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Happiness in the Time of Covid 19, Part 13: Paradise in Your Pocket

What if being happy was as simple as making the choice to be happy? Ha! It can never be that easy, because when it comes to humans, nothing is ever simple. Still, in almost every moment of every day, we can make the happy choice or the less happy choice. Or not choose at all — which, unless you’ve worked really hard to rewire your brain for happiness, likely means a less happy choice by default.

Paradise in my pocket: a stone painted by my granddaughter.

Fortunately, I have been working on rewiring my brain for more than a decade. Covid has given my happiness a run for its money, but even so, happy choices are frequently my default mode.

Here’s an example: last week, I had more bad eye news. I’ve written about my eye problem before — something called neo-vascularization, or bleeding in the retina. Untreated, this condition leads to blindness. I was diagnosed five years ago. For a while the treatments — injections in the eye, but that’s not as awful as it sounds — seemed to be working just fine. I went many appointments without any injection at all.

Then in December, the doctor was alarmed at my loss in vision. I thought it was just a scratched, used-up pair of glasses and finally got a new prescription from the optometrist. I did much better at the next appointment with the retina specialist, but really, not good enough. The vision loss remained.

This week, again, my vision was worse (and boy have I come to hate those eye charts!). The doctor wants to see me for treatments more frequently. Nothing was said out loud, but the subtext was, I am gradually losing sight in my left eye. The injections will slow down that process, but they can’t stop it.

So could I, in that moment, choose happiness? Well, sort of. At the same time that I was feeling anguish as I tried to process the reality of failing vision (in only one eye, thank goodness), I was also working hard at holding on to the good. I wanted to be honest, to give myself grieving time, while also being aware of everything I have to be grateful for: I am getting excellent medical care, by a retinal team which is kind as well as knowledgeable; the drugs used to keep blindness at bay are still relatively new, so I am fortunate to be benefiting from them; my treatments are covered by medical insurance; and my very loving husband takes me to every appointment and waits patiently to tend to me when the appointment is over.

Plus, it was a gorgeous early spring day in Vermont. Bob and I had plans to walk on the bike trail next to Lake Champlain. We’d been on the same trail three weeks earlier when the lake was totally ice-covered and the trail itself had plenty of snow and ice, too. Now, Lake Champlain’s blue waters were shimmering in the sun, with the majestic Adirondack Mountains rising up on the other shore. Our walking trail was clear and dry. It was a blessed day. I was sad, but happy too. Both. Absolutely both.

It’s not that I intend to ignore my eye problem. How can I, when every six weeks or so I have to get an injection in the eye? Nonetheless, I want to savor all the happiness that’s available to me. That’s my choice.

The sadness in any given moment isn’t the only obstacle to choosing happiness. More often, we just forget. Our brains are wired to be on the alert for threats, not joys. Yet, as with my day by the lake, the joys often exist side by side with sorrows and threats. The trick is, remembering to look for your happiness.

For me, that’s the point of putting a slice of paradise into my pocket. It’s a remembering stone.

My happiness bracelet.

I have been aware of the value of having a happiness remembering device — specifically, a happiness bracelet — since studying for my Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) with Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal was an understated dresser, not the type to wear a bracelet. Instead, he wore a rubber band. I love the simplicity of that choice. I don’t wear much jewelry myself, but decided to wear a happiness bracelet when I found the one pictured here at a second hand store. I adored wearing my used bracelet until one day the elastic gave way and beads rolled all over the floor.

One of my CIPP classmates, Laurel Burns, a marriage and family therapist and artist, even started a business making happiness reminder bracelets!

My wrist has been bare lately. Maybe it’s covid fatique. Plus, I don’t really go anywhere these days.

Then the other night, the happiness bracelet morphed into a paradise stone. This wasn’t my idea. Rather, I found it in the poetry of Roger Robinson, via the Onbeing Project. The project published Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,” which I shared with my weekly Tuesday night meditation class. I chose to share Robinson’s poem because it spoke to me of being mindful of the good in our lives (in the poem, the paradise can be found in a pocket). I really appreciated his awareness that we can carry a piece of personal paradise with us — a profound happiness reminder of not just the joys but the actual paradise that is there within, if only we remember to pay attention.

The next day, I decided to make my pocket paradise a bit more tangible. I looked around and found a small stone my granddaughter had painted to look like a present. The stone was no big deal. In fact, when she and her mom moved from Wisconsin to join us in Vermont during the time of covid, the stone was supposed to have been thrown out. It appealed to me, though. I stuck it in a pocket on moving day and brought it back to Vermont.

Now I stick that stone in various pockets, depending on what I am wearing. No big deal? The stone represents love, art, everyday beauty … all the joys and gifts in my life. I need only stick my hand in my pocket and rub the stone between my fingers to remember that my life is filled with enough good and happiness to create my own personal paradise. Paradise does not equal immortality for me or any of my body parts. But it does equal smiles in the storm and serenity in the sadness. It equals happier choices — and that is priceless.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 12: Celebrate!

One year ago today, after several days of driving from dark and snowy Vermont, we were just hours away from our sixth annual, two-week Christmas at the beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a big splurge. I saved all year to pay the beach house rental fee. The island we like to visit has been getting more and more expensive, but it the high quality family time we enjoyed together made it all worthwhile.

The sea turtle my granddaughter drew for me during our Christmas beach vacation last year.

This year, thanks to our intergenerational living situation, we will still be together, but nowhere near the beach. It was 9 degrees below zero when I got up this morning. I hope to go for a walk after it warms up a bit, but it will be a far cry from bare toes in warm sand.

There’s also a lot to be said for spending the holidays in Vermont — normally. It is still lovely outside, with shiny diamonds gleaming in the snow. But the caroling party, the Hannukah party, the Yankee Gift Exchange, the annual service at the Old West Church, various open houses … all canceled. Happily, some of these celebrations will still be offered online, but, of course, that’s hardly the same.

I am not complaining. I know we are fortunate. Our barn-turned-house provides plenty of inside space, room for two Christmas trees this year. Outside, we have some small but serviceable sledding hills. We have heat, we have food, we have each other. And Christmas cookies, board games, colored lights, and presents under the tree. I know life is a real struggle for millions of Americans right now, and I am deeply appreciative of my family’s gifts and comforts. No complaining, for sure.

What I am doing is pondering the nature of celebrating in a pandemic. Recently I have started watching Nicole Wallace’s broadcast on MSNBC. Each night at the close of her program, she airs “Lives Well Lived,” a brief segment lifting up some of those who have died from Covid-19. Last night’s segment told the story of eight nuns in the same religious order in Milwaukee. All eight of these women, who had retired after lifetimes of service, died in one week. One night, Nicole told us about a baker in Brooklyn who used to put out free bread to feed the hungry during the pandemic, until he, too, was claimed by Covid. Another night it was a five year girl. Then there was a pregnant woman in her early 30s; the baby made it, but she didn’t.

