Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘The Happiness Movement’ Category

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!

What Are You Grateful For?

Gratitude.  Aaaahhhhh.  I just love moments of gratitude.  How fortuitous, then, that practicing gratitude is a scientifically proven method of deepening one’s own well of happiness.

Many years ago, long before I’d even heard of positive psychology, I had a gratitude practice: noting in a daily journal what I was thankful for.  But I confess, I only journalled for a few days, which couldn’t possibly have done me much good.  In The How of  Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirksy stresses the importance of choosing happiness activities that will keep you engaged for a significant period of time in order to actually make a difference.  Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author,explains the brain science involved in an article called “How To Trick Your Brain For Happiness.”  Here’s an excerpt from that article, recently shared through The Daily Good web feed:

“Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.”

Happily, while listening to Lyubomirsky’s book during my long drive from Vermont to Alabama last spring, I had an “aha moment” — rather than write about happiness, I would pull out my watercolors and create a weekly gratitude painting.  Perfect!

Okay, so the weekly painting turned into a monthly painting and I skipped April altogether (hmmm, could that have something to do with helping my daughter care for a newborn???) — but I stuck to it.  It’s working.  I have weeks to contemplate the subject of my next painting; thus, gratitude is frequently on my mind.

My first gratitude painting. I am often surprised by the subject matter that comes to the top of the list when I sit down to paint.

So my mental pump was primed when I stumbled on Ken Wert’s “Meant To Be Happy”  blog list of 48 unconventional things for which he is grateful.   His list  ranges from toilet paper (this makes me smile) to gears (yeah, okay, I can see that) to color (yes, yes, my heart is singing!) to hugs and voice (deep sighs of appreciation).  It’s a pretty darned good list.

Wert’s list, and the many expressions of gratitude I heard at the Happiness Conference in Seattle, made me wonder: what are other people grateful for?

To find out, I put out a few group emails, and changed the question on the blackboard in front of The Happiness Paradigm to, “What Are You Grateful For?”   Naturally, the blackboard collected shorter answers: “Obama,”  “Fall in Vermont,” and “blankets.” The written answers, on the other hand, are wonderfully thoughtful — perhaps precisely because writing takes more thought, and perhaps because almost everyone who responded is involved in some way with the happiness movement.

Their responses are below.  Before you read them, though, I’d like to ask, what are YOU — the person reading this, right now — grateful for?  This collection is neither scientific nor comprehensive, but the more answers the better, because this is good food for thought for all of us.  So please feel free to post a comment or send an email with your own answer to this question.

Now, in no particular order, here are some gratitude answers thus far:

  • Grateful for the fact that I’m alive and well each day. And grateful for the opportunity to work on this (happiness) movement 🙂
  • I am grateful for my Mom who taught me I can do anything!
  • Immense gratitude to all who call forth the most thriving possibilities for humanity and the fullness of life. The call to happiness and compassion has deep roots even beyond the measurable and our time together was soul food.
  • Grateful for all the help from near and far in taking care of a new baby — babysitting, onesies, toys, students taking care of the baby, support from family, etc.  Can barely name it all!
  • I am thankful for old clothes that seem to melt into my body this cold September morning, one that marks the beginning of Fall, a season I love best in New Mexico. And I am grateful for the happiness class I began teaching last week on the anniversary of September 11th. I am grateful that in spite of such darkness in the world we can gather in places like Albuquerque, Seattle, and Maple Corner,Vermont to promote happiness.
  • I am grateful for: 1)  My spiritual teacher Sant Kirpal Singh, and my meditation practice.  2)  Fran Joseph’s uplifting Laughter Yoga Certified Leader training last weekend–and Laughter Yoga itself.  3)  My kindred-spirit office mates.
  • Sleep — it’s like a miracle every night.
  • Shooting stars, and being able to see the Milky Way.
  • I am grateful to have such a good friend in YOU!
  • I am grateful that the conditions of my life allow me to participate in the arena of enhancing happiness, compassion, community, and  creativity; I am grateful that I am surrounded my many whose lives are about lifting the spirit of those that they touch; I am grateful that I live in a place where I have access to nature, culture, and really good food; I am grateful that there are so many people in my life that I love and appreciate; and I am grateful for the authors and film makers that create or capture stories that are captivating and meaningful.

    My gratitude painting for May — grateful for yoga!

