Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Vermont’ Category

United in Our Unhappiness; United in Our Solution?

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Ginny Sassaman, President of GNHUSA, talking about Truth in Governance at the Montpelier, VT Truth in Government Rally, 6/3/17

One of the great benefits of the way I experience grief is, my house gets cleaner. The news of the United Airways/Chicago police assault of an innocent passenger who just wanted to get home and to take care of his patients hit me hard.  So out came the broom, off of the bed came the sheets — sweeping, mopping, while my brain and heart tried to process what had happened and why it filled me with such sorrow.  In part, it’s an issue of trust. Can we trust the policymakers who exert so much control over our lives — including corporate policymakers — to prioritize our collective well being and happiness in their decision making process? The answer that day was, no: dollars matter more than people.

That incident was on my mind a few weeks later as I prepared my remarks for the March for Truth rally in Montpelier, Vermont on June 3, 2017.  Although Gross National Happiness USA decided not to co-sponsor the event due to its appearance of partisanship, as President of GNHUSA, I was eager to speak out about trust in governance. Not only is it one of the nine domains of happiness within the GNH framework, lack of trust in governance is a commonality across the political spectrum. Similarly, coming together to increase trust in governance by adopting a non-partisan GNH approach to community well being could be a shared path to happiness.

And so I addressed the rally. It was my first time speaking at such an event and I was a little nervous. There’s a video of my remarks, or, you can read here what I had to say:

“I want to do five things in my brief remarks:  1) broaden the concepts we’re discussing today; 2) share what this has to do with happiness; 3) step away from partisanship; 4) look briefly at the nub of the problem; and 5) share a long term solution.

First, from a GNH perspective, we look at the issue not just as truth in government but as trust in governance, including corporate decisions which can have a major impact on our well being. We should trust, for example, that when we pay hundreds of dollars for an airline ticket, we won’t get dragged off that plane by police because the flight is overbooked.

Obviously policies like that, and lies and deception from elected officials, make us unhappy. That’s why we’re here today. But there is also research. Gross National Happiness is a data-driven approach. Data found nine key areas where governments can create conditions that make us much happier or much less happy. One of those is trust in governance.

Year of Living DanishlyIn fact, Helen Russell reported in her book, The Year of Living Danishly, that trust in governance is one of the most important reasons Denmark consistently ranks as a very happy country.

We also have data for this country, and Vermont. Vermonters rate trust in governance as one of our least happy domains, at least one it comes to federal governance.

Throughout America, red state, blue, or purple. there is deep distrust of governance. We don’t necessarily distrust the same officials or believe the same “truths,” but this is a non-partisan commonality. Trust in governance could be a unifying principle. It could bring us together.

So why such untrustworthy behavior? No doubt one reason is greed, which may be innate. I think think the real villain is the GDP-driven growth economy which demands greed for money and material goods, sometimes in the name of happiness. But it doesn’t work. Over the last couple of decades, the GDP has risen but happiness has flat-lined. You know what has risen? Suicide rates. For all age groups.

It’s time to be greedy for happiness.*

Unlike the very narrow GDP goal posts of success, a GNH framework is comprehensive and inclusive. The idea is, you run policy decisions through a matrix to determine impact on the environment, equality, health, education and more — all the things that make us truly and collectively happy and well. Then, with holistic data, you can make the right choices.

In 1968, during his ill-fated presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy said of the GDP, it measures everything “except that which makes life worth while.” It’s just plain wrong, that that’s how we make policy!

A government that took the people’s right to pursue happiness seriously; governance based on well being for all people — including future generations, and animals, and the planet; a government that valued those things which make life worth while — that would be trustworthy governance.

I invite you to join the happiness movement by signing our Charter for Happiness at GNHUSA.org.

Thank you.”

* This is the line that got the most applause!

 

 

 

 

 

Unhappiness at the Shopping Mall

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

 

The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.

  • Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.

Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.

Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.

  • So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones.  There are some things we just have to do.

On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.

Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.

But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.

Strike one:
Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself.  At. All.  Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.

Strike two came at the playground:
Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.

Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages.  Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.

Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.

I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do?  I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents???  Or even a mall employee?

Very sad.  What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time?  Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?

Strike three:
Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.

Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.

As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.

This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.

Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation.  More mall fall-out?  Or just the way it is these days?  Either way, something is wrong here.

Strike Four: $anta Claus
Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).

So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”

But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.

Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.

Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap.  It is about commerce, not magic.

Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.

Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.

I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience.  Is nothing sacred?

  • Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”

Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire.  As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.

Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up.  Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!

Is It Time to Get Arrested for Happiness?

Is it time for this middle aged grandmother to try on a pair of handcuffs?

Why, yes, perhaps it is.  I don’t have a date penciled in my calendar, but I can feel it coming closer.  For my own personal happiness, for your personal happiness, and for a happier planet, I suspect I will soon respectfully engage in non-violent civil disobedience.

