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Mundane Magic: A Quick and Easy Happiness Ritual

 

A piece of art in my house that is very worthy of savoring.

A piece of art in my house that is very worthy of savoring.

If you’re like me, reading those words “quick and easy” probably awoke your skeptical self.  Perhaps you’re thinking this sounds too good to be true — but in this case, it isn’t.  I am utterly sincere.  Savoring is quick, and easy, and can provide a valuable boost to anyone’s happiness levels.

To be sure, many personal happiness strategies are challenging.  Forgiving ourselves and others, for example, is emotionally daunting and time consuming, as well as ultimately quite rewarding.  Another critically important happiness strategy is to quiet the nasty little voice of social comparison in our heads — especially in light of the environmental devastation wrought by consumerism and our sad efforts to keep up with our neighbors.  Even though I believe passionately in the need to move to a gross national happiness paradigm, this one is still really tough for me.  If I see someone in a colorful sundress or a shiny new Prius, I want, want, want!

So I’m no believer in quick and easy happiness fixes overall.  But, here’s a ritual I just started that is working so well I want to let you all in on the secret: everyday at noon, my phone is set to chime.  That is my reminder to stop whatever I’m doing and simply savor.  I’m only on day five of this new ritual, but each day has provided me with about five minutes of totally mundane magic.

I’ll get back to those magical moments shortly, but first a little background. This new savoring routine is an outgrowth of a much, much more extensive happiness exploration I’m on — a 10-month Certificate in Positive Psychology program through Kripalu.  The program includes a series of dynamic online lectures by Tal Ben Shahar.  In one lecture, he presented the work of Barbara Frederickson and her Positivity Ratio; basically, when our personal happiness to negativity ratio pushes past 3:1, we are in the golden land of flourishing.  To shift our individual positivity ratios, we can add more happiness experiences and moments, and, try to limit the negativity in our lives.  Because it’s cumulative, every little bit helps.

Solidifying new happiness habits and discarding negative ways that no longer serve us takes time and determination.  In another of Tal’s lectures, he emphasized the difficulty inherent in making long-lasting change in our lives.  He suggested we switch our mind-set away from “Self-discipline” and toward “Rituals.”  Each of us was encouraged to choose or create very specific happiness rituals, set dates to begin each ritual, and just do it.

Since I’ve loved savoring since I read Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness” in early 2012, it made sense to build a savoring ritual into my life.  My husband helped me set my phone alarm on Sunday March 31st, ready to start chiming every day at noon starting on Monday April 1st.

Thank goodness for the assistance of modern technology!  When the phone chimed on Monday, I had already forgotten my midday savoring plan!  But when I heard the phone, I just stopped and looked around me to see what I could savor.  It was amazing.  Suddenly, with this very simple intention, I was seeing objects in my living room with fresh vision.  Because I’m a painter, and spent many years on the art/craft show circuit, my living room is filled with wonderful pieces of art that I normally barely glance at.  On Monday, in savoring mode, I was awed and overwhelmed by their beauty and flat-out wonderfulness.  My happiness level soared.  Magical.

Tuesday, seemingly the first sunny day in months, the phone chime prompted me to dash out to my deck.  I closed my eyes and basked in the warmth and glow of The Sun!  Again, a magical happiness boost.

Wednesday, I took time to savor my big country kitchen with its cozy woodstove, perfect for life in Vermont.  Then I thought, oh yeah, I live in Vermont!!  I looked out the window to savor the view and the very fact of living in this beloved state.  You guessed it — more happiness magic.

Soon I will be savoring the beach!

Soon I will be savoring the beach!

Thursday was harder.  I was in a parking lot when the phone alarm went off.  I looked around me at the piles of melting dirty snow.  Melting snow!  In early April, that is well worth savoring, dirt or no.  Ta-da, the happiness boost was there again.

It just makes me grin that every single one of these moments was both magical and totally mundane.  That’s why I love savoring — it is an option that is almost always available to us, and it works.

Savoring works in part because it’s so interwoven with gratitude.  Often, savoring is also about being mindful, being fully present — ie, taking the time to truly see and appreciate what is in front of us all the time.