  • While eating corn on the cob last night I realized how grateful I am for my teeth…many of which are implants.
  • I’m grateful to be reminded how happiness and gratitude go hand in hand ….  And that you keep me on your email & Facebook lists. I’m really appreciative of the work I have, even when it keeps me fairly close to home.
  • Ginny, I’m grateful for your regular messages on happiness and your ongoing curiosity about what creates it; I am so grateful to be here in Vermont where people still work at “creating a more perfect union,” as Bill Clinton reminded us yesterday was a goal of our nation’s founders. I am also very grateful for an amazing partner with a heart bigger than problems we’ve faced together. Together! I’m grateful for that word.
  • Silence, even though I love music.
  • Antibiotics that kill Lyme disease.
  • Right now I am feeling grateful for the people that have a passion and act — you in your store and how you reach out with your great loving positive energy, Linda and Paula and their big walk and listening hearts, and just a ton of people I read about and listen to that open their eyes to understand, then open their hearts for generous selfless action.
  • I always come back to gratitude for the most basic things.  I am again and again overwhelmed with gratitude for my senses – –  For being able to see (beauty of all kinds) and smell (roses, lavender, verbena, pine, chocolate) and hear (music, rain) and feel and taste.   I am also frequently grateful for having a soft clean bed to sleep in, a roof over my head and a safe, warm and dry place to call my own, and a fridge full of wholesome food whenever I open the door.  So many others are not this lucky.

    In June, gratitude for the trees my neighbor planted.

  • To all this wonderful gratitude others have expressed, I will add something to just reflect that gratitude can be for big deep things, but it can also be for little things:  today I’m grateful for pure maple syrup!
  • Today I’m grateful for this space in time:  a few hours to listen to my inner messages, to detach from the pull of outer events, & to process emotions.  So, really, I’m grateful to my Self for choosing to give me this gift in spite of all the pressing “shoulds.”
  • Our own little savings and loan down the street that only makes local loans.
  • Skype.
  • I am truly grateful to be able to be doing this work. Part of it is because of the wonderful people. Part because of the learning experiences. But mostly, because we are so very lucky to have the opportunity to do this work. It’s a grace not many people on this planet get.
  • I just got back from a short meditation retreat in Canada.  While there I got the news that two different old friends had died in last few days, greatly heightening my appreciation and grateful was for my Buddhist practice.  The outlook is so precious in preparing for decline and death, which we all must do; to have a path of joy in such reality is a great gif
  • I’m grateful that my husband thought to take my RAV4 to our neighbor when I drove it ’til there were no more brake pads, and he was able to earn some extra cash, and I was able to avert driving into a ditch.  I’m grateful that we have a generator as we just lost all power with this rain storm.  I’m grateful that I’ve been sober 11+ years, and I’m able to be of service to women who struggle with alchoholism.  I’m grateful to have a Mother-In-Law who is full of joy and laughter.
  •  I am grateful for so much, including my life and that of all beings (may all be at peace).   I am grateful for  connection, blessings, challenges and the opportunity to grow and share.

And me?  So many many things, from that first cup of coffee each morning to the glory of puffy white clouds in azure autumn skies and opportunities to be of service to others.  But, right now, having a six month old granddaughter (who lives with us!) trumps all else.  I am in love, I am happy, and I am grateful for this precious new life.

There’s Room For Everyone In The*Happiness*Movement

Imagine my surprise, while attending a national Happiness Conference in Seattle, to find the soundtrack in my head was from “Pete’s Dragon,” a 1977 Walt Disney movie.  The particular song looping repeatedly through my brain was “There’s Room For Everyone,” which asserts:

“There’s room for everyone in this world
Back up and make some room
Let’s all move over and share this world
Everyone make some room

Just think how far out the ocean goes, the whirling wind blows
Shore to shore, door to door.
Think of the valleys, the mountaintops, the Earth never stops.
So deep so high, with miles of sky, we all have part of the pie.”

Flowers with a friend at Pike Place market in Seattle.

In the film, the pie was about sharing small town life with — you guessed it — a loveable but lonely dragon.  In Seattle, at the conference sponsored by the Happiness Initiative last weekend, the “pie” was a great deal bigger: the happiness movement itself.  Indeed, “big” scarcely scratches the surface of describing our efforts to shift the dominant cultural paradigm away from the environment-destroying GDP definition of success and toward a life-enhancing Gross National Happiness metric instead.  There’s definitely room for everyone in this movement!

And just what will everyone do?  Heeding the wisdom of Martin Seligman, I suggest we each tap into our personal strengths and do whatever it is we each do best.  The diversity of speakers at the conference’s plenary session — from renowned ecological economist Robert Costanza to representatives from the Compassionate Action Network and the hardworking staff of the Happiness Initiative — collectively demonstrated that there are probably an infinite number of doorways into this work.  Why not pick the path that plays to our strengths?