Such a possibility is not a new idea.  It’s been resting somewhere in the back of my consciousness since I first became involved in the Gross National Happiness movement.  As I became increasingly aware of the enormous and urgent challenge of changing our economic structure to avoid environmental apocalypse, I’ve wondered if there might come a day when I would need to really put myself on the line.  The entrenched systems we must change for a liveable planet are massive and powerful.  Weening ourselves off fossil fuels and shifting from a growth economy to a new economy of well being is possible but it will be a very, very hard struggle.

And, as the prayer of the Hopi elder says, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — not, they are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Maeve McBride, organizer for 350 Vermont and mother of two being led away from Governor Peter Shumlins office on Monday night.  63 other protestors were arrested with her.

Maeve McBride, organizer for 350 Vermont and mother of two,  being led away from Governor Peter Shumlin’s office on Monday night. 63 other protestors were arrested with her.

Thoughts of arrest rose to the surface this past week thanks to the actions of 64 brave Vermonters — from teens through grandparents, men, women, students, farmers, professors, all walks of life — who stood up for the love of Vermont, the planet, and future generations by sitting down.  Sitting down, that is, in Governor Peter Shumlin’s office until he agreed to shut down a pipeline for fracked gas or until they got arrested, whichever came first.  No surprise what happened. They were arrested for trespassing — an event that was beautifully captured on video.

I was so grateful to and proud of the Vermonters who put themselves on the line that night.  For several hours, I was one of the 500 or so supporters who rallied outside the office building to raise our voices against fossil fuel infrastructure and for those risking arrest on the inside of the building.  Rising Tide Vermont was one of the rally and sit-in’s sponsoring organizations; check out their website for information about the ongoing pipeline struggle.

As I chanted, clapped, sang, and sometimes yelled as hard as I could, I felt waves of emotion: anger and frustration at a governor who talks the climate change talk, but is not walking the walk; despair at the seemingly immeasurable depths of corporate greed; joy at being in community with strangers united in common purpose; admiration of citizen courage, commitment, and creativity; and heartbreak looking at the babies around me and wondering what climate change will mean for them.

I also felt heartbroken as farmers and parents from affected parts of Vermont testified about what this pipeline means to them, and the beautiful fragile natural landscape which we all love.  Even Lake Champlain is not sacred — Governor Shumlin wants the fracked gas pipeline to be built under this precious, already-threatened shining jewel in the crown that is Vermont’s landscape.  I was appalled to realize that our governor plans to throw Vermont and Vermonters under the bus in this way.

So I yelled and clapped wholeheartedly — until it was time to leave for my Monday night yoga class.  Big mistake.  Oh, I know self-care is important, especially as we age.  Yoga is vital to my physical and spiritual well being.  Yet the whole drive home, my body was practically screaming at me to turn around.  How could I be going to yoga when other Vermonters were awaiting arrest?  I was so distracted driving home, it’s a wonder I didn’t have an accident.  I was in the wrong place at the right time.

I don’t want to make that mistake again.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

There are a lot of brave people out there.  I’ve watched Bill McKibben, Gus Speth and others getting arrested in Washington, DC to focus America’s attention on the need to block the Keystone pipeline.  We’ve all seen video of non-violent Occupy Wall Street resisters getting pepper-sprayed.  Courageous eco-warriors worldwide are fighting for not only a livable future but a livable present, like the Marshall Islanders taking to their kayaks to block coal shipments and fight for the very survival of their nation.

Realistically,  it is safe and civilized here in Vermont. In the video, you can see how courteous the whole episode was.  There is not a high likelihood of pepper spray here!  Also, I’m self employed, so don’t have to worry about any ramifications from a corporate employer.  And I wouldn’t be stepping outside of societal norms; my community would be very supportive — as I am supportive of those who have already donned the handcuffs.

Still, the prospect is sobering.  When Bob and I talked about this last night, it was a subdued and sad conversation.  How unfortunate, indeed, that even here in Vermont — the Green Mountain State — caring, committed citizens have to be willing to go to jail for our voices to be heard.  Right there, that’s worth a good cry.

Our beautiful Vermont.

Our beautiful Vermont.

 So, how then does this relate to happiness?

First of all, if Mother Nature ain’t happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy.  Both a healthy environment and good governance are fundamental planks of any Gross National Happiness system. That’s pretty basic.

Second, on the personal level, this might be a good moment to observe that happiness is not about having a smiley face all the time!  Certainly, I’m all for feeling the joy — and there is much joy in working together for a better world, especially when one of the bands is playing — but happiness is also about being authentic, living in concordance with our values, working toward goals, following a meaningful path, being in community, and being so engaged in life that time just seems to stand still.

For me, raising my voice also means working from my strengths.  I am not a scientist or a political strategist.  But I am an extrovert, and I can show up when organizers put out the call. Or even when they don’t call!  I think my first “protest march” happened in the summer before I entered second grade.  While my parents were downstairs watching the Democratic National Convention — they supported Adlai Stevenson — my siblings and I were upstairs chanting, “We want Kennedy!  We want Kennedy!”  Talk about being authentic — I guess I’m just a born rabble rouser.

By the way, though I haven’t seen any happiness studies on this topic, all you older folk should know: I feel so much younger in these climate action crowds.  I love, love, love how thoroughly mixed these crowds are in terms of generation.  We are all in it together, and it feels great to be on the same team with teenagers, great grandparents, and everyone in between.