These individual stories bring the pain and grief alive in a way the experts warning us to stay home, and the astonishingly high daily death toll, don’t. The stories make me cry. These brief segments feel like a daily gift: they allow me to honor some of the lives lost, and to feel some of the overwhelming national grief. But, as the pandemic goes on and on and on, so too do our everyday lives. It seems intuitively obvious to me that celebrating the good in our lives is just as important as grieving the sorrows. And the older I get the more the phrase “life is short” resonates with me. We need to seize our celebrations when we can, in part because we really don’t know how many opportunities to celebrate we’ll have.

Plus, not surprisingly, Americans as a whole are not doing well, emotionally. We need to grab onto what can help us feel better and get through. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo calls our mental state, “The Hidden ‘Fourth Wave’ of the Pandemic.” He writes, “Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. It’s dark, we’re stuck inside, and we’re isolated from friends and family. Politics is fevered, the economy continues to struggle, and the coronavirus rages on. Many of us may be at a breaking point.”

So here’s something that feels helpful to me: holding on to both the grief and the joy simultaneously. That’s life. Both are going on. So, yes, cry. And also, celebrate — safely, of course. And perhaps with some consideration of the massive personal challenges all around us.

That’s my belief. But I also wanted to know what science has to say on the topic. On the Psychology Today website I found a column by Polly Campbell entitled, “Why You Should Celebrate Everything” She says that “moments of celebration make us pause and be mindful, and that boosts our well-being. … when we stop to savor the good stuff, we buffer ourselves against the bad and build resilience—and even mini-celebrations can plump up the positive emotions which make it easier to manage the daily challenges that cause major stress.

Ross Wilson of the Growing Organizations website goes so far as the say that celebrating helps keep us sane. In his “Straight Talk” column in June 2020 he wrote, “While we cannot ignore the challenges of the current climate, it’s dangerous to dwell on these and let them overwhelm us. … Psychologists agree that 3 things are crucial to keep us sane during difficult times: 1) practicing gratitude and celebrating even small successes, 2) focusing only on what we have control over, and 3) maintaining a positive environment.

Which brings me to my big celebration a couple of weeks ago: Bob’s and my 50th wedding anniversary.

The first wedding I ever attended was my own, on a dreary November day in 1970. I don’t think many of the guests were in a particularly celebratory mood. The reception in my mother’s living room was subdued, with lemonade and cake — but no alcohol. After all, neither the bride nor the groom was of legal drinking age. And the bride, a senior in high school, was also three months pregnant.

I was wildly in love with Bobby Sassaman, but I didn’t have any confidence our marriage would last. Both my mother and grandmother had gotten divorced. I suspected I would, too. It didn’t help that Bobby’s job was being a paper boy — the only job he had ever held. Nor did it bode well that he was a freshman at the local community college, despite his awesome brain power (he got a perfect score on the math section of the SATs). I also knew the odds did not favor teenage newlyweds with a baby on the way. I didn’t have a job at all; I’d recently been fired from my job in the kitchen of a family-oriented restaurant, because, the manager told me a few years later, I was pregnant.

Bob, though, always believed our marriage was of the “till death do you part” variety and, amazingly, he was right. For 50 years, so far. There are many reasons we have thrived, not least of which is the financial and emotional support we continued to receive from both sides of the family. Analyzing our successful marriage deserves its own essay, but, especially given our starting point, I thought our 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating. Not just still married, but actually thriving. Happy to still be with each other..

Bob & me on our 5oth anniversary, photo by Susan Bull Riley

Our anniversary was November 28th — 50 years after the wedding, 51 years after our first kiss, and two weeks after the Governor of Vermont issued tighter Covid restrictions, banning any size social gathering, indoors or out. Hmm, so how to celebrate?

I know that question has arisen over and over for so many celebrants of all ages this year, whether for weddings, graduations, birthdays, even celebrating the end of life. In our case, we don’t even normally celebrate our anniversary. It’s just another year gone by. Plus the timing is never good, since it usually falls just days after Thanksgiving. The past seven years we’ve been in the middle of a two-day car drive coming home from our daughter’s house. But early in 2020, I decided this year would be different. Fifty seemed like a noteworthy number, for sure. Neither Bob nor I are fancy, so there was no thought of anything grand. Also inclusivity is very important to me. I hate the idea of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings by shutting them out of the party. So inviting everyone far and wide to an open house seemed the way to go.

Obviously, the pandemic forced me to change our plans. Instead, we got a firepit for the front yard and put up a tarp with colored lights. The idea was to have friends stop by, just one or two at a time, masked, and enjoy each other’s company outside for a few minutes. The Governor’s order against even outside gatherings nixed that plan, too. So we dropped back to a Zoom gathering, along with an invitation for friends to drive by and honk-and-wave as we sat alone by the firepit. Since we both believed going inside a restaurant for dinner was a very bad idea, covid-wise, and neither of us wanted to cook, we had microwaved TV dinners by the dwindling fire on a chilly November night.

Our cold and lonely firepit.

And it was all wonderful!! The Zoom format allowed us to welcome and share with friends and loved ones from all over the place, both geographically and in terms of their roles in our lives. From the neighbor across the street to a classmate from fifth grade, we got to feel the love of a lifespan — so much so, I almost missed the honk-and-wave because the Zoom was too wonderful to bring to a close. But that part, too, was so much fun. And TV dinners, in the right frame of mind and with a little red wine, are just fine.

This probably sounds like a line from a Hallmark Christmas special, but my experience was that the celebration that mattered was in our hearts. Honoring this day as meaningful allowed Bob and me to pause, and consider our lives and love together in a way we rarely do, and that made us both happy. Sharing the occasion with family and friends far and wide was a way of giving and receiving love and joy in a time when we all need it. I was positively blissful by the end of the day.

So here we all are, in a time of celebrations that on the outside may not live up to anyone’s hopes or expectations. But on the inside … ah, my friends, may you celebrate till your hearts are full.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 10: When Life Gets Even Sadder

I don’t just preach happiness. I practice it with a variety of tools: exercise, meditation several days a week, spending time in nature, and a nightly gratitude journal including a quick description of the “Best Moment of the Day.” This last practice I picked up after watching one of my positive psychology teachers, Maria Sirois, describe it in an interview with Action for Happiness. It is an uplifting exercise, no matter the day.

Because happiness is like a “use it or lose it” muscle, I track all of the above along with creativity, learning, and taking the time to be with friends on a daily chart. But for several weeks in September, I stopped any formal version of my happiness practices. The chart stayed blank.

Sunset on our private beach, camping at Burton Island State Park

At first, I stopped measuring specific, defined happiness practices because that felt gratuitous while we were on vacation, camping in Burton Island State Park, where many campsites have their own private beaches on Lake Champlain. I didn’t need a journal to feel gratitude; I could just look around. But, while we were there, the sadnesses began to arrive.

