Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘The Science of Happiness’ Category

Human Connections, Human Happiness

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s kinda sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

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

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

We still have the vests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Maria!

Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?

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

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

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

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

A couple of caveats and clarifications:

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

“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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

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

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

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

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

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

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

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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

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

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

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, a GNH paradigm.

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

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

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

We ARE the ones we’ve been waiting for!

 

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.

The Purpose of Happiness

Happy with a purpose: pushing the stroller!

Happy with a purpose: pushing the stroller!

I’ll admit to being just a wee bit clever with the headline.

That is, I’m mushing together two different happiness threads.  First, I want to share some current thoughts on why cultivating individual and systemic well-being is so vital.  Second, I’ve had some personal experiences and observations on Sonja Lyubomirsky‘s “Happiness Activity No. 10” — committing to your goals, or, having a purpose.

Why Happiness Matters      

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why happiness matters, including sounder health, greater creativity, increased compassion, more personal success,and better parenting.  Perhaps because I’ve had a grand baby living in my house, I often think of Christine Carter’s book Raising Happiness and her emphasis on parents “putting on your own (happiness) oxygen masks first” to raise compassionate, joyful children.  Obviously, I want to do my part to help my grand daughter become a compassionate and joyful person.

Then there’s Aristotle’s quote:  “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  That is, all our other purposes in life are really in the service of happiness for ourselves and others.  Happiness is purpose in capital letters.

But what really made me want to write on this topic were three lines from a book I bought at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last month.  The book is Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It contains a variety of mindfulness practices to “fully enjoy life’s gifts.”  In the intro, the Buddhist monk writes, “Every step and every breath can be an opportunity for joy and happiness.  Life is full of suffering.  If we don’t have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair.”

A few days later, the urgency of cultivating both personal happiness and a societal Gross National Happiness paradigm struck me as I listened to a National Public Radio story on how warmer temperatures that come with climate change could lead to spikes in violence and fighting.

We have to figure out a better way to cope, and soon.  Here’s a goal: for the impossibly big stuff (climate change) and the smaller griefs (like the one I share below), let’s substantially build our happiness reserves.

If history predicts the future, happiness may well be key to positively and collectively adapting to change.  According to evolutionary psychologist David Lykken — one of the early modern happiness researchers — happiness is an “adaptive difference”  that during early human history at least “increased the chances of survival … improved one’s chances of maintaining and profiting from group membership (and) gradually separated our ancestors from the also-ran. ”  (Happiness, p. 14)

Perhaps, happiness will once again be a key determinant of human survival.  

Purpose as a Happiness Strategy

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we can benefit from researchers like Lyubomirsky and their guide books for our individual happiness journeys.  In The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky details 12 happiness activities; number 10 focuses on goals.

She starts that chapter with a quote from Australian psychiatrist W. Beran Wolfe, written in 1932: “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert.”  Or, as Lyubomirsky more succinctly put it, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.” (p. 205)

My inspiration on this topic was closer to home, and very 21st century — a walk several weeks ago with my 15 month-old granddaughter Madeleine.  She and I were returning from the neighborhood labyrinth about a mile and a half away.  Though she contently rode to the labyrinth in her stroller, on the way back, she started fussing.  For some reason, I asked her if she wanted to help push.

Boy, did she.  It was hot and we had a long way to go, but that little girl was determined to “push” the stroller all the way home (with grandma’s help, of course).  Because I knew she was exhausted, I tried repeatedly to convince her to quit pushing and relax in the passenger seat.  No way.  She had a purpose, one that clearly fed her happiness in that moment.  Though she is too young to articulate goals, if she could, I’m sure she would have said her goal was to push the stroller to our front door.  In fact, she diligently and doggedly pushed for more than a mile.  Looking down at her little body working so hard was a poignant sight — and a lesson in the value of purpose.

Lyubomirsky cautions that no happiness strategy will resonate with everyone, and that is true even within my immediate nuclear family.  Unlike Madeleine, her grandfather (my husband Bob) is not goal oriented.  He always has many projects going — he’s just not in a hurry to finish anything.  Earlier in our marriage, Bob’s lack of purpose upset me.  I’d press him to articulate his goals, and he would panic because … he basically doesn’t have any.   Yet, he’s content and happy.  Part of my lifelong learning was to recognize that he is who he is, and one of my goals should definitely not be to change him.  Similarly, Madeleine has always been a determined and focused little being; I wouldn’t even dream of trying to change her!

As for me, purpose not only helps define my most satisfying days, it is also a reliable coping strategy* when life isn’t working the way I’d like — for example, dealing with the smaller grief I mentioned above.  Just a few days ago, my beautiful daughter and granddaughter — who came to live with us when the baby was only five weeks old — moved to a distant state.  The move is a good thing, and definitely meets my daughter’s need to have a purpose (teaching university students).  I’m happy for them.  Nonetheless, I was very, very sad when the moving van drove away.   Everywhere I looked, I saw memories of Madeleine and our precious year and a half together.

