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The Science of Happiness Walking

The view greeting chief Happiness Walker Paula Francis on the Happiness Walk in April 2018.

When the residents of Portland, Oregon or Olympia, Washington or any of the other cities on Leg 13 of the Happiness Walk see Paula Francis and other walkers in their neon “Serious About Happiness” vests, they will likely not realize that they are witnessing a wide-ranging research project.  They also won’t know that the Walk in front of them originated in Stowe, Vermont and has logged nearly 6,000 miles on foot so far — unless they stop and engage in conversation with the walkers. They might even agree to become research participants themselves by answering one fundamentally important question: “What matters most in life to you?”

To date, the Walk has conducted many thousands of these interviews; GNHUSA is in the process of transcribing and analyzing the data from the Walk’s earlier days. Those of us who’ve walked know that the overwhelming answer for Americans of all stripes is some form of relationship and love. But we also know that regional differences are likely to emerge on various themes. Take religion and spirituality as an example. When I joined Paula for several weeks in the Jacksonville, Florida area, there was an emphasis on Jesus. In Louisiana, I noted a general talk about religion but it was more Catholic in tone and less specifically focused on Jesus. Then in Santa Fe, the talk shifted to more of a mindfulness-centered spirituality. Who knows what will show up in interviews when I join the Happiness Walk again in Portland?

The data will tell us! As Carl Polley, PhD, an instructor at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, and a new member of the GNHUSA advisory board notes,”The data collected via Happiness Walk interviews serves as a valuable record of how individuals in many different areas across the United States think about and talk about happiness.”

So why are we walking all these miles and asking so many people the same question? Particularly given the amount of research over the last few years on the science of personal happiness?

Paula Francis, center, with two walk interviewees in northern California.

The answer lies, at least to start, in Bhutan. In 2008, when Bhutan very methodically set about creating a Gross National Happiness system to measure collective well-being, they surveyed all Bhutanese citizens to determine what actually made them happy. Using this data, the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed nine domains where optimal happy-making conditions could be supported by government policy. It’s even part of Bhutan’s constitution: “the State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”

The Bhutanese research was exhaustive and exhausting: six hour interviews with every citizen!  From those interviews they determined the nine domains: psychological well being; material well being; good governance; health; community vitality; education, cultural diversity and resilience; balanced time use; and ecological diversity – in other words, a diverse set of holistic measures.  Major decisions are run through an extensive grid measuring multiple factors within each domain to determine if a particular law or policy is likely to increase or decrease the people’s happiness.

It’s still a young system, and movement. The entrenched obstacles are obviously significant – but GNH is spreading. Even the United Arab Emirates has a Minister of Happiness! Countries worldwide recognize the urgency in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message on happiness. He said, “Happiness is neither a frivolity nor a luxury. It is a deep-seated yearning shared by all members of the human family. It should be denied to no-one and available to all. This aspiration is implicit in the pledge of the United Nations Charter to promote peace, justice, human rights, social progress and improved standards of life.

“Now is the time to convert this promise into concrete international and national action to eradicate poverty, promote social inclusion and inter-cultural harmony, ensure decent livelihoods, protect the environment and build institutions for good governance,” Ban Ki-moon continued. “These are the foundations for human happiness and well-being.”

Rolling out the welcome mat for the Happiness Walk in Crescent City!

We at GNHUSA wholeheartedly agree. The time is now, to use a holistic set of alternative indicators as the north star for personal and collective well being. But, what should those indicators look like here in the United States? We are a very different country from Bhutan — and obviously, no one in the United States is going to attempt six hour interviews of every adult living here!

Laura Musikanski and other colleagues at the Happiness Alliance have been working on this question since 2011, and have compiled quite a lot of compelling data already. GNHUSA, in collaboration with the Center for Rural Studies at University of Vermont and other partners in the Vermont Data Collaborative, has been doing the same thing on a localized Vermont level; that collaborative recently published its 2017 survey on happiness and well being in Vermont.

The Happiness Walk, with its multitude of transnational interviews, seeks to complement and build on research being done by others. Indeed, we are even complementing our own Walk data with an online survey on our website. Click here and add your voice to the research!

