Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Gross National Happiness’

The Unifying Power of Happiness Dinners

madeleine-at-ami-december-2016

There’s a reason a picture of my granddaughter illustrates what is essentially an extended invitation to you — yes, you, the person reading this right now — to celebrate the 5th annual International Day of Happiness (IDOH) by hosting a Happiness Dinner.  The photo’s relevance will soon be clear. First, though, I want you to know that hosting these dinners is a wonderful, deeply meaningful experience. I was a host myself for two years in a row.  Both evenings filled me with love, gratitude, and joy.

The Happiness Dinners are even younger than IDOH; Gross National Happiness USA started this new tradition just three years ago. Since I’ll be traveling home from the World Happiness Summit, I might miss the chance to host this year. You, however, can offer your friends whatever kind of feast suits your fancy (take out, pot luck,  gourmet, you name it!) — along with the healing power of a serious conversation about happiness. Together, you and your guests can experience the unifying capacity of happiness — at least for one highlight reel evening.

We certainly need something to bring us together.

Lately I’ve been thinking, this country needs one great big mediation.  Or, possibly, millions of small ones. My Masters in Mediation training taught me that most of the bluster that rages within conflicts is merely positioning.  To get to a mutually agreeable solution, it helps to strip away the surface arguments and uncover what really matters, what the interests are that fuel the disputes.

I suspect, if we could sit down and listen with open minds and hearts to one another’s interests, we’d recognize that we’re not that far apart.  We all want economic security, a sense of safety, good health (mental and physical), a government that works on our collective behalf, and vital communities.  We want to give and receive love.  We want peace.  In other words, we want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

We have different ideas about how to meet these needs, of course.  Sometimes, our views are diametrically opposite. Still. If we could meet on the playing field of our common humanity and our shared interest in happiness and well-being, we’d be much more likely to find solutions that most of us could endorse.

Since neither the one large nor the millions of small mediations are going to happen, I suggest instead, let’s listen to one another. Forget the ranting, raving futile attempts to convince each other of the rightness of our own positions.  Move beyond that to speak our own truths and, even more importantly, hear the genuine interests of others.  Essentially, that’s what the the Happiness Dinners are about — giving and receiving the gift of listening to what matters most in life. These dinners work, in part, because sharing a good meal makes us more comfortable with one another, and in part because Gross National Happiness USA provides guidelines for keeping the conversation focused. Perhaps the most crucial ingredient, though, is good listening.

Listening can be magical, for both the listener and the one being heard.

I experienced this magic quite unexpectedly on Christmas vacation with my family. I was with my granddaughter, right after an all-you-can-eat sausage and pancakes breakfast on the beach.  We had strolled over to the playground, where she could do her four year-old thing on the play structure, and I could do my grandmother thing, watching her from a distance, and drinking in every moment.

I thought I was in a politics-free zone with other happy grandparents, one of whom asked jokingly if I had had vodka in my orange juice cup. Our chat started out friendly enough, but began edging closer and closer to possibly volatile political territory when he began complaining about government spending priorities.  Guessing that he and I likely had very different views, I became wary.  We were at the beach, for heaven’s sake. Rather than plunge into a useless debate, I endeavored to keep this encounter superficial.

Fortunately, I didn’t succeed.  I say fortunately, because he turned out to be a man in pain who really wanted to be heard.  At some point, thanks to my mediation training and my experience on the Happiness Walk, I decided it was best to just listen.  I didn’t have to agree, argue or judge. I could just hear the man.

I disagreed with him on at least one major issue, but kept my mouth shut. Surprisingly, we found common ground in agreeing that money is not the root of happiness, and that consumerism and greed have gotten way out of hand.  Mostly, though, I had the privilege of listening to this grandfather’s heartbroken story about his heroin addict son, the father of the two young grandchildren playing with my granddaughter.  “My son’s never bought so much as a diaper for them,” the grandfather sadly said.

Before you know it, we were hugging. I have to say, I felt so much love for that man — and his wife, who moved in and out of the conversation.  Politics and religion were 100% irrelevant. We were all just frail humans with our joys and sorrows, at the beach with our grandchildren on Christmas Eve morning.  Their stories reminded me, again, we all want happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

The stories you’ll hear at a Happiness Dinner will hopefully not be quite so sad — though they might be, as times of sorrow and pain can also lead to a deeper appreciation of happiness.  In any case, I’ll wager that almost all the stories will be moving. In the safe space of a Happiness Dinner, you and your guests will likely be speaking from your hearts — and that, my friend, is a very special place.