First was an email on Wednesday from my oldest sister letting my other siblings and me know that our youngest sister Marybeth had only a few more days to live. This was not a surprise. Marybeth went on hospice in mid-July, thanks to a devastatingly aggressive case of Parkinsons Disease. Despite Covid-19, I had driven to Pennsylvania to be with her one more time, and say goodbye.

Now, while camping, there was nothing left to do. We couldn’t even get off the island for a couple of days, since the state park ferry wasn’t in service again till Friday. So I tried to put the sad news aside and continue relaxing amid the simple pleasures of hiking and campfires.

I didn’t sleep well, and I wasn’t super cheery, but I did okay until Saturday morning. My husband Bob kindly let me drink my coffee before telling me the next sad news, which he had learned a few hours earlier: Ruth Bader Ginsberg was dead. I started crying almost immediately — not little drops sliding down my cheeks but loud, gulping sobs. RBG’s death at an advanced age was not personally tragic, but I believed that her death was also a death knell for the Supreme Court, and many of the fundamental human rights that Court has historically protected. I have revered the Supreme Court since my early teens. Thurgood Marshall! William O. Douglas! Brown v. The Board of Education! Roe v. Wade! Now, I feared the Supreme Court might be irrevocably broken. Nothing left for me to revere.

So I sobbed, for the Court, for our country, for imperiled democracy, for the people likely to suffer the loss of protection. The sobs likely also unleashed months of pandemic and political anxiety. As well, I was undoubtedly crying for my sister.

This time, there was a) a ferry available and b) no way of pretending I was okay. Plus, the campground had filled up for the weekend, and I imagine none of our neighbors enjoyed hearing me bawling. It was time to go home. We decided to pack up as fast as possible, and get a late morning ferry to the mainland.

At some point, during repeated trips between our campsite and the ferry — we believe in comfortable camping, and had a lot of stuff — Bob got an urgent call from our daughter Jennifer. Once again, Bob waited till a reasonable moment to tell me her bad news.

That moment came as the ferry pulled away. We were the only passengers on the lower level. Bob told me, our son Ben had been worried about our family friend Chris, who rented the A-frame adjacent to our house. It had been a few days since Ben saw Chris, his buddy for decades, since high school. Ben went to the A-frame and found that Chris was dead.

I screamed, I just screamed right out loud in shock and disbelief. Chris, just 47 years old, a big bold character brimming with life and plans was dead? And my poor son had discovered his friend’s body? And our daughter had to call the police? The police were coming to my house to take away a dead body?

There was no way I could process this news. But I was somehow still able to make an important “happiness” choice when the ferry landed. Thanks in part to the pandemic, our two adult children and one grandchild are all living semi-autonomously on separate floors in our house built within an old dairy barn. Sometimes we’re together, sometimes apart. Coping with the shock of Chris’s death, my children would surely want us to be together. But it would at least a hour and a half to drive home from the Burton Island parking lot. So I reached out to friends. I sent a frantic email to several BFFs with a quick explanation of what had happened. Please, I asked them, can you go keep my kids company till we get home?

The drive home was rough, especially since we had packed so much camping stuff we had driven two cars to hold it all. Now, we were each alone, speeding down the interstate in a state of turmoil. In my car, among so many other thoughts swirling in my brain, I told myself, pay attention. Be safe. Take your time. But I also thought, what now, happiness lady? How does a “happiness expert” approach a situation like this?

The answer, of course, was to be sad. I knew I was in shock. I knew this was a terrible event for my whole family.

I also knew, at some point, the trauma and grief would end. I’m resilient. Five years ago, another dear friend died suddenly — murdered by her husband who then committed suicide — and after a certain amount of grieving and healing, I bounced back to my normal happy self. (To be clear, and fair to his memory, Chris’s death was not violent or suicidal, just shockingly unexpected.) Knowing that I would eventually be happy again gave me the freedom to lean into the grief and trauma — mine, and everyone else’s in the household.

At the same time, because I regularly train my brain to focus on gratitude, I remained acutely aware of the good which surrounded us. For example, my friends did show up for my children, who deeply appreciated the support. Indeed, both my daughter and son may well remember the moment those friends showed up for the rest of their lives. For each of them it was a moment of love and kindness in the midst of chaos — demonstrating yet again one more way relationships are fundamentally important to human happiness.

As a family, we also experienced deep love and bonding with one another. and very special times with each other. I presume no one is eager for our times of grief, but connections with loved ones in grieving times is definitely a silver lining — giving and receiving kindness, cultivating and reaping the rewards of strong relationships. I may never forget how and when I learned of Chris’s death, but neither will I forget how we supported each other.

So there we were, quietly putting one foot in front of the other. I was very tired. I had plenty to do but I didn’t push myself.

And then, just a little more than a week later, my sister Marybeth died.

It was a lot to cope with. I’m not even sure I had the emotional space to grieve for my sister — that space was still pretty full. But I am sure that relationships once again came to the rescue.

I have found that my emotions can be quite complicated when someone close to me dies. In what may be a defense mechanism to buy me time and let the grief seep in slowly, I tend to get angry at the deceased rather than remember all the good parts. Fortunately, two of my dearest friends are psychotherapists. Each of them gave me the gift of a long walk when I could say whatever I needed or wanted to. I cried, I raged, I laughed, and eventually I felt better, calmer, sad but peaceful.

And again I found comfort in familial love — my siblings and nieces and nephews this time. As we planned the memorial service (mostly a zoom affair), and together laughed about Marybeth’s well-lived life, our bonds were also strengthened. We have a shared history. We’re still alive.

Since then, I have had many days of being tired and feeling a little bleak and blue. I have wondered, is it grief? Is it pandemic and/or political anxiety and exhaustion? Is it the normal progression of the seasons, as the darkness arrives earlier and earlier? Is it all of the above? In response, I have tried to work when I had the energy and napped when I didn’t. I’ve been gentle with myself. I’ll be happier again. And some days, I am! Especially when the sun is shining.

In my ongoing meditation classes, I often suggest that it’s best to build our meditative skills when life is more benign, so that these tools are readily available to us when we need them the most. I think the same is true of happiness practices. It’s great to feel happy in good times, but even more helpful to tap into the knowledge and benefits of happiness practice when your life hits a rocky patch. September was rough, but it likely would have been a lot worse without my inner wells of happiness. I am grateful.

Happiness in the Time of Covid, Part 9: Living Our Values

In just a few days, my husband and I will drive to a swing state — a state which is considered critical to win for the 2020 presidential election, and could theoretically go for either Biden or Trump. We are going to one of these battlegrounds to serve as volunteer observers outside a polling station on Election Day. We are determined to do our part to help ensure a fair voting process.

The Calais, Vermont town hall, where I voted in mid-October.