There is another interesting scientific aspect to the Walk: “micro bursts of love.” We get that term from Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and the principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  She is also the former president of the International Positive Psychology Association — so definitely a leading light in the positive psychology research world.  In the Daily Good Frederickson wrote,

“Love, as your body experiences it, is a micro-moment of connection shared with another. And decades of research now shows that love, seen as these micro-moments of positive connection, fortifies the connection between your brain and your heart and makes you healthier. […] It can seem surprising that an experience that lasts just a micro-moment can have any lasting effect on your health and longevity. Yet there’s an important feedback loop at work here, an upward spiral between your social and your physical well-being. That is, your micro-moments of love not only make you healthier, but being healthier also builds your capacity for love. Little by little, love begets love by improving your health. And health begets health by improving your capacity for love.”

On the Happiness Walk, we experience frequent micro bursts of love. These moments seem magical. In reality, they spring from the connecting power of listening. We listen with open minds and hearts to what matters most in people’s lives. We aren’t asking for money, or votes. We aren’t proselytizing. We’re just listening. The interviewees, in turn, open their hearts and minds, and from their mouths flow the most amazing stories and poignant observations. We all fall in love with each other. Then we say goodbye and continue on our separate journeys.

So this a quest full of hope, a Walk that directly engages the public in building awareness and support for a new paradigm — one that will steer individual decision making and public policy making away from the grip of GDP and consumerism to focus instead on true well-being for all humans, animals, and the planet, stirs something within all of us. We know that we can do better — and with love and research, we will.

This post was originally published on the Happy Brain Science website as part of a collaboration with HBS Founder and Chief Happiness Officer Scott Crabtree. Happy Brain Science, based in Portland, OR, empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work. It has also been published on the website of Gross National Happiness USA, of which I am currently president.

 

Do Not Despair: Happy Endings Are Possible

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With my husband Bob and Common Cause Chairman Archibald Cox in the 1980’s, when I finally got to a happy ending.

Okay, so maybe despair is not totally avoidable. Maybe, in fact, pain and suffering are sometimes necessary on the journey toward a more positive future.  Certainly, the happy ending in this blog post would not have happened without the spur — the gift, even — of a desperate situation.  This is a story of tears, yes — followed by resilience, hard work, and the willingness to let go of plans and expectations to embrace new possibilities instead. In other words, hope, grounded in reality.

I have been reflecting on this episode from my younger days recently because despair is again nibbling at my heels.  It is an altogether natural response to the loss of morality, truth, justice, decency, compassion, common sense, and even the barest hint of democracy among the GOP House and Senate thugs, and the wildly out-of-control Trump administration. Remembering the story below has beaten back the despair for now because it reminds me that 1) happy endings are still possible; 2) the dreadful awful terrible news of the moment may ultimately be a gift; and 3) we don’t know what the future holds.

An important caution: happy endings are by no means guaranteed, no matter how good we are or how diligently we strive for the best. Countless lives have already been grievously disrupted, or cut short, by the politics of class, hate, and exclusion which have turned our country into a dystopia.  Doubtless, there will be enormous suffering, including deaths, before we turn this ship around. Still, ultimately, for those of us left standing when the sun shines again (which may or may not include me, or you), I have hope for a better future. It may well be that we collectively have to go through these dark times in order to do the work required to create a more just, happy, and sustainable future. In any case, we’re here now.

On a small personal scale, those are the messages from this true story — two stories, really — which played out more than 30 years ago.

ACT ONE: Getting and Losing My Dream Job

My first real post-college job was writing for a public television station continuity department. Think, “That’s Sesame Street, tomorrow afternoon at 4:00!” Because that position left me with extra time, not to mention un-tapped creative potential, I initiated various other projects, like producing filler videos for when shows ran short, and producing new station sign-on and sign-off videos. I loved producing, even at this very dysfunctional station. Hey, it was television! And public television at that, so I was on the side of angels…

One day, I was asked to be co-host and associate producer of a new public affairs program focused on women and minorities. Of course I said YES!! There were multiple catches. First, no raise. It wasn’t in the station’s budget, even though the male co-host and associate producer earned substantially more than me. Second, no title change. I was officially still just a continuity writer, because the Board never approved my position. Third, I still had to meet all my continuity department assignments — so I had considerably more work to do than my much higher paid co-host (who was a really nice guy). Not only that — both supervisors warned me that I had to do superlative work in each job, or, bye-bye co-hosting/producing dream job.

Great deal, right?? Still, I said yes.

The arrangement didn’t actually last all that long, maybe six months. Oh, I did superlative work, alright — and my family and I paid the price. The hours were long, the stress incredible. I kept asking, please, at least just give me a new title! But nothing. Just the admonition that, if I couldn’t keep up, I would be replaced.

