Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I'm not pretending.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I’m not pretending.

I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times.  It’s part of life, I say aloud.  Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”

Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument.  Bad times have arrived.

All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble.  The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away.  Not a good sign.  Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont.  More foreboding.  Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said.  “First we need pictures.”

Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech.  Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living.  I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.”  Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored.  Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink.  It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated.  Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye.  The doctor assures me, this will hurt.  I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away.  Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself.   I don’t, actually.  This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives.  Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute.  Bad times take many different forms.  Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.

The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation.  I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office.  I don’t know why.  Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry.  My left eye is irreversibly damaged.  I almost lost my vision completely in that eye.  That is worth grieving over.  That is worth many tears.

I know I’ll be done crying soon.  From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it.  There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there.  However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too.  Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic?  I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not.  Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun.  It might not even work.  It might happen in the other eye.  But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War.  He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism.  Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.

Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”  So be it.  Faith, yes.  And, tell me the truth.

I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse.  Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps?  Or their optimism isn’t reality based?

So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality.  That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend.  I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight.  I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist.  I will forgive myself.  Not yet, though.

Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness.  Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight.  Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn’t do it.  I just needed to be sad.

It’s dark, rainy and cold today.  Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return.  Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well.  Maybe not.  Either way is okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vermont's Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

Vermont’s Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

For my granddaughter Madeleine’s fourth birthday, my husband gave her a Sound of Music DVD.  She was pleased enough, but when we sat down to watch this family favorite together a conflict arose.  Madeleine insisted on Star Wars instead, with us. Since we most definitely did not want to watch Star Wars ourselves, unpleasantness was brewing.  So I dusted off my mediator skills — yes, these tools can work even with pre-schoolers — to determine why Madeleine was going to the mat for Star Wars.  The answer? Darth Vader, a major league bad guy.

Ah. Easy to solve. We had convinced Madeleine that Sound of Music was a happy, singing, dancing love fest when she is currently much more fascinated with monsters of all stripes.  When I explained that Sound of Music actually has some of the worst bad guys in history — real ones, led by the evil monster Hitler — Madeleine was satisfied.  She changed into a princess costume, and we settled in for an afternoon of nuns and Nazis.

Madeleine enjoyed herself, but with that set-up, I found Sound of Music to be a very disturbing movie.  It was unsettling at the least to watch the characters on screen — based on real people — go merrily about their lovely lives with picnics, puppet shows, and a gala ball despite the fact that their country was about to be devastated.  So much suffering was just around the corner, yet no one seemed to know or care, except the Captain.  Even he, though, seems completely absorbed in his own life.

The problem is, that’s kind of where we are right now — singing, dancing, falling in love, and having parties while the climate change monster is on our very doorstep, at best.  In many places, the ravages of climate change have already barged right through the front hall with never-before-imagined fires, droughts, super storms, and crazy temperatures.

Life where I live often seems normal, but it isn’t — and it isn’t normal where you are, either.  We can keep pretending that all is well – but that doesn’t change the fact that the telegraph boy singing to our daughter in the garden is a Nazi, metaphorically speaking.  Peril is upon us.  Beating back that peril will take a great deal more than the Captain’s defiant yanking down of the Swastika flag hanging from his villa. We have to rise up and take creative, strong, bold, and united action.

Montpelier, Vermont may not be as stunning as Salzburg, Austria where the Sound of Music takes place — but it is heartbreakingly lovely here, especially in the spring when the sun returns, the frogs again begin their loud mating rituals, and the Farmer’s Market comes back outside.  Sometimes, it is so hard to remember and appreciate that we are living under such a dire threat.  But we are.  We are.  We are.

Of course the comparison to the Sound of Music can only go so far.  How many of us actually make play clothes out of draperies any more?  And I by no means wish to imply that all the hard working men and women in the fossil fuels industry are Nazis.  We are all complicit in building and maintaining the system.

Here’s the good news, the really really good news: the climate justice movement is huge, a worldwide collaboration — growing not only numbers but also in audacity. Soon, from May 4-15, 2016 you can look for and participate in an unprecedented global wave of mass actions targeting the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects to keep coal, oil, and gas in the ground and accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable energy.

