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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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