Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

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The Power of a Positive No to Increase Happiness

pipeline-protest-1

The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota access pipeline.  Photo by Little Redfeather Design/Honor the Earth

 

In 2005, after I had applied for the Masters in Mediation program at Woodbury College, I sat down with the Admissions Director for an informational interview.  “Would the program involve much conflict?” I asked her.  In retrospect, how embarrassing.  A mediator’s main job is to be calm in the midst of sometimes stormy conflicts, helping disputants move toward mutually acceptable solutions.

I got in the program anyway and fell in love with conflict theory, my first deep foray into brain science and human behavior. One of my favorite books was The Power of A Positive No  by William Ury.  For many of us, saying “no” is just as welcome as entering into conflict.  In fact, it sometimes is entering into conflict, or at least bringing the dispute to light — even if the whole thing is only within our own heads (“no, you cannot have that cake!” “but I want it!”).  Ury makes saying “no” much easier by asking us to consider, when we say no, what are we saying “yes” to?power-of-positive-no

That may be a simplification of Ury’s book, but this basic question has served me well whenever a no was emotionally difficult, inconvenient, and/or requiring some level of sacrifice.  Though Ury’s subtitle, Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No, focuses on interpersonal conflict, I have found the positive no formula helpful in many situations. For example, I have said no to quite a few things that I previously enjoyed — nail polish, hair driers, meat (mostly), clothing driers, etc. — because the “yes” is so much bigger: a clean, livable climate for future generations. Then again, we all are in relationship with the climate, with the generations who will follow us, even with our own consciences.  Maybe it is all about relationships after all.

In any case, this is not just a personal tool — saying no to get to yes can be powerful with big picture disputes as well.  The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline is an inspiring example. I don’t want to speak for the determined water protectors, but what I see is a strong no to the pipeline, no to fossil fuel infrastructure, and no to the possibility of a devastating pipeline break and oil spill — all based on an unwavering yes to water, to life, to future generations, and to sacred lands and spiritual traditions.

Of course, a positive no is more complex than simply focusing on yes,  because we all are in relationship with one another. It is often both desirable and advisable to consider other options.  For the global climate action movement, for example, it is insufficient to just say no to the hardworking women and men in the fossil fuel industry. We do need to say no to fossil fuels, for sure — but these folks need jobs and incomes. For sure.  Thus the climate action movement also advocates for a just economy with alternative livelihoods for these families and communities — such as, building green energy infrastructure.

On a personal happiness level, sometimes yes is just yes.  Whether it’s practicing meditation, being a better listener, or simply smiling more, many positive psychology tools don’t require saying no.

Frequently, though, no has an important role to play.  I love pretty clothing and shiny trinkets, but I can usually reject their lure thanks to my well-rooted yes to saving the planet as best I can.  My no to stuff is sometimes challenging, but it ultimately makes me happy for at least three reasons:

  1. Our brains are not happy when we act in discord with our values and morals. Doing what my own brain believes is the right thing increases my happiness.
  2. The happiness hit from buying stuff is short lived.  There are always prettier clothes and shinier trinkets.
  3. Limiting my spending also means liberating some of my time.  Since I am not working simply to pay a department store credit card, I am freer to choose a career based on passion, not paycheck.

Sometimes the yes precedes an inevitable no.  When my daughter was nearing the end of her pregnancy, I absolutely said yes to driving from Vermont to Alabama to be there for her in the weeks before and after she gave birth. This meant saying no to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience, an enterprise I had started less than six months earlier.  I shut it down for two months, just when I should have been building the new business.  Instead, I built a closer relationship with my daughter and a deep, deep bond with my grandchild.  It was a good happiness choice for us all.

Back to the systems level, I think the power of a positive no may be even more helpful as we move toward a gross national happiness paradigm.   To embrace policies and political and economic philosophies based on a holistic “yes!” to the maximum well being for all people and the planet will require some really tough “no’s” to the dominance of a consumerism-obsessed, money focused, growth economy-insistent, gross national product way of thinking.  To state the obvious, it will not be easy.