Standing on the side of love.

That word, love, crops up for me a lot.  “Standing on the side of love” is a rallying cry for the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which I am a member.  And for me, that’s what it really boils down to — love.  Love for the entire astounding planet, as well as the little piece of it called Vermont and the people who live here.  On the day after the arrests, with a heart full of love,  I listened repeatedly to one of Vermont’s musical treasures, Jon Gailmor’s “For the Love of Vermont.”  I so want to do my best for this land I love!

At one point during Monday’s demonstration, three awesome teenagers from my own neighborhood were marching right in front of me — I felt such love for those beautiful young ladies!  But the strongest motivator of all is love for my own grandchild — and for all your children and grandchildren too.  For family and friends.  For summers and rainbows and loons.  For the grandeur of autumn foliage. For blueberries, garlic cloves, and snow shoeing in the woods with a dear friend. For the whole crazy package that is life. Love, love, love.

Right now, when I think about engaging in civil disobedience, I am not feeling anger or hate or fear or blame — it is love.  Just love.

And that means happiness.

 

 

 

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Still a Happy Flyer (With a BIG Caveat)

TSA PRE status?  Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

TSA PRE status? Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

Here’s the caveat: After my recent blog about focusing on the positive aspects of being a passenger on a commercial airliner, a blog which came on the heels of my musings about why attending the People’s Climate March in New York City will make me happy, my friend George found the juxtaposition odd.  He asked me how could I write about my passion for protecting the environment and then just a few days later write about the joys of airline travel, given that flying is about the worst thing we can do in terms of our carbon footprint?

Good question, George.  Here are my answers:

  1. First, I am not a purist. I have made many, many changes in my life — using a clothesline, buying local, eating less meat, etc.  But we are all products of the systems we live in.  That is one reason I support a Gross National Happiness paradigm and the People’s Cllimate March — because we need new systems.  Those planes would all have taken off without me on them. The problem is too big for any of us to fix by our individual actions.
  2. Second, I do take such issues into consideration.  Two out of three of my trips to visit my daughter and granddaughter since they moved half a country away have been by train, rather than plane, for both economic and environmental reasons (the third was by car, and there were three of us in that car, so that seemed a fair choice). Truthfully, I’ve flown very rarely.  My recent trip was only the 15th time I’ve flown.  Ever.  And I’m not that young.
  3. Third, I went to North Carolina for important relational reasons.  Relationships are tremendously important, not only in terms of personal happiness but also to exchange ideas and help us all move forward.  I shared tales from the Gross National Happiness movement, and learned much in return. One friend, for example, showed me a new pond she had dug next to her off-the-grid cabin.  The pond is stocked with fish, to provide a sustainable source of protein for her family.  For me, that’s food for thought.
  4. My point with the previous flying blog was not to encourage flying, but rather to encourage a positive outlook toward an incredible option in our lives that most people treat with grousing rather than gratitude.  Really, the environmental concerns about flying only add to the need for a positive attitude when one does choose to fly.  Choosing to have such a negative impact, and then complaining about it, seems particularly self-indulgent.  If you’re flying, the least you can do is appreciate it!

All in all, I’m grateful to George for raising this important point.  Our individual choices can add up.  I think the preponderance of organic choices in almost all grocery stores is testimony to that.

Now, when I do fly, I feel even more duty bound to focus on the positive. 

 

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Counting The Flying Positives, Part Two

The positive framing of my flight to North Carolina was so powerful, I felt like I had changed my brain.  I mean that quite literally. Thanks to neuro-plasticity, I probably  did, at least a little. One of the mot impressive aspects of the education I’m receiving from Tal Ben-Shahar and the Certificate in Positive Psychology program at Kripalu is learning how seemingly small interventions can have a long-lasting, powerful impact.

So it’s a strong possibility that I wore a new groove in my brain — the “flying is fun” neuro-pathway. Creating positive neuro-pathways is excellent for both our short term and long term well being.   Plus, focusing on the positive absolutely made my flight to North Carolina a much more enjoyable experience.  For those reasons, and because I wasn’t about to purposely focus on the negative,  I decided to repeat my experiment to focus on the positives during the journey north.

It was definitely tougher going on the way home.  I was, after all, returning from vacation, which for me was a bit of negative double whammy.  First, that meant it was time for some of the fun and games to end.  Even more impactful, I was wrapping up a week of way more sugar, caffeine, and wine than usual, and, sometimes less sleep than I need.  Thus I arrived at the airport tired, a little sad, headachy, slightly sick to my stomach, and dehydrated.

Plus, it was not my happy little Burlington airport but rather the very busy (ie, stressful) hub airport in Charlotte.  And I kept feeling that my time in the Smokey Mountains with my friend Jeannette — who I stayed with for the second part of my trip — just wasn’t long enough.

Aaaannnndd … I was headed home to my dear husband Bob and the Vermont I love so much — two giant positives.  Maybe the ledger was even.

So, time to start counting the positives for that journey.