We’ve been told to report for duty very early on Tuesday morning and plan on staying till late evening, after the last vote has been cast. We are taking food, water, and lawn chairs. I expect the day to be exhausting, uplifting, interesting, tense, rewarding, maybe scary, and ultimately happy-making.

There are multiple reasons why this experience is likely to increase my happiness, but one in particular is kind of fascinating to me. In my Certificate in Positive Psychology training, lead teacher Tal Ben-Shahar taught us that our brains are happier when our actions are in concordance with our self image — ie, living our professed values. Walking the self-talk.

Being a poll observer ticks a lot of boxes for me. I am a committed social justice activist who has loudly and frequently exhorted others to also do their best to save democracy. Because I have urged others to step out of their comfort zones and don’t fancy myself a hypocrite, I, too, need to step out of my comfort zone. Being a poll observer will take care of that! I also aspire to being a white ally in the fight for racial justice. That is what I’ll be doing if we’re stationed at a polling station in a predominantly Black neighborhood, which is where I expect poll observers are most needed. For these and other reasons — some admirable, others maybe just an ego trip — I should end Election Day with a brain made content by my choice to take actions which live up to my mental construction of who I am.

Of course, it should go without saying, that is not why I signed up to be a poll observer! There are far easier ways to come by my daily dose of happiness. And other factors may overwhelm the concordance factor, leaving me quite unhappy indeed. While we intend to remain peaceful, it’s not hard to image some invective being thrown our way and piercing my not particularly tough skin. There’s also a definite possibility that I’ll make mistakes, and be unhappy about them, especially if I am tired and raw and my resilience is down. Events of the day, combined with exhaustion, could deplete all my emotional and physical resources.

Even then, it is likely that my brain will later feel happy about the whole thing. I hope this will be a day I can look back on with pride.

The dropbox where I put my ballot so I could be an observer elsewhere on Election Day.

Here’s another “of course”: since this still very much the time of covid, safety is also a major concern. Leaving Vermont, which has had a very low rate of infections, to go to an area where the pandemic is much worse is starting to make me nervous. We’re going to be outside observers, with masks, and observing social distancing protocol. Still, I hope I’m not letting my determination to stand up for my commitment a fair voting process override my common sense about doing my part to limit the pandemic’s spread. I plan to stay safe — but what if this all turns out to be a bad idea?

Which illustrates that acting in concordance with values isn’t always an easy call. It can require discernment. Sometimes that means stepping up, sometimes that means stepping back. The hardest ethical choices aren’t between a right and a wrong, they are between two rights. Happiness might have a vote in the matter, and might be part of the outcome, but it shouldn’t necessarily be in the driver’s seat.

So why, then, does this matter to you? For two reasons, I think. First, being aware of happiness opportunities in everyday life choices can help you be a happier person. Second, you can use your brain’s desire for concordance to help you achieve your own goals in life and, again, grown a little happier.

First, awareness. Lately, I’ve been thinking asking people to reach for happiness may be too high a bar right now — but most of us can at least be happier. There are so many choices we can make in daily life to be happier — savoring that first cup of coffee, being grateful for a hot shower, etc. I think it’s both interesting and important to understand as much as we can about cultivating personal happiness — especially during a pandemic!

Second, you can actually use your own brain’s desire for your actions and ideals to be in sync as a tool for achieving your goals (something else that makes us happy!). Let me give you an example. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to write a happiness book combining the perspectives of Gross National Happiness systems change with the personal happiness movement. That book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World, became a published reality in May 2020, but for a long time I was stumped. I was busily writing in my head, but couldn’t seem to make myself sit down in front of the laptop and actually commit words to virtual paper. It was frustrating and disappointing.

So I decided to try a method Tal Ben-Shahar had described. Each day, I meditated for 15 to 20 minutes, visualizing the entire process of writing the book, working with an editor, re-writing, getting critiqued, re-writing, until finally I visualized my own published book — which elated me. Critically, though, I had to visualize the work, not just the final happy outcome. Day after day. These visualizations had the effect of convincing my brain that my commitment to the work was real, not just imaginary. Eventually, my brain felt the conflict between my perceived values — doing the work of writing — and my lack of actually doing the work. My brain’s discomfort finally pushed me into the real work necessary to give birth to a book.

In other words, visualization does work — but only if you also visualize the work. There’s nothing magical about it.

Here’s one more, “of course” — the brain can be fooled, but it is very complex. Life is very complex. Humans — phew, do we ever have complex wiring! It’s not as though I sat down after those meditations and whipped out a book in record time. I did not. Nor will brain concordance likely leave me giddy on Tuesday night.

But it’s one more piece of the happiness puzzle, one more reason for each of us to live up to our values, and one more tool for being a little bit happier in the time of covid.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7: Feeling All the Feels

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I was gifted this package of lavender, lemongrass and marjoram candles to ease my way on my second sad trip of the week.

When I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I was once again grieving, with the sure knowledge that I would bounce back. And so I have. Though I am finding the restrictions of Covid to be more and more disheartening, I’m basically fine. Still, I like the ideas I was jotting down then, so let’s return to the week of July 20, 2020, back to a time of sadness:

I’ve been pretty happy this summer, but emotions are never linear. Neither happiness nor sadness is a destination to arrive at, and declare the journey over. These emotions and an abundant bouquet of other human feelings are constants throughout our lives, especially during this time of Covid, which is both exacerbated by and is also exacerbating political chaos. That chaos last week, in particular the storm troopers set loose on Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon, gave me plenty of feelings: fear, horror, anger, dismay, empathy, hope, and inspiration. And, sadness. I believe we may well need to traverse some exceptionally muddied (bloodied, even) waters before arriving safely at a happier collective tomorrow, so I try to hold on to the long view. Ultimately, I hope, all will be well. But, oh, the suffering between here and there! We will need to cling tenaciously to happiness to not drown in the sorrow.

Richard

My brother-in-law, Richard Sassaman

No matter the big picture, we each have lives filled with our own private happinesses and sadnesses. Last week gave me plenty of both, though ultimately sadness won out. My family and I started the week in coastal Maine, saying goodbye to my brother-in-law Richard, who died suddenly a year ago. I’ve done some grieving, but not enough. I don’t think I’ve fully processed the fact that he is gone. The send-off was a sweet family affair on the edges of Acadia Park — simple and loving. There were many smiles. Yet, the act of literally scattering my husband’s brother’s ashes was devastating. It was pretty darn concrete evidence that Richard no longer exists in his familiar bodily form. I shed a few tears during the car ride back to Vermont.

At home, happy news awaited: I was interviewed about my new book for a really cool podcast, “The Leftscape: The Shape of Progressive Conversation” AND learned that Action for Happiness (an awesome grassroots happiness group endorsed by the Dalai Lama) had just published an excerpt from the book! And … I only had a few days at home before packing for my next trip, on another profoundly sad family mission.

