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Archive for the ‘The Science of Happiness’ Category

Learning To Be Happy

Two weeks ago, I picked up two books from our local post office.  I had ordered them for an online course called “The Philosophy and Psychology of Happiness” offered by The Pursuit of Happiness Project.   When I told our postmistress about the course (because, it’s that kind of town, where we take the time to chat with each other), she exclaimed, “But you’re already happy!”

Well, I’ve been working on it for a while now, and I think it’s a fair assessment to say I’m a reasonably happy person.  But happiness is a process, not a destination.  I’m always learning how to stay on that path myself, as well as discovering new ways to help other people better understand and apply happiness tools.

For example, in this course, I finally grasped the distinction between Positive Psychology research and the Science of Happiness.  It’s not so hard — Positive Psychology, as its name makes clear, focuses on mental and emotional states.   It’s very internal.  Whereas the Science of Happiness includes much more physical aspects,  like the effects of certain foods and the need for sufficient sleep.  This distinction helped me appreciate that studying happiness is quite broad.

The two books I got that day further illustrated the breadth of happiness studies: from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl‘s seminal book, Man’s Search For Meaning, to Benjamin Hoff‘s light-hearted philosophical gem, The Tao of Pooh.   Seeing them side-by-side amused me.

The two books I needed for my online course in happiness.

The two books I needed for my online course in happiness.

This class also gave me the opportunity to reflect on one of the most vital components of human happiness: lifelong learning.  As one researcher put it, “We have big brains, and we want to use them.”

Not only was I clearly happier myself while immersed in this course, but I also got to study Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi work on “flow” — or, having an “optimal experience,” a time when we are so engrossed by our activities that we lose track of time.  This flow can happen while creating art or working out or many other experiences.  Learning provides great flow options, because flow can arise when the task at hand is somewhat challenging but ultimately doable.

After reading about flow, I got to experience it!  On the final day of class, we had to present happiness power points.  Because I have never done a power point before, this was a challenging assignment.   Of course it was doable, but it was enjoyable and meaningful.  I spent many more hours creating my power point than I had allotted — hours that I look back on fondly.  I was in the flow, and that is a happy space.

In fact, though it was a lot of work, I miss the whole class — both the learning itself and our community of students and teachers (connection is, of course, another critical happiness piece).  It was very special to spend the week in the online company of others who share my passion for happiness research.  This cohort contributed to my learning through some rich discussions, especially on the topic of optimism (which is so valuable but can also veer uncomfortably close to denial).

This wasn’t my first online happiness course.  Last year with my daughter in Alabama, both before and after her baby was born, I studied “Sustainable Happiness” on my laptop — often with an infant sleeping on my chest.  Here, too, I combined multiple happiness strategies — which is a good thing, because a third — sleep! — was in short supply.

Another independent study experience that gave me great joy was learning to speak Latin American Spanish through the recorded Pimsleur method.  The pleasure of learning was again enhanced by connection, as my husband joined me for most lessons.  We were highly motivated to learn, because our son at the time had a strong relationship with a woman in Venezuela and her two children, whom we visited twice.  I took pride in my achievements, deeply enjoyed the Spanish language, and had fun speaking Spanish with my husband.

Sadly, after the Venezuelan relationship broke up, we lost our motivation.  I still keep the CDs in the car with me, and keep thinking I’ll get around to studying some more … but it hasn’t happened.  Maybe I should make that one of my happiness strategies that I measure.  Devising accountability tricks (like stickers on a calendar) helps me stick with a new activity.

Here’s something else I’m intrigued by: the multitude of online courses that are many universities are offering at no cost.  I’ve read about this in the New York Times, and heard a great NPR piece on these courses last October when I was driving to meet Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis to join them for part their 600 mile Pursuit of Happiness Walk.  Right before I hooked up with them, they had met with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania — home to Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology.  Paula and Linda told me that those folks are considering offering some online courses through the free platforms.  Exciting!

Or should I say, “Que bien!”

Savoring Happiness

It pleases me no end that savoring — just taking the time to smell the roses and truly enjoy life’s pleasures — is a scientifically proven strategy for raising our personal happiness levels.  How cool is that?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Science? Really? What science?”  Fair enough.  I have zero scientific expertise.  Instead, let me offer up the Mayo Clinic.