This tremendous resistance is called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” led by local and international organizations, grassroots groups, and regional coalitions  — all determined to stop fossil fuel projects with more than a dozen major mobilizations on six continents.  Excitingly, for my friends and readers in Vermont, one of these actions will be just across the border from us, in Albany, on May 14th.  You can get on a bus to head over there for this historic day!  All the info you need is here.

Wherever in the world you are, you can look to Break Free’s planned actions as an outstanding illustration of the perseverance and courage of citizen activists all across the planet.  Thank god for their willingness to put their bodies on the line!  I am deeply grateful, and heartened by the movement’s willingness to escalate resistance to free us all from the unspeakable suffering of climate change.

Equally important, Break Free is working to build a brighter future for all.  Certainly there are viable solutions.  In fact, in his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding says creating this better future should be easier than vanquishing the Nazis, once we’re all on board.

But we’re not all on board.  Despite December’s Paris climate agreement, governments remain irresponsibly slow to take real climate action — so we the people have to step it up.  Break Free proponents say we are close to an historic, global shift in our energy system.  The way we get there is by peaceful direct action that confronts those who are profiting from climate change and takes power back for the people.  This will often mean arrest, and creating situations that inconvenience and/or confuse others.

Not too long ago, there was an action in Montpelier which shut down a street and a critical office building in an effort to stop a fracked gas pipeline in my state.  I visited some of those camped out in the street, in the rain, offering them companionship and gratitude.  Other people dropped by to bring them food.  They had plenty of food.

The next night, I was stunned when a woman in my yoga class — a woman who works in the shut down office building — made snide and derogatory remarks about this same group of climate warriors.  We were preparing for yoga, a peaceful, respectful time, so I kept my mouth shut.  But I wanted to shout, they are trying to save the planet for godsakes!  Who cares if you’re inconvenienced at work for a few hours???

So I know not everyone will applaud those taking part in the Break Free actions.  But here’s the thing.  It is easy now to look back to the time of Sound of Music, and the war that followed, and applaud all the disobedience and resistance against the Nazis any and every citizen mustered.  Even, wish there had been more. How much more will that be the case in the future, as our grandchildren’s children reflect back on our actions?  Particularly since none of us can climb over a mountain to reach safety?  There is no safety.  If ever resistance and disobedience were called for, the time is now.

A final note.  What does this have to do with happiness?  Everything, it has everything to do with happiness.  You may have seen the meme floating around the internet proclaiming that “Happiness is an inside job.”  Well it is — and it is also an outside job.  Just how happy do you think the von Trapps were in exile, as they learned how many of their friends and neighbors back in Salzburg had been killed by the Nazis?  As they themselves struggled to build their new life?  And what of love and compassion?  How happy do you think I feel when I consider the world my beloved Madeleine will grow up to inherit?  Oh, yes, and food.  Food makes me happy.  What if climate change destroys the crops? Etc. Ad nauseum.

I’ll wrap up with one more look at the von Trapps.  Their love, music, play, resilience, and courage were all excellent coping qualities in extremely hard times, even if their lack of awareness and action was almost deadly for them.  Our challenge is to emulate their strengths as we face the peril of our age. Fine, let’s be playful: I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again — besides which you see I have confidence in the climate justice movement!  Seriously, I do.  May it be so.

 

Raccoons in your house? Not happy making at all.

Raccoons in your house? Not happy making at all.

Though we may sometimes feel like hard hats would be helpful, happiness isn’t a road construction project.  Metaphorically, it’s transportation related — you know, it’s the journeys we take, traversing the highways and byways of life.  We’re never finished — until, of course, we’re really finished.  (Hmmm, maybe happiness does resemble road maintenance after all …)

In any case, I’ve always appreciated the highway signs suggesting we chill out about the temporary inconvenience of driving delays and focus instead on the “permanent” improvements the highway crew is working so hard to create. Very positive attitude, very zen.  I like it.

Those signs have been on my mind lately, because I’m in the process of pushing through a personal “inconvenient” situation on the road to more-or-less permanent improvement — an improvement which is also, not coincidentally, a tiny drop in the ocean of changes we need for a happy, healthy planet.