But, another beauty of savoring is that it can be focused on the past or the future as well.  I just got back from a week visiting my granddaughter for her second birthday, and I am constantly savoring those early morning moments when she came walking quietly up to me in the dark and we hugged and kissed and began our day together.  Savoring in the past tense is actually not always easy for me, because I can feel grief at what is gone.  Yet I find that if I really focus on reliving the sensations I felt then, the past can once again bring me pleasure.

As for the future, well, no problem there! Here again, modern technology is a reliable assistant.  When I have trips planned, I love to visit the websites of places I am going to, and imagine the delights  I’ll experience there.  This future-savoring is in full swing for me right now, as I will soon be traveling to Kripalu for a week long immersion in the positive psychology program, followed by a week leading a Joyful Creativity Retreat on the beaches of North Carolina.

There is an important caveat about anticipating and savoring the future.  Once again, mindfulness is key.  I know that I cannot hold too tightly to my idea of what will happen at Kripalu or in North Carolina.  There is a delicate dance between anticipation and expectations.  I am a big supporter of happy anticipation, as long as one is willing to experience what actually does unfold, whether or not events conform with expectations.  So I’m excited about the upcoming trips, and, hoping I can just go with the flow.

When I return, I will have plenty more to savor, in five minute chunks and in the big picture.  Especially savor-worthy is the upcoming conference I am helping to plan, “Happiness and Wellbeing: Building a National Movement.” I invite you all to visit the conference website, and start savoring with me!

I also invite you to set your smart phones or other alarms to a time of day when you could take five minutes to savor.  If you adopt this ritual, please let me know how it works for you.  I hope you also find these moments to be magically happy (but I won’t hold too tightly to any expectations!).

 

 

 

 

 

The “Happiness Lady” Is Sad

I was momentarily at a loss for words after choir practice last week.  I had just introduced myself to a new choir member who smiled and said, “Oh, yeah, you’re the happiness lady, right?”

I was briefly taken aback because I didn’t feel that happy.  In truth, I was sad.  Of course, cultivating happiness is not about dismissing or ignoring negative emotions.  They are valuable contributors to the palette of life.  So I quickly recovered my equilibrium enough to smile back and say, sure, yeah, I guess  I am the happiness lady.

My sadness is still with me today, and I’m okay with that.  I just had two major losses in my life: 1) I closed my Happiness Paradigm store and 2) my baby granddaughter, who had lived with us for almost all her first 17 months of life, moved with her mother to a distant state.

My granddaughter "helping" me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

My granddaughter “helping” me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

Though both events are positive developments, there is nonetheless grief.   My daughter landed an excellent job, which is critical to the long term well being of her and her daughter.  Still, I deeply miss having a beloved baby under my roof.  How could I not?

As for the store … one reason I closed it was to open a new space in a more populated area where I can do workshops, mediations, coaching, and writing.  But my new office is still being built from two old closets and isn’t ready yet.  I’m feeling un-moored.

Plus, it’s fall and the darkness is closing in.

So, what is a sad “happiness lady” to do?  Or you, for that matter?  It’s a fundamentally important question, not only for my current minor distress but also for the much more daunting pain and struggles we will all be forced to grapple with sometime (s).

Indeed, small challenges are also opportunities for us to practice the coping skills that we will need to endure the really tough suffering.

What might those skills look like?  For starters, they might look like the previous paragraph: shifting one’s perspective to find the positive aspects in a negative situation (ie, challenges are also opportunities).  In my mediation training, we called this “reframing;” you could just say it’s looking for the cloud’s silver lining.

Being aware of, and present to, our sadness is vital — as is humor.  Comedian Louis C.K. combines both in this timely video my daughter alerted me to (a video that will be especially entertaining to Bruce Springsteen fans).  Louis C.K. also highlights ways not to deal with sadness — another valuable lesson.

I’ve cried on and off these past few weeks, and that’s good,  too.  In another timely internet offering, neuroscientist Mark Brady’s new blog on “Crying In Restaurants” observes that “tears of grief are filled with neuro-toxins and crying is one way the body is built to move them out of our system.”  Tears are a great gift — if we give ourselves the time and space to cry them.  I’ve found the time to do that, choosing to stay home alone or with my husband and just be with the sadness.