Finally I decided to file a sex discrimination lawsuit. I was far from the only person at that station being treated poorly. The lawsuit beckoned my Don Quixote soul as a way to seek justice for myself and others. The lawyer told me I had a very strong case.

However, for better and for worse, I have always had a big mouth. Though I will never know exactly what happened, someone must have told station management about my lawsuit plans. Days before the suit was due to be filed, I was called into the president’s office. He told me, “It’s just not working out.” I knew it was because of the lawsuit; in fact, months later the president told me that I had actually been much better with the show than anyone expected. Even the day he delivered the devastating news of no more co-hosting and no more associate producing, he let me know I was still welcome to continue with the show as an assistant producer. I declined. My dream was shattered.

Hello despair. I went home and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. I stayed away from work for the next three days to grieve and weigh my options. The lawyer informed me, I no longer had a strong case. So I had these options: quit immediately, give two weeks notice, or hang in there until I had a better job. I chose number three. No running away for me. Not that I knew it at the time, but I now believe this resilience is one of the keys to hope: face the reality head-on, and then dig deep to work hard toward a better situation. 

ACT TWO: Common Cause, more despair, and more resilience

It was another tough six months from February to the August date when I was offered, and accepted, a position as Assistant Director of Media Communications in the Common Cause national office in Washington, DC.  By accepting that job, I let go of my plans to have a future in television, and opened myself up to a whole new career path — a decision I have never regretted. Also, I would never have sought the Common Cause job if I hadn’t been kicked off the show, so in retrospect, getting kicked off the show was a gift. Both of these feel like additional key aspects of hope: we can’t hold too tightly to our previous scripts. We must be willing to take risks, and find new openings. And, what appears to be misfortune in the moment may actually be a blessing. 

Those last months at the station were, of course, challenging. I remember a few sour things about those months — like a few of my close friends at the station saying they were afraid to be publicly associated with me anymore — but other colleagues went out of their way to tell me how much they admired my strength. I even sometimes found joy in that workplace, and can fondly recall some special moments in those closing months.

Nonetheless, the day I resigned, I literally danced into my boss’s office and sang, “I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit.”

Not surprisingly, I arrived at Common Cause with a chip on my shoulder toward authority. I was thrilled to be there but was also too confrontational for the culture and well-entrenched hierarchy. Still, I was stunned when my boss told me there were problems with my job performance — problems significant enough to extend my three-month parole another three months. If I still couldn’t clean up my act … well, that alternative was unthinkable.

Again I went home, sobbed, and weighed my choices: a) hand in my two weeks notice or b) figure out just what I had to do to succeed, and friggin do it. I desperately did not want to fail again. And I had just uprooted my whole family to move to DC — a move none of them were happy about at that time. What real choice did I have? It took a bit of ranting and raving, but ultimately I chose b.

ACT THREE: Finally! My happy ending. 

Thank god, and whoever or whatever gave me the capacity to do that work, I did do it. I succeeded. I loved Common Cause, the organization and the people — and they loved me. Common Cause was filled with the best and the brightest — people of integrity, ideals, brains, and high spirits — led by chairman and a true American hero Archibald Cox.  Fred Wertheimer, who was president for the full six years I was at Common Cause, is a brilliant lawyer who could have made a fortune in the private sector but chose instead to devote his life to strategizing and lobbying for a better Democracy. I have so much love and admiration for both these men. Archie has passed away, but Fred is still at it. Talk about determination! Amazing.

It was an honor and a privilege to work there. The entire staff and extraordinarily dedicated volunteer corps worked hard — this time, truly on the side of angels — and we had fun, loads of it.  Many of my lifelong friendships were born then, including, a bit of a shout-out: Karen Hobert Flynn, the current president of Common Cause.

To be clear, life at Common Cause was not fairy tale perfection. No, this was a real-life happy ending, the only kind we can possibly hope for. It was plenty good enough.

EPILOGUE: Now It’s All of Us

Today, the magnitude of the problem, the daily deluge of injustices — it’s breathtaking. Incomprehensible. A reality that is excruciatingly hard to face: we live in a country where it seems almost a crime to be poor, elderly, female, young, non-straight, Muslim, Jewish, an immigrant, in the media, disabled, and/or — especially, even — a person of color. It is not hyperbole to say Democracy is teetering on the edge of collapse. Even former President Barack Obama recently warned of Hitler-like symptoms in our current body politic.