My personal/collective temporary inconvenience has to do with weatherizing our house.  Reluctantly, I finally started the weatherization process by taking advantage of a free, community home energy visit.  I expected the visit to be unpleasant, which it was, even though the two energy experts were rational and personable grown-ups.  But sealing my house to minimize our consumption of fossil fuels, and maximize the effectiveness of whatever energy sources we do use, is not my idea of a good time.  It is expensive, aesthetically displeasing, and tedious.  Financially and time-wise, it is certainly inconvenient — at least in the short term.  Long term — that’s a different story.  Long term, it is a definite improvement, even a moral imperative.

In short, here’s the moral of this story: happiness is something we sometimes have to invest in, sacrifice for, work on.  There are a few subtexts — looking for silver linings, calming the ego down, appreciating what we have or have accomplished rather than what we think we’re lacking — but mostly, I’ve been mulling over the fact that building and maintaining happiness is not always easy or fun.

It’s a moral that matters, not just for ourselves, but for a happy planet. As I’ve been tossing this personal happiness issue around my brain, I’ve appreciated how much the “temporary inconvenience, permanent improvement” mantra also applies to fighting climate change.  Certainly, much of the consumer-driven capitalist system is convenience-based — buying new rather than repairing, the ease of tossing clothes into a dryer rather than hanging them on the line, the comfort of seat warmers in the car during winter rather than tolerating the cold for a few extra minutes, etc., ad infinitum.  Paper napkins and disposable plastic forks.  Leaf blowers.  For god’s sake, can’t we just use rakes?  Or even let a few leaves decorate our sidewalks?

Of course, we all know — on some level, at least, we all know — the earth cannot afford our wasteful ways.  Heck, we personally can barely afford our wasteful, spendthrift ways.  But to change all this … oh, how inconvenient. How dreadfully inconvenient.  (And, please be assured, I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to you!)

Clearly, we need to embrace the road sign view of inconvenience — it’s temporary.  And then life gets better. Whereas, if we don’t embrace inconvenience … well, just look around at the state of our infrastructure. Might that slogan be, “Permanent convenience, permanent disrepair?”

Embracing the road to improvement doesn’t mean it won’t be a bumpy ride.  The day of our unhappy home energy visit,  I was close to tears most of the time.  Every time the earnest conservation advocates found another energy-inadequate part of the house, I felt personally at fault.  Silly ego.  I can work on that.  The real problem is, my house is a money pit.  Being forced to face that fact yet again — when we are already strapped for funds — was painful.  I tried to be grateful and focus on the good, but I could not stop wallowing in unhappiness.

But leaky houses are a major Vermont contributor to climate change; audits show homeowners how to tighten up their homes to stop wasting energy (fossil fuels or from other sources).  I can’t just march for climate change; I have to do my best to walk that talk.  Otherwise, among other things, I would be out of coherence with my own belief system, which would surely make me unhappy.  In this case, that means insulating and sealing attic spaces where, coincidentally, raccoons have recently taken up residence.

In case you don’t know, raccoons are not nice and not cute when they invade your home.  They are clever, persistent, brazen, destructive, and loud!  In our case, they had ripped off siding to shimmy into our nice warm eaves — creating an opening to let them in and heat out.  A double problem for us.

So here’s the silver lining: our weatherization efforts will eliminate the raccoons’ ability to get inside our house.  Not only that, enrolling in an energy efficiency program means we will qualify for special tax incentives and low interest loans.   When I called Efficiency Vermont to get started, I was reassured that we can tackle our long term weatherization project in a step-by-step, kaizen kind of way.  It will still be inconvenient and expensive, but I’ll sleep so much better knowing I’m keeping the heat in — and the raccoons out!

Furthermore, the very nice contractor I spoke with would not buy into my self-pity party about my house.  He kept re-framing the issue as an opportunity.  “You have a lovely house in a great neighborhood,” he told me.  “And now you have the opportunity to make it energy efficient.”

Isn’t the same thing true with the bigger planetary picture?  Don’t we have a lovely planet in a great neighborhood?  And if we embrace the inconvenience of “weatherizing” our planet, so to speak, what silver linings might we find along the way?  I’m thinking now of metaphoric raccoons: the persistent and pernicious advertisements, come-ons, lures, and gimme’s that urge us to buy things we don’t need, with money we can’t afford to spend, for things that collectively are driving the climate change engine.  Aaahhhh …. Just imagine!  Our mental and literal attics would be so much cleaner and happier if we kicked those raccoons out, too.  That’s an inconvenience and improvement I can definitely be zen about!