There are so many other ways to cope, and your choices will be different from mine.  My coping strategies include singing in the church choir (which combines community, spirituality, service, learning, and the transformative power of music); hard work (a huge home improvement project, designed to simplify our lives and substantially curtail our personal contribution to climate change); service to others (through another church committee, “Lay Pastoral Care”); and exercise (yoga, bone builders, and kayaking).

And then there are my two favorite happiness strategies: gratitude and savoring.  It is, after all, autumn in Vermont.  When Bob and I kayaked on one of our favorite local lakes, the sweetly named “Peacham Pond,” it was a brilliantly sunny, cool, and windy Saturday.  Perhaps because the water was choppy, we had the lake to ourselves — except for a half dozen loons.  I was in love that day with Vermont, with Peacham Pond, with the tantalizing beauty of the foliage just starting to change, with my husband, with life.  So much to be grateful for, so much to savor.  My current bout of sadness isn’t through with me yet, but it sure did leave me alone for that glorious afternoon.

 

Keep On The Sunny Side

Has anybody actually seen the sunny side lately??

Here in Vermont, it has been raining almost every day for nearly seven weeks.  We have savored intermittent hours of gorgeous sunny weather, but even those heavenly days have usually been punctuated by fierce thunderstorms bringing down trees and bringing on flash flooding.

The soggy weather is bad enough in isolation.  After each long winter, we Vermonters love and crave our summers.  This year, though, it’s our plants that need more sun.  It was a bad year for strawberries.  Most of my friends proudly grow a big vegetable garden each year; today, some of their veggies are drowning.  Then there is the intensity of the storms — frightening and unusual this far north.  We’ve had massive flooding in our little state, with roads washed away, houses seriously damaged, and at least one drowning.

On the home front, I’ve been feeling stressed and distressed about my son, who earns a good chunk of his yearly income painting exteriors during the summer.  He had lots of work lined up, but has been getting washed out day after day.  And then the next day and the day after that.  He’s not earning much money, and it’s discouraging to be idle for such long stretches.  He tries to keep summer rain in perspective, knowing there’s nothing to do about it — but his attitude has been severely strained by this seven week wet stretch.

One of the kindness cards I made to create more internal sunshine.

One of the kindness cards I made to create more internal sunshine.

I know there are many more Vermonters out there, in various jobs, who are really suffering financially from the weather — including, of course, farmers.

Which brings us to the bigger picture.  If this is  this the new face of climate change in Vermont, how will we grow our food?  Too much rain seems less frightening than not enough rain, but unrelenting storms could devastate our food supply.  I keep thinking about Barbara Kingsolver‘s book, “Flight Behavior.”  I won’t spoil the ending, but there is a lot of rain in her brilliant climate change novel — and it’s not a pretty picture.

Talking about this with friends and neighbors … there’s a certain amount of jitteriness and foreboding.  Listening to the radio is no better.  Whether it’s the local Vermont Public Radio or National Public Radio with shows about such topics as Antarctica melting and the doom this spells for Miami, there is plenty to weigh down anyone with their eyes open.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled happiness talk …

I’m willing to allow myself some time here and there to feel blue, discouraged, frightened, etc.  Overall, however, I think it’s more important than ever to Keep On The Sunny Side.”   Watching and singing this inspiring bluegrass song by the Carter Family — performed here by The Whites — puts a smile on my face and lifts my spirits.

Perhaps because of all the rain, this song about sun (mostly metaphorical) has been very much on my mind.  Last Sunday, when I had the opportunity to do another guest sermon at the Washington, Vermont Universalist Church, I chose this song as one of the hymns.  On Monday and Wednesday, I introduced it to the local  bone builders group.  I’ve even been singing it to the grand baby.

This song has me wondering, how can I keep on the sunny side?  How can you?  I believe we’re all in for a rocky climate change ride, and we’re simply going to have to make the best of it.  Happier people are more resilient, more creative problem solvers, and more optimistic — all much needed traits today and in the months and years to come.

Which is why I think it’s so important to understand how to cultivate genuine happiness, and then do that.  So, yesterday, after hearing about how Miami will be under water in the not too distant future, and worrying that my son won’t be able to pay his rent, I decided to focus on happiness.