And if that’s not frightening enough, thanks to climate change, our very survival as a species is threatened.

Still, we can only dare hope for a large scale happy ending if we first look reality square in the eyes. It is a very sob-worthy situation. And then, like that young woman who felt she had no choice but to fight like crazy to succeed at Common Cause, the answer to giving up or fighting back is painfully clear: there is no real choice. Failure is not an acceptable alternative. There will be no running away. We all simply must fight back.

There is plenty of room for hope. All around us, there is both good and evil. Certainly, this victory will be hard-earned, but we can do it!  When you’re ready, put away despair (though you may visit it from time to time) and focus instead on doing what must be done. This is the fight of our lives, people. Though there are no guarantees, let’s aim together for that happy ending.

One final note. A few days ago I was asked, doesn’t all my resistance work get in the way of my happiness work? Heck no — this is my happiness work!

 

 

 

 

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When You’re Ready, a Dose of Happiness

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I realize my timing might be off.  Posting this happiness booster just two days after a presidential election that left many of us — including me — devastated and exceedingly concerned about the future, may be long before many people are ready to read about happiness. I myself feel a low-grade stomach ache. The threats are real on almost every front, from bullying to grave damage to democracy itself to the big question, will Trump’s actions on climate change lead inevitably to an unlivable planet?  Never have we more desperately needed a gross national happiness approach to measuring governmental success, but that is surely not currently in the cards.

On the other hand, perhaps a dose of happiness will be a helpful diversion, as we breathe, recover, and prepare to advocate with all our hearts for well being for the ill who need health insurance, for the brave souls at Standing Rock, for the Black Lives Matter movement, for the LBGTQ community, for Latinos and Muslims, for the environment, even well being for future generations.  We need to be our personal best to do this work, and as discordant as this may sound right now, greater personal happiness — ie,hope, energy, confidence, compassion, resilience, and creativity — will help us succeed.

Thus I share with you the informal “poll” I took the Saturday before Election Day, when I exhibited at the annual Wellness Fair hosted by Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vermont. The centerpiece of my booth was a simple colorful poster asking, “What Makes You Happy?”

Seventy-three boys, girls, women, and men took the time to write or draw their responses, and it was a beautiful experience.  A friend started it off with “Standing With Standing Rock” which later earned a “Me too.”  She had just participated in a march on a local bank which has ties to the North Dakota Access Pipeline.  I, too, have felt the happiness of meaning and community in marching for climate justice.  Her word provided an auspicious beginning.

In fact, I could personally appreciate a lot of what people wrote: “yoga!”, “a cup of coffee!” “the ocean,” “singing,” “books,” “a really good book,” and “sunshine,” for example.  They all make me happy, too.

Here’s what really made me happy — interacting with all these people, as they thoughtfully wrote their responses. Not one person mentioned money, power, or material possessions.  Young and old, they took the spirit of the exercise to heart, thus filling my heart with joy — a classic happiness upward spiral.

The number one answer, you can probably guess, was relationships.  Two young women, seemingly quite smitten with one another, wrote each other’s names, with little hearts. There were two “loves,” one “hugs,” two “family,” one “my family,” a “family and friends,””connecting,” “relationships,” “twelve grandchildren,” “Grammie” (with a heart dotting the i), “Granddaughter!” and “Being with my mom.”  There were also some variations: “Road tripping with my best friend”(with two hearts) and “Being outdoors with friends and sharing nature with them.”  I suppose you could even include “sex” in the relationship category.

One family stopped for a while.  While the dad cuddled a sleeping nine month old, the mom wrote, “chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.” When I laughed, she said, “It’s a special dessert he makes for me.” So I guess that was about relationships, too.

Dogs beat out cats by a long shot.  There was only one cat, but it was a cute drawing husband and wife both contributed to.  As for canines, there were three “dogs,” two “puppies,” one “fluffy puppies,” a “dogs and gardens,” and “Hiking in the woods with my dog.”

Given that we were at a fair focused on healthy living, with an emphasis on food, it isn’t surprising that food loomed large: one, “food,” two “Good food,” one “local food,” and one “cooking good food.”  In that same vein, perhaps, are “gardening” and “gardening and compost.”  And then there were a few location specific responses: “Vermont,” “Montpelier,” “Vermont’s natural beauty,” and “Vermont classical radio.”