I’ve written before about the value in recognizing and accepting our inevitable grief. What I want to suggest at the moment is that it is also important to embrace our happiness. Sometimes I think that is harder for us. When we see so much hurt and injustice all around is, it may feel almost immoral to be personally happy.  You may even think you don’t deserve to be happy.  But we really do need to claim our happiness, for ourselves and others because it is good for us in so many ways. Crucially, it’s important to remember that happiness improves our capacity to minimize the pain and suffering. To build a better world. To love. To laugh. Embracing happiness is a very moral path.

In my book, in sermons, in workshops, in previous blogs, I’ve quoted many an expert on this theme — for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, who, with other researchers found that myth that “happier people have more confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, likeability, sociability, and more originality. They are more active. Happier people also have better physical well-being, stronger immune systems, and more energy. And, happier people are more flexible and cope better with challenges and stress.”  

Or former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.  During the Obama Administration, Murthy made happiness part of his public health agenda. He emphasized happiness as one of the main ways humans can prevent disease and live a long, healthy life.  

I greatly appreciate the experts, but I also take comfort from homegrown wisdom. I sometimes reflect back on a conversation one hot summer day years ago with my friend Felicia. We swam across the lake and then sat on a neighbor’s dock, our legs dangling in the water. I told Felicia that I felt like I couldn’t be happy, even though I had plenty of reasons to be, because both my adult children were going through rough times. Felicia set me straight. She told me that my children’s journeys were their own, and I had to seize my happiness when it was available to me. She assured me that I would have plenty of time to feel sad, too.

Such wise advice. I will always be grateful. Indeed, I have had — and will have — plenty of time to feel sad, including the trip I took on July 23rd. I have a sibling who is now on hospice. No need to go into the details, but I needed to make the drive to another state (less Covid free than either Vermont or Maine) to visit with this sibling for what could be the last time. So off I drove, by myself this time. Another weekend, another goodbye to another sibling.

Obviously, this was a recipe for sadness, but even this period of time was interspersed with a variety of positive emotions. Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Feeling them both at the same time is one of the many paradoxes of the human existence.

Here’s one of the positive experiences that made me happy: I am a huge Shankar Vedantam fan (of course! he’s all about the brain science!) and had loaded lots of Hidden Brain podcasts on my phone. I listened to Hidden Brain after Hidden Brain and learned lots of cool stuff.  Learning cool stuff makes me happy.

Even more — much more — I got to spend quality time with another sister and her husband. I love them both, and savored our time together.

My time with my dying sibling was also precious. Poignant. Difficult. Unforgettable. I’m so glad I made that trip.

Then, I was sad the whole drive home — all 10 hours behind the wheel.  Once again, Shankar Vedantam rescued me. More Hidden Brains gave me the equilibrium I needed to stay safe behind the wheel. On one episode, he discussed a very interesting concept, all new to me: our internal “hot and cold empathy gap.” That is, when we’re feeling a really hot emotion (say, anger or desire), it’s hard to remember the cooler emotion (non-anger, or prudence). But when it comes to happiness and sadness, I think we can remember, and that it is helpful to do so.  When I am very happy, I know that it is a fleeting sensation — and vice versa.

I actively cultivate happiness because I think it is helpful, as well as more enjoyable. But we have all our emotions for a reason. So let’s have them all, within reason.

 

 

 

 

 

Happiness in the Time of Covid, Part 4: Cajoling Your Brain with Stickers

IMG_3003Forward: This tale of tricking my brain to jump start my stalled yoga practice may seem like it doesn’t apply to you, if you either don’t do yoga or do it literally quite religiously. Ah, but it does! For the story here is both literal and metaphorical, and applies not only to each of us individually but also to our communities at large. What we focus on, measure, and hold ourselves accountable for makes a huge difference in what we actually do. If we want happier selves, and a happier planet, we need to make good accountability choices. So, yogini or nogini, please feel free to follow along!

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My gratitude painting for May 2012

Seven weeks into quarantine time, I finally turned on a Pandora yoga music channel; arrayed my mat, blocks, and cushion in the middle of my bedroom carpet; got on the floor, and, hallelujah! — actually did yoga again. Thanks to the trip I took right before Covid-19 hit, it had been nine weeks since my last yoga session — a very long time for me to not do yoga. I love yoga, especially the meditation in motion aspect of focusing on both the breath and the asanas, or poses. It is clear — sometimes painfully so — that my (ahem) maturing body needs yoga to stay flexible and reasonably fit. Some years back, when I was painting a monthly gratitude watercolor, yoga even made the cut. It means that much to me.

Yet, with no in-person yoga class, day after day, and then week after week, I kept not doing yoga. My body tried to tell my brain, “Yo! We need to do this!” Maybe it was grief,  inertia, or an upset household schedule, but I just could not make myself get on that mat.

Fortunately, the science of happiness got me back on track. The mind-body connection is such a wondrous thing. I knew that if I could convince my brain that I truly wanted to do yoga, my brain would lobby my body to get going. And I knew just what would do the trick with my brain: colored stickers. I promised myself I would put a sticker on the calendar for every day I practiced yoga. So far, it has worked: I’ve done between 15 and 40 minutes of yoga poses ten nights out of the last twelve*. Because if I don’t: no sticker.

How silly is that? But it works.

Truthfully, I used several other tricks, as an insurance policy:

  1. IMG_3011Earlier in the day, I put my yoga equipment in the middle of the bedroom floor, where I would have to specifically step over it in order to ignore it. I learned this in-your-face trick from my friend Braco Probic, whose book Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits is full of excellent tips to help us all change our ways.
  2. Another trick from Braco’s book: don’t aim too high. The Japanese have a term for this: kaizen, or improvement by successfully taking small steps (which pleases the brain and makes it want to continue) rather than failing with grander ambitions (which frustrates the brain and makes it want to give up). I want my brain to continue being my yoga cheerleader, so I only have to do one yoga pose to earn my sticker reward. Of course, once I start, one pose flows into another. Thus, each night I can easily surpass my minimal goal, and bask in that accomplishment.
  3. Then there’s accountability — so powerful, I doubled down on it. I IMG_3012not only wrote “do yoga” on my weekly to-do list but also told my husband what my yoga plans were so he could “hold me accountable,” if need be. Really, the list is the more powerful motivator because I am very goal oriented — as long as the goals are my choice (intrinsic) and not a burden put on me by someone else (extrinsic).

There are other tricks, but here’s what you shouldn’t rely on: willpower. Willpower is much more subject to external forces than you may realize, and may even be a limited resource, at least on a daily basis. If you use all your willpower on not eating pancakes at breakfast, you might not have any left to carry you through the rest of the day — especially these days. Sometimes just getting out of bed takes all the willpower we’ve got.