Big jobs are easier broken into bite size pieces.  The Bhutanese, who have a gross national happiness system in place, have done that for us, dividing the big picture into nine “domains” — areas where government policy can best support well being.  The nine are: psychological well-being, physical health, time balance, community vitality, education, culture, environment, good government, and standard of living.

 

Not that any of these is really bite sized.  Still, this division makes it a bit easier to envision what to say no to, and what the yes might be.  Take trust in government for example.  I suspect there is a broad consensus for saying no! to the corrupting influence of money in politics, in order to say yes to healthier democracy.  However, since, campaigns will still need to be financed, the no is insufficient without an alternative vision — like public financing of congressional campaigns.

This example, like so many others, provides no panacea. Money will find a way to seep back in.  John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once quipped that those who reform systems and those who scheme to undermine those reforms should make an appointment to meet up several years after the reforms are passed — because, by then, it will time for new reforms.

Obviously, gross national happiness advocates are not trying to create a utopia. Rather, while we say no to a framework that no longer supports well being for either people or the planet, we say yes to new definitions of success that are more complete, more sustainable, and much happier for many more people.

It’s going to be a heckuva journey getting there, but journeys start today with one small step.  You can make that small but significant step today: say yes to happiness by signing the Charter for Happiness.  There will be plenty of time to say no all along the way.  Right now, all you need to do is say yes.  Yes, yes, yes!

The Happiness Journey: Meaning and Joy in Florida!

My new walking shoes!

My new walking shoes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!

 

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.

 

 

 

Simply Happy

I am a big fan of Annie Leonard and her colleagues at Free Range Studios.  Their 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff,” dramatically shifted my attitude away from consumerism and a growth economy.  Thanks to this zippy, powerful 20 minute video, I create most of my art now with recycled materials; I find replacement wine glasses from used stuff stores (since my household seems to be in contention for the wine-glass-breaking record); and even most of what I buy for the precious grand baby comes from consignment stores.  Watching “The Story of Stuff” was transformational.

That video is also one of the reasons I am on the happiness path, which offers an appealing alternative to the hedonic treadmill and the environmental and cultural devastation wrought by our stuff addiction.  Research shows that happier people buy less stuff — which makes sense, because happy people are busy experiencing life, being kind, exercising, meditating, taking care of others, etc.

Leonard’s 2007 video helped convince me of the urgency for massive cultural change away from the Gross National Product (GNP) paradigm and toward a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — a shift that needs to happen at every level, within us as individuals on up through international systems.   Now she and her crew have a new video that is almost as powerful: “The Story of Solutions,” which describes both the current paradigm and the much needed paradigm shift in far more understandable language.  “More” drives our lives as cogs in a growth economy.  “Better” is the goal for sustainable solutions and happier humans.  So simple, so elegant, so spot on.  Though the phrase “Gross National Happiness” resonates with me, it has not been universally embraced.  In contrast, who can argue with the clean, clear, bottom line: “better”?

My work is mostly focused on helping individuals make a happiness paradigm shift at a personal level, beginning with myself, of course.  I often ponder the choices my husband and I make in the context of climate change and happiness writ large and small.  This helps me understand ways I need to grow toward sustainable happiness, and ways to share these options with others.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Last night was no exception.  I was thinking of “The Story of Solutions” because we had a “better” not “more” kind of evening.  My husband and I were enjoying the pea soup he had cooked while I was in town co-leading a “How of Happiness” study group.  Is there a food more humble than pea soup?  We also had locally-baked bread to dip in garlic oil (the garlic came from our backyard) and a salad.  It’s gotten cold here, so the wood stove in the kitchen was blazing.  For many, many years we’ve eaten dinner by candlelight — always sharing a toast with a glass of wine (white for him, red for me).  That’s what we did last night, too, but there was nothing fancy about the entire scenario — just a humble meal for a long-time married couple.