Here’s another one that’s not exactly specific to Vermont, but does have a rural bent: “Fresh air, plants, mud, birds at the feeder, even a Grosbeak today!”

One answer was very time specific: “I already voted!” Sigh. Ah, for the pre-election anxiety — so much better than the current reality.

Some of the answers were philosophical, including one that makes me wish I’d seen the person writing it: “comfortable silence” (I was probably too busy talking).  Als0, the sheet contains a drawn peace sign, “inner peace,” a “Peace, Progress, & People over profit,” “Compassion,” “freedom,” “Expressing creativity” (another one with a heart), and “Life in general.” Two young girls, maybe nine or 10 years old, blew me away.  The first one put down a numbered list: “1. Life. 2. Family. 3. God.” Her friend wrote, “1. Hope. 2. Food. 3. Being Alive.” Wow, just wow.

Of course there was beauty: “Rainbows,”  two “Music” plus two specific music favorites (“The Grateful Dead” — with their logo and “Clash of … [something illegible]” from a young boy), “Poetry,” “Sunsets,” and two very similar descriptions of one of my favorite natural sights: “Sunlight reflected in pools of water” from another pre-teen girl and “Light reflection of waves of water — diamond light” from a self-described very happy middle aged man.

Sports showed up: “baseball,” “soccer and basketball,” from young ones.  From a more mature person, a “good massage.”

A young child had his mother draw and spell, “Balloons.”

Finally, one person wrote my name!!  I was touched.  And I have to say, right backatcha. All of them, and all of you.  We need other people in order to be happy, and they need us, too. After this election, oh, how much we need each other! One man asked me at the end of the fair, “Will you be happy if Trump wins?” I said I didn’t know — but I do.  Yes, of course, after some grieving time, I’ll straighten out my happiness attitude and get back to work. I do hope you’ll join me.

 

 

 

Gratitude Should Be Spelled with a “P”

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My pansies, with a pinwheel.

To be clear, gratitude is serious business. Last year, no less a personage than Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, stressed the importance of a regular gratitude practice as part of a healthy life.  Don’t let the seeming ubiquity of gratitude articles in pop culture — to which I am contributing, obviously — fool you: you truly will be well served by taking gratitude to heart.

Heart is the key word.  The objects for our gratitude to rest on are everywhere.  One must, however, notice them, and then really feel your appreciation.  Like all positive psychology strategies, if your actions are not heartfelt, they don’t do you much good.

Gratitude expert (what a great job!) Robert Emmons says gratitude has two components: an affirmation of good in the world and an understanding that the good lies outside ourselves, that we can’t necessarily take credit for it.  Duly noted.  Still, I see no reason not to have a little fun with gratitude at the same time — which is where the letter P comes in.

P, I have noticed, has quite the plethora of goodness, only some of which I can occasionally take any credit for. For example, pillows.  I love pillows.  What a perfect physical manifestation of goodness!  Sometimes I have bought pillows, or been gifted pillows, or paid for a night in a motel room with incredibly satisfying pillows — but essentially their goodness comes from outside of me.  I didn’t make any of these pillows.  Nor did I grow, harvest, manufacture or process any of their component parts.  Other people, and nature itself, did all this work.  I am grateful.

What other goodness does the letter P offer us? Here’s a partial list:

  • Purple.  Dark purple, light purple, eggplants and velvet.  Purple, purple, purple.
  • Pink, too.  Once I read a Washington Post columnist’s assertion that pink was not a grown up color.  Really?  A color? I say, embrace pink!
  • Paint!  While we’re on the subject, paints and painters, all kinds!
  • Pools, ponds, patios and parties.
  • Pelicans, and the time to watch pelicans nose-diving into the ocean.
  • Pizza.  I am all too grateful for pizza.
  • Popcorn, pasta, potato salad, peas, pesto, pancakes, pepper.  I can muster up a lot of gratitude where my stomach is considered.
  • Persistence, positivity, playfulness, power, patience, peculiarity, puckiness! Yay that we have all this within our own beings.
  • Prayer.  Whatever that means to you, it’s something to be grateful for.
  • Peonies, petunias, pansies, poppies.
  • Penguins, pandas, parrots, puppies, and porcupines (most of the time).
  • Pajamas. Even better if the pajamas have polka dots!
  • Petticoats. I mean, even the word!  “Petticoats” — you have to smile.
  • Purring.  Speaking of smiling.
  • Pinwheels.
  • Presence and presents.
  • Pope Francis.  I haven’t always been grateful for popes, but this one is the most powerful champion alive for our …
  • … Planet.  There are no words for this one.  You all know what I mean.
  • Finally, peace.  Aspiring for the big peace, cultivating peacefulness within.  Maybe the very best P word of all.