First, I worked on making kindness cards fashioned from recycled paper slurry and donated and/or salvaged odds and ends.  My plan is to pass these cards around to strangers.  I’m not sure exactly when or how that will happen, but the act of creating the cards made me feel kinder — and, happier.

Second, having a purpose is vital to happiness.  I’ve just come up with a plan for using far less propane in our house — thus, helping us be more resilient to climate change fall out while also lessening our own contribution.  This plan will involve  a lot of work as we reconfigure how we use and heat our home — but I’m excited by the goal!  I’m ready to dig in and get started.

Third is exercise.  Yesterday morning after swimming in the lake, my grumbly self almost skipped bone builders.  I didn’t have time to eat breakfast or change clothes, but I knew I’d feel better afterwards if I went.  So I went to the community center still in my wet suit and had a great time with my fellow bone builders — including singing “Keep On The Sunny Side” to some back leg lifts (with ankle weights).  And I did feel better, thanks not only to the exercise but to the community of women sharing this experience.  Last night, though no yoga teacher showed up for our usual Wednesday night session, the three of us who were there created our own workout — and community — and it was great.

There is more, of course, but those were the big three that helped me get my happiness equilibrium back yesterday.

And today?  The sun actually came out by noon.  It is glorious.

Pump It Up: Happiness Through Strength

Though I am “pumping iron” these days as part of a local bone builders class, and exercise is hugely important for happiness, today I’m using that term metaphorically.  The focus of this blog is actually internal, on our innate and unique character strengths.   Since it’s summer, let’s start outside, in the blueberry patch.

Finally!  I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Finally! I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Blueberries and happiness: For two and a half years, six bags of unopened pine mulch lay undisturbed along the border of my small blueberry patch.  Last summer, my daughter and her newborn with uncooperative sleep habits moved in with us, so I think I have a good excuse for never finding the time to weed and mulch the blueberries.  As for summer 2011 … hmmm, I can’t quite remember what got in my way.  Finally, after seeing the bags of mulch in the Google satellite image of my house (ummm, that’s embarrassing!),  I was determined to get it done this summer.   By mid-June, I had finally weeded and mulched the entire patch.  No more accusing mulch bags spoiling my backyard view.

Now you may think that a job with such limited parameters that still took me more than two years to finish does not play to my strengths.  Perhaps, but I’m still a lot better at digging in the dirt and strewing mulch than I am at storing the harvested berries.  With no knowledge of how to make jams and preserves, I’ve just popped them in the freezer.

Then, while weeding, I had an “aha blueberry moment”.  My daughter LOVES to cook and she LOVES to research, so I made a deal with her — I’ll pick the blueberries and supply jars if she’ll figure out how to make jams and then proceed to do so.  She happily said, sure!  Happily because, in part, she’ll be working from her strengths (much more so than me!).

Strengths as a path to happiness: When I went to my very first seminar on positive psychology in 2010 (probably even before I bought all that mulch), I gained an intellectual understanding that pinpointing what our strengths are, and using those strengths, can lead to greater personal joy.  But it took me a long time to really “get it.”

Some keys to happier living make instant sense to me — like gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, savoring.  Those make my heart sing. Other strategies take more time to internalize.  With strengths, sometimes I’d get hints at how they work —  like the time a teacher told me that she and her colleagues were unhappy because they had to spend too much time doing paperwork rather than, duh, teaching — but I had to experience it in my own life before gaining a genuine understanding.  This experience, which transformed a grumpy me into a happy me, happened last winter.  Let’s go back inside.

The painting episode: I came to a Small Group Ministry meeting at the Montpelier Unitarian Church because I hoped discussing spiritual beliefs in an intimate setting would feed my soul.  When I got there, I wished I had read the fine print.   Already in low spirits (it was January and grey and I was sick with a cold that took about two months to conquer),  I was quite disgruntled to learn that our group was expected to perform a service project.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

“Service project!?!?”  I thought.  “I didn’t sign up for any service project!”  Between helping care for my live-in baby granddaughter and planning a free-to-the-public happiness weekend, I felt like my whole life was a service project already.  I was displeased, and, this being a setting where we encouraged to share our genuine feelings, I said as much.

