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Archive for the ‘Work And Happiness’ Category

Mediation or Meditation? Which Is My Happiness Path?

I’m beginning to think the Universe played at little joke on me.

Back in 2005, when I tearfully concluded that my right livelihood could no longer be found within the craft show world, I thought the Universe gave me the answer to what was supposed to come next.  In retrospect, it seemed like the Mother Superior moment in “The Sound of Music,” the moment she advised Maria, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Cue “Climb Every Mountain.”  My own window seemed to open, with or without divine intervention, in a Stockholm cafe.  I thought the message was clear: the mountain I had to climb was getting a masters degree, in mediation.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

I had flown to Sweden just days after a disastrous craft show experience, a show that led me to sob in the bathroom and promise the heavens above that I was definitely closing the craft show door.  Lucky for me, my trip to Stockholm to visit dear friends Bert and Keith was already arranged.  It was great to get away, and they were attentive hosts.  One day they both had to work, so I was on my own.  I ended up touring the Nobel Museum, an incredibly cool and deeply inspiring institution.

Afterwords, alone in the cafe, I heard the the word “mediator” jump into my head.  Seriously, that’s what it felt like — the word jumped into my head and I immediately knew that’s what I was supposed to do next.  As soon as I got home, I contacted the admissions office at Woodbury College (now part of Champlain College) and signed up to begin their brand new Master’s program.  I knew so little about formal mediation that I somehow hoped I could be a mediator without dealing with conflict — in hindsight, a wildly silly misunderstanding of what I was getting into.  Mediation is all about stepping calmly into the eye of the conflict storm.  Ultimately, I learned to do just that, but personal conflict still distresses me.

None of this is as flaky as it may sound.  Mediation in many ways suits my personality, talents, and what I was looking for professionally at that time.  I wanted to help heal the world in some way, and mediation allowed me to use my communications skills to create at least a little more peace, a little more happiness.  I  hadn’t yet taken the VIA strengths survey, but now I know my signature strengths can be valuable to both the mediation process and to establishing rapport with parties in a conflict: the ability to forgive, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to give and receive love.

Indeed, I was good enough to be asked even before I graduated to coach new mediation students at Woodbury, and have continued working with the program ever since.  I also created the position of Staff Mediator at Home Share Now, and took on various freelance mediation and facilitation gigs with some professional and personal satisfaction.  Given that healthy relationships are the number one predictor of happiness, helping folks resolve their conflicts more successfully is clearly a job that brings more happiness into the world.

And yet … lately I’ve been wondering, perhaps the Universe was really saying, “Meditation.”  What if I misheard?

Okay, I’m not that woo-woo.  The two words sound so much alike, I often trip up and use the wrong one.  The idea that I may have misheard makes me laugh.  And, the truth is, almost as soon as I finished my master’s degree — culminating with a Capstone study on “Mediation and Suffering” — I picked up Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness followed soon after by Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was already following a different career path.

Of course, productive conflict resolution is a HUGE part of individual and societal happiness.  And I learned lots of great skills to use both in my personal life and in all my work efforts.  I highly recommend the Champlain program, and the gifted teachers there. Mediation is most definitely a happiness path, a right livelihood to build greater well being on every level.

But I don’t think it’s my path.  Teaching, coaching, advocating, and writing about the whys and hows of both personal and systemic well being — including meditation — that’s my path.

I didn’t leap blindly into meditation in the same way I took up mediation.  After all, I’ve been meditating since the last century!  However, I am surprised that it has become such a prominent piece of my overall career puzzle — surprised and extremely gratified.  In all my secular meditation classes, which I call “Meditating for Happiness,” I hear the most amazing and beautiful stories about how participants are using their new meditation tools to live significantly better lives — to sleep better, to control blood pressure, to help their families be happier, to handle workplace stress and road rage, even to cope with death.  Whether it’s in the corporate environment, at a health care facility or a senior center, students in every class thank me for teaching them strategies for much greater health and happiness.  They thank me, but I also leave almost every class overflowing with gratitude.  I often think, “I have the best job in the world!”

So what does all this have to do with anybody else’s happiness?