Of course, the speakers and presenters were only a fraction of the amazing people and energy gathered together at Seattle University.  Here are a few others I met:

  • Pete, a very smiley Bangkok student now planning to lead a Happiness Initiative at the University of Michigan;
  • Mike, a media expert on hand to discuss socially responsible ways to market the happiness movement;
  • Maureen from Missouri, a new grandmother and determined activist for the “Take Back Your Time” cause;
  • Barb, a colorful individual who leads “Spirals of Joy” workshops in Eugene, Oregon; and
  • Justin, a young Japanese-American musician specializing in Brazilian music in New York City. Justin is new to the movement, and looking for his particular doorway to participation.

So which doorway should Justin, or any of the rest of us, take?  Though it isn’t necessarily easy to know what we’re best at and where we fit in,  I think it’s worth the soul searching it may take to find the answer(s).  Those of us in the happiness movement should walk the talk as best we can.  In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky stresses the need to find the best individual fit for happiness increasing activities.  Similarly, we should find the best fit for our individual roles within the happiness movement.

The next question is, how?  Once again, happiness research offers the answer: mindfulness.  “To lead a happy life, we need to make good decisions,” write father and son happiness researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  “Making good choices in life depends on recognizing not just rewards but the likely problems in choices as well.”  Mindfulness helps us cultivate the wisdom and awareness to make appropriate choices.

The Dieners remind us that happiness is a process, not a destination.  Certainly, it has been a process to find my own niche within the happiness movement.  I was fortunate to be in the right place and time to serve as one of the founders and co-coordinators of GNHUSA, yet eventually felt the tug to step away from that group to follow my own creative passions.  My process ultimately led to birthing the Happiness Paradigm, which continues to evolve through choices that feel are in closer alignment with my talents and passions.

Now, with greater mindfulness, I’ve returned to work with GNHUSA again on various projects — including, in October, joining  fellow co-founders Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis for a few days on their “Pursuit of Happiness Walk”from Stowe, Vermont to Washington, D.C.   Sometimes the journey is both literal and metaphorical!

The benefit of finding and sharing our strengths was very clear on day two of the Seattle conference, when Scott Crabtree, Steve Poland, and I had the honor of co-presenting a workshop on personal happiness.  Scott — a young, polished, and engaging businessman — went first, with a high energy, professional presentation.  Next up was Steve, a deeply thoughtful psychologist and academic who brought a teacher’s care and concern to the group.  Finally, I shared my artistic (perhaps quirky?) individualized approach to spreading personal happiness.  This combination seemed to be well received by the 30 or so people in attendance.

Throughout the conference, there were many references to, and practices of, gratitude.  Indeed, those of us who are already activists in the movement are very blessed to cultivate a deep internal happiness while giving our best in service of greater well being worldwide.   We have much to be grateful for. Those of you not yet actively on board, please know that you — the real you, the authentic you — are welcome to join us in this work.  We’ll be grateful to receive your gifts.

Attacked for Happiness? Seriously?

Every other Sunday, services at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier include an opportunity for individuals to come forward and light candles of joy and/or concern.  I am usually shy about speaking in front of the congregation, but on the first Sunday of 2012, I was moved to  light a candle of concern for what I suspected would be a tumultuous year ahead.  I spoke of a desire to face such turmoil with a loving heart.

Spreading the happiness message at the 2010 Jon Stewart rally in D.C.

Be careful what you ask for!  I have in fact been given the opportunity to face turmoil with love: last week, much to my great surprise, my Happiness Paradigm was included as an object of derision  in an online tirade against “the happiness crusade.”

The article — “Happiness is a Global Tax” — is on the Accuracy in Media website.  When I first read it, I felt a cold sense of dread reading my own words (taken from the Online Store page of this blog) being somehow used as a weapon against me and my colleagues coast-to-coast working to advance the gross national happiness concept.

A few days later, I could laugh at the author’s connection between my happiness artwork and discussions held at the United Nations summit on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” in early April.  Though I unfortunately had nothing to do with the U.N. meeting (I’m still on grandmother leave!), the Accuracy in Media author wrote: “And so, from tiny recycled gratitude journals do mighty international tax plans grow. …”

Seriously? Seriously!  Now that is funny.

But back to that love thing … When I had more time to reflect on the article, I knew I wanted to react with love and compassion.  I know nothing about the author, but it isn’t hard to feel compassion for her.  After all, what are the wounds and struggles that would cause someone to approach happiness with such fear?  I’ll likely never know, and even asking the question seems a tad presumptuous — but it does allow me to think of her with love, and that makes me happier than hanging on to anger, hate, or fear.

