Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘The Happiness Movement’ Category

Still a Happy Flyer (With a BIG Caveat)

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

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

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

Good question, George.  Here are my answers:

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

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

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

 

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

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

Counting The Flying Positives, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaaahhh … there’s no place like home!

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

More on the Climate March later!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Gross National Happiness:Now It’s Getting Personal

Breastfeeding-004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting the sun dry our clothes

Letting the sun dry our clothes

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

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

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

My morning view

My morning view 

And this:

Another view on my walk

Another view on my walk

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

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

Lush ferns ...

Lush ferns …

Wild roses, which also smell divine ...

Wild roses, which also smell divine …

Also in pink and white ...

Also in pink and white …

 Ever-cheerful daisies ...

Ever-cheerful daisies …

... and elegant wild irises.

… and elegant wild irises.

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

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

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

My pansies, with a pinwheel.

My pansies, with a pinwheel.

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

Bev's poppies.

Bev’s poppies.

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

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

The public swim area at our local lake.

The public swim area at our local lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Men in the Room Were Happy

My nerdy husband, happily vamping it up a few decades ago

My nerdy husband, happily vamping it up a few decades ago

Though it was a discouragingly cold early April night in Vermont, the six of us in my kitchen were warm inside and out, thanks to the wood stove, camaraderie, homemade pizza, craft beers, a scrumptious salad, and Victoria’s apple crisp.  We were full and comfortable.  Then, the three men got really happy.

Their joy began with a conversation about local contractors and home renovation projects.  Bob remembered a time he had proudly identified himself as a “trigonometrist” on a job site and proceeded to tell some fellow workers how to draw an ellipse.  “They said they were going to do it their way,” he recounted, “with wire instead of string!”

The other two men at our kitchen table laughed in great understanding.  Out came a napkin and pen, and a lively discussion about the proper way to draw an ellipse.  I thought, “A trigonometrist? Really?”  Plus, I was completely baffled about why anybody would care about using wire instead of string to draw an ellipse.   But I was loving their happiness.  All three men’s faces were totally lit up with enjoyment and engagement. They looked like little boys again.

Then I gazed at the other two women, who were both seemingly quite bored.  Since we were sitting in an alternate male-female pattern — two overlapping triangles — we were a perfectly balanced illustration of the fact that we all have different happiness boosters.  That night, the disparity fell along gender lines, but it could easily have been otherwise.  If the conversation had been birding or dogs, both of the women would have been animated while my husband and I sat silent.  Though, somehow falling along gender lines made it funnier to me.

The evening was also a fabulous illustration of what really keeps us warm during Vermont winters: community, and the criss-crossing relationships that are the foundation of a strong community.  The bonds of relationships were woven all through those two triangles.  From my point of view alone, I enjoy separate relationships with each person present that night: David and I team up on various social justice actions; Eric and I are in choir together; Victoria and I are part of the dedicated bone builders group; Judy and I share a passion for our local yoga class and meditation group.

Perhaps because Vermonters believe so strongly in community as a day-to-day guiding value, this state is one of a few “hot spots” of Gross National Happiness (GNH) activity in the country.  Burlington, Vermont was the site of the first ever GNH conference in the United States in 2010.  Now Burlington will host another conference, “Happiness and Wellbeing:  Building a National Movement,” on May 29th and 30th.  I’m pleased to say I’m part of the hard-working national core committee planning this conference.  I’m also pleased to let you know that there will be two days of trainings following the conference, including two full days of happiness skills training led by me and Barb Ryan, of “Spiraling Toward Joy” in Portland, Oregon.

In some ways, the planning committee and the conference itself remind me of the merry group having pizza and beer at my dinner table last month.  That is, what makes each of us uniquely happy is evident in the process.  I care deeply about systemic change, yes, but what really lights up my face is the opportunity to preach and teach the gospel of cultivating personal happiness skills.  So I get to focus my planning efforts on the first section of the conference, “Happiness Wellbeing: Skills and Practice.”  My colleague Tom, on the other hand, is passionate about data.  Thus, his focus has been on “Measuring Happiness and the Power of Data.”