Both mediation and meditation are extremely good for happiness — yours, mine, and ours — in so many ways, both internally and externally.  As I write this, I am struck by how much both practices rely on deep heart felt mindfulness, and especially listening — to the said, to the unsaid, to what really matters.  I am fortunate that both have been part of my happy life.

More to to the point though, is the belief that living our best possible lives means choosing the best possible livelihoods.  It allows us to experience days filled with both pleasure and meaning.  Funny, I touched upon this from a very different angle in my previous essay (on The Happiness Walk).  I quoted Aristotle then, and I’ll quote him again: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  It’s hard to beat Aristotle, but here a few other insightful takes on making good work choices:

  • Balzac had a more literate touch, when he wrote: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”
  • A more modern view comes from the wise and loving educator Parker Palmer: “A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self…”
  • Then there’s everyone’s favorite Sufi poet, Rumi: “Discover vocation and creation. And joy will come like clairvoyance, where blindness was before.”

So the question is, what is your right livelihood, your vocational path to happiness? Perhaps you are already well ensconced in your own colorful and joyful crossroads between your talents and the world’s needs (of which, lord knows, there are plenty!).  If not, perhaps you too can go to the Nobel Museum and sit in a Swedish cafe to hear what the Universe wants to tell you.  Or at the least, you can meditate on it.


The Purpose of Happiness

Happy with a purpose: pushing the stroller!

Happy with a purpose: pushing the stroller!

I’ll admit to being just a wee bit clever with the headline.

That is, I’m mushing together two different happiness threads.  First, I want to share some current thoughts on why cultivating individual and systemic well-being is so vital.  Second, I’ve had some personal experiences and observations on Sonja Lyubomirsky‘s “Happiness Activity No. 10” — committing to your goals, or, having a purpose.

Why Happiness Matters      

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why happiness matters, including sounder health, greater creativity, increased compassion, more personal success,and better parenting.  Perhaps because I’ve had a grand baby living in my house, I often think of Christine Carter’s book Raising Happiness and her emphasis on parents “putting on your own (happiness) oxygen masks first” to raise compassionate, joyful children.  Obviously, I want to do my part to help my grand daughter become a compassionate and joyful person.

Then there’s Aristotle’s quote:  “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  That is, all our other purposes in life are really in the service of happiness for ourselves and others.  Happiness is purpose in capital letters.

But what really made me want to write on this topic were three lines from a book I bought at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last month.  The book is Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It contains a variety of mindfulness practices to “fully enjoy life’s gifts.”  In the intro, the Buddhist monk writes, “Every step and every breath can be an opportunity for joy and happiness.  Life is full of suffering.  If we don’t have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair.”

A few days later, the urgency of cultivating both personal happiness and a societal Gross National Happiness paradigm struck me as I listened to a National Public Radio story on how warmer temperatures that come with climate change could lead to spikes in violence and fighting.

We have to figure out a better way to cope, and soon.  Here’s a goal: for the impossibly big stuff (climate change) and the smaller griefs (like the one I share below), let’s substantially build our happiness reserves.

If history predicts the future, happiness may well be key to positively and collectively adapting to change.  According to evolutionary psychologist David Lykken — one of the early modern happiness researchers — happiness is an “adaptive difference”  that during early human history at least “increased the chances of survival … improved one’s chances of maintaining and profiting from group membership (and) gradually separated our ancestors from the also-ran. ”  (Happiness, p. 14)

Perhaps, happiness will once again be a key determinant of human survival.  

Purpose as a Happiness Strategy

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we can benefit from researchers like Lyubomirsky and their guide books for our individual happiness journeys.  In The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky details 12 happiness activities; number 10 focuses on goals.

She starts that chapter with a quote from Australian psychiatrist W. Beran Wolfe, written in 1932: “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert.”  Or, as Lyubomirsky more succinctly put it, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.” (p. 205)

My inspiration on this topic was closer to home, and very 21st century — a walk several weeks ago with my 15 month-old granddaughter Madeleine.  She and I were returning from the neighborhood labyrinth about a mile and a half away.  Though she contently rode to the labyrinth in her stroller, on the way back, she started fussing.  For some reason, I asked her if she wanted to help push.