In an article entitled, “How To Be Happy: Tips For Cultivating Contentment,” the Clinic cautions that being happy takes “practice, practice, practice.”  They offer multiple options for “choices, thoughts and actions” to get happier, including savoring:

“Don’t postpone joy waiting for a day when your life is less busy or less stressful. That day may never come.  Instead, look for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of everyday life. Focus on the positives in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.”

Since becoming mindful of savoring, I’ve noticed that it is almost always an option, regardless of immediate circumstances and surroundings.  This makes it a particularly helpful tool.  In crabby-making situations, if I remember to look around and drink in whatever beauty or joy is at hand, I can get an immediate happiness  boost.  As I write, I can pause to more deeply appreciate the Ravi Shankar music playing on Pandora or to breathe in the aroma from a pine scented candle just to my right.  No big deal — it just takes intention and attention.

Of course, what and how you savor will likely be quite different from my choices.  My scented candle would give some of my friends a headache.  To me, that’s part of the attraction of happiness-building activities — they are based on science, but you can choose strategies that most appeal to you and apply them in your own unique way.

Another lovely aspect of savoring is that it need not be restricted to the present; you can also relish past memories and anticipate future pleasures.  Thus, as Sonya Lyubomirsky observes, “when you master this strategy, you ‘will always have Paris.'”

Lyubomirsky lists savoring as “Happiness Activity No. 9”  (out of 12) in The How of Happiness which I listened to last March while driving from Vermont to Alabama for the birth of my granddaughter.  I think I’ll always remember how much I was able to savor the beauty of a perfectly ordinary rest stop in Virgina that day.  The clouds and the wildflowers were so normal, and so sublime.  Drinking in the beauty that surrounded me filled me with gratitude.

Our little Christmas baby.

Our little Christmas baby.

Since Madeleine was born and moved in with us, I have had countless opportunities for savoring.  However, when I interviewed environmental activist Kathryn Blume for an article in Vermont Woman, she suggested I might also observe how the baby herself provides a case study for human happiness.

For example, one day I headed up the stairs to her room.  Knowing how pleased she would be to see grandma, I made lots of noises to give her plenty of time to anticipate my arrival.  When she finally saw me, she squealed and jumped with pleasure.  It was quite amusing!  I come in her room to greet her almost every day, but building in the anticipatory savoring made the experience so much sweeter for her, and me.

She has no problem savoring the ordinary.  Ordinary, extraordinary — it’s all the same to her.  One of her favorite toys right now is an old jewelry box.  It’s just decorated cardboard, but really — how charming is the silky lining, how solid it feels in the hand, and what an ingenious opening mechanism!  Madeleine reminds me daily that savoring opportunities abound.

Now that the holiday decorations are up, we have a special set of objects and experiences to savor.  Through Madeleine’s eyes I have learned that the snow in the Santa Snow Globe is actually teal, that the Santa wine bottle cover has bells that ring (and a beard that can be pulled off), and that the little blue ceramic Santa has a bell that can almost always coax a baby smile.  I’ve always loved Christmas lights, but I don’t know how much I actually savored them.  Now, following Madeleine’s lead, I take the time to hold her as we both gaze and savor the amazing reality of colored lights.  Wow!  How glorious!

And of course, I keep savoring her, storing up these precious memories — so I’ll “always have Paris.”

A Serendipitous Note

Gratitude is another one of my favorite happiness tools, and this morning I was reminded of a person to whom I owe much gratitude:  Dr. Lynn Johnson, who introduced me to the importance of savoring.  In November 2010, I took a daylong seminar from him (“Happiness: How Positive Psychology Changes Our Lives”) and later read his book, Enjoy Life.  Today I received a link to his own blog also on savoring.  Naturally, Dr. Johnson’s take is very different from mine (warning: it may make you hungry).  Between his words and mine, perhaps you’ll have a whole new approach toward smelling roses, literally and metaphorically.

Happiness In Unlikely Places And Forms

The shell casing I was given at a garage in rural SW Virginia.

Last Wednesday got off to an easy, breezy start.   Then, as life is wont to do, the day took a more challenging turn.

Here’s the cool thing: the worst, highly  stressful, and most expensive part of my day grew into a sweet,  surprising and profound life episode.  It was an unlikely lesson in happiness.