 

 

 

Oh the Food! The Happiness Walk Lands in the Happiest City

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unhappiness at the Shopping Mall

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

Madeleine warming up to a non-mercenary Santa in a museum, not a shopping mall.

 

The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.

  • Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.

Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.

Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.

  • So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones.  There are some things we just have to do.

On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.

Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.

But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.

Strike one:
Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself.  At. All.  Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.

Strike two came at the playground:
Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.

Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages.  Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.

Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.

I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do?  I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents???  Or even a mall employee?

Very sad.  What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time?  Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?

Strike three:
Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.

Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.

As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.

This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.

Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation.  More mall fall-out?  Or just the way it is these days?  Either way, something is wrong here.

Strike Four: $anta Claus
Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).

So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”

But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.

Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.

Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap.  It is about commerce, not magic.

Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.

Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.

I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience.  Is nothing sacred?

  • Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”

Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire.  As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.

Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up.  Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!

The People’s Climate March: We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

Our new friend -- a young lady we met on subway, then saw in the March seven hours later.

Our new friend — a young lady we met on subway, then saw in the march seven hours later.  Thanks to Paula Francis for this photo.

Traveling to New York City for the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  Yes, it made me happy.  Intensely, deeply, indescribably happy.  I was absolutely in the right place at the right time — not only for myself, but for all life on our precious planet.  I was flooded and overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone around me who made the effort to show up for this desperately needed wake-up call; pride that I was one of them; hope that maybe we can save the human race after all; and flat-out joy being in the presence of such a diverse, beautiful, celebratory crowd.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

From a science of happiness standpoint, there’s no question why I would feel such a high — a transformative high, I believe — from this march.  Pick your happiness researcher and theory, and I can pretty much check it off the list. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and flow, or having a peak experience?  Ha! This was a lifetime peak experience!  Tal Ben-Shahar and his teachings on living in concordance with our values?  Yes, big time. Barbara Frederickson and the positivity ratio?  My ratio of positive to negative experiences that day was off the charts.   Chris Peterson and the theory of greater happiness by acting from our personal strengths?  My signature strength is the ability to give and receive love, and this day was all about the love.

Then there’s Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. which I used to predict my happiness at this event in another essay last month.  In reality, at the People’s Climate March, I was seeped in P.E.R.M.A.:

  • Positivity — oh, yes, everywhere, all weekend, even in the long long bathroom lines.
  • Engagement — fierce engagement, with the issues, with the future, with the city of New York, with the people all around me.
  • Relationships — yes, with the friends new and old with whom I was marching, and with all the other marchers, too — we were all connected.
  • Meaning — are you kidding me?  Fighting for the future of the planet?  It doesn’t get any more meaningful than that.
  • And accomplishment?  The organizers of this historic march hoped for 100,000 participants and four times that many showed up — 400,000 of us!  We did it!

All of this and more shaped that momentous day.  Now, back in my Vermont home, my heart and spirit are clinging to purpose, shared community, optimism, and mutual love for the planet and each other — a blend encapsulated by the most moving chant of the march, this piece of a prayer by a Hopi elder:

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Oh my god, yes.  We are!  And, just to be clear, by “we,” I mean you, too — any and all of you who were at the march in body or spirit, or

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

Even seniors who needed walkers showed up to march!

will be at the next one, or are doing your best to fight climate change on your home turf.  There is no one who can swoop in and magically fix this disastrous situation — literally disastrous, and likely to grow worse.  As one sign put it, “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”

Sunday, it felt like everyone did indeed show up.  For so long, I’ve been wondering when Americans were going to rise up, take to the streets, and demand environmental and economic justice.  Finally, finally, we the people were out in glorious, loud, forceful numbers.  Yes, there were some justifiably famous climate warriors near the front of the march  — like Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, and our own beloved Senator Bernie Sanders.  They weren’t at the very front, though, because that spot was reserved for the indigenous peoples and others in the United States and around the world who are already suffering from climate change.  I felt humbled to be marching behind these front line warriors.  We need them, and they need us.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The chant sent me back to re-read the Hopi prayer:

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered. Where are you living? What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time for the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle from you attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Sacred!  That’s a piece I was missing — the march was sacred, and celebratory.  We were all good to each other.  We were all the leader.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Perhaps coincidentally — perhaps not — just a few days after the march, it was announced that Bill  McKibben will be one of the recipients of this year’s international “Right Livelihood” award in Stockholm this December.  On a much smaller coincidental scale — or maybe we’re just all swimming in the same river — I used the Hopi prayer to open and close my first guest service at the Montpelier Unitarian Church.  The thrust of that sermon was the need to cultivate personal happiness in order to better prevent and cope with climate change.  Is this prayer speaking to many of us now?  Is it part of your life?