Boy, did she.  It was hot and we had a long way to go, but that little girl was determined to “push” the stroller all the way home (with grandma’s help, of course).  Because I knew she was exhausted, I tried repeatedly to convince her to quit pushing and relax in the passenger seat.  No way.  She had a purpose, one that clearly fed her happiness in that moment.  Though she is too young to articulate goals, if she could, I’m sure she would have said her goal was to push the stroller to our front door.  In fact, she diligently and doggedly pushed for more than a mile.  Looking down at her little body working so hard was a poignant sight — and a lesson in the value of purpose.

Lyubomirsky cautions that no happiness strategy will resonate with everyone, and that is true even within my immediate nuclear family.  Unlike Madeleine, her grandfather (my husband Bob) is not goal oriented.  He always has many projects going — he’s just not in a hurry to finish anything.  Earlier in our marriage, Bob’s lack of purpose upset me.  I’d press him to articulate his goals, and he would panic because … he basically doesn’t have any.   Yet, he’s content and happy.  Part of my lifelong learning was to recognize that he is who he is, and one of my goals should definitely not be to change him.  Similarly, Madeleine has always been a determined and focused little being; I wouldn’t even dream of trying to change her!

As for me, purpose not only helps define my most satisfying days, it is also a reliable coping strategy* when life isn’t working the way I’d like — for example, dealing with the smaller grief I mentioned above.  Just a few days ago, my beautiful daughter and granddaughter — who came to live with us when the baby was only five weeks old — moved to a distant state.  The move is a good thing, and definitely meets my daughter’s need to have a purpose (teaching university students).  I’m happy for them.  Nonetheless, I was very, very sad when the moving van drove away.   Everywhere I looked, I saw memories of Madeleine and our precious year and a half together.

Fortunately, I also saw projects everywhere.  I cried awhile, and then tackled my oppressively messy clothes situation.  Two days later, I had one bag of clothes to donate to an artist friend who will re-purpose the material beautifully; two large trash bags filled with clothes to donate to the Goodwill; one trash bag filled with items that just needed to be thrown away; and a much, much neater closet and dresser.  Best of all, I felt better.  This project helped me say goodbye to the past and turn toward the fun times my granddaughter and I will share in the future.  It was soothing, and settling.

Since June, I have co-facilitated a happiness study group designed to help each participant determine which which strategies from The How of Happiness will best make each of us happy.  It’s been clear to me for some time that spreading happiness is one of the most fundamentally important purposes of my life.  Now, I also appreciate just how much having a purpose and pursuing my goals deepens my own happiness.   It is comforting knowledge.


* Developing coping strategies for challenging times is another of Lyubomirsky’s recommended happiness activities.

Happiest Jobs, Part 2

A few weeks ago, when I was in the thick of writing a guest sermon on happiness, I blogged about the ministry and why that profession landed at the top of Forbes magazine‘s list of  “10 Happiest Jobs.”

Since then, I’ve had my own moment in the pulpit.  Guess what?  It made me very happy!  Actually, that brief hour leading a service for the Montpelier Unitarian Church continues to make me happy, as fellow church members not only offer me generous compliments but also seek to engage me in further conversation on happiness.  Their interest indicates that I must have done a pretty good job, but you don’t have to take my word for it: you can listen to the sermon yourself, if you like.

Of course, I am not a minister and one morning as a guest speaker does not a career make; my minister sister Kathy invested many (many!) years of studying and internships before she was ordained.   But I do think there were aspects of my experience consistent with what makes my ministerial friends happy with their jobs.  Two things stand out: the need to be creative, and the opportunity to deliver a message worthy of people’s time and attention on a Sunday morning.

Creativity: Writing the sermon was undeniably creative (also undeniably work!).  Crafting a message that connected climate change and personal happiness, and presenting it in sermon form (20 minutes long, meant to be read aloud, rich with meaning but not too complex, with an awareness of how certain words and passages might make people in the congregation feel) was challenging for me.  I wrote and re-wrote and practiced and re-wrote and practiced again.  Often I was in the flow, an excellent place to experience happiness — but just as often I had to draw on what creativity expert Roger van Oech terms “the warrior.”  The warrior, he posits, is the archetype all creators need to embody to slog through the tough spots and actually finish a creative project.