  1. Jeannette drove me three hours to the airport — a six hour round trip for her!  That is friendship.  Yeah, that is a friendship that started when we were only 11 years old.  Sweet.
  2. Not only that, on the drive there Jeannette shared with me invaluable insight and information about the publishing process — exceptionally positive for me because (you heard it here first) I am about to embark on the writing-a-book path.
  3. When Jeannette dropped me off at the curb (we were running late, no time for her to park), I felt like I won the air traveler’s lottery!  I dashed up to the curbside check-in with no line at all where a very friendly airline employee took my bag and gave me a ticket smoothly and quickly.  He then pointed to my boarding pass, and the letters “TSA-PRE.”  He said, “When you get to security, go the TSA-PRE line.”  I thanked him, and rounded the corner where there were long lines for all the security checkpoints — except TSA-PRE where the line was non-existent! I went up to the lone employee there and showed him my boarding pass.  I said, “I don’t know why I was given this, I’m just an ordinary passenger.”  He smiled, checked my ID, and sent me right to the X-Ray area where I started to take my laptop out of its case.  I was told, no, no, you don’t need to do that.  And, I didn’t even have to take off my shoes!  I whisked through security in less than five minutes.  Amazing, just amazing.
  4. Later, on the plane, I read about the TSA-PRE program.  There was a bulleted list of categories of eligible passengers.  I was not in any of the categories!  (Did someone tell the airlines I was writing about my experience???)  (I must say, BTW, that the airline in question was United — though I think the positivity exercise would probably work equally well with any airline.)
  5. I had a mini (mini, mini) happy “reunion” when my seatmate turned out to be the woman who had moved her bags out of my way to give me a seat in the gate waiting area.
  6. Lift off — thanks to my meditative mode — was an almost blissful sensation, one of gliding to the heavens.
  7. Outside the window, I saw a cloud formation that bore a striking resemblance to a cement lion, the kind that might guard a driveway, bridge, or la-di-dah front entrance.
  8. It was once again quiet enough for me to meditate.  I was still feeling a little crappy, so it was harder to lean into that experience, but it was still okay — it’s good to try!
  9. I didn’t spill anything on my seatmate.
  10. I had consolidated my packing to make it quite unlikely that I’d lose my laptop again.  Hey, I learned something from my previous travels — woo hoo!
  11. Making my connecting flight was very stressful  — barely enough time to get from my arriving gate to my departing gate, plus lots of unhappy looking people, and other sights I didn’t enjoy (like, rampant destructive consumerism). BUT I was determined to look at the positive, and I found it, especially in relationships.  Adult children taking care of elder parents in wheelchairs, laughing children, people holding hands.  There was a lot of love on display.
  12. I made my flight to Burlington!
  13. My seatmate was active duty military, a very conservative and exhausted fellow returning home from a long overseas flight.  It soon became clear that our views on many topics were miles apart.  Yet, we had a civilized and respectful conversation and, quite wonderfully, found ourselves in fundamental agreement on the concept of Gross National Happiness.  Coming from opposite sides of the political divide, we agreed that measuring societal success solely based on money and materialism is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst.  Further, he shared that his personal happiness is all about time spent with his wife and young children — family and relationships, just like the rest of us. We would never have had this very positive conversation without the airline throwing us together as seatmates.
  14. Finally — you may have guessed — my husband was waiting for me.  We went out to dinner at a great farm-to-table organic localvore taco restaurant, and drove home through the lush late summer Vermont scenery.

Aaaahhh … there’s no place like home!

Home — which I am leaving again tomorrow morning, by train, to go to the People’s Climate March.  There is no way I can count the positives for this trip — they will be uncountable, I am sure.  I am no longer nervous about going, as I am traveling with friends, and staying with another dear friend.  No matter the trip, relationships are awesome.

More on the Climate March later!

 

 

Only Three Positive Things?Or, Remembering to be Happy While Flying

 

A hopeful sign of moving in the right direction: O'Hare airport's vegetable garden!

A hopeful sign of moving in the right direction: O’Hare airport’s vegetable garden!

Last Saturday morning, I had an early flight to western North Carolina to celebrate a friend’s 70th birthday.   I’ve been trying to say “yes” to life’s opportunities more often, so when the invitation came from my friend Lynn, I figured out a way to afford the airfare.  I also love that part of North Carolina.  These friends live about an hour east of Asheville, where the mountains are spectacular.  Plus, I have another dear friend — a high school era BFF — an hour west of Asheville.  This was a chance to spend time with her, too.  It was all very last minute, but I said, “yes!”  Yes, to a pleasant, meaningful, happy trip.

Then in the car, I started complaining to my husband as he drove me to the airport.  I said, I’d be much more excited if I was driving*, not flying — because, of course, everyone “knows” flying is just no fun anymore.  It wasn’t major complaining, but I was definitely leaning into my brain’s negativity bias (which, by the way, your brain has, too!).

Yet,  about an hour later, when I heard the pilot speak in a delightful Irish brogue, I realized, “I’m having fun! I’m enjoying my air travel experience!”