Fortunately, I also saw projects everywhere.  I cried awhile, and then tackled my oppressively messy clothes situation.  Two days later, I had one bag of clothes to donate to an artist friend who will re-purpose the material beautifully; two large trash bags filled with clothes to donate to the Goodwill; one trash bag filled with items that just needed to be thrown away; and a much, much neater closet and dresser.  Best of all, I felt better.  This project helped me say goodbye to the past and turn toward the fun times my granddaughter and I will share in the future.  It was soothing, and settling.

Since June, I have co-facilitated a happiness study group designed to help each participant determine which which strategies from The How of Happiness will best make each of us happy.  It’s been clear to me for some time that spreading happiness is one of the most fundamentally important purposes of my life.  Now, I also appreciate just how much having a purpose and pursuing my goals deepens my own happiness.   It is comforting knowledge.

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* Developing coping strategies for challenging times is another of Lyubomirsky’s recommended happiness activities.

Pump It Up: Happiness Through Strength

Though I am “pumping iron” these days as part of a local bone builders class, and exercise is hugely important for happiness, today I’m using that term metaphorically.  The focus of this blog is actually internal, on our innate and unique character strengths.   Since it’s summer, let’s start outside, in the blueberry patch.

Finally!  I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Finally! I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Blueberries and happiness: For two and a half years, six bags of unopened pine mulch lay undisturbed along the border of my small blueberry patch.  Last summer, my daughter and her newborn with uncooperative sleep habits moved in with us, so I think I have a good excuse for never finding the time to weed and mulch the blueberries.  As for summer 2011 … hmmm, I can’t quite remember what got in my way.  Finally, after seeing the bags of mulch in the Google satellite image of my house (ummm, that’s embarrassing!),  I was determined to get it done this summer.   By mid-June, I had finally weeded and mulched the entire patch.  No more accusing mulch bags spoiling my backyard view.

Now you may think that a job with such limited parameters that still took me more than two years to finish does not play to my strengths.  Perhaps, but I’m still a lot better at digging in the dirt and strewing mulch than I am at storing the harvested berries.  With no knowledge of how to make jams and preserves, I’ve just popped them in the freezer.

Then, while weeding, I had an “aha blueberry moment”.  My daughter LOVES to cook and she LOVES to research, so I made a deal with her — I’ll pick the blueberries and supply jars if she’ll figure out how to make jams and then proceed to do so.  She happily said, sure!  Happily because, in part, she’ll be working from her strengths (much more so than me!).

Strengths as a path to happiness: When I went to my very first seminar on positive psychology in 2010 (probably even before I bought all that mulch), I gained an intellectual understanding that pinpointing what our strengths are, and using those strengths, can lead to greater personal joy.  But it took me a long time to really “get it.”

Some keys to happier living make instant sense to me — like gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, savoring.  Those make my heart sing. Other strategies take more time to internalize.  With strengths, sometimes I’d get hints at how they work —  like the time a teacher told me that she and her colleagues were unhappy because they had to spend too much time doing paperwork rather than, duh, teaching — but I had to experience it in my own life before gaining a genuine understanding.  This experience, which transformed a grumpy me into a happy me, happened last winter.  Let’s go back inside.

The painting episode: I came to a Small Group Ministry meeting at the Montpelier Unitarian Church because I hoped discussing spiritual beliefs in an intimate setting would feed my soul.  When I got there, I wished I had read the fine print.   Already in low spirits (it was January and grey and I was sick with a cold that took about two months to conquer),  I was quite disgruntled to learn that our group was expected to perform a service project.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

“Service project!?!?”  I thought.  “I didn’t sign up for any service project!”  Between helping care for my live-in baby granddaughter and planning a free-to-the-public happiness weekend, I felt like my whole life was a service project already.  I was displeased, and, this being a setting where we encouraged to share our genuine feelings, I said as much.

However, at our second meeting, when the subject of our service project arose, one group member suggested we paint the walls of the local food shelf, to make it more inviting for their customers.  And here’s where it all shifted.  I said, “A few years ago, I led a group of fifth and sixth graders painting a fruit and vegetable mural for their school cafeteria.  Maybe we could do something like that?”

Much to my surprise and pleasure, the group readily agreed.  Because painting is definitely a strength of mine, suddenly, this project became joyful.   I was also grateful, because the whole group enthusiastically worked from my strength.  I got to draw each fruit or veggie, then instruct the other group members on how to apply the base paints.  Several of us did the shading that is so vital in making paintings come to life.  In the end, we left behind paintings of a pumpkin, eggplant, cherries, grapes, a carrot, peas, and tomatoes.  Other than the grapes (my fault entirely), I think we did a pretty good job.