This blog is a little long, almost a short story.  I’d love to know your reaction.  Here goes:

The weather was fabulous.  I was feeling fine, cruising along life’s metaphorical highway, and the very real real I-81 — an overcrowded interstate with the benefit of spectacular mountain scenery on both sides of the road.  Savoring is a highly effective happiness strategy, and I was savoring the view big time.

While I drove, I listened to The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  Though I was familiar with many of the book’s concepts, much of it was new and exciting.  Learning makes us happy, and I was in the learning flow.  Quite happily.

I was also happily driving toward my daughter’s house, to help her in the weeks before and after she gives birth to her first baby and my first granddaughter.  Helping others — again, an excellent happiness strategy.  Building connections with loved ones — bingo, lots of happiness there.

But that’s not all.  Before I got to Alabama for the birth, I’d be stopping in the western highlands of North Carolina to stay with my friend of 40+ years, Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin.  Jeannette had arranged to host my first ever “Happiness As A Way of Being” 3-hour workshop — so I had a clear purpose to aim toward.  Guess what?  Having a purpose is happiness inducing.

I picnicked at a roadside rest, where I could pat myself on the back for savoring the wildflowers, the clouds, and the butterflies, and being grateful for my husband for packing my food and for the custodial staff who kept the rest area clean and beautiful.  Uh-huh, I was doing just fine in the happiness department.

And then …  happiness became harder to access.

I had stopped for gas in a tiny town, far in the southwest corner of Virginia.  I misjudged my turn into the gas station driveway, and ran over the curb.  The sounds from my car’s underbelly were ominous.

Nonetheless, I paid for and pumped the gas.  I was eager to get out of there.  Not only was I worried about reaching my rural destination in the daylight, I felt like an unwanted alien in this part of the world.  In our red state-blue state country, I felt like my Vermont license plate was a bull’s eye.

So I gave the car a once over, saw nothing amiss, and started up the ramp toward the interstate.  The next sounds were unmistakably bad; I had busted up the front right tire pretty impressively, even cracking the hub cap.  I backed down the ramp — something my righteous self always judges others harshly for doing — and returned to the gas station.

Happiness?  What happiness?  Fears and anxieties were coming on strong.  I am not good with things.  I generally operate on the assumption that they will always work.  When they stop working, usually my husband (who can fix most anything) takes care of it. Now, I was alone.  I was going to be late.  This would probably cost a lot of money.  I was stuck for at least a little while in an uncomfortable environment.

Fortunately,  my happiness studies have taught me that one reason to continually strengthen the brain’s ability to access happiness is to be able to bounce back when your life gets derailed.  Obviously, in the scheme of things, a busted tire is minor, just a baby blip.  Still, I was upset and aggravated.  And, I had an excellent opportunity to walk my happiness talk.

First up: dropping the internal wall I had built between myself and the folks who lived here, folks whose help I now needed.  I struggled to put my own prejudices aside, and reach out, person-to-person.

After a few phone calls, my angel arrived in the form of a young man named Jake.  Jake drove a black Camaro and had such a thick mountain accent that I couldn’t always decipher his words.   Nonetheless, he made clear from the get go that he was there to help me.  He was unfailingly polite, kind, and non-judgmental — even when I couldn’t tell him where the jack was located in my car.  I felt like an idiot, but a grateful idiot.

Jake eventually got my car to the garage where he and his father work.  He urged me to come in out of the hot sun.  When their garage didn’t have the right sized tire, Jake took off for the local junkyard, and got into an argument with the owner who was trying to close for the day.  Jake insisted that the junkyard stay open long enough for him to find the tire that I needed.

Meanwhile, Jake’s daddy came over to talk to me.  “You are a very lucky person,” he said.  His words threw me for a loop.  They felt like a message from the Universe.  “I believe I am,” I replied.  “But why are you telling me that now?”

He replied, “Because you got my son to help you.  Most people these days, they won’t help.  But he’s a good boy.  He’s made an enemy of the junkyard owner, all to help you.”

I decided to tell the dad about my happiness workshop.  He told me, “You want to be happy?  Find God.”  My defenses wanted to rise up, but I managed to beat them back and keep listening.  “I was never a godly man before,” he said.  “But a few weeks ago, a lady came in here and we test drove her car to see what was wrong. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my car,’ she said. ‘God is trying to get your attention.  There’s going to be a tornado, and it will hit you at this spot in the road.'”  A few weeks later, as killer tornadoes struck throughout the South and Midwest, the dad and his truck were indeed lifted up and thrown down by a tornado in the exact spot that woman had predicted.  The truck was totaled.  Three people in town were killed.  He believes in God now.