 

 

 

 

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Beignets for breakfast in Lafayette, Louisiana.

It was Mardi Gras season, and I was excited to rejoin The Happiness Walk in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  We were headed west toward Houston, right through Lafayette, Louisiana — the Happiest City in America.  Since the Happiness Walk is all about gaining a deeper understanding of individual happiness, we made Lafayette our headquarters for a week.

Let’s just say I didn’t lose any weight.

Clearly, food is a big part of the happiness recipe here. One woman told me, “If we’re not eating, we’re planning our next meal.”  From beignets to etoufee, shrimp gumbo (did you know you can put potato salad in gumbo instead of sour cream??) to boiled crawfish and white chocolate bread pudding, and other delectables I enjoyed tremendously but don’t remember how to pronounce or spell, Louisiana food is heavenly.

Savoring is a highly recommended happiness strategy, and lots of savoring goes on in the Lafayette environs — even a seemingly ordinary convenience store was filled with enticing aromas, emanating in part from the tastiest onion rings I’ve ever eaten.  Additionally, food here seems often to be created and dished out lovingingly, as well as received gratefully.  Pleasure and kindness combined.  All good.

Is it really coincidence that five other Louisiana cities made the top 10 list in a 2014 academic report?  The researchers used data from the highly respected Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. In contrast, my food assertion is founded largely on non-scientific, non-rigorous personal experience — which also tells me there’s more to the story than food.  The full Louisiana happiness recipe contains many other ingredients.

A Listening Tour: Let me back up and explain a bit about The Happiness Walk, which is part of GNHUSA. Essentially, this step-by-step enterprise is one big qualitative research project. From Stowe, Vermont in August 2012 to Washington, D.C., down the eastern seaboard to Jacksonville, Florida before turning west, The Happiness Walk records thousands of interviews with “regular” people all along the way.  By the time we hit Los Angeles, then Seattle, and finally arrive home in Vermont in late 2018, we will have listened to many, many thousands of people share what matters most to them in life.  The interviews will be transcribed, and the data analyzed by academics.

Our listening is heartfelt, and the interviews are voluntary.  Here as elsewhere, not everyone wanted anything to talk with us.  Wherever we listen, it’s not a quantitative scientific sampling.  Still, we did find Lafayette to be especially happy.

I even have some data to back up our personal observations: in Lafayette, we had more offers of hosts, meals, and drivers than we could actually use.  That has never happened before.  Though individuals are amazingly generous to us wherever we go, the collective and varied Louisiana generosity reached a new level.  In addition to food, rides, and housing, we received:

  • Gifts of time, as groups of locals joined us on the Walk and evening gatherings;
  • Gifts of knowledge, with arranged walks to NUNU (which is pioneering a shared arts economy and reviving the area’s French heritage) and to Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is made (and where we sampled jalapeno ice cream);
  • Unsolicited cash donations; and
  • A surprise trip to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, topped off with a souvenir gold lame pantsuit!

Beyond the data, there was an intangible joie-de-vivre (joy of life) on this trip.  Everywhere, the motto seemed to be laissez les bons temps roulez (let the good times roll) — no matter life’s very real challenges. 

That spirit was on full display when we arrived at our host Jeannette’s house just in time for a party with gumbo, etoufee, and King Cake.  Many of the guests that night belong to the “Bluebirds,” a cancer survivor’s group.  They were celebrating one Bluebird’s birthday — but they were also celebrating and grieving Cecile, another Bluebird who had died of breast cancer just a month earlier.

This is not fake, pasted-on-smiles happiness.  These folks are not in denial of the bad stuff life dishes out.  Since Lafayette is an oil town, and that industry is struggling, the area is facing serious economic turmoil with foreclosures and lay-offs.  We heard all too many cancer stories.  And we were told of widespread poverty in the region. There’s plenty to cope with.  Letting the good times roll seems to be a well-tuned coping mechanism.