(BTW, this was anonymous — a random act of kindness.  Only the director of the food shelf knows who we are, so please don’t spill the beans.)

So I was happy, and glad my fellow group members pulled me out of my funk and taught me a valuable lesson.  Since then, I see the strengths issue frequently.  For example two weeks ago, I heard a brilliant — and very Vermont — radio commentary by Helen Labun Jordan on using her strengths to contribute to the vitality of her community — in this case, baking pies for the Adamant Black Fly Festival.  Very funny!  (P.S., she won!)

What about you?   Working from our strengths is a happiness strategy Martin Seligman tested and proved with his graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.   Seligman, who is a towering, momentous figure in the positive psychology world, does a great job explaining the strengths strategy in part of this video.  He and his colleagues have also given all of us all a great gift: a free VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which takes about 20 minutes to complete.  I was a little surprised at my results (I expected creativity to show up higher on the list), and maybe you will be too.

In any case, the next time you find yourself feeling grumpy — and we all know there will be a next time — maybe knowing your strengths will help you find your way back to happiness a little faster.   Maybe even with pie, or blueberry jam!

Gander & Goose Happiness

Right before the latest big blizzard, I read a post from a Texan who wrote that it was 60 degrees and sunny in his neck of the woods that day.  “Why would anyone ever want to live in the northeast?” he asked.

My internal response was, “Texas?  Really?  Are you kidding me?”  Large swaths of Texas have been on fire the last few years.  The state as a whole has lately suffered crushingly hot temperatures and frightening drought.  Why would anyone ever want to live in Texas?

As they say, different strokes for different folks.

When it comes to happiness, I suspect our differences emanate from a soul level.  Certainly each of us needs to chart our own distinct happiness paths.  As Sonja Lyubomirksy observes, “there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier.  All of us have unique needs, interests, values, resources, and inclinations that undoubtedly predispose us to put effort into and benefit from some strategies more than others” (The How of Happiness, p.69).

Or, in more folksy terms, what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.  Or is it?

The Gander. That would be my husband, Bob.  This coming Saturday afternoon, he will undoubtedly get a huge happiness boost by once again leading his merry band of ukulele players in the Maple Corner Mardi Gras parade.  I’m guessing that getting into the flow of mastering the ukulele is partly why this experience gives him joy.  Also, I know he appreciates this opportunity to contribute to our community’s vitality.  Because performing makes his uke brothers and sisters happy too, by organizing this event, Bob further benefits by giving them this gig.

That's Bob in the Hawaiian shirt in the 2012 Maple Corner Mardis Gras

That’s Bob in the Hawaiian shirt during the 2012 Maple Corner Mardi Gras Parade

Plus, of course, it is just plain fun and not really something that needs to be analyzed.

The Goose is me.  I joined Bob in the parade last year, playing the only instruments I can even begin to handle (kazoo and tambourine); I may march again this year.  But, I’m excited about something radically different this coming Saturday morning:  a gun control rally in front of the Vermont Statehouse in nearby Montpelier.  Fun is not my strong point, alas.  I’m more in my element as a rabble rouser — or, as I might reframe it in positive psychology terms, I really like “having a purpose.”

At the Vermont statehouse for a 2011 Occupy protest.

That’s me at the Vermont statehouse for a 2011 Occupy protest.

These differences between my husband and me play out most Sunday mornings.  While I head off to sing in the church choir and get a weekly booster shot of support in leading a good life, Bob heads for his ping pong club and several hours of very vigorous exercise with his buddies.  His table tennis time is just as sacred to him as my church attendance is to me.

These musings reminded me of the following section on the Pursuit-of-Happiness website about Martin Seligman and different levels of happiness:

“Seligman’s bottom line is that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated:

1. ‘The pleasant life’ is realized if we learn to savor and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.
2. We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience ‘the good life,”’ which is achieved by discovering our unique virtues and strengths and employing them creatively to enhance our lives.
3. The final stage is ‘the meaningful life,’ in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by mobilizing our unique strengths for a purpose much greater than ourselves.”

Writing this blog, and looking at my husband’s and my choice of activities through the lens of Seligman’s three levels of happiness, I now see that what’s good for the gander can indeed be good for the goose — just not in the way I’ve interpreted this cliche before.  I always thought it meant the goose and the gander should be doing and liking the same things.  Now, I see that by doing and liking different things, the goose and the gander can help each other expand and enrich their levels of happiness.

Nearly everything I’ve read about what makes people happy stresses the importance of relationships, and good connections with others.  Perhaps one reason this is so is because other people inevitably provide us with more varied happiness opportunities.   We help each other cultivate different dimensions of happiness.

I definitely need to nurture “the pleasant life”  more.  Bob helps me be more playful, and that is definitely a good thing.  So … hand me a kazoo.  And see you at the rally.