However, at our second meeting, when the subject of our service project arose, one group member suggested we paint the walls of the local food shelf, to make it more inviting for their customers.  And here’s where it all shifted.  I said, “A few years ago, I led a group of fifth and sixth graders painting a fruit and vegetable mural for their school cafeteria.  Maybe we could do something like that?”

Much to my surprise and pleasure, the group readily agreed.  Because painting is definitely a strength of mine, suddenly, this project became joyful.   I was also grateful, because the whole group enthusiastically worked from my strength.  I got to draw each fruit or veggie, then instruct the other group members on how to apply the base paints.  Several of us did the shading that is so vital in making paintings come to life.  In the end, we left behind paintings of a pumpkin, eggplant, cherries, grapes, a carrot, peas, and tomatoes.  Other than the grapes (my fault entirely), I think we did a pretty good job.

(BTW, this was anonymous — a random act of kindness.  Only the director of the food shelf knows who we are, so please don’t spill the beans.)

So I was happy, and glad my fellow group members pulled me out of my funk and taught me a valuable lesson.  Since then, I see the strengths issue frequently.  For example two weeks ago, I heard a brilliant — and very Vermont — radio commentary by Helen Labun Jordan on using her strengths to contribute to the vitality of her community — in this case, baking pies for the Adamant Black Fly Festival.  Very funny!  (P.S., she won!)

What about you?   Working from our strengths is a happiness strategy Martin Seligman tested and proved with his graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.   Seligman, who is a towering, momentous figure in the positive psychology world, does a great job explaining the strengths strategy in part of this video.  He and his colleagues have also given all of us all a great gift: a free VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which takes about 20 minutes to complete.  I was a little surprised at my results (I expected creativity to show up higher on the list), and maybe you will be too.

In any case, the next time you find yourself feeling grumpy — and we all know there will be a next time — maybe knowing your strengths will help you find your way back to happiness a little faster.   Maybe even with pie, or blueberry jam!

So Many Ways To Give

No, this is not an early Christmas essay about handmade gifts or alternative holiday rituals.   Rather, I am moved to write about giving and happiness — specifically, my gratitude at finding a way to help survivors of Hurricane  Sandy despite my constrained finances.

In the past, when major disasters struck, my normal reaction was whipping out my American Express card and charging a donation, or several donations to organizations with complementary missions.    Of course, that was a good thing to do.  Indeed, just this morning NPR broadcast a story on the desirability of sending money rather than stuff to assist Sandy survivors.   Making a cash donation gave me a happiness boost, and, much more importantly, helped the recipients on their long road to recovery.

Right now, though, the American Express route isn’t viable.  I am not yet making enough money through my happiness work to shoulder my share of our household bills.  No complaints,  I’m sure I’ll get there — but in the meantime, I’ve put a lot of financial stress on my husband.  I’ve got to fix things on the home front before sending money elsewhere.

Still, I wanted so much to help.  I  believe the suffering families in New Jersey and New York are victims of climate change, something each and every one of us contributes to — which is to say, I feel a sense of obligation to them.  What could I do?

The answer came late last Saturday afternoon.  Through an email list serve, I learned of a truck leaving Montpelier for the Rockaways the following afternoon.  This driver had a list of requested donations, including blankets.  Blankets!  Yay, I had  several extra warm and cozy blankets which I washed, dried, folded, bagged, and delivered to the truck driver.  Small though this gesture is in light of the need, I was nonetheless grateful for this opportunity to help.

It’s a virtuous cycle.  It’s hard to feel unhappy and grateful at the same time.  And, almost every list of happiness strategies I’ve seen stresses the importance of giving to others as a way to feel better.  I’m willing to bet that Winston Churchill was no happiness expert, but this quote attributed to him does a good job of capturing the importance of generosity: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

I’m also pretty sure that Mother Theresa was not, alas, very happy, but no one could argue that she wasn’t generous.  She knew that,  “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

That strikes me as a valuable insight.  Is the giving heartfelt?  If we are grudging or callous, our gifts may help the recipient, but we aren’t likely to get much of a happiness boost.  Not that a happiness boost should be the goal.  While giving can bestow happy feelings on the donor, it really needs to be about the recipient first and foremost.  No strings attached, and certainly not an opportunity to offload unwanted junk for the giver’s own benefit.