I’m not an anthropologist, and we were only there for a week.  That said, here are other factors that seem to be at the core of Louisiana happiness:

  1. Heritage.  The whole trip, we were in the thick of French Acadian, or Cajun, culture.  At Jeannette’s party, I asked one of the guests how other people could be as happy as they all seemed to be.  “You have to be born here,” was the reply.
  2. Families. Everywhere we go, we hear how important families are, but there was a different flavor here.  Seemingly, Acadian families stay close together — all the better to let the good times roll.  We met a man in nearby Krotz Springs who was paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident.  Yet he told us he is a very happy man, in part because he’s built a wheelchair accessible party room and deck, with space for boiling crawfish with all the grandchildren.
  3. Fun. Then there was Andrew in Arnaudville.  He showed us his newly-renovated family homestead, complete with a huge deck and covered cooking area, and camper hook-ups, so his whole family can come have fun together.  And let us not forget the distinctive Cajun music and dance, which we enjoyed very much on a night out with Jeannette.
  4. Faith.  We hear this a lot, too, especially in the South.  Here, though, people didn’t seem to wear their faith on their sleeves as much as other places, perhaps because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion.  It all felt much more laissez-faire.

My biggest takeaway? I’m not Catholic, I don’t speak French, and, sadly, I don’t think there’s much hope for me in the food department.  Instead, I want to lift up the joy.  I want to celebrate more!  Last Saturday, I donned the gold lame and Mardi Gras beads.  I just might wear them this coming Saturday, too.  It’s not a natural fit, but you know what they say: laissez les bons temps roulez!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unexpected pleasure: brussel sprouts for lunch.

An unexpected pleasure: brussel sprouts for lunch.

It’s been five months since I was last on the road with The Happiness Walk — a project I love being part of — so I was naturally eager to fly to Baton Rouge today to once again join lead walker Paula Francis.  I had managed to carve out two weeks walking time, just barely enough to cover 150 miles to the Texas border.  Since I’ve never been in either state, I look forward to richly experiencing Louisiana and seeing at least a sliver of Texas.  That’s geekily exciting.  Plus, a third brand new happiness walker — my friend and neighbor Marilyn — is traveling with me, which guarantees even more good times.

Yesterday while I packed, my mind was primarily focused on Louisiana’s weather.  The 10-day forecast shows swings from 36 degrees some mornings to the high 70s one or two afternoons.  That’s quite a range when you’re walking, and carrying everything in a backpack*.  Deciding what clothes to take occupied a lot of my grey matter.

Still, going somewhere means leaving someplace else behind.  In this case, I am leaving home, temporarily stepping away from my husband, choir, yoga class, snow shoeing — and, a perfectly good batch of plump brussel sprouts.  The sprouts gave me a moment’s distraction when I realized they would go bad in my absence.  My husband’s hate of brussel sprouts is legendary among his siblings; he certainly won’t eat them.  But … I had no time to eat them yesterday, and I had a plane to catch today.

Or so I thought.

Apparently there was this little snowstorm over the weekend?  A little blizzard that shut down Broadway? Not a drop fell in Vermont.  Nonetheless, when Marilyn and I arrived at the Burlington airport we were informed in no uncertain terms that we were not flying anywhere today. Of course, I wasn’t totally surprised.  Marilyn was even less surprised than me.  We had gotten an email two days before letting us know that part of our itinerary — the part involving Newark — had been canceled.  Still, I was hopeful.  I guess I overlooked the fact that Burlington is a very small airport, with limited options to begin with.

And no options today.

Here’s where the happiness training kicks in.

In the stating-the-obvious-department, I’ll note that it is easy to be happy when everything is flowing smoothly.  The rewards of a regular happiness practice to cultivate one’s inner resources show up in life’s bumpier moments.  Today, for example.  I was naturally a little disappointed, but I was also grateful.  The woman behind the counter made it clear just how lucky Marilyn and I are to be able to fly out tomorrow.  So, yay for that.

Gratitude is so powerful, and also a strategy that most anyone reading this blog is probably quite familiar with already.  There is usually so so much to be grateful for, from the macro (I mean, holy cow, what a great trip we get to go on tomorrow!) to even more macro (we both have such lovely husbands, one of whom delivered us to the airport and one who brought us home).  And I had a lovely cup of English Fog tea while we waited — an opportunity for savoring and gratitude.