I was amazed at the story, and at his decision to share with me.

He continued working while we waited for his son to return with the junkyard tire.  After a bit, he asked for a favor.  He pointed out his boss, the garage owner.  “If you do nothing else today, tell him what a good job my son is doing for you.”  Of course, I said I would.

So I struck up a conversation with the boss.  Turns out, he’s a granddad of three, happy to wish me well on my journey.  After I told the boss how grateful I was for Jake and his dad, I came out and exchanged conspiratorial nods with the dad.  Those nods gave me a surge of joy.  We were connected.

All the while, I kept beating back fear and anxiety.  How much time was this taking?  How much money would it cost? How far was I from Jeannette’s house?  When would it get dark?  Would I be too tired to drive?  Would I have more car troubles?

Concurrently, I practiced happiness strategies — gratitude, connection, and a reminder that I was actually perfectly okay in the moment.  The strategies kept me calm, and aware of the good in my situation.

In preparation for the happiness workshop, I had with me a bin of gifts I like to hand out: common stones on which I’ve hand-painted glittery hearts.  To me, they symbolize giving from the heart — and I gave one to Jake when I paid the unexpectedly low bill.  I explained that the stone was a token of my appreciation for how well he treated me.  Jake seemed pleased.

His daddy, too.  The dad quickly said, “I have something for you!” and then handed me the shell casing in the photo.  He was glowing with pride and joy as he gave me this precious offering.

A shell casing?  Me?  I didn’t even know really what it was.  Part of my brain — the judging part, the part that puts distance between me and others — was ready to spring into action and say, are you kidding?  No thanks, buddy.

Instead I said, and meant, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Thank you.

Just before I got in my car, he gave me another present.  “Watch your speed!” he admonished.  “The next county is full of cops.  They’ll pull you over if you’re even five miles over the speed limit.”

And so my journey continued.  The exuberance from the earlier part of the day was gone, but a deep sense of wonderment and awe and spiritual connection had taken its place.  I was tired and still stressed, but in some ways happier.

So what’s the lesson?  For me, it’s knowing that happiness takes many unexpected forms, if only we can quiet our reptile brains and open our hearts wide enough to receive the bounty.  That sweet and peculiar sequence of events was also a gritty affirmation of my intellectual belief that we’re all connected — a belief I don’t always nurture in real life — and that happiness grows in those connections.  I don’t necessarily have to understand it.  I can just feel it.  Finally, as I wrote about in November 2011, happiness doesn’t lie merely in giving.  We must also receive, with humility and gratitude.

Postscript:The next day, I wrapped up the happiness workshop with a seven-minute Loving Kindness Meditation.  After I explained how the meditation would work, I realized my chime was in a different part of the house.  But a water glass, and the shell casing, were sitting nearby.  Thanks to Jeannette’s suggestion, I began and ended the meditation by clicking the shell casing three times against the water glass.

Perfect.

I am a lucky person.

A Very Happy Night

In a few days, I will leave home for nearly two months to support my daughter during the final weeks of her pregnancy, in the delivery room, and for the first month or so of my granddaughter’s life.  I am excited and busy.  My mind is swimming with details.

Last night, though, I put details aside to be with a group of friends who held a Grandmother Baby Shower/Blessings On Your New Adventure/Please Return Safely ceremony for me.  It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

Previously Loved Baby Presents

Happiness studies show that we each have a natural happiness level, which can be raised by developing happiness habits.  Joyous events and circumstances, like the communal love I felt last night, raise our happiness level for a while. Sad, tragic, and dreary situations lower our happiness. In either case, we eventually settle back into our natural level.

This morning, I’m tired (I was too wired up to sleep well!) but still enjoying a happiness upswing.

Why so happy?  Silly question, right?  Anybody could look at the circumstances and say, of course you’re happy!  You’re about to become a grandmother, your friends just celebrated your joy — and, icing on the cake, you’ll be driving away from the tedious end of a Vermont winter into sunny warm weather in Alabama.  Who wouldn’t be happy?

Even so, I want to break it down a bit.  Grand-babies don’t come along every day, but the other ingredients of my current happiness high are available to each of us on a pretty regular basis.

Gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most reliable contributors to personal happiness, and my gratitude cup is overflowing.  Hugs, blessings, good food, thoughtful presents … I’m so, so grateful.  I’m not very good at writing thank you notes, but I’m going to send a heartfelt thank you to send one to everyone who made last night special.

Community. My town has pot lucks, talent shows, silent auctions.  We take meals to people who are sick, and check on pets.  We sing together, swim together, skate together, snow shoe together.  It’s like a bank: we make regular deposits in our community account.  And when we need a withdrawal, the “funds” are there.  It’s a solid investment strategy.

Forgiveness. When I looked around the room, I felt such pleasure in my relationship with each woman in the group. Because we’re human, I’ve been in conflict with some of the women in the past — conflict that we worked through together so we could move on.  I’ve forgiven, been forgiven, and deepened relationships.

Touch. Twice we stood in a circle holding hands.  Hugs were also abundant.  Gretchen Rubin, author of the blog and book The Happiness Project, cited research on hugging from  The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  Rubin wrote about Lyubomirksy’s “study in which students were assigned to two groups. One group was the control; one group was assigned to give or receive at least five hugs each day for a month – a front-to-front, non-sexual hug, with both arms of both participants involved, and with the aim of hugging as many different people as possible. The huggers were happier.”  Let’s hear it for hugs!

Mindfulness. Savoring, and being fully present, are excellent happiness tools!  Perhaps I’ve been sharpening those tools lately through a ramped up meditation practice.  And/or, perhaps the loving energy and shining eyes all around the room were too powerful for my mind to wander, despite my pre-trip to do list.  I knew I was experiencing a very special, once-in-a-lifetime event.  I was definitely present, and in full savoring mode.

Recycling.  My friends know, I strongly believe changing our shopping habits to be less voracious consumers of Planet Earth is a requirement of our long term personal happiness.  So I was thrilled that several of the presents were items previously-loved by other babies.  I was especially pleased to know that my young friend Edwin (just three years old) gave the thumbs up to passing on one of his old trains to the new baby. Learning to give is good for Edwin’s happiness, too.

Acknowledgement.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs includes the need for recognition from others (as well as internal self-eteem). In general, I try to give generously of my time, and my heart, with no expectation of any recognition (except from my faithful husband; his support is usually enough).  But I just flushed with pleasure last night when one friend explained that they wanted to have this party for me because I “do so much for the community” and I “will be missed.”  It makes me feel good even now to type those words!  Sometimes, recognition does matter.

Okay, enough analyzing.  I’ll get out of my head, and slide back into enjoying the moment.


Integrated Happiness

The face of happiness was not in the mirror on Wednesday.

A cold, which I thought I defeated, came bounding back, both the cause and beneficiary of many hours of lost sleep.  Because Tuesday saw some exciting developments in my happiness work, my mind was also very busy that night, leaping from idea to idea rather than settling into slumber.

Oh, yeah, and then there was that cup of coffee … espresso … sometime around 3:00 in the afternoon.  I wanted that latte, so I convinced myself that this time the caffeine wouldn’t keep me awake …

All in all, Wednesday was not a good morning.

Which brings me to the topic of integrating our happiness efforts — body, mind, and spirit are all involved in this endeavor.  Wednesday was an effective reminder that an unhappy body is a big hurdle for mind and spirit to overcome in their quest for a happy day.

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

I was also reminded of an Aspen Ideas Festival video I watched last week, a fascinating discussion on the neuroscience of happiness (http://www.aifestival.org/session/new-neuroscience-happiness).  Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist who focuses on the brain’s pleasure centers, asked, what’s the difference between wanting and liking?

I know I wanted that latte, and liked it in the moment — but I didn’t like it much the next day!  Perhaps a note to my brain might help avoid future replays?  “Dear Pleasure Center, please remember, no lattes in the afternoon.  Thanks for your cooperation!”

Speaking of brains (you can interpret that on multiple levels), Martin Seligman was on another Aspen panel, focused on increasing individual happiness levels (http://www.aifestival.org/session/improving-happiness-through-personal-practice).   Seligman, one of the most prominent positive psychology researchers, shared four different practices to encourage a happier brain.  I’ve started one of these practices; each night before going to bed, I write down three good things from my day and my role in making them happen.  The idea is to cultivate optimism.  My friend Liz Snell told me she’s been doing something similar for years — she calls it the TADA! list.  Now it’s my TADA! list, too.