That realization made me think about the power of intention, and attention.  In any given moment, we  choose (usually sub-consciously) what we pay attention to — and what we don’t pay attention to, don’t even see.  It is simply impossible to pay attention to everything all the time.   We can consciously choose to focus on the positive, or we can choose the negative.   If you doubt the power of attention, try this quick video test.  I’ve seen other versions, but I think this gets the message across.

In turn, that led me to mull over  one of the fads currently making the rounds on Facebook.  I’ve been repeatedly challenged to “name three positive things” each day for a week.  I’m not at all opposed to the “three positive things ritual,” but buckled in my seat and waiting for take-off,  I thought, “Why just three?  What if I count all day?  How many positives will I rack up?”

It was immediately apparent that counting all the positives is impossible.  I mean, the sun rises and my heart beats and I have running water.  Not to mention, I was about to be, as comedian Louis C.K. puts it, “partaking in the miracle of flight.” I also wake up almost every day in Vermont, a place that is so special to me and where I am always grateful to live.  The scenery between my house and the airport is stunningly beautiful.  On a more personal note, I wake up most days next to a loving and devoted husband, to whom I am also enormously grateful.  Etc.  Life overflows with positives.  With all that as a baseline, here are just a few positives from August 30, 2014:

  1. Yay for a 7:30 AM flight! Many flights leave Burlington at 6:00 AM.  It is ever so much more civilized to leave the house at 5:30 AM than to leave at 4:00 AM.
  2. For some reason, I was totally prepared and ready to roll out of bed and into the car.  Patting myself on the back!
  3. Bob offered to accompany me into the airport, not just drop me off outside.  So sweet.  So Bob.
  4. The check-in was totally smooth and pleasant.  I didn’t even have to use one of those automatic machines which make me anxious.  Instead, I got to deal with a pleasant and helpful human being.
  5. Yay for Skinny Pancake!  It makes me happy to have this Vermont franchise, with its emphasis on local and organic products, in the airport gate area.  Plus, I could buy bottled water from them in a resusable glass battle!  Awesome.eat-more-kale-sticker
  6. Coffee!! ‘nuf said.
  7. Pleasant interaction with a woman and her young adult son waiting to board.  They were flying to Colorado for the start of  his college career.  Fun to wish them both well.
  8. Pleased to have a seatmate who doesn’t want to talk (though, I would probably also be pleased to have a seatmate who does want to talk!)
  9. Phew!!  Especially pleased that this seatmate (a young man) seems to have a pleasant disposition.  That is, he didn’t get upset when I spilled water all over him.
  10. Good thing it wasn’t coffee.
  11. Flying over my beloved Vermont and seeing some special spots from the air (like Shelburne Pond).
  12. Glad I chose only yogurt at the Skinny Pancake and not a muffin.  I always seem to gain weight while traveling.  At least I’m off to a good start.
  13. Happy also to fly over the Adirondacks, a magnificent wilderness area I can often see from the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.  Though I would love to spend some time on the ground in the Adirondacks, we never do, because Vermont’s mountains  constantly beckon.  So it’s nice to get a good view of the Adirondacks this morning.
  14. It is a beautiful summer day.
  15. I laughed out loud (but not too loud) when the flight attendant announced, “For the comfort of other passengers, please securely close the door behind you when you use the lavatory.”
  16. I was inspired to write!  I so love it when I am visited by inspiration.
  17. An article in the in-flight magazine about Dutch aeronautical student Boyan Slat, who has developed a method of cleaning up the massive floating plastic garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean, fills me with hope.
  18. Traveling with a bathroom.  Really, that’s soooo much better than mile after increasingly stressful mile in the car, wondering where I can possibly stop to use the restroom.
  19. Feeling like such a goofus on the plane — bumped my head, scrawled some ink on the back of the seat in front of me, and of course spilled water on my seatmate — but (and here’s the positive) — feeling so okay with this.  Sometimes I get to be in a group where I am the wise one or sparkle in some other way.  Sometimes, I’m the goofus.  It is really okay.
  20. Plenty of peacefulness on the plane, making it easy to meditate.
  21. Appreciating the fact that meditation has become a joy and not a chore, and that I no longer worry about whether I’m doing it “right.”  I know it’s right by how I feel, even squished into a tiny seat on a crowded plane.
  22. More signs of hope.  They are everywhere, it seems.  Solar panels, windmills, and, in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, of all places, a poster about the airport’s own vegetable garden.  Awareness seems to be growing re sustainability changes we all need to make.
  23. I love Vermont but it is exceptionally homogenous.  It is fun for me to see such a diverse population as the passengers in O’Hare.
  24. Talking with my granddaughter on the phone — really, talking with my daughter, because my granddaughter was too happy playing in the background for a phone call right now.  I think that’s great.  I’m happy she’s happy.
  25. Fun exchange with the flight attendant about the fact that non-dairy creamer is a poor substitute for half-n-half.
  26. I did NOT lose my laptop in the Charlotte airport!  I put it down near the baggage claim area, to call my friend Lynn and let her know my status.  After I grabbed my suitcase from the carousel and started walking away, I realized I no longer had my laptop with me!  Mild panic set in, but I went back to where I made the phone call, and there was my laptop.  So, so relieved.  That would have put a real damper on this positivity list!  Instead, it’s one of the highlights.
  27. Yay for “Eat More Kale” stickers!  Montpelier artist Bo Muller-Moore hands out free, mildly subversive  “Eat More Kale” stickers.  I had stuck one on the plain black suitcase I borrowed from Bob, so this suitcase would stand out from all the others just like it on the baggage claim carousel.  It worked!  I spotted the bag right away.
  28. When Lynn picked me up, I really enjoyed looking at her simple but effective turquoise drop earrings and her matching turquoise blouse.  Very pretty.
  29. With an hour drive to her house, Lynn and I had time to reconnect in the car after four years of not seeing each other.
  30. Then when we arrived at their house, I could reconnect with Mark, the birthday boy — once also known as my college adviser.  Very special.
  31. Later, all three of us sat out on the deck drinking wine and eating crackers and cheese.  Delightful.
  32. Lynn made a simple but scrumptious stir fry dinner, with chicken, bok choy, and rice.  Perfect.
  33. The guest bed is super super comfortable!!
  34. With the windows wide open, I can hear the crickets chirping as I fall asleep.