Then there’s perspective, which you could also term mindfulness.  This storm caused massive inconvenience and disruption to millions of folks up and down the East Coast.  We weren’t exactly singled out.  Again, you could put this in a much bigger perspective — as in, talk about first world problems.  A trip delayed by one day?  Not even worth sighing over.

And then there’s reframing, or benefit finding.  I remembered that Paula had not felt well yesterday, so could see a possible silver lining here: waiting for us to arrive, Paula can take a full day to recuperate if she needs to.

Not only that, I could eat the brussel sprouts!  I kid you not, when we were settled in the car heading home, I happily told Marilyn and Larry all about the brussel sprouts waiting in my fridge.  I didn’t actually do a great job of cooking them, but I savored my lunch nonetheless.

And, I get to go to yoga tonight!

Life is good, even if now I might not get to Texas.  And, if I’m not on that plane tomorrow, I might have to dig a little deeper.  But for now, I can go do downward dog with a smile on my face.

____

  • Hopefully, we won’t have to carry our packs while we walk.  Part of the Walk’s magic is all the helpers we meet, including those who transport our stuff.
Me and my Yankee Gift Exchange prize a few years ago.

Me and my Yankee Gift Exchange prize a few years ago.

Back in the 1980’s, before my plunge into working as a full time watercolor artist ate up every ounce of my creative time and energy, I used to make our annual Christmas cards.  I spent months playing around with ideas as part of my endeavor to make every card clever and quirky, especially after feedback from friends about how much they anticipated the yearly Sassaman Christmas card.

One year, the pressure was just too much.  Instead of making cards, I photocopied Edvard Munch’s haunting painting “The Scream,” and typed a little message of apology, noting that I was just too busy to make cards that year.  Word to the wise: “The Scream” is a poor choice for a holiday card!  I tried to soften it up by putting foil stars on the eyeballs, but it was still pretty horrifying.  Nonetheless, that non-card card was one of my favorites.

Over the decades, I’ve shed a lot of the Christmas season “shoulds.”  No more cards, for example.  No Christmas cookies.  No wreath on the door.  No careful arranging of the Santa Claus collection, and stocking up on candles. Fewer and less grand presents.  I like to give and receive presents, and I don’t want to be a Scrooge but a) out of control consumerism is wrecking the planet, so that’s a poor way to celebrate peace and love and b) research has shown that we get a much bigger bang for our happiness buck by buying experiences rather than things.  My family and I are happy to honor that research with a Christmas-at-the-beach vacation.

Still, I’m feeling pressure!  Once again, the pressure is self-created, stemming from my drive to create.  Maybe because I’ve been newly accepted into The Huffington Post’s blogging community, my brain is on fire!  There is so much I want to write.  The blogs and the book outline are piling up in my grey matter.

For example, I really wanted to write a blog about the importance of receiving.  I was going to question, when there’s so much emphasis on generosity as key to our personal happiness, don’t we need folks on the other end to do the receiving?  I would have written that receiving is also giving.  I would have suggested reviewing what has been giving to you recently — compliments, wisdom, household help, meals, hugs, cards, invitations, hosts.  I would have urged you to be gracious and grateful receivers, to smile and say thank you (rather than, “oh, it’s nothing”) — though, not all the time. I would have explained why “no” sometimes makes common and moral sense, referring to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s precautions in The How of Happiness chapter on kindness.

Oh, it would have been sublime! I’m sure of it — heartfelt and inspiring.  Sigh. I just don’t have time to write it.

One reason I am out of time is that I spent the last two days cleaning my house.  I’m not that interested in the minutia of life, including housecleaning, but last night I hosted the 10th annual “Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange.” I live on a dirt road, and we heat with a wood stove.  Believe me, I had to clean. I mean, we can take “permission to be human” just so far.

As the cleaning ate up all my writing time, I began to get resentful.  I knew I’d appreciate a clean house and that I’d enjoy the annual holiday gathering, but without the party, I could have been writing.  Instead, I had lists of things to do — including writing, which never got crossed off.

Though to-do lists get a bad name, to a certain extent, they bring me comfort.  I love crossing items off; it gives me a sense of achievement. I even add items after the fact just so I can cross them off, ideally, with a thick dark marker.  Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. research is fun to consider once again, since the “A” stands for accomplishment.  Of course I like crossing off completed tasks.  It’s science!

