Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Vermont’ Category

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.

Vermont Does Happiness

From the Statehouse to the school house, Vermonters are on the happiness path!

Two days from when I’m writing this, there will be a big press conference in Montpelier announcing three new visionary ways for lawmakers to “Build a Better Budget.”  Representative Suzi Wizowaty (D) and Senator Anthony Pollina (P) will introduce three new bills.  The first one proposes a Genuine Progess Indicator, much like a Gross National Happiness paradigm for policy making.  Indeed, GNHUSA co-coordinator Tom Barefoot will speak at the press conference.

The “Golden Dome” that tops the Vermont Capitol Building

Bill number two will address income inequality.  As this brilliant TED talk by Richard Wilkinson illustrates, income inequality is perhaps the most corrosive threat to societal happiness.  http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html  We simply must, must address this threat to well being.  The income inequality gap is dragging us all down.

The third bill seeks to create an expert panel to to explore the development of  a State Bank in Vermont.  I frankly know next to nothing about this idea.  If you all have thoughts to share here, please do!

If you are in the Montpelier area, and want to stop by, you’re welcome to come to the press conference: January 17th, 2012, 1:00, in the Cedar Creek Room in the Statehouse.

Meanwhile, in the school house

Liza Earle-Centers, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Calais Elementary School, shared a poem compiled from her students’ writing after watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech.  I’d say their wisdom is a pretty good guide to a much happier world.  Here it is:

Our Dream
I have a dream that one day everyone will have a friend.
I have a dream that one day people who are poor will get homes and food.
I have a dream that one day all humans will be equal in money, and in health—that no one will be hungry or forced to work to death.
I have a dream that everyone will have food and water and that no one in this world will starve.

I have hope and faith we will be able to help endangered animals, give them homes and treat them well.
I have a dream that people will stop abusing animals.

I have a dream that one day everyone will be safe.
I have hope and faith that we will be able to adopt kids that need help, be there for them and give them care.
I have a dream that all kids will get their own rights and learn to have some kind of freedom.

I have a dream that one day all people will be nice to each other.
I have a dream that one day, everyone can just be friendly, not mean or hurtful.
I have a dream that we will stop the flow of harmful words.
I have a dream that one day we will stand up against bullying and that bullying will stop.
I have a dream that that the people who were getting bullied will be happy.

I have a dream that everyone, no matter what race, will be friends not foes.
I have a dream that one day there will be no nuclear bombs or nuclear power of any kind.
I have a dream that one day this nation will make peace with other nations.
I have a dream that one day this whole world will be in peace, and that angry wars will come to an end,

I have a dream that one day everyone will show the people of the world that they care about what they need.
I have a dream that one day our nation’s weak will be strong, and the strong will be stronger.
I have a dream that our nation will carry on together and with strength.

I have a dream that one day everyone will get along.

Along with the legislators, the children” words inspire hope in me that Vermont, at least, takes happiness seriously.