From a more positive perspective, one of my favorite scientific grids comes from Martin Seligman, the unofficial father of positive psychology. Seligman developed the PERMA theory: five core elements that can guide each of us toward more thriving and happier lives. The elements are positive emotions (P); engagement in life (E); relationships (R); meaning (M); and accomplishment or achievement (A). Knowing that accomplishment is such a vital part of human well-being helps explain to me why stickers, to-do lists, and other forms of accountability work. Our brains like achievement.

Another way of looking at all this mental trickery is this: stickers and to-do lists are fundamentally measures, proving on a personal level that what we choose to measure matters because that is what we pay attention to. This is the same basic theory behind the Gross National Happiness movement to change what we measure on a policy making level from focusing obsessively on the GDP and economic growth to a more holistic and inclusive well-being framework.

Here, too, on the macro-level, Covid-19 times seem to be making room for a different set of measures. On May 10, 2020 The Guardian reported that a majority of Britains now want quality of life indicators to take center stage in policy making, thus prioritizing “health and wellbeing over economic growth.” That is an exciting development, but I’m not sure they — or we — have earned our stickers yet. Okay, maybe one sticker.

But let’s bring it back to you, and your happiness during this time. Please understand, I don’t want to push anyone into trying to do something you’re not yet ready for. Maybe you’re working too hard. Or you are still too down. Not only that, the tricks that work for my brain might not appeal to you. Maybe you don’t even like stickers! I just want you to take care of yourselves as best you can. And if any of these tricks or suggestions do help you, that will make me happy.

 

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*I could only do yoga on my own because I’ve been taking classes for 20+ years, including almost 20 years from Susi Wahlrab. Her teachings are etched in my brain and body. If you need or want instruction, there are many yoga videos to choose from.

 

A

 

PERMA

GNH measuring what matters

 

 

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 3: Grief, Comfort, and Baby Steps

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A Kathy Washburn birch trees platter

In April of 2014, I was riding an exceptionally happy wave in my life. Then, abruptly and shockingly, the wave plummeted, propelling me into the world of grieving instead.

There were many reasons for my happiness high back then, including a week-long residence at Kripalu— a yoga and meditation retreat in the mountains of western Massachusetts — as part of the Certificate in Positive Psychology program with Tal Ben-Shahar and the Wholebeing Institute.  My sister-in-law met me at Kripalu so we could drive together to a beach house we had rented on the North Carolina Outer Banks for our “Joyful Creativity Retreat.” Both weeks were very happy-making.

Back home, more happiness awaited. With my Gross National Happiness USA and Happiness Alliance colleagues, I was part of the planning team for a national happiness conference to be held at the end of May. I wasn’t just planning — I was writing my keynote speech for the opening session on why activists in the Gross National Happiness movement should also cultivate personal happiness. It was all pretty heady, and, again, happy.

Plus, it was spring.

Then, a few days after I got home, the other side of life showed up. I learned that, while I was away, my dear friend Kathy Washburn had been murdered by her husband, who then took his own life. At first, I could not — literally, could not — believe that it was true. It simply made no sense. But it was true.

I’m no expert on grief, but I was told that losing someone through a violent act is harder to cope with than other forms of death. I’ve been wondering lately if losing a loved one to Covid-19, with its very lonely, isolated last moments, might similarly create a harder kind of grief. In any case, Kathy’s funeral was the most upsetting memorial service I’ve ever been to. I sobbed copiously. So did many other mourners.  It just didn’t make sense that Kathy was gone.

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Kathy’s mother hen and chick design, here on a mug.

I didn’t know the others at the service very well, since Kathy and I lived on opposite sides of a Vermont mountain range and didn’t share overlapping social circles. We first met at an out-of-state craft show. Kathy was a potter, who painted designs like birch trees and moose on her mugs and platters. She was a dog lover, a former special education teacher who loved to take young adults under her wing, and a big laugher. She laughed frequently and enthusiastically. I think her laughter is what she will be most remembered for.

When I left the craft show world to go to mediation school, Kathy hired me as one of her painters. We talked for hours as we painted. We were the same age, had similar world views, and could safely be open and candid with one another. She loved my grad school stories, and had great faith in my ability to be a good mediator. We were kindred spirits.

Her death hit me hard.

I’ve been thinking about Kathy and those grief filled days lately thanks to Covid-19, and the national epidemic of grief we’re all feeling, in varying degrees. There is so much to grieve for, most especially the lonely deaths of loved ones, and, in a different but also profound way, the loss of jobs and any semblance of financial security.  I think of the daily struggles of medical staff, grocery store clerks, and the unsung heroes who keep all the essential facilities clean brings grief, too. You all know what’s been lost: “normalcy,” a sense that everything was maybe kind of okay, lots of fun stuff — and even activities we never looked forward to, like grocery shopping or going to the dentist.

The other day, our family dentist called to tell us that she will not re-open until June of 2021! I was surprised to find myself feeling distressed that I couldn’t go to the dentist! Which brings me to the children. How many of them are surprised to realize how badly they want to return to school? I hope that this pandemic will actually, ultimately, lead to a brighter future for all our children. Still, in the short term, what has made me saddest is observing how social distancing has affected my eight year old granddaughter — robbed suddenly of her friends, her school, and her biggest passion in life, gymnastics. Her tears break my heart.

But here’s the comfort, perhaps: you can feel free to embrace your grief because your happiness will return. Indeed, during my Kathy grief, knowing what steps I could take to cultivate personal happiness when I was finally ready to do so gave me freedom to cry and sleep as much as I needed. I’ve learned that it works the other way, too: embracing the reality of suffering better equips us to be happy, because we can’t turn off the sad without also turning off the happy. As Golda Meir put it, “Those who do not know how to to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

This does not necessarily mean that we ever get back what we lost. Perhaps, if you lost a job, you may end up in a more satisfying position. Or, on the macro level, our whole world may be evolving to be a better place. But, let’s keep it real: the 65,000 people who have officially died of Covid-19 in the United States as of this writing are never coming back. Our children will never have these months of schooling back. The losses will remain true, forever.

Nonetheless, you are still likely to be happy again. There’s a theory that we all have a “set point for happiness,” kind of like a thermostat. When we experience marvelous and joyful events, our happiness will spike. Likewise, in times of sorrow and pain, our happiness plunges. Either way, our level of happiness eventually winds up back at that natural set point. Superman actor Christopher Reeve, for example, is said to have been a very happy man at the end of his life, despite the accident which left him a quadraplegic. I have to imagine he experienced a period of grief and rage … but, after a time, returned to his apparently high set point.

 

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Some of the books I’m currently reading.

BabySteps: You can rewire your brain to be an overall happier person, with a higher set point. That takes time and a commitment to happiness practices, which you can do even now in the throes of grief, albeit perhaps in small doses. I have good days and bad, days when I desperately need a good cry or just go back to bed after lunch. Nonetheless, I have my current happiness practices: meditation (several days a week), gratitude (both in a nightly journal and observations throughout the day), beauty and savoring, exercise (most days), and spending time with loved ones (virtually or at home, even when it’s hard, every day). There’s one more practice that gives me great comfort: learning.