I hasten to assure you, the planning team has not organized along gender lines!  Laura is a data maven right along with Tom, while Ken has been a key partner in planning the happiness skills segment.  Etc.  BTW, the other two segments are “Application: Policy and Community Development” and “Building the National Happiness Movement.”

So now the question is, what excites your passion?  Maybe you want to learn more about this amazing new movement.  Maybe you already have a lot of knowledge about why GNH measures matter so much to all of us, and are ready to get on the building a movement bandwagon.  Maybe you’re a data-head, maybe you’ve already applied a GNH-type paradigm to your community organization. Maybe you even know why you shouldn’t draw an ellipse with wire!

Whoever you are, if you’re still reading this blog, you are exactly the individual I am speaking to when I say, “I hope you’ll join us at the conference!”

One final enticement.  Even more than drawing ellipses and build-your-own-volcano kits, playing the ukulele makes my husband Bob very happy.  He rehearses weekly with the Montpelier Ukulele Players — a group that has a whole repertoire of happiness songs which they will be performing as part of the Thursday night reception at the conference.  Sing along with them at one end of the reception hall — or dive deep into happiness policy discussion at the other end.  We’re all different, we’re all in this together, and we all want to be happy.

 

 

 

Personal Happiness and Broken Systems

Periodically, I feel compelled to stress that my passion for spreading the happiness gospel is based on a fervent desire for a radically different political and economic paradigm — one that is focused on the genuine well-being of people and the planet, as opposed to a world which “has become an idolator of this god called money,” according to Pope Francis.  Like the Pope (I never thought I’d say that!), I “want a just system that helps everyone.”

The events last night that led to my granddaughter Madeleine taking care of her first ever baby doll have once again inspired me to write about the connection between personal happiness and broken systems.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My path is, of course, different from the Pope’s.  I believe that cultivating personal happiness is a key element (not the only element)  in working toward this shift.  Here are a few reasons why.  With greater understanding of personal happiness, comes a deeper appreciation of the sadness, emptiness, and destruction inherent in relying solely on Gross National Product  measurements of success.  When we internalize the knowledge that money and material goods are important but only a piece of our personal happiness, and also understand that chasing the almighty dollar can seriously undermine our enjoyment of life, we can so much more easily grasp the practical and visionary potential of a Gross National Happiness paradigm.

Further, cultivating personal happiness will strengthen the traits we need for the indescribably huge challenges of ameliorating climate change and ending the grown economy.  As we become happier individuals, we are, for starters:

  • less attached to things;
  • more optimistic;
  • more resilient;
  • more aware of what is truly going on around us;
  • more creative;
  • more compassionate: and
  • more grateful.

Oh, yes, and we are also more fun to be around — which no doubt makes us better messengers.

Okay, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and share what made me want to climb up there in the first place.  About a week ago, my daughter Jennifer’s old clunker car finally died.   She and my 20-month-old granddaughter will soon be joining us for a long Christmas break, but for a week and a half, she has had to cobble together a new transportation “system”: getting rides from friends, walking, and taking the bus.  She is fortunate to live in a city with decent public transit, but even so, last night my daughter and granddaughter spent 45 minutes on a cold, dark, and snowy Wisconsin night waiting for the bus to take them home.  It was pretty hard for Jennifer to be happy when her baby was crying from the cold.  My daughter sang to the baby to keep her calm until Jennifer’s cheeks were just too cold to keep singing.

Of course, the bus arrived eventually.  At home,  Jennifer decided it was a good time to open a Christmas present from Madeleine’s other grandmother.  That present is Madeleine’s first baby doll.   Watching her toddler practice taking care of this immediately beloved toy gave  my daughter a lot of reasons to feel much happier — gratitude, love, savoring the moment, etc.  So the story has a happy ending.

