I wasn’t actually at my very, very best for the entire march.   Toward the end of the climate march, there was a small group of individuals holding anti-abortion signs. I thought, if you’re really pro-life, you should be in the march!! We’re talking about trying to save all human life — and most animals and plants, too — from extinction. How pro-life can you be?? But I wisely kept my mouth shut.

A few steps later, though, stood another “protestor” holding a sign, something to the effect of “Come to Jesus.” All I could think was, seriously? Don’t you think Jesus would be marching with us? Annnndddd … that came bursting out of my mouth. I hollered, “Jesus is over here.” Surprise, surprise, that was not well received. He yelled back at me “no over here” and I yelled something like, “no, over HERE!” It was not a particularly sophisticated or mature exchange.

But I was not in the river alone.  I could just feel my friends looking at me.  Imagining my behavior through my friends’ eyes helped me step back from my unhelpful behavior.  I took a deep breath, and returned my focus to the march.

Thank goodness for friends!  I guess we need them in the river with us sometimes to throw us life preservers.  That, too, is important.