I was, simply, happy.

Who needs more?

I happen to love pea soup, but the point is, choosing better over more is not  a sacrifice.  It is a happy way forward, for ourselves and our planet.  It’s a solution we can live with.

Is Shopping Bad?

Having just opened a store, albeit a highly unconventional one, I think you can safely assume that I do not believe shopping is bad — not entirely, at any rate.

Shopping has been getting a lot of negative attention lately.    This year’s Black Friday videos were disgusting and distressing —  particularly the one of the woman who couldn’t stop to pull up her pants lest she lose out on a $2.00 waffle iron.   Our cultural obsession with accumulating more stuff is not making us happier individually or collectively.  It also wreaking havoc on the environment.   If you haven’t yet watched “The Story of Stuffhttp://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/, I highly recommend you do so.  It will be 20 minutes well spent.

And it alternately makes me sad or pissed off to hear even National Public Radio extolling the glories of higher holiday shopping totals.  Yo, NPR, wake up: more Walmart sales are a nightmare.

Yet …  I think the shopping story is more complicated than that.  Many people — me included — find shopping to be a fun activity.  Farmer’s markets are highly social, and, I think beneficial to community well being.    Speaking of community building, this summer I participated in a community-wide yard sale, which was great fun.  Shoppers and sellers alike were all smiles.

Further, not all shopping afficionados can be easily pigeonholed.  For example,  a six year-old boy who I’ll call Max lives across the street.   His family is loving and attentive.  They are hard-working Vermonters who grow their own veggies, raise chickens and heat with firewood they cut and stack themselves.  And … Max loves to shop! When he came in my store, he excitedly told me that his town now has two stores!  (Our town is very small.)

I offered to teach Max how to make paper, but he was much more interested in shopping.  His mom finally went home, while Max continued to carefully consider every item in the store.  Eventually, he chose two flowers made from old produce wrappings.  Then he happily went home.

Sometimes I think people turn to shopping to fill a spiritual emptiness.  Or, to get another fix of the temporary high of a new purchase.

But maybe we’re hard wired to shop.  What if it’s part of our hunter-gatherer instincts, a basic survival skill?

In any case, I suspect we can more easily move toward a happier, more environmentally sustainable world if we create new — or recreate old — ways of shopping that honor the work of tradesman, artists, farmers, etc. while not adding to landfills and pollution.  When I look at the gnome caves (pictured above) that were crafted by Rob Smart, Maria Smart, and Hannah Smart from leftover materials, I am hard-pressed to see anything “bad” about selling them.

Perhaps, as with so many areas of our lives, the key to “good” shopping is mindfulness.   We need to be aware of our shopping choices, because the impact of poor shopping decisions can be extraordinarily negative — not only on our own unhappy psyches but on others we’ll never see or know.

In The Right Attitude to Rain, one of Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie books, Dalhousie’s ponderings remind me of the moral necessity for shopping mindfulness.   Dalhousie, a fictitious philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, had published a discussion of “the lifeboat question.”  That is, if a ship is sinking and there are not enough lifeboats to go around, how do you decide who to save?

Then, Smith writes:

“…the focus moved on from real lifeboats, which were, fortunately, manned by sailors rather than philosophers, to the earth as lifeboat, which it was, in a way.  And here the issues became very much ones of the real world, Isabel thought, because real people did die every day, in very large numbers, because the resources of the lifeboat were not fairly distributed.  And if we might feel squeamish about throwing a real and immediate person out of a real lifeboat, then we had fewer compunctions about doing those things which had exactly that effect, somewhere far off, on people whom we did not know and could not name.  It was relentless and harrowing — if one ever came round to thinking about it — but most of our luxuries were purchased at the expense of somebody’s suffering and deprivation elsewhere.”  (p.221,The Right Attitude To Rain.)

I’d say it’s definitely time “to think about it.”  As my daughter might say, “For realz.”