Of course, not all the creating was arduous.  Selecting the quote for the Order of Service, and choosing two readings was like a great walk in the woods of wonderful thinkers.  The most fun creative element, though, was asking the Montpelier Ukulele Players to play the prelude, postlude, and special music.   This is the group my husband Bob plays with, and I put in the request through him.  At first, he told me there might be eight musicians.  On Friday before the service, Bob said he thought maybe 12 would show up.

My ukulele playing husband got his Montpelier ukulele players to join him at church.

My ukulele playing husband got his Montpelier ukulele buddies to join him at church.

Turns out, there were 16 ukulele players on the chancel that day!   I am telling you, those ukulele players spread quite a bit of happiness, especially with the postlude — “Keep On The Sunny Side” — which had the congregation singing and clapping along.   So, yay for creativity!

A Worthwhile Message:  The main driving force for me in my happiness work is the looming threat of climate change, and my belief that understanding and cultivating personal happiness and systemic well being (ie, a Gross National Happiness paradigm) is a positive way to both limit the extent of environmental devastation and help us cope with unavoidable tragedy.  So it was pretty clear to me from the get go what direction my sermon would take.

It may seem counter-intuitive to focus a happiness talk on climate change, which can be a seriously depressing topic.  Truthfully, I felt a little bad when I finally stepped to the pulpit, after the ukulele music and a rousing choir anthem had the congregation laughing and clearly in an upbeat mood.  I thought, wow, they are not going to expect the direction this sermon will take!  But I had faith in the worth of my message, so I was surprisingly calm as I plunged in.  By the end, I think the congregation was once again feeling hopeful and upbeat, thanks to the power of happiness research.

Some of the climate change information I cited in the sermon came from a January 2012 report from in the New York Times.  I’ve found an update in the paper re one of the items I had cited (extreme heat in Australia).  Here’s an excerpt:  “But the report from the Climate Commission, titled ‘The Angry Summer,’ argues that the frequency and ferocity of recent extreme weather events indicate an acceleration that is unlikely to abate unless serious steps are taken to prevent further changes to the planet’s environment.”

Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though my sermon topic will become irrelevant any time soon.  So I’ll be hitting the road, sharing this same basic message with Unitarian Universalist congregations in Barre, Vermont on April 7th and Hartland, Vermont on April 14th.  Maybe I can even go to my sister Kathy’s church in Philadelphia!

The Happiest Jobs

Not so long ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined I’d be writing a sermon.  While I may sometimes get preachy (ahem),  that doesn’t mean I ever aspired to the ministry.  Growing up, I never even went to church except on Girl Scout Sundays, when I felt very uncomfortable and out of place.

As an adult, though, I began to long for spiritual community.  When I decided to get a Masters in Mediation, I intuited that I could be more present and helpful to folks in conflict if I spent some time healing my own psyche.  This belief led me to the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which has been my spiritual home since 2005.

When I finished my graduate degree, after devoting many months to studying the relationship between suffering and mediation, I bought a cheerier book: Dan Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness.   It was a momentous purchase, as Gilbert’s book opened the gate to my happiness path.

On Sunday March 3rd 2013, the happiness path will wend its way through my spiritual home as I step into the pulpit as the guest minister at my church.  My sermon topic is, “Is Happiness Escapist, or a Valuable Spiritual Practice?”  (What do you suppose my answers will be?)

It isn’t unusual for members of the congregation to serve as guest ministers when our own minister Mara Dowdall  is away.  Nonetheless, I’m very pleased and honored to take my turn in the pulpit.

Even more exciting was receiving a second invitation to share my happiness sermon  — this time, from the Universalist Church in neighboring Barre, Vermont on Sunday April 7th.  I absolutely view pursuing happiness as a spiritual practice, so readily accepted this invitation as well.

Far left, my sister -- The Reverend Kathy Ellis, taking social justice concerns to the street

Far left, my sister — The Reverend Doctor Kathy Ellis — taking social justice concerns to the street.