To me, this little vignette illustrates both the limits of, and the value of, personal happiness within broken systems.  For starters, cultivating our internal happiness is especially  important in the context of broken systems because, hey, this is the only life we get!  We should make the most of it, no matter the systems we live within.  I am so glad Jennifer and Madeleine got to end their evening on such a positive note.

To be clear, my daughter’s situation isn’t that bad.   She has a great job, a wonderful apartment, and a cousin who is helping her get a new car over Christmas break.  She’s only lived in Wisconsin a short time, yet she already has a group of friends who have been amazingly generous in providing rides.  Jennifer’s monetary resources may be limited, but she has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of friends and family who love her and can help when help is needed.  Which brings me to another reason for cultivating personal happiness, a la nurturing relationships: it provides us the tools to build alternatives to systems that break.

But personal happiness has its limits.  My daughter’s transportation struggles inspired me to write about Gross National Happiness because of the millions of young parents — or old grandparents, for that matter — who struggle with transportation to school, work, and child care day in and day out, in broiling heat as well as frigid cold.  Their own fatigue and discomfort, intensified by their children’s suffering, may well make “happiness” seem like a ridiculous goal.  Not everyone has presents waiting for them at home, and there is no reliable car in the immediate future for untold numbers of America’s working families.  We do not have “a just system that helps everyone.”

And then there’s the obvious: we should all be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  A political and economic system focused on the well being of people and the planet would surely be moving rapidly toward excellent systems of mass transit.

Another obvious point: transportation is just one of our many broken systems.  That is why, this Christmas season, I will be spending lots and lots of time with my family and friends — giving and receiving, singing, playing in the snow, laughing, meditating, and doing my best to live a happy life.  At the same time, I’ll be working with my friends at Gross National Happiness USA and The Happiness Initiative to move towards a world of greater peace and justice, a world that does more than pay lip service to well being for all.

As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”  Everyone.

And now I have to go bake cookies.

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 Happiness Escapist?

Is happiness escapist?

This question, which came up at a happiness workshop on a lovely Sunday afternoon in Vermont a little over 24 hours before Super Storm Sandy hit the U.S.,  carried extra weight in the following days as we witnessed the storm’s massive destruction and personal tragedies.  Most painful was the news about a Staten Island woman whose two young sons were swept from her arms by powerful waves as she tried to carry them to safety.  Both little boys drowned.  I cried at her despair.

Even worse, though, is the foreboding I feel.  I know I am not alone in believing Sandy is the new “normal.”  I suspect there will be many more neighborhoods aflame, beautiful beaches and treasured covered bridges washed away, and toddlers dying.

And, we all have our normal garden variety of suffering to deal with: aging, failing bodies; money worries; heartbreak from our own and others’ failings; and, ultimately, death.  For all of us.

In fact, I’m feeling a little sad while I write this blog.  Yet, on both a micro and macro level, my answer to the title question is a resounding no.   Quite the opposite, really.  For me, cultivating happiness, positivity, and well being is a moral imperative on both the big systemic and deeply personal levels.

Some of the water jugs we had filled in case Sandy knocked out our power for an extended time.

Why?  Most urgently, because, on both a personal and societal level we are chasing the wrong goals: money and material success.  I know that is not all that many of us seek.  We are also spiritual beings, who treasure and nourish relationships and the opportunity to do good and to create.  And we are physical creatures, who dance and have sex and go to yoga class. Nonetheless, because our economy is fixated on growth, the pressure on us to buy and spend is enormous.  The resulting consumerism is trashing the environment.

To begin to ameliorate the insidious, unpredictable effects of climate change, we must reject the sacred cow of a growth economy.  Equally, we must understand that a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not a valid  indicator of a flourishing society.  This is not a new idea; Bobby Kennedy eloquently articulated the flaws of GDP way back in 1968.  I’ve watched a video of his GDP speech many, many times and it still moves me to tears.  Today, viewing it again, I want to add “the ravages of a hurricane” to RFK’s list of what contributes to a “healthy” GDP.