A gift from the heart I was so pleased to receive — a heartfelt gift from a four year-old.

Okay, bearing that in mind, I’ve been mulling over ways to give, including cash.  In my community,  some neighbors needed extra financial help recently to pull through some daunting challenges, and many friends and neighbors donated much needed money.  But we also provided meals.  Though I’m not a great cook, I did my best to concoct tasty meals for my friends.  This is stressful for me, thanks to time and money shortages and my insecurity as a cook — yet,  always, I felt really good about having climbed on board the meal train.

Giving can be simple or elaborate.  After the Haitian earthquake, a neighbor up the street organized a fundraising “cabaret” at our community center.  She went to a lot of trouble — hanging curtains, bringing in more intimate furniture, lining up refreshments and musical acts.  The result was memorable, an evening that raised a lot of money for Haiti and strengthened our local community as well.

There was another benefit concert a few years ago for a young family whose house had burned down. Mom, dad, and two toddlers just barely escaped into the -14 degree January night.  In connection with the concert, I solicited donations for a silent auction, which raised another $1,000 or so to help them rebuild.   I am so glad I put the effort into that event; I still feel a special connection to this now happily thriving family.

Last year, when Vermonters were hammered by Tropical Storm Irene, I was especially impressed by the many, many people who pitched in to do the physically hard and unpleasant work of  mucking out nasty flood debris.  For a variety of reasons, I never did that.  I did donate money; went to fundraising concerts; gathered up books to take to help restock a flooded library; and helped my church target monthly congregational giving to both general flood relief and relief for hard-hit farmers.  But, because I didn’t do any of the physical clean up, my efforts never felt sufficient.

Okay, so I’m not a giving super hero — and maybe that’s just as well.  A few months ago, I interviewed Kathryn Blume for an article in Vermont Woman.  “We don’t serve anyone by burning ourselves out,” she told me.  “Any cause we engage in is going to be bigger than we are.  We can give everything we’ve got, and it will still be there.”  An astute observation, for sure.

Last week I interviewed Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley for an article to be published in Vermont Woman  in February.  In early October, Paula and Linda completed a Pursuit of Happiness Walk from Stowe, Vermont to Washington, D.C. — a walk which was filled with giving.  Their gift to others was listening to the heart-felt reflections on happiness from hundreds of regular folks.  In return, they received the gift of witnessing individuals open up and share their hearts.  There were plenty of tangible gifts, too — like the owner of a diner where they had stopped who came running after them to make sure they had pretzels — but the intangibles were what made the walk profound.

So how many ways are there to give?  Is it infinite?  My daughter posted a super cool video on my Facebook wall of a young man performing 22 acts of random kindness to celebrate his 22nd birthday (my daughter proposes making this a new family tradition).  There are a lot of good ideas in here!

While working on this blog, I found an Arab proverb which loops back to my dilemma of what to give if not money AND addresses the “heart” of my message here:   “If you have much, give of your wealth; If you have little, give of your heart.”

How about you?  What does giving mean to you?

Is Happiness Escapist?

Is happiness escapist?

This question, which came up at a happiness workshop on a lovely Sunday afternoon in Vermont a little over 24 hours before Super Storm Sandy hit the U.S.,  carried extra weight in the following days as we witnessed the storm’s massive destruction and personal tragedies.  Most painful was the news about a Staten Island woman whose two young sons were swept from her arms by powerful waves as she tried to carry them to safety.  Both little boys drowned.  I cried at her despair.

Even worse, though, is the foreboding I feel.  I know I am not alone in believing Sandy is the new “normal.”  I suspect there will be many more neighborhoods aflame, beautiful beaches and treasured covered bridges washed away, and toddlers dying.

And, we all have our normal garden variety of suffering to deal with: aging, failing bodies; money worries; heartbreak from our own and others’ failings; and, ultimately, death.  For all of us.

In fact, I’m feeling a little sad while I write this blog.  Yet, on both a micro and macro level, my answer to the title question is a resounding no.   Quite the opposite, really.  For me, cultivating happiness, positivity, and well being is a moral imperative on both the big systemic and deeply personal levels.