But I do wonder, as I write the sermon, how the heck do my sister (Kathy Ellis, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia) and Mara and the other ministers I know do this week after week?  Writing a sermon is a daunting task!  And I know through my sister and through Mara that sermon writing is just the tip of the ministerial workload iceberg.

Lest you feel too sorry for them, though, I have to say the odds are good that they both love their jobs.  Indeed, in September 2012, Steve Denning wrote an article for Forbes on the “Ten Happiest Jobs.”  At the top of his list: clergy.  Denning notes, “The least worldly are reported to be happiest of all.”

Here’s the rest of his list: 2) firefighters; 3) physical therapists; 4) authors; 5) special education teachers; 6) teachers; 7) artists; 8) psychologists; 9) financial sales agents; and 10) operating engineers.

Only the last two seem at all surprising, though I think a lot of men I’ve known would love being operating engineers.  Says Denning, “Playing with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors can be fun. ”  Yup, I can easily imagine my husband happily playing with these grown up toys …

Denning, who earlier wrote an article on the 10 most unhappy jobs, speculated that “the difference between the happiest jobs and the most hated jobs” is that “one set of jobs feels worthwhile, while in the other jobs, people can’t see the point.”  Makes total sense to me.

I also did a little bit of my own completely non-scientific research by asking my sister, Mara, and three other minister friends what about their jobs makes them happy.  Their thoughts follow.  But before you read what they say, pause for a moment to consider what the common thread or threads might be.  Some of what this group shared might surprise you.

Now, their responses:

Reverend Doctor Kathy Ellis:  “Ministry is about connecting – with people, with meaning, with the still small voice. It allows, almost requires learning and growth.  It is varied. Yesterday I even went to a movie as part of my work.”

Reverend Mara Dowdall:  “Some quick thoughts about what is ‘happy’-inducing: 1) meeting fascinating and lovely people and hearing their stories; 2) having the privilege to walk with people and be present for many holy moments; 3) reading poetry for work; 4) being challenged; and 5) variety: each day is different.”

Reverent Laelia Tawnamaia: “I agree with Kathy: love, meaning-making, justice advocating, creativity, flexibility, people, community, and soul growth.”

Reverend Susan Veronica Rak:  “I am happy in my work as a minister when all of me gets tapped into… I find all my ‘loves’ – story, art, creativity, beauty, weirdness, reverence, awe – come into play  in preaching, pastoral care, administration, etc. – and some of my greatest dreams and fears are in play, too. And that is what it is to be human.”

Reverend Janet Smith Peterman:  “It’s interesting that all of us are women and I wonder if that makes a difference. I think, too, that part of what is so satisfying is that I can use my creativity; the people connections are often at moments in their lives where something really significant is going on; we get to reflect on the larger sweeps of life and meaning; and, at least in the work I do, get to help communities find life/new life and redevelop.”

So, how did their answers fit with your expectations?  Certainly some of their responses were what I would expect (“holy moments” and “soul growth,” for example, as well as meaningful connections with others) — but what really struck me was the emphasis on creativity, variety, and continual learning.   It sounds very much as though they may frequently experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes in this TED talk as “Flow,” or “the secret of happiness.”

I also think it’s very significant that all five ministers described a variety of activities during their work days — activities that have also been proven to increase personal happiness.  Variety itself is a key to sustaining happiness, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky — mixing it up with our happiness activities keeps us interested and engaged in a way that is vital to continued higher levels of happiness.

Hmmmmm …. maybe I should pursue the ministry after all!  Just kidding.  Mostly.  Though I can definitely see the appeal in ministerial work, my calling in life is to preach happiness.  I expect to enjoy my time in the pulpit, but it’s definitely only temporary.


By the way, for those of you who read my previous post on happiness for the goose and gander, I want to share my plan for “special music” on March 3rd: I’ve asked my husband Bob and his fellow ukulele players to perform “Bring Me Sunshine,” performed in this video by the Jive Aces.  This song always brings a smile to my face.  Perhaps you’ll enjoy it as well!