Still, on my hands and knees washing the far corners of the kitchen floor, I had plenty of time to think about what I was not accomplishing.  Thankfully, with still more time, on my hands and knees scrubbing the living room carpet, I flipped that thinking around.  Rather than perseverate over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a good idea to appreciate what an awesome year of accomplishments and adventures I have had.  You may be familiar with this Mark Twain quote, or others like it: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more.  If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”  This seems just as applicable to what we do.  If we look only at what we haven’t done, we will never, ever be satisfied.

Which brings me to hedonic adaptation.  Humans are amazingly adaptable.  Good fortune, misfortune — whatever hits us, we adapt.  In many ways, this is a wonderful healing trait, as it enables us to find our footing and our smiles once again when life has slammed us into a wall.  The flipside is also the downside: what once excited us, what once brought us pleasure, over time becomes ordinary — which leaves us pursuing new excitement and pleasure elsewhere, often at great expense.

However, with an awareness of this process — that is, with mindfulness — we can take steps to maximize our pleasure and minimize the hedonic greying of what brings us joy.  Taking time to savor what I’ve already done, rather than pining for what is not going to happen in this moment, is a way to reclaim some excitement from the hedonic dustbin.

Yesterday I realized that my relationship with the yankee swap had also fallen victim to hedonic adaptation.  When my friend Nel and I started this party 10 years ago, I was thrilled to have found a place in the Maple Corner calendar of annual traditional events — right up there with Heidi and Lewis’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration, Nancy and Artie’s Mardis Gras (not to mention Barnstock!), Julie’s Channukah pot luck, Maria’s caroling, and JC’s New Year’s Eve blow out.  From the first, the Yankee Swap was a huge success — crowded, funny, and even environmental sound.  Everyone brought a wrapped present that was something she already owned — no new shopping allowed.  Redistributing those presents is where the fun comes in.  All of these parties are also a critical element in building community, the kind of community we need when the not-fun times come along.

Fortunately — maybe thanks to my ongoing meditation practice — I realized yesterday that I had adapted to the excitement of hosting this great event.  To reclaim some of my previous joy, I turned to gratitude.  Yay gratitude!  It so often can pull us out of an unnecessary slump.  Coming from a stance of gratitude, it is easy to appreciate how incredibly blessed I am to not only live in such a fun and supportive community but also to have my own ways of contributing. Really, I am lucky to host this party, together with my new co-host Roni.  Plus my kitchen floor hasn’t been this clean in years.

Last night’s party was the biggest, most boisterous one yet.  It was an evening filled with special moments, like welcoming brand new neighbors to the sisterhood of Maple Corner women; the dancing penguin Christmas ornament that made me laugh to the point of tears; an unexpectedly funny exchange about dyeing hair; a wrapped present that looked like a Dr. Seuss book; and a poignant moment, when one woman’s integrity demanded she “steal” back a present which had broken, a present which she had anonymously given in the first place.  Her generosity in reclaiming the broken gift resulted in a flood of presents to her at the end.

I am deeply grateful to provide the physical and emotional space for these magical happenings.

One final note about hedonic adaptation.  For years and years, the only thing I wanted in this world was beyond my grasp: I ached to become a grandmother. In 2012, that miracle happened with boatloads of joy, love, excitement, etc.  But time moves on relentlessly.  Our little newborn is now three years old, an accepted fact in our lives.  Sure, she’s not the exciting new infant she once was — but when I take the time to step back, to be mindful, to be grateful — my heart nearly explodes with happiness.

Soon, I will be with my granddaughter and other family members for two weeks.  No more to-do lists, no pressure (I hope) — but lots of savoring and gratitude.  We are all likely to be awash in holiday happiness.

May you as well find your way to a peaceful and joyous holiday.

 

 

 

The People's Climate March, September 2014

The People’s Climate March, September 2014

Have you ever wondered what choices you would have made during great upheavals of the past?  I like to believe that I would have been a suffragette — though not one who got thrown in jail and went on hunger strikes.  I also hope I would have been an abolitionist.  Again, not of the Harriet Tubman caliber;  I’m more of a supporting player, the kind who offered hiding spaces for escaping slaves.  Possibly I would have decried Abraham Lincoln for not acting fast enough to abolish slavery.