The New Economics Foundation say learning is one of the five keys to wellbeing, and that is how I bookend my days. After my morning coffee, I spend about a half hour learning Spanish with Duolingo, an online language platform. At night, I am currently reading Bill Bryson’s in-depth, non-fiction exploration of the human Body. Next up is John McPhee’s daunting tome on geology. There are no external forces compelling me to study Spanish or read science books. I do both because it makes me feel better.

 

And that is plenty good enough in this times.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19: Part 2, Meditation

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A favorite meditation site in summer

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that meditating regularly is good for your physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. For example, here’s an article in the Washington Post quoting a Harvard neuroscientist on how meditation reduces stress; another article citing former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on meditation, health, and happiness; and here, from 2003, is the Time magazine cover story on the science of meditation. A quick google search will yield many, many more nuggets on the benefits of meditating. I also devote a full sermon/chapter to exploring the connection between mediation and happiness in my new book, Preaching Happinesswhich the publisher will be mailing out in a few weeks.

The point of this blog is not to repeat all that’s already out there. Rather, I want to stress, from my own experience as both a meditator and a teacher of meditation:

  1. You can do this;
  2. It will likely make you feel much better;
  3. It will help you navigate the incredibly anxious Covid-19 time with greater ease; and
  4. Your ease and calm will enable you to better assist others, in whatever ways you contribute to the greater good.

I hate to use the word “should,” so I’ll just say, you will do yourself a big favor if you meditate at least several times weekly during this crisis. It may be hard to find the time and space to do this if you have young children who are now present all the time, but, challenging logistics aside, most everybody is capable of meditating.  It does not matter whether you are religious, spiritual, or an avowed agnostic; meditation can be an integral part of any religious practice but it can also be straight up secular. It does not matter if you have a very busy mind; in fact, we all have busy, busy minds. You don’t have to have a ton of extra time at your disposal — the benefits of meditation are cumulative, but just a few minutes here and there can be helpful. It doesn’t even matter if you can’t sit still for a long period of time; you can lie down, stand up, or try walking meditation instead. If you have never meditated before, that does not matter either. You can do it now. I will tell you how.

Here are a few pointers:

  1. Meditation is about the breath, and some form of attention or intention.  Breathe, and focus. That is all.
  2. It is a common temptation to judge ourselves harshly for thinking too much instead of maintaining focus. You may well feel frustrated, and think, “I am a bad meditator.” Nonsense. All our minds wander again and again. Ad infinitum. No worries. Just make a mental note, “oh there’s a thought,” and come back to your object of intention or attention. No judgment necessary.
  3. If you are trying, if you are practicing, even a few minutes a week, then yay. Good for you! Keep it up.

Now, here are a few practices.

Exhale twice as long as you inhale. That is all. You can do this with your eyes open or closed. I like to inhale to the count of four or five, and exhale to the count of eight or ten. Do whatever is most comfortable for you and your lung capacity.  Do this for five minutes, or 30, or an hour. Don’t push too hard, be at ease and relaxed. Hopefully, this will leave you feeling much calmer — no matter the daily news!

Three deep breaths. Again, you will want to be taking relaxed deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling fully. With each breath, focus on a positive word. When I do this practice — which is frequent — I breathe in, “peace, peace, peace, peace, peace,” and breathe out, “peace, peace, peace, peace, peace,” I do the same with the words “abundance” and “love.” Each of the three words corresponds with a different part of the brain, but you can use any three positive words you want. This is another one you can do for just a couple of breaths, or, for a much longer time. Totally your choice.

Focus on your breath. One of the great things about meditation is that the only tool you need is your breath! This is perhaps the most classic form of meditation: noting gently the inhale as you breathe in, and noting gently the exhale as you breathe out. I like to add a pause in between each inhale and exhale. Make it your own, in an easy going way. Thoughts will come and go — just come back to the breath.

Guided meditations. There are so very many ways to meditate. Conveniently, in the 21st century, you can turn to many different teachers online. One of my favorites is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading positive psychology researcher, who has a whole page of guided meditations on her website. Sink into her words, experience the magic of loving kindness — and come back again and again.

Another favorite of mine comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, perhaps best known for his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) trainings. You can find many of his guided meditations online; this one is the one I like best.

So there you go, several options. If you want more choices, drop me an email.

But seriously, for your happiness, for a better world, I truly hope you give it a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, here’s why it matters:

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 1: Compassion

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The rooftop deck of the beach house we were going to rent in April 2020.

It was the morning of Thursday, March 12, 2020 when I realized my life was about to be upended. Even though that was less than two weeks ago, I can’t remember what evidence made me grasp that my plans for the next month were all for naught. I just remember suddenly knowing that Covid-19 was a real and present threat. Time to adjust.

I was at my daughter’s Wisconsin apartment at the time. My husband and I had planned to stay another week, watching our granddaughter’s gymnastics practice, visiting the gym ourselves, maybe spending Sunday afternoon at the indoor pool at the Y. Then we would drive back home to Vermont, briefly, before going south. In late March, I was scheduled lead a Unitarian Universalist service in Massachusetts, followed by visits with family in Pennsylvania, and friends in North and South Carolina, with another guest sermon scheduled for the first Sunday in April in Beaufort, SC. Then … aaaahhhh … time for Bob and me to relax for a week in Folly Beach, South Carolina. I planned to do art, read, walk the beach and just generally chill.  I expected red wine and fish tacos would be involved. I had been looking forward to this trip for several months, imagining sunsets from the screened porch and a lot of quality time on the rooftop deck. But that Thursday morning, I knew we had to head home immediately, and stay home. There would be no leisurely drive south.

The realization left me feeling shaky and weepy. Okay, so I had to cancel my trip. Big deal. It wasn’t the fact of canceling — it was the reality behind it that threw me for a loop. I knew we were all in for a collective frightening ride, that the rug had just been pulled out from all of us, with no clear idea of how bad things might get nor how long this crisis might last. Those are still giant unknowns.

One thing was clear: I had to contact the rental agency to get cancel the reservation and get

Folly Beach Screened Porch

The screened porch I daydreamed about spending time on …

our money back. I had only just paid the balance due on Monday the 9th, a mere three days before. I did not have great faith in the rental agency, a national company that had just bought out the company from whom I had originally rented the South Carolina beach house. Two years ago, this same company had bought the Florida rental agency I had used for years — and then immediately jacked up all the rates. I didn’t appreciate that I was stuck with them again. But surely, in this time of crisis, even this company with its late-stage capitalism policies, would refund our payment?