Some of the water jugs we had filled in case Sandy knocked out our power for an extended time.

Why?  Most urgently, because, on both a personal and societal level we are chasing the wrong goals: money and material success.  I know that is not all that many of us seek.  We are also spiritual beings, who treasure and nourish relationships and the opportunity to do good and to create.  And we are physical creatures, who dance and have sex and go to yoga class. Nonetheless, because our economy is fixated on growth, the pressure on us to buy and spend is enormous.  The resulting consumerism is trashing the environment.

To begin to ameliorate the insidious, unpredictable effects of climate change, we must reject the sacred cow of a growth economy.  Equally, we must understand that a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not a valid  indicator of a flourishing society.  This is not a new idea; Bobby Kennedy eloquently articulated the flaws of GDP way back in 1968.  I’ve watched a video of his GDP speech many, many times and it still moves me to tears.  Today, viewing it again, I want to add “the ravages of a hurricane” to RFK’s list of what contributes to a “healthy” GDP.

One other quick primer on how destructive consumerism is:  “The Story of Stuff.”  If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend investing the 20+ minutes this smart, sassy video lasts.  And, BTW, happier people shop less.

But what will take the place of a growth economy, consumerism, and GDP? Something needs to fill the vacuum.  That something should be a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — or, in more politically palatable terms, the genuine well being of people and the planet.  Systemically, embracing happiness is embracing a sustainable future.

On the personal level, first of all, I have to question what good it does anybody for me, or you, to be unhappy?  How is that going to help fix anything?

But it’s not just me.  Sages from across the millenia — the Dalai Lama and Aristotle, for example — say that happiness is what all humans desire.  The Dalai Lama has also written that whenever we interact with another person, we can add either to that individual’s happiness or to their unhappiness.  Thanks to mirror neurons, we are much more likely to boost another’s spirits if we ourselves are in a happier place.

When I was at the national happiness conference in Seattle in August, I learned a simple but profound exercise from Scott Crabtree, proprietor of “Happy Brain Science.”  Scott divided the group into paired-up “A’s” and “B’s” and then instructed the “A’s” to maintain sober facial expressions while looking at the “B’s” who were instructed to smile, smile, smile at their partners.  You can guess, it is just impossible to not smile back!

Of course, I am not recommending fake cheeriness or inauthentic saccharine behavior.  What I am suggesting is, as Christine Carter puts it in Raising Happiness, that we need to “put on our own oxygen masks first” when it comes to helping others be happier.

Thanks to positive psychology research and multiple other studies on human behavior, we now know that nurturing happiness builds our own ability to respond to crises and to serving others in their moments of need.  Positivity breeds greater resilience, and the ability to see and appreciate silver linings.  Happier people are kinder — and kinder people are happier.  Happiness is also good for our health, and, damn, sometimes we need to be strong and healthy to fight the good fight!

Another powerful argument for strengthening our happiness muscles is the value of mindfulness.  Taking time to meditate and build personal awareness is one of the most important happiness strategies any of us can adopt.  With mindfulness comes greater compassion (for ourselves and others), more inner peace, less stress — and, the ability to make better decisions.  “To lead a happy life, we need to make good choices,” write father and son happiness mavens Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, “and this involves the recognition that problems arise, even in good circumstances”  (Understanding True Wealth, p. 18).

The circumstances in North Central Vermont were very good indeed — a sunny, warm, late autumn day — as Sandy was headed our way.  Even way up here, we were warned of very high winds and the likelihood of losing power.  It was time for mindfulness and good decisions: after watching Tropical Storm Irene devastate much of Vermont last year, we knew that if the power went out, it could stay out for a long, long time.  Our wood stove and gas range meant we could stay warm and cook hot meals.  But our well needs electricity to work, so we stockpiled pitchers, jars, trash cans, and bottles of water to drink, clean, take care of the baby, and flush the toilets.

The storm wobbled a bit to the west and we never needed all that extra water.  But the threat was — and is — quite real.  My sister Peggy in New Jersey is now in Day 8 of no power, no heat, no water.  It is, she says, “the pits.” I can’t regret for a moment my choices to stockpile water; I am grateful for mindfulness and the awareness to “be prepared.”  (After all, I was once a Girl Scout!)