No need to mull over this question any longer.  Contemporary crises are providing plenty of opportunity to be heroic in fact, not just daydreams. We seem to be engaged in a mighty struggle between the forces of light, hope, progress, love — even our very survival as a species — against the forces of darkness, anger, and a desperation to perpetuate broken systems which are killing us. I, for one, wish to win this battle — which means, actively engaging in the struggle, like the suffragettes and abolitionists before us.

Obviously, we’re in for one helluva ride.  From mass shootings to despicable and deadly racism to unspeakable income inequality to the fossil fuel industry fighting for their profits despite the death and destruction that means for current and future generations — in the United States alone, the challenges are breathtaking. To prevail — and losing is really not an option — we must be tough in our love, strong in our hope and determination, creative, compassionate, resilient, and optimistic.  In other words, we must be happy, as peculiar as that may sound. We need to be our best.

Clearly, we won’t be walking around with smiley faces all the time.  The night of the San Bernadino massacre, I read a friend’s despairing Facebook post. I wanted to write something encouraging, but couldn’t figure out how to respond. Sometimes it’s just too dark to see.

The next morning, though, the mandate was clear:  for both collective and individual well being, we must cultivate optimism (which is a learned trait, not genetically pre-determined) and take action.  The two really go hand-in-hand — as does happiness.  Happier people are more optimistic and active, and optimistic people are happier and take action.  Abraham Lincoln, it turns out, is an inspiring role model.  Doris Kearns Godwin’s amazing book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abram Lincoln portrays a president who was fairly happy, despite his own and the country’s intense suffering.  He was also deeply optimistic with an admirable capacity to learn from failure and loss and move forward — to the great and lasting benefit of humankind.

Sticking with war leaders, here’s a helpful observation from Winston Churchill: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

That’s certainly how climate warrior Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything describes today’s situation.  While her book is sobering, Klein is also hopeful.  “I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity,” she writes.  The needed transformations “would get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now.”

There’s a very important caveat: optimism needs to be grounded and realistic. Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War, observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism. The prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately as well as the POWs who believed they would never be released – neither of those groups fared well.  Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

Our current reality has so many brutal facts, I’m not sure any of us can truly confront them all.  At the same time, we must be hopeful — and that’s not delusional.  As Howard Zinn says, “To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.”

Even with the energy to act, you may wonder, what to do? I, for one, am going to the massive “Jobs, Justice, and Climate” rally in Boston on December 12th.  I won’t get home from the rally in time for one of my community’s traditional holiday parties, but, hello???  What would Harriet Tubman have done?  Or Elizabeth Cady Stanton?  Plus, I expect the event to be full of joy.

Joyful, yes — and totally serious.  No one should ever conflate non-violent protest — no matter how creative or playful — with a lack of grit or determination.  Still, what can you do?  The options are endless.  Take a look at this awe-inspiring list of 198 methods of non-violent action by the brilliant Gene Sharp.  There are so many more ways to get involved.  Here are some other examples:

  • Contribute to legal defense funds for those who have gone the non-violent disobedience route;
  • Put a “Black Lives Matter” sign in your front lawn;
  • Host a refugee family;
  • Just be present.  This fall, a small band of protesters camped out in the middle of  a major street in Montpelier, as part of an effort to block a fracked gas pipeline from going through Vermont.  The weather was miserable, and I heard that their spirits were low.  I went and sat with them in one of their pup tents for awhile, wanting them to know they were not alone; and
  • Feed people. When I sat with the protesters, I witnessed a steady stream of well wishers bringing food and hot coffee.  Their gifts were well received.

Whatever you do, please be kind.  There is enough hatred in the world already. Be determined, yes, and tough — but compassionate.  Here, too, we have Abraham Lincoln as a guide.  Team of Rivals describes a deeply empathetic, kind human being.  He refused to be drawn into hate speech, and had a heart full of forgiveness.  He understood that each of us is imperfect, and a product of our own times and places.  Lincoln remains a beacon of hope — along with the millions of alive and lively environmental, economic, and social justice activists worldwide.  We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for.  May we be up to the task.