Of course, P does not have a monopoly on goodness.  I am a writer, I am fond of the entire alphabet.  Also, there are some P words that may seem unpleasant at first blush — like puking.  But my wise husband pointed out, there are certainly times when we are grateful for puking, ugly though both the word and experience may be.  Hmmmm … I’ll have to remember that next time.

In the meantime, my husband and I also came up with a fun new gratitude game, one you all can play along with: can you name something for which you are truly grateful for every letter of the alphabet?  If you do this, let me know.  I’d love to see what you all come up with!

I have to say, I’ll even be grateful.

 

The Power of a Positive No to Increase Happiness

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The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota access pipeline.  Photo by Little Redfeather Design/Honor the Earth

 

In 2005, after I had applied for the Masters in Mediation program at Woodbury College, I sat down with the Admissions Director for an informational interview.  “Would the program involve much conflict?” I asked her.  In retrospect, how embarrassing.  A mediator’s main job is to be calm in the midst of sometimes stormy conflicts, helping disputants move toward mutually acceptable solutions.

I got in the program anyway and fell in love with conflict theory, my first deep foray into brain science and human behavior. One of my favorite books was The Power of A Positive No  by William Ury.  For many of us, saying “no” is just as welcome as entering into conflict.  In fact, it sometimes is entering into conflict, or at least bringing the dispute to light — even if the whole thing is only within our own heads (“no, you cannot have that cake!” “but I want it!”).  Ury makes saying “no” much easier by asking us to consider, when we say no, what are we saying “yes” to?power-of-positive-no

That may be a simplification of Ury’s book, but this basic question has served me well whenever a no was emotionally difficult, inconvenient, and/or requiring some level of sacrifice.  Though Ury’s subtitle, Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No, focuses on interpersonal conflict, I have found the positive no formula helpful in many situations. For example, I have said no to quite a few things that I previously enjoyed — nail polish, hair driers, meat (mostly), clothing driers, etc. — because the “yes” is so much bigger: a clean, livable climate for future generations. Then again, we all are in relationship with the climate, with the generations who will follow us, even with our own consciences.  Maybe it is all about relationships after all.

In any case, this is not just a personal tool — saying no to get to yes can be powerful with big picture disputes as well.  The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline is an inspiring example. I don’t want to speak for the determined water protectors, but what I see is a strong no to the pipeline, no to fossil fuel infrastructure, and no to the possibility of a devastating pipeline break and oil spill — all based on an unwavering yes to water, to life, to future generations, and to sacred lands and spiritual traditions.

Of course, a positive no is more complex than simply focusing on yes,  because we all are in relationship with one another. It is often both desirable and advisable to consider other options.  For the global climate action movement, for example, it is insufficient to just say no to the hardworking women and men in the fossil fuel industry. We do need to say no to fossil fuels, for sure — but these folks need jobs and incomes. For sure.  Thus the climate action movement also advocates for a just economy with alternative livelihoods for these families and communities — such as, building green energy infrastructure.

On a personal happiness level, sometimes yes is just yes.  Whether it’s practicing meditation, being a better listener, or simply smiling more, many positive psychology tools don’t require saying no.

Frequently, though, no has an important role to play.  I love pretty clothing and shiny trinkets, but I can usually reject their lure thanks to my well-rooted yes to saving the planet as best I can.  My no to stuff is sometimes challenging, but it ultimately makes me happy for at least three reasons:

  1. Our brains are not happy when we act in discord with our values and morals. Doing what my own brain believes is the right thing increases my happiness.
  2. The happiness hit from buying stuff is short lived.  There are always prettier clothes and shinier trinkets.
  3. Limiting my spending also means liberating some of my time.  Since I am not working simply to pay a department store credit card, I am freer to choose a career based on passion, not paycheck.

Sometimes the yes precedes an inevitable no.  When my daughter was nearing the end of her pregnancy, I absolutely said yes to driving from Vermont to Alabama to be there for her in the weeks before and after she gave birth. This meant saying no to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience, an enterprise I had started less than six months earlier.  I shut it down for two months, just when I should have been building the new business.  Instead, I built a closer relationship with my daughter and a deep, deep bond with my grandchild.  It was a good happiness choice for us all.