 

All in all, a good day made so much better by focusing on the positives — so much better, in fact, that I feel like my brain has been at least a little bit re-wired.  I honestly look forward to my flight back home to see what joy it brings me.

This was such an easy exercise.  Let me know if you try it — I’d love to see your list!

 

 

 

* Of course, driving would have been a terribly selfish choice, environmentally.  I know some folks I know refuse to fly on environmental grounds, but nurturing relationships with lifelong friends seemed like a good enough reason to fly in this case.

 

Social Comparison: The Cause of So Much Unhappiness

(Warning: the post below does not necessarily show off the author’s finest qualities.  Even worse, I’m hoping you’ll see yourself in these behaviors, because awareness of the unhappiness caused by constantly comparing ourselves with others is the first step toward freeing ourselves from social comparison’s grip on our psyches [and wallets].  Furthermore, since social comparison is a root cause of much environmental devastation, loosening its grip is good medicine individually AND collectively.  But never fear.  If you make it to the close of this little essay, you’ll find some ideas for breaking free or at least harnessing social comparison for the better. )

Mary Jane's extra beans.

Mary Jane’s extra beans.

Last Sunday evening, my friend Mary Jane brought a bag of extra green beans from her garden to share with other attendees at our weekly meditation gathering.  I gratefully accepted half the bag (there was one other taker) as Mary Jane enthused about how well her vegetables are growing this summer.

My garden is NOT doing well.  We’ve never bothered with a fence, but after this year — as all the peas and various other vegetables get eaten by unknown wild animals — we’re starting to think that might be a good investment.  Even my blueberries, which thrived last year, had a lackluster summer.  Could it be because I was a lackluster weeder?

In fact, the blueberries are my only crop.  Unlike almost all my women friends here in Vermont, I am a sorry excuse for a gardener.  Comparing myself to them … I just have to keep my mouth shut and not let anyone know I’m really not in their league.   I hardly ever even come to the ballpark.  It’s embarrassing.

My husband Bob is the real gardener of the family.  Speaking of my husband, he and I have both been trying to lose weight.  It’s discouraging to compare my progress with his, as he is doing significantly better than I am.  I am losing weight, but at our weekly check-ins, I am only down a few ounces,  while he can gleefully exclaim that he’s at a record low for the past five years.

Of course, I can take comfort in knowing I’m still doing better than our friends, another couple, who are part of this challenge with us.

Ugh.  What am I doing with all this social comparison?  Making myself unhappy, of course.  Why can’t I enjoy my husband’s success without also berating myself for my less diligent path?  And why can’t I just admire Mary Jane’s gardening bounty, accept her offer graciously, and not feel “less than” because I’m not a good gardener? And how pitiful to try and elevate my own self-esteem by noting that I am doing better than my friends — they’re my friends, for heaven’s sake.

Garlic social comparison

Not only that, but some of Bob’s gardening is yielding wonderful results.  He is harvesting another year’s worth of garlic, and the potatoes are doing better than ever.  His garlic bulbs are so big and succulent … I found myself looking at yet another friend’s just-harvested garlic and thinking, “your bulbs aren’t as big as Bob’s!”

What???  Petty, ridiculous, mean-spirited.  Okay, I’m not perfect — or as my friend Diana used to put it, “your halo’s slipping a bit” — but I don’t like this in me.  It is downright unpleasant.

Sadly, I could trot out an endless array of this kind of whiny, self-centered comparison — especially after I’ve left the comfort zone of central Vermont and spent time in an urban environment.  Then the flood gates of social comparison burst open, up and down, left and right.  I’m worse than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  No, wait — I’m better than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  It’s a lose-lose mindset.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in The How of Happiness,” social comparison can be a pernicious destroyer of our happiness.  “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” she observes.  Nor can one be happy while disrespecting others.  While social comparison is inevitable and can serve a positive purpose — we can be inspired by others to do better ourselves — it is definitely a big problem for me.  I see it as the weakest link in my personal happiness chain.