Well, no, no they would not (at least not yet — I’m not through with that battle). I tried several times to make my case to the harried young-sounding woman on the phone, while she quoted back to me the agency line: no trip insurance, no refund — though they would issue me a credit to stay with them at some future time. Agitated to begin with, I felt myself ramping up until, happily — truly, happily — compassion kicked in. I suddenly heard the distress in her voice, which allowed me to step out of my own unhappiness, and be there for her.

I stopped arguing. I said something like, “I imagine you’re having a lot of difficult conversations today.” She paused, and said, “Normally, I am talking with people who are very excited about going on vacation. Now, call after call is filled with big emotions.” This poor woman! Obviously, she wasn’t responsible for the company’s policy but nonetheless had to maintain her poise with one upset caller after another. Not only that, the company is based in the Pacific Northwest, an early hotbed of Covid-19 in the United States. I’m sure she had her own “big emotions.” We talked a bit longer, she promised to do her best for me, and I wished her well.

When I got off the phone, I almost didn’t care about the refund. It’s a chunk of money, and I still want it back — but my primary emotion was compassion for the unknown woman on the other end of call. Compassion is always a valuable commodity in our frail human lives. During the time of Covid-19, I’m sure it will be way more valuable and necessary. Fortunately, the supply is limitless.

And, compassion makes us happy. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” That, perhaps, is the number one guideline for happiness in this moment.

BTW, she called me back, twice. Both times it was late in the day on Sunday the 15th. We were driving back to Vermont (my husband was behind the wheel). The first time, she told me that she was sorry, that the manager wouldn’t budge: no refund. I was grateful for her efforts. The second time, she told me that she had tried one other avenue, but still no success. By then, she sounded so tired. When I asked if she ever got any time off, she told me that she was about to go home and rest “for a few hours.” Yikes. Honestly, at that point, I cared a lot more about her well-being than my refund. I wished her well.

And I still hold her in my heart. I want her to be happy, I want me to be happy, I want you to be happy. May it be so.

 

 

Diversity Makes Me Happy

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We are in heartbreaking times. When yet another unarmed black teenager gets gunned down running from police, when the president of the United States terms immigrants fleeing from hunger and deadly gang violence as “animals” and an “infestation,” when the poor are denied life-saving health care, and Muslims and LGBTQ folk are targets of hate crimes and hateful Supreme Court rulings … people, we have a problem.

When one TV pundit mocks a 10 year old immigrant girl with Down Syndrome, separated from her parents, with the extremely inelegant, “Womp Womp” and another talking head dismisses the children’s cages and aluminum foil blankets by saying, “They are not our children,” we have a problem.

When Puerto Ricans perish in astonishing numbers due to neglect from their own country! following a ravaging hurricane, and when Flint, Michigan STILL!! doesn’t have drinking water, oh, lord, do we have a problem.

Really, of course, we have many many problems, including the unrelenting pressure of brutal capitalism. Perhaps because of that heartless force, I believe we suffer from another gigantic and unnecessary problem — fear, often hatred, of “the other.” We suffer, and we cause suffering — hardening our hearts to others inevitably hardens our hearts, period.  When we embrace fear and hatred, we are all less happy.

One of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson notes poetically, “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.”  The same is true of fear and hatred.

But I don’t want to lecture. I want instead to share an insight on the happiness of diversity, an insight that took me totally by surprise. In the most unlikely of places, I realized that opening our hearts and accepting others can be a joy, a liberating action which allows us to open our hearts to our own selves as well. It doesn’t need to be a chore, something the diversity training officer tells us we must do.

No — even in the face of so much bigotry, sometimes you can catch more flies with honey — and the place to start, as always, is with ourselves.  In this case, the honey was harvested in a milieu I have rarely frequented: the gym. To be specific, the Planet Fitness in Racine, Wisconsin.

I had gone to the famed tropical locale of Racine for the month of February 2017 because our daughter, a single mom with exceptionally heavy professional responsibilities that month, needed our help. Her apartment is right on Lake Michigan which means bitter cold winter winds. I needed to exercise, but my usual choice of long outdoor walks was less than appealing. So, in a slight state of disbelief, I joined the gym.

For the first two days, I went to the treadmill with my head down, embarrassed, not wanting anyone to see me and not wanting to look at anybody else, either.  Finally, on day three, I looked up. What a beautiful revelation: everyone was there! Well, not everyone — there were no little children. But there were all kinds of bodies, ages, colors and genders.  I even saw someone on crutches, and someone else in a wheel chair.  Everyone. That meant I, too, with all my human foibles — some of them uncomfortably on display — fit right in.  We were all, essentially, equal. As far as I could tell, privilege of any sort got checked at the door.

I was kind of astonished. I felt like I had stumbled on an oasis in this mixed up country of ours, a place where everyone could just be accepted for who and what we actually are.  I was also delighted.  Drinking in the diversity, on a level playing field, not only pleased me intellectually but also loosened some of my own emotional chains. I could stop judging! I could stop worrying about being judged! I could stop judging myself! 

No wonder I felt happy.

It’s important to point out, the Planet Fitness atmosphere is not accidental.  Everywhere you turn inside this gym, the national chain has large, friendly signs posted urging, “No judging.” “No gymtimidation.” “We love you for who you are,” etc. It doesn’t hurt that the signs are purple, either. The staff also appears to walk the talk, with a warm and friendly welcome for everyone. I feel so welcome there! And it is my belief (and maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just my white privilege speaking ) that everyone else feels welcome too — even, because this is a chain with a low fee/high participation marketing model, those who don’t have a lot of extra money to spend.

This all felt so good to me, I joined my local Planet Fitness when I returned to Vermont in March. Thus, it is a gift that keeps on giving, as I take better care of my body on a more regular basis — which is happy making in and off itself. It also appears to be an excellent business practice, as the gym is almost always crowded.

Of course, society is not a gym, where each of us is doing our own thing. We may be equal, but we’re also separate.  Also, obviously, a good workout is not going to end racism, classicism, ageism —  though it is both an excellent coping mechanism and a great boost in helping us keep up the resistance for the long haul.

Still, I wonder, why does the diversity within the gym bring me such joy? I think there are two main reasons. First, we humans need each other, we need connections. Doesn’t it therefore make sense that putting up walls against other people also makes us unhappy? That tearing down those walls and allowing for connection resonates naturally as a positive experience?

Second, when we are working so hard to build up our judgy muscles against others, we are also training those muscles to judge our own selves. Quite harshly, in most cases, wouldn’t you agree? Whereas, accepting others does the opposite — it trains our brains (and hearts!) to accept our own selves as well.

So, yes I am heartbroken, even despairing at times. Other times, I pack my gym bag and head to my purple haven, my place of non-judging, and devote a few hours to building a softer heart and harder muscles.  Though the possibility of six pack abs is several decades behind me (but no judging!), I can still work toward greater love, acceptance, and — even in these sad days — happiness.