Back to the systems level, I think the power of a positive no may be even more helpful as we move toward a gross national happiness paradigm.   To embrace policies and political and economic philosophies based on a holistic “yes!” to the maximum well being for all people and the planet will require some really tough “no’s” to the dominance of a consumerism-obsessed, money focused, growth economy-insistent, gross national product way of thinking.  To state the obvious, it will not be easy.

Big jobs are easier broken into bite size pieces.  The Bhutanese, who have a gross national happiness system in place, have done that for us, dividing the big picture into nine “domains” — areas where government policy can best support well being.  The nine are: psychological well-being, physical health, time balance, community vitality, education, culture, environment, good government, and standard of living.

 

Not that any of these is really bite sized.  Still, this division makes it a bit easier to envision what to say no to, and what the yes might be.  Take trust in government for example.  I suspect there is a broad consensus for saying no! to the corrupting influence of money in politics, in order to say yes to healthier democracy.  However, since, campaigns will still need to be financed, the no is insufficient without an alternative vision — like public financing of congressional campaigns.

This example, like so many others, provides no panacea. Money will find a way to seep back in.  John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once quipped that those who reform systems and those who scheme to undermine those reforms should make an appointment to meet up several years after the reforms are passed — because, by then, it will time for new reforms.

Obviously, gross national happiness advocates are not trying to create a utopia. Rather, while we say no to a framework that no longer supports well being for either people or the planet, we say yes to new definitions of success that are more complete, more sustainable, and much happier for many more people.

It’s going to be a heckuva journey getting there, but journeys start today with one small step.  You can make that small but significant step today: say yes to happiness by signing the Charter for Happiness.  There will be plenty of time to say no all along the way.  Right now, all you need to do is say yes.  Yes, yes, yes!

A Gift for You: Walk in the Woods Meditation

Walk in the Woods

After decades of practicing meditation, four years of teaching happiness meditation classes and workshops, and now leading weekend retreats, I finally wrote my own guided meditation, “A Walk in the Woods.”  Being in nature makes us happy, but it isn’t always possible to physically be outside drinking up the sights, sounds, and smells of hiking on a wooded trail.  We can, however, savor the forest sensations in a very mindful way by taking the time to mentally create or recreate that experience in as much detail as possible.

I was inspired by the local Calais Trails Committee and by the transformative Helen Keller essay, “Three Days to See.”   With gratitude to them, I offer the following meditation to you.  Please make it your own.  I’ve based the meditation on a summer walk in the Vermont woods, but your walk may be in the fall, spring or winter, on a real or imaginary trail.  Create or recreate the experience that best suits you.  The following is more a series of suggestions than a road map.

A Walk in the Woods

I invite you to start by easing into your meditation practice.  With your eyes closed, let your breath out with an audible sigh.  Do this several times if you like.  Take a moment to notice all the places your body is in contact with the floor, chair, or cushions.  Appreciate the support of the furniture and the building you are in, as well as the strength of the earth, making it safe for you to relax into your meditation time.  Next, in an easy gentle fashion, focus on your breath, for a few minutes, until you feel ready to proceed. Take as much time with this transition as you want.

When you are ready, imagine you are at the trail head, ready to step in among the trees.  Before you begin your walk, take time for gratitude.  You may be grateful to have an able body.  You might thank those who built the trail, or the landowners who share their property with the public.  Perhaps your gratitude is for the weather, or for a strong pair of sneakers and good socks.  What are you grateful for? Again, take your time.  There is no need to hurry.

Remember to breathe.

Now, stepping into the woods, where do your feet land?  What does the trail look like? Are there trail blazes or other markers on the trees?  Who made them?  Are there roots or rocks you might stumble over?  Fallen branches?  Are ferns or maybe even poison ivy growing near the trail? Is it a sunny day?  What kinds of patterns does the play of light through the tree canopy make?  Look around, what can you really see?

When we practice mindfulness, we can try to use all our senses.  Right now, for example, what do you hear in your own little forest?   Maybe leaves crunching underfoot?  Or birds — is there a variety of bird calls if you really listen?  Is it a still day, or is a breeze blowing?  What does that sound like?  Other animals?  Insects whirring by your ear or chirping from afar?  Maybe even traffic or construction noises off in the distance?  Mindfulness is about more than appreciating beauty — it is, deeply observing what truly is.