For some reason, this incident made me recall my lack of compassion during another era when I acted against a dominant paradigm.  I was in the ninth grade, a normal 14 year-old girl (read, “boy crazy”), except for my home life.   My family were liberal Democrats, and fairly open-minded on issues like race.  So when I got a romantic phone call from a black football player, I was simply thrilled (A boy!!  Calling me!!).  Race didn’t matter at all.

Little did I know that our relationship would lead to public anger and approbation in my very conservative, overwhelmingly white school because the reigning paradigm did not condone inter-racial dating.  The worst disapproval came from two of my closest friends, Debbie and Cindy, each of whom told me that her parents forbid her to have anything more to do with me.

And for that, Debbie and Cindy suffered.  We were in the same section together — that is, we shared all our classes.  For a variety of reasons, the section coalesced around me.  Debbie and Cindy became the outcasts.  I don’t remember wanting to hurt either of them, but I did want and need the support of the rest of my classmates and friends.  I’m sure I gave little thought to their pain.

Today, I think of the 14 year-old Debbie and Cindy with compassion.  And I hope to hold my more mature self to a much higher standard of love and compassion than my adolescent self was capable of.

The Accuracy in Media article also brought to mind a video I watch frequently after meditating: a beautiful and moving rendering of the St Francis of Assisi prayer by  Sarah MacLachlan.    In particular, the request in this song to “seek not so much to be understood as to understand” resonates today.

However, compassion and understanding for happiness naysayers does not mean less advocacy for the cause of shifting our individual and collective aspirations toward well being rather than materialism.  Indeed,  I was tickled when my husband emailed me this message,  “Congratulations!  You made it to stage two!”  Attached was the following quote:

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”Arthur Schopenhauer

Indeed, I hope the happiness paradigm will someday be accepted as self-evident.  Until then … well, here’s to understanding, love, and compassion!

Who’s the messenger? What’s the message?

Yesterday, listening to a discussion of the astonishing Russian protests against reportedly rigged elections, I couldn’t help but think of Mohammed Bouaziz.  He was the 26 year-old Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation nearly a year ago sparked the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring continues to inspire uprisings worldwide — Israel, Spain, Occupy Wall Street, and now Russia.  The on-the-scene reporter in Russia yesterday marveled at the protesters’ lack of fear when the police showed up.  In the past, she said, the appearance of police sent protesters scurrying for safety.  Not anymore.

Obviously, there is no way, no way that 26 year-old could possibly have imagined how his actions would resonate throughout the world.   He was an unknowing messenger of hope and courage.  I believe his actions said, “Enough is enough.  The time for change is now.  Be brave.  Be strong.  You are not alone.”

Sometimes I take comfort from the idea that we’re all just pawns in the giant chess game of history.  That relieves the burden of trying to carry the the whole world on my shoulders.  However, unlike pawns, we move ourselves.  We should choose those moves wisely, because we — like the Tunisian fruit seller — cannot know what lessons those around us will take from our actions.

Books, like Eric Weiner‘s Geography of Bliss, can contain powerful messages; Weiner’s book was the first place I read about Gross National Happiness.  His chapter on Bhutan changed my life.

Amy Noyes Demonstration

Often, though, the messenger is close to home.  For me, most recently, the messenger was Amy Noyes, a friend and former work colleague while I was at Home Share Now.  I knew she’d written a book on non-toxic house cleaning — I’d even seen a copy of the book’s Chinese printing.  Very impressive!

It wasn’t until Amy came to The Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience to do a demonstration that I finally understood: using items like vinegar and baking soda to clean can lead to greater health and happiness for me, and greater help and happiness for the planet (I know I’m behind the curve here, that many of you figured this out long ago).

Messages don’t land in vacuums.  Amy’s message finally resonated with me because I am using happiness as a frame for her book Nontoxic Housecleaning .

Also, thanks to the dramatic shift in U.S. zeitgeist brought on by Occupy Wall Street, I can now appreciate how changing my cleaning ways is a statement against corporate power and greed.  Really, who makes all those fancy-schmanzy cleaning products that are so colorfully displayed in the grocery store, and who makes all the ads trying to convince us to buy things we don’t need?  Lotions and potions that may well undermine our well being, and that of the planet?  Occupy the kitchen!

It may surprise Amy to know what her visit taught me.  Similarly, I suspect, all of us might be surprised to know where, when, and how our words and actions were especially meaningful to others.  If you chance to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this holiday season, remember — it’s not just George Bailey.  We’re all having wonderful lives.