Not only that, I believe social comparison is also at the core of many problems facing the planet as a whole.  Lord knows, advertisers play up social comparison to the hilt to get us to buy more stuff, which can have devastating impacts on our lives, the quality of lives of workers in far off countries, and the environment. I’ve shared this link before, and I’m sure I’ll share it again, but if you want a quick primer on how our hunger to “keep up with the Jones'” affects the world around us, check out Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”

Even without looking at the bigger picture, social comparison can fuel endless wanting.  From the Buddhist perspective, that’s synonymous with endless suffering.

Naturally, Bruce Springsteen captured the tug of social comparison in one of his songs.  In “Badlands,” he sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”  There you go — social comparison all the way around.   I used to compare my poor husband’s arms with the super-buff Bruce, but even while doing so, I knew it was totally unfair to compare my real life regular guy with a mega-celebrity.  Yet, how many people get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves with celebrities — favorably or unfavorably?  I suspect it’s a major cause of unhappiness.

Even in the virtual world, social comparison can be a real downer: last year, a University of Michigan study found that Facebook makes users sadder.  According to an NPR report, research co-author John Jonides, a cognitive neuroscientist, noted:  “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

Happily — really, literally, happily — we can loosen the grip of social comparison.  A few suggestions follow.

First of all, turn it around — I/we can look at ways that we’d like to improve and see if there are others who inspire us.  For example, I wonder about all the ways I can help stave off (or at least ameliorate) climate change.  I know we need big systemic change to do this effectively — and, at the same time, I know that there are many, many small steps each of us can take.  To find out what others are doing,  two days ago I started a new Facebook group called, “Saving the Planet One Small Step at a Time.”  Already, I can compare myself to those who are using very fundamental cleaning supplies (plain baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of store bought shampoo) and with a friend of friend whose blog, “The Non-Consumer Advocate,” focuses on ways we can all end our soul and planet destroying wasteful consuming ways.

I want to compare myself with these folks — they help me aspire to do better.

Even here, though, the comparison needs to be thoughtful.  Recently, when a post showed up on Facebook about a recent study showing that Vermonters spend less time grooming themselves than residents of any other state, I was quite pleased at this distinction.  So were many of my Vermont friends.  One could argue that this shows a heightened connection with nature and an awareness of the chemicals in cosmetics, etc.   Or … could it just be unhealthy Vermont exceptionalism?  I’m not sure.

Sometimes, I strive to be the one others look up to.  When I’m teaching meditation classes, I try to lead by example (ie, meditating every day).  When I mediate, I work at being the calm eye in the midst of a raging conflict storm.  Like most mediators, I try to model productive conflict strategies.

Here, too, it is important to be self-aware.  We are all on journeys.  I myself have a lot to learn about meditation.  And I also can get caught up in personally challenging conflicts.  Even while modeling, I need to remain humble, which is not easy.

Second, we can reframe how we view our own situations.  For example, I have a lot of social comparison issues with my house.  All too often I look at others’ homes and think, I wish I had your house, not mine.  Yet my house has many wonderful aspects.  As a former barn, it is unique, special, interesting, artsy, roomy, and comfortable.  My house is situated in the heart of a thriving, supportive community and across the street from a beautiful Vermont lake.  It is not perfect.  Neither am I.  Lately, when I catch myself obsessing about my house’s shortcomings, I try to reframe my thinking to focus on all its plusses instead.

Third, if you catch yourself thinking that your house — or whatever else — is better than, that is a fine time to practice gratitude.  Feeling grateful for is much more positive than feeling superior to.

Fourth, I’ll turn back to Annie Leonard and her more recent offering, “The Story of Solutions.”  On a personal level, on a systems level, can we turn away from “more” and focus on “better” instead?  Better choices, that is — not “better than.”  This simple formula for re-defining our goals is particularly powerful in curbing materialistic social comparison cravings.

Fifth, try making your own “Positivity Portfolio.”  I learned about this technique in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  Instructor Tal Ben-Shahar introduced us to this happiness tool, first developed by James Pawelski at the University of Pennsylvania.  The idea is to focus on a way in which you would like to change for the better, and then assemble a package of pictures, quotes, music, etc. — whatever stirs your heart and inspires you in this area.  I did a power point Positivity Portfolio on the theme of abundance, to counteract my social comparison tendencies.

At first the project was awesome!  I was so excited listing the abundance in my life, and finding photos to illustrate the list.  But then, the list got too big and the project dragged on and on.  It took me days to build my portfolio. I just have too much!  I mean that in a good way.  Clearly, life is incredibly abundant.  It was an excellent project.

Fifth, perhaps most importantly: meditate.  In order to loosen the grip of social comparison in our lives, we have to first develop an awareness of its existence within.  I can think of no better tool to heighten self-awareness than a regular meditation practice.  Meditation can also help us become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, instead of “less than” or “better than.”

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

In any case, despite what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I think I am improving my ability to recognize social comparison creeping into my thinking.  When I recognize it, I am more likely to lean into my own abundance, and let go of envy.

