Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Aspen Ideas Festival’

Integrated Happiness

The face of happiness was not in the mirror on Wednesday.

A cold, which I thought I defeated, came bounding back, both the cause and beneficiary of many hours of lost sleep.  Because Tuesday saw some exciting developments in my happiness work, my mind was also very busy that night, leaping from idea to idea rather than settling into slumber.

Oh, yeah, and then there was that cup of coffee … espresso … sometime around 3:00 in the afternoon.  I wanted that latte, so I convinced myself that this time the caffeine wouldn’t keep me awake …

All in all, Wednesday was not a good morning.

Which brings me to the topic of integrating our happiness efforts — body, mind, and spirit are all involved in this endeavor.  Wednesday was an effective reminder that an unhappy body is a big hurdle for mind and spirit to overcome in their quest for a happy day.

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

Kerry and Ross demonstrating the fine art of integrated happiness

I was also reminded of an Aspen Ideas Festival video I watched last week, a fascinating discussion on the neuroscience of happiness (  Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist who focuses on the brain’s pleasure centers, asked, what’s the difference between wanting and liking?

I know I wanted that latte, and liked it in the moment — but I didn’t like it much the next day!  Perhaps a note to my brain might help avoid future replays?  “Dear Pleasure Center, please remember, no lattes in the afternoon.  Thanks for your cooperation!”

Speaking of brains (you can interpret that on multiple levels), Martin Seligman was on another Aspen panel, focused on increasing individual happiness levels (   Seligman, one of the most prominent positive psychology researchers, shared four different practices to encourage a happier brain.  I’ve started one of these practices; each night before going to bed, I write down three good things from my day and my role in making them happen.  The idea is to cultivate optimism.  My friend Liz Snell told me she’s been doing something similar for years — she calls it the TADA! list.  Now it’s my TADA! list, too.

On the panel with Seligman was Matthieu Picard, who some happiness experts consider the happiest man on earth.  Picard definitely radiated well being, compassion, and joy in his presentation on spiritual practices to build happiness.  His focus was on a dedicated, consistent compassionate meditation practice to build deep reserves of internal happiness.  “It’s like watering a plant,” Picard observed.  To paraphrase, he said, you have to give the plant small doses of water regularly.  You can’t just pour large amounts of water on the plant once in a while and expect it to live.

I’m begun practicing a loving kindness meditation daily.   I expect to write some time later about how my attempts at building happiness are working.

Wait there’s more …  We also need to integrate our happiness with the world around us.  This could perhaps be the toughest nut of all to crack.  That latte … was it fair trade?  Probably, in this case, yes — but how often are our seemingly simple pleasures bought at someone else’s expense?  It is a given for me that my pursuit of happiness should not lead to unhappiness for others, but I guess a) that’s a lot easier said than done and b) not everyone gives a hoot.

My eyes were opened to the morality of happiness thanks to yet another Aspen presenter, moral philosopher Sissela Bok ( I was so intrigued, I got a copy of her book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science to dig a little deeper.

So, we need to integrate our mind, body, and spirit in the pursuit of happiness.  And, we need to integrate our personal pursuits with those around us, near and far — because, really, how could we possibly experience enduring happiness in isolation?

Last Wednesday, when I felt so sick, I walked the 100 yards from my house to the general store, which was out of chicken noodle soup!  My neighbor Kathleen Landry was at the store at the same time and saw my distress.  She brought me a can of soup from her house — one of those simple yet profound actions that no doubt gave us each a happiness boost.

Writ large and small, we’re all in this together — all our body parts, and all of us bodies.

Universal and Unique Happiness

“What makes YOU happy?” That’s the question I have on a chalkboard by the entrance to The Happiness Paradigm.  Everyone who stops by is invited to write their own answers.  I occasionally step outside and add something myself.  I confess, I was the one who wrote “Bruce Springsteen,” after listening to his totally happy version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.

The “What Makes You Happy” Chalkboard

I also lead “Happiness Circles,” where we discuss the same question.  Naturally, in that context, the answers are more nuanced and less light-hearted.  No matter the forum, “family,” “friends,” and “pets” crop up frequently.  (See the “What Makes You Happy” page on this website for a complete list).  Such answers resonate with me.

Some answers, though, give me pause —  “style,” “video games,” and “money” — because they don’t fit neatly into my view of happiness as influenced by Positive Psychology and Gross National Happiness research.  Obviously, happiness at the individual level is  universal, unique, and complex!

I suspect the same is true at the state level; many answers I’ve collected have a Vermont-specific focus.  A lot of people here answer “snow” — a choice that probably wouldn’t show up at all in most southern states.

This universality/uniqueness balancing act no doubt applies even at the national level.   Bhutan, the first country to put theoretical GNH concepts to work, has conducted a great deal of detailed research, for which the rest of the world should be grateful.  Researchers there developed a measurement system of 72 indicators within nine pillars of happiness: psychological well being, standard of living, time use, good governance, health, education, community vitality, and cultural diversity and resilience. These pillars and indicators are an amazing foundation for other governments to build on.   But are all the Bhutanese findings appropriate to policy making in the U.S.?  In Vermont?  In Seattle?  We need to do our own homework.

And when we do our homework — for personal, political and/or professional reasons — we need to investigate a variety of sources and schools of thought.  A recent blog from the Seattle-based Happiness Initiative,, illustrated this point with an essay on the restrictive nature of Positive Psychology formulas.

Interesting.  I find that Positive Psychology theories do, for the most part, encompass responses on my chalkboard.  The Positive Psychology categories are BIG, certainly, while individual perspectives are more textured and colorful.  But they still seem to fit.  Chocolate, red wine, Bruce Springsteen and toes in the sand all relate to savoring.  Pets, cousins, and friends? Connections.  Singing in the choir — a very happy experience for me — fits in multiple categories: giving to others, being in the creative flow, lifelong learning, building community, nurturing spirituality, and even, a little bit, being physically active.

Where Positive Psychology falls short for me is its lack of emphasis on the environment.  In November 2010, I attended an otherwise wonderful seminar on happiness from a psychological viewpoint, but there was NO connection with the planet.  Yet many people tell me what makes them happy is weather related, especially sunshine and snow.  Or nature related, like walking in the woods.  With Climate Change, the importance of environmental factors is bound to increase.  I imagine folks living in areas subject to fires and droughts might answer that rain would make them very happy indeed.

Fortunately, other sources do talk about weather and nature.  For example, Dan Buettner‘s book Thrive posits that sunshine can definitely be a factor for community-wide happiness.  Another example is the New Economics Foundation‘s “Happy Planet Index,” which blends carbon footprint considerations with more traditional gauges of societal well being to measure national well being.

The take away for me is, we need to continue to learn as much as possible about happiness from a wide variety of sources.  Fortunately, there are such rich resources! TED talks, books, articles, videos, webinars… Just this week, thanks to the Happiness Initiative folks, I found a single site that’s an absolute gold mine of learning:  the Aspen Ideas Festival Happiness Track from July 2011.  This site alone will keep me busy for a while!  (more…)