Diener and Biswas-Diener also observe, “challenges look easier when you are happy.”   I’ll tell you something else that makes my challenges look easier: coffee!   I don’t drink a lot, but, oh, that first cup in the morning is a savoring experience every single day.  During our preparations for Sandy, I became very mindful that I had wholly inadequate coffee preparations.  Next time, I will make even better choices, stocking up on coffee (ground!) as well as water.

That’s not a moral imperative, of course — but, it will help me keep smiling!

Paying Taxes Makes Me Happy

That is, if the check is made out to the State of Vermont.

This is the time of year when I have the mixed blessing of adding up how many sales I’ve had the previous year — Sass Wearable Watercolor sales since 1991, and now, Happiness Paradigm sales.  My left brain appreciates having a concrete measure of how much my art and the other happiness products in my store grossed in sales.  I like seeing the numbers increase — except for the knowledge that as those numbers go up, so too does my obligation to remit an ever larger sales tax check to the State of Vermont.

Working on this task, I suddenly remembered the stunning devastation of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.  Vermonters statewide pulled together in an amazingly cohesive recovery effort — including the state itself which did remarkable work rebuilding the more than 1,000 badly damaged roads in our tiny state.

That made me think about how much I love this state.  I am so happy to be a Vermonter.  In part, I love this state because it makes me happy.  So writing a sales tax check is really a gift from my heart.

Why does living here make me happy?  There are many reasons, including the state’s tradition of progressive politics (Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery) and how supportive the state is for artists of all stripes. The stunningly beautiful and user-friendly environment means lots of time exercising outside — hiking, swimming, snow-shoeing, kayaking.  The number one reason, though, has to be community.

The precision rolling pin drill team in the Maple Corner 4th of July parade

Marching precisely, with rolling pin, in the Maple Corner 4th of July parade

My husband and I moved to Maple Corner in June 2001 based largely on the impression that this tiny hamlet has an exceptionally strong sense of community — and we haven’t been disappointed.  There is almost too much going on here!  We share a lot of laughs and a lot of food — which means we’re also well equipped to share a lot of tears.  When natural disasters,  illness, death, catastrophic fires, or even an ice skating accident occur here, the community swings into action with food, hugs, and whatever else is needed. When trouble knocks on my door, I will not be alone.

Of course, we do our part, too — which leads to further happiness, because it’s more giving from the heart.  We regularly march in parades, organize the local meditation group, substitute for the yoga teacher, and willingly get on stage for the annual Fall Foliage Variety Show, including this memorable turn as a turkey singing Gloria Gaynor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pycBonUO_4k

It is no accident that our community, and many, many others in the state, are strong.   These days, people choose to move here because they want to invest the energy and the elbow grease into maintaining community.  We’ve become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How did such communities evolve in the first place?  I’ve often wondered if our harsh winters were a factor.  Eric Weiner, author of Geography of Bliss, pointed out in his presentation at the Aspen Festival of Ideas that cold countries are much more likely than tropical paradises to be among the happiest countries in the world.  http://www.aifestival.org/session/geography-happiness

Two days ago, I started reading Happiness: What Studies on Twins Show Us About Nature, Nurture, and the Happiness Set Point, a 1999 book by evolutionary psychologist Dr. David Lykken.  Lykken notes that “survival became increasingly complex for our ancestors” as they “migrated away from the tropical savannas into colder climates.”  Thus, “the practical wisdom and mutual assistance of the group became increasingly important.”   Belonging to such a group required “adaptive” behaviors, including, “surprisingly, an innate tendency to look on the bright side and to be happy.” (p. 14)  Well how ’bout that?!  Sounds good to me!

Whether or not being a member of the Vermont community is currently  adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, I know that giving to my neighbors and giving to my state fills me with a sense of purpose.  I am so pleased to be part of something bigger than myself — to be, rather, part of my state.   I’m not in the habit of quoting Roman philosophers, but I like this observation from Seneca:  “No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.”

One final observation on my happiness in Vermont: I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to live here.  That gratitude itself increases my happiness — a little cherry on top.