For example, a few weeks back, during a Bone Builders class, I glanced at the shoes of the woman next to me.  This woman is also a friend, a lovely person who happens to have a lot more money than I have.  She had spiffy new shoes.  Not over the top, but very stylish.  Then I looked back at my own shoes, which are old, with a lot of mileage and one noticeable dot of teal paint on them.  It was a ripe moment for social comparison.  Instead, rather than covet my friend’s shoes — or even worse, resent her affluence — I found the whole situation humorous.  Kind of sweet, even.  My own shoes are just fine.  They do the job.  I like the paint spot.  I do not need to buy new shoes.  All is well.

One final thought: abundance comes in many guises.  True, it has not been a good year for my blueberries.  But there were enough berries this summer to go outside with my two year-old granddaughter almost every day and pick blueberries together.  This was a special activity for just the two of us, and it is a memory I can savor forever.  That, my friends, is abundance.

 

 

 

The Men in the Room Were Happy

My nerdy husband, happily vamping it up a few decades ago

My nerdy husband, happily vamping it up a few decades ago

Though it was a discouragingly cold early April night in Vermont, the six of us in my kitchen were warm inside and out, thanks to the wood stove, camaraderie, homemade pizza, craft beers, a scrumptious salad, and Victoria’s apple crisp.  We were full and comfortable.  Then, the three men got really happy.

Their joy began with a conversation about local contractors and home renovation projects.  Bob remembered a time he had proudly identified himself as a “trigonometrist” on a job site and proceeded to tell some fellow workers how to draw an ellipse.  “They said they were going to do it their way,” he recounted, “with wire instead of string!”

The other two men at our kitchen table laughed in great understanding.  Out came a napkin and pen, and a lively discussion about the proper way to draw an ellipse.  I thought, “A trigonometrist? Really?”  Plus, I was completely baffled about why anybody would care about using wire instead of string to draw an ellipse.   But I was loving their happiness.  All three men’s faces were totally lit up with enjoyment and engagement. They looked like little boys again.

Then I gazed at the other two women, who were both seemingly quite bored.  Since we were sitting in an alternate male-female pattern — two overlapping triangles — we were a perfectly balanced illustration of the fact that we all have different happiness boosters.  That night, the disparity fell along gender lines, but it could easily have been otherwise.  If the conversation had been birding or dogs, both of the women would have been animated while my husband and I sat silent.  Though, somehow falling along gender lines made it funnier to me.

The evening was also a fabulous illustration of what really keeps us warm during Vermont winters: community, and the criss-crossing relationships that are the foundation of a strong community.  The bonds of relationships were woven all through those two triangles.  From my point of view alone, I enjoy separate relationships with each person present that night: David and I team up on various social justice actions; Eric and I are in choir together; Victoria and I are part of the dedicated bone builders group; Judy and I share a passion for our local yoga class and meditation group.

Perhaps because Vermonters believe so strongly in community as a day-to-day guiding value, this state is one of a few “hot spots” of Gross National Happiness (GNH) activity in the country.  Burlington, Vermont was the site of the first ever GNH conference in the United States in 2010.  Now Burlington will host another conference, “Happiness and Wellbeing:  Building a National Movement,” on May 29th and 30th.  I’m pleased to say I’m part of the hard-working national core committee planning this conference.  I’m also pleased to let you know that there will be two days of trainings following the conference, including two full days of happiness skills training led by me and Barb Ryan, of “Spiraling Toward Joy” in Portland, Oregon.

In some ways, the planning committee and the conference itself remind me of the merry group having pizza and beer at my dinner table last month.  That is, what makes each of us uniquely happy is evident in the process.  I care deeply about systemic change, yes, but what really lights up my face is the opportunity to preach and teach the gospel of cultivating personal happiness skills.  So I get to focus my planning efforts on the first section of the conference, “Happiness Wellbeing: Skills and Practice.”  My colleague Tom, on the other hand, is passionate about data.  Thus, his focus has been on “Measuring Happiness and the Power of Data.”

I hasten to assure you, the planning team has not organized along gender lines!  Laura is a data maven right along with Tom, while Ken has been a key partner in planning the happiness skills segment.  Etc.  BTW, the other two segments are “Application: Policy and Community Development” and “Building the National Happiness Movement.”

So now the question is, what excites your passion?  Maybe you want to learn more about this amazing new movement.  Maybe you already have a lot of knowledge about why GNH measures matter so much to all of us, and are ready to get on the building a movement bandwagon.  Maybe you’re a data-head, maybe you’ve already applied a GNH-type paradigm to your community organization. Maybe you even know why you shouldn’t draw an ellipse with wire!

Whoever you are, if you’re still reading this blog, you are exactly the individual I am speaking to when I say, “I hope you’ll join us at the conference!”

One final enticement.  Even more than drawing ellipses and build-your-own-volcano kits, playing the ukulele makes my husband Bob very happy.  He rehearses weekly with the Montpelier Ukulele Players — a group that has a whole repertoire of happiness songs which they will be performing as part of the Thursday night reception at the conference.  Sing along with them at one end of the reception hall — or dive deep into happiness policy discussion at the other end.  We’re all different, we’re all in this together, and we all want to be happy.