On the panel with Seligman was Matthieu Picard, who some happiness experts consider the happiest man on earth.  Picard definitely radiated well being, compassion, and joy in his presentation on spiritual practices to build happiness.  His focus was on a dedicated, consistent compassionate meditation practice to build deep reserves of internal happiness.  “It’s like watering a plant,” Picard observed.  To paraphrase, he said, you have to give the plant small doses of water regularly.  You can’t just pour large amounts of water on the plant once in a while and expect it to live.

I’m begun practicing a loving kindness meditation daily.   I expect to write some time later about how my attempts at building happiness are working.

Wait there’s more …  We also need to integrate our happiness with the world around us.  This could perhaps be the toughest nut of all to crack.  That latte … was it fair trade?  Probably, in this case, yes — but how often are our seemingly simple pleasures bought at someone else’s expense?  It is a given for me that my pursuit of happiness should not lead to unhappiness for others, but I guess a) that’s a lot easier said than done and b) not everyone gives a hoot.

My eyes were opened to the morality of happiness thanks to yet another Aspen presenter, moral philosopher Sissela Bok (http://www.aifestival.org/session/new-history-happiness). I was so intrigued, I got a copy of her book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science to dig a little deeper.

So, we need to integrate our mind, body, and spirit in the pursuit of happiness.  And, we need to integrate our personal pursuits with those around us, near and far — because, really, how could we possibly experience enduring happiness in isolation?

Last Wednesday, when I felt so sick, I walked the 100 yards from my house to the general store, which was out of chicken noodle soup!  My neighbor Kathleen Landry was at the store at the same time and saw my distress.  She brought me a can of soup from her house — one of those simple yet profound actions that no doubt gave us each a happiness boost.

Writ large and small, we’re all in this together — all our body parts, and all of us bodies.

Happiness: A Miracle? Or Scientifically Predictable?

Thanks to a passionate lesson in poetry from Anne Loecher, I now know the answer is — both.

Anne introduced her happiness poetry workshop by sharing the poem titled “Happiness“, by Jane Kenyon.  The poem begins:

“There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

Immediately I felt the need to interrupt.  “But Anne,” I said, “there is so accounting for happiness.  Scientists have researched happiness, and can say what leads to greater happiness, and what undermines it.  Happiness isn’t that mysterious.”

Balloon happiness

Fortunately, Anne was patient with me.  She gently but firmly suggested I try being a little less literal, that I listen for the magic, for the beauty, for the musicality, for the miraculous.  And, fortunately, I had the good sense to take a deep breath and try again.

The poem goes on:

“And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
       It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.”

Gorgeous.  Stunning.

Of course, I could say, equality in life circumstances is crucial to happiness.  That is, if you are a monk in a cell, and you have more or less the same amount of possessions and quality of life as those around you, you can settle into happiness — though a monk coveting the possessions of a handsome young wealthy neighbor would be less happy.  Or, I could suggest many specific reasons why that clerk is happy.  Or question the viability of genuine happiness for the pusher.  Etc.

Or …  I could and did decide to just sit with the beauty of the poem, savor the poet’s insight, and appreciate the ineffable and unknowable qualities of happiness.  For me, this revelation also opened my heart to the value of poetry itself, more open than I’ve been since my teens.  It was a transforming moment.

Our conversation about Jane Kenyon’s poem reminded me of a recent feed from the online service, The Daily Good, which explored the scientific underpinnings of Bobby McFarrin’s classic song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”  According to that article, McFarrin got the “why” just right.  And yet … perhaps the mere existence of that brilliant piece of art is nothing short of miraculous.

To be clear, given our messy and unhappy world, particularly the threats posed by climate change, I believe it is critically important to individually and collectively understand the scientific underpinnings of happiness much, much better than we do.  We need this understanding as a guide for making wiser choices than our GDP-obsessed culture currently presses on us.

And, thanks to poetry, I have been reminded of the wisdom in both approaches to happiness.  Yes, it is miraculous.  Yes, it can be scientifically understood, quantified, and predicted.   Just typing those two sentences makes me smile.  How cool to hold both concepts as valid!

Here’s something else that’s smile-inducing: a link to the Daily Good article analyzing “Don’t Worry Be Happy”  and, a video of Bobby McFarrin the song itself:   http://www.dailygood.org/view.php?sid=105  Together, they prove the point quite nicely!