Still breathing?

What does the air smell like?  Did it rain recently?  Are there rotting logs nearby?  Do you smell your own shampoo, or toothpaste?  Maybe there are flowers, or berries — do you want to lean in and breathe in their aroma?

And touch — is the air on your arms and face cool from the shade, or is it a hot sultry day even in the woods?

Even taste — did you bring a water bottle along?  What does the water taste like?  Any leftover meal flavors still lingering in your mouth?  Did you pick a berry to eat?  Was it sweet, sour, overripe?

Breathing deeper now, and looking more carefully around you.  You’re surrounded by trees, but what species?  Have any blown over, from the wind or maybe lightning? What bark do you see around you?  Patterns?  Growths on trees?  Any holes in the trees? Perhaps holes made by animals, or perfect for animals to crawl into. And of course the leaves, or pine needles — different shapes, various shades of green? Are there also browns, and reds — trees in distress, or maybe autumn is coming on.  It’s time to see the trees themselves, not just the forest.  Are there any very old trees?  Or very young ones?  Any competing for the sunlight? What else?

Where would we be without trees?  Can you feel gratitude for them?

Still remembering to breathe, turn now to the rocks and stones. Do you see ledge, or quartz? What sizes — boulders? Pebbles?  Do you have to climb over any rocks?  Are they moss-covered?  Sharp, rounded?  Maybe you can even spot one that is heart shaped.

Now we’re walking next to a mountain brook.  Is your brook full and flowing forcefully?  Maybe it just rained?  Or is it late summer, with only a trickle? Pause and put your hand in.  How cold is it? What does the brook sound like?  What patterns do you see, in the way the water falls, and on the rocks below the surface?  Linger by the brook as long as you’d like.

When you’re ready, notice that the trail is going up hill.  What are the sensations in your muscles?  Are you winded?  Sweaty? Thirsty?  How is your body doing on this hike?  Or is it more of an easy going walk for you?  Even on this mental journey, can you listen to your body’s experience?

In this moment, we’ve stepped out of the woods into a meadow.  It may be sunny, or overcast.  Is it hotter?  Or is there a wind blowing, making your skin cooler? Looking up, what do you see in the skies?  Have the sounds in the meadow changed from those in the woods?  And sights — perhaps here you might see butterflies.  What else is different on this part of the walk?

Finally we’ve arrived at an overlook, where conveniently there’s a bench to sit on and savor the view.  What do you see?  A lake in the distance?  Mountains?  A city?  Is the view awe-inspiring? Does the larger vista give you a sense of place in the world, maybe putting your own cares in perspective? Can you pay attention to your feelings as well as the view? Just accepting your feelings, not trying to change them or judge them in any way.

Spend as long as you want sitting on the bench, taking in whatever is present for you in this moment.

Finally, let’s end this meditation the way we began: with gratitude.  Grateful perhaps for beauty, for public policies that have preserved park land, for your own self to take this time to flex your mindfulness muscles and nurture your connection with the natural world.  Who and what are you grateful for?

When you are ready, open your eyes and gently return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Have a wonderful day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Turn to Embrace Unhappiness

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I'm not pretending.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I’m not pretending.

I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times.  It’s part of life, I say aloud.  Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”

Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument.  Bad times have arrived.

All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble.  The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away.  Not a good sign.  Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont.  More foreboding.  Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said.  “First we need pictures.”

Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech.  Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living.  I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.”  Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored.  Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink.  It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated.  Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye.  The doctor assures me, this will hurt.  I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away.  Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself.   I don’t, actually.  This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives.  Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute.  Bad times take many different forms.  Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.

The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation.  I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office.  I don’t know why.  Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry.  My left eye is irreversibly damaged.  I almost lost my vision completely in that eye.  That is worth grieving over.  That is worth many tears.

I know I’ll be done crying soon.  From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it.  There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there.  However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too.  Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic?  I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not.  Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun.  It might not even work.  It might happen in the other eye.  But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War.  He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism.  Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.

Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”  So be it.  Faith, yes.  And, tell me the truth.

I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse.  Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps?  Or their optimism isn’t reality based?

So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality.  That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend.  I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight.  I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist.  I will forgive myself.  Not yet, though.

Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness.  Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight.  Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn’t do it.  I just needed to be sad.

It’s dark, rainy and cold today.  Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return.  Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well.  Maybe not.  Either way is okay.