One other quick primer on how destructive consumerism is:  “The Story of Stuff.”  If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend investing the 20+ minutes this smart, sassy video lasts.  And, BTW, happier people shop less.

But what will take the place of a growth economy, consumerism, and GDP? Something needs to fill the vacuum.  That something should be a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — or, in more politically palatable terms, the genuine well being of people and the planet.  Systemically, embracing happiness is embracing a sustainable future.

On the personal level, first of all, I have to question what good it does anybody for me, or you, to be unhappy?  How is that going to help fix anything?

But it’s not just me.  Sages from across the millenia — the Dalai Lama and Aristotle, for example — say that happiness is what all humans desire.  The Dalai Lama has also written that whenever we interact with another person, we can add either to that individual’s happiness or to their unhappiness.  Thanks to mirror neurons, we are much more likely to boost another’s spirits if we ourselves are in a happier place.

When I was at the national happiness conference in Seattle in August, I learned a simple but profound exercise from Scott Crabtree, proprietor of “Happy Brain Science.”  Scott divided the group into paired-up “A’s” and “B’s” and then instructed the “A’s” to maintain sober facial expressions while looking at the “B’s” who were instructed to smile, smile, smile at their partners.  You can guess, it is just impossible to not smile back!

Of course, I am not recommending fake cheeriness or inauthentic saccharine behavior.  What I am suggesting is, as Christine Carter puts it in Raising Happiness, that we need to “put on our own oxygen masks first” when it comes to helping others be happier.

Thanks to positive psychology research and multiple other studies on human behavior, we now know that nurturing happiness builds our own ability to respond to crises and to serving others in their moments of need.  Positivity breeds greater resilience, and the ability to see and appreciate silver linings.  Happier people are kinder — and kinder people are happier.  Happiness is also good for our health, and, damn, sometimes we need to be strong and healthy to fight the good fight!

Another powerful argument for strengthening our happiness muscles is the value of mindfulness.  Taking time to meditate and build personal awareness is one of the most important happiness strategies any of us can adopt.  With mindfulness comes greater compassion (for ourselves and others), more inner peace, less stress — and, the ability to make better decisions.  “To lead a happy life, we need to make good choices,” write father and son happiness mavens Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, “and this involves the recognition that problems arise, even in good circumstances”  (Understanding True Wealth, p. 18).

The circumstances in North Central Vermont were very good indeed — a sunny, warm, late autumn day — as Sandy was headed our way.  Even way up here, we were warned of very high winds and the likelihood of losing power.  It was time for mindfulness and good decisions: after watching Tropical Storm Irene devastate much of Vermont last year, we knew that if the power went out, it could stay out for a long, long time.  Our wood stove and gas range meant we could stay warm and cook hot meals.  But our well needs electricity to work, so we stockpiled pitchers, jars, trash cans, and bottles of water to drink, clean, take care of the baby, and flush the toilets.

The storm wobbled a bit to the west and we never needed all that extra water.  But the threat was — and is — quite real.  My sister Peggy in New Jersey is now in Day 8 of no power, no heat, no water.  It is, she says, “the pits.” I can’t regret for a moment my choices to stockpile water; I am grateful for mindfulness and the awareness to “be prepared.”  (After all, I was once a Girl Scout!)

Diener and Biswas-Diener also observe, “challenges look easier when you are happy.”   I’ll tell you something else that makes my challenges look easier: coffee!   I don’t drink a lot, but, oh, that first cup in the morning is a savoring experience every single day.  During our preparations for Sandy, I became very mindful that I had wholly inadequate coffee preparations.  Next time, I will make even better choices, stocking up on coffee (ground!) as well as water.

That’s not a moral imperative, of course — but, it will help me keep smiling!