Me, Marta Ceroni, Linda Wheatley, and Paula Francis offering a new sustainable paradigm for people and the planet.

Me, Marta Ceroni, Linda Wheatley, and Paula Francis offering a new sustainable paradigm for people and the planet.  Thanks to Marta Ceroni for this photo.

Something else that became clear to me on the march — or maybe during my conversations with Linda Wheatley on the train ride home — is that a gross national happiness paradigm is the road map we’ve been waiting for.  Both before and during the march, many people expressed their very strong beliefs that capitalism must be destroyed in order for the planet to be saved.  I share their view that the current corrupt capitalist system is driving many destructive practices, environmental and otherwise.  Further, we can obviously no longer afford a growth economy — a GDP driven economy is driving us over the climate change cliff, and causing massive unhappiness.  Without a doubt,  we need huge systemic changes.

However, “down with capitalism” is not sufficient.  If capitalism is destroyed, what will replace it?  As Marta’s sign says, we need to move beyond GDP, to an economic system based on the well being of people and the planet — a system that could include elements of capitalism and all the other ism’s if and when those elements demonstrably support well being.  To get there, we need a strong gross national happiness movement.  Very personally, in this subset of the larger movement for climate justice, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  And we have a lot of work to do!

In his book “The Great Disruption: Why Climate Change Will Bring On An End to Shopping and the Birth of a New World”, Paul Gilding writes that the end of a growth economy will not come without dreadful suffering and loss — loss of millions of lives, of entire species, of countries which will end up underwater — as we pay the price for “a world economy based on consumption and waste, where we lived beyond the means of our planet’s ecosystems and resources.”

Though his prediction is grim, Gilding is simultaneously quite optimistic.  He believes that we humans will rise to the challenge with “compassion, innovation, resilience, and adaptability.” On the other side of the Great Disruption, he says, “we will measure ‘growth’ in a new way. It will mean not quantity of stuff but quality and happiness of life.”

In other words, a GNH paradigm.

I initially read Gilding’s book sitting in the warm Alabama sun while visiting my very pregnant daughter.  About to give birth to a brand new person, she didn’t enjoy hearing about the “millions of people dying” prediction.  I, however, was much more struck by Gilding’s emphasis on economies of happiness.  Really, I was stunned when I read that millions and millions of people around the planet are already working on developing economies of happiness.

It was an amazing moment for me, realizing that I was one of those millions, that I am not at all alone, that I am part of an immeasurably large, organic, worldwide movement.  For all of us — including each of you — the Hopi elder’s words ring prophetic:

“It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!”

We ARE the ones we’ve been waiting for!

 

Still a Happy Flyer (With a BIG Caveat)

TSA PRE status?  Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

TSA PRE status? Did someone tell the airline I was writing about them?

Here’s the caveat: After my recent blog about focusing on the positive aspects of being a passenger on a commercial airliner, a blog which came on the heels of my musings about why attending the People’s Climate March in New York City will make me happy, my friend George found the juxtaposition odd.  He asked me how could I write about my passion for protecting the environment and then just a few days later write about the joys of airline travel, given that flying is about the worst thing we can do in terms of our carbon footprint?

Good question, George.  Here are my answers:

  1. First, I am not a purist. I have made many, many changes in my life — using a clothesline, buying local, eating less meat, etc.  But we are all products of the systems we live in.  That is one reason I support a Gross National Happiness paradigm and the People’s Cllimate March — because we need new systems.  Those planes would all have taken off without me on them. The problem is too big for any of us to fix by our individual actions.
  2. Second, I do take such issues into consideration.  Two out of three of my trips to visit my daughter and granddaughter since they moved half a country away have been by train, rather than plane, for both economic and environmental reasons (the third was by car, and there were three of us in that car, so that seemed a fair choice). Truthfully, I’ve flown very rarely.  My recent trip was only the 15th time I’ve flown.  Ever.  And I’m not that young.
  3. Third, I went to North Carolina for important relational reasons.  Relationships are tremendously important, not only in terms of personal happiness but also to exchange ideas and help us all move forward.  I shared tales from the Gross National Happiness movement, and learned much in return. One friend, for example, showed me a new pond she had dug next to her off-the-grid cabin.  The pond is stocked with fish, to provide a sustainable source of protein for her family.  For me, that’s food for thought.
  4. My point with the previous flying blog was not to encourage flying, but rather to encourage a positive outlook toward an incredible option in our lives that most people treat with grousing rather than gratitude.  Really, the environmental concerns about flying only add to the need for a positive attitude when one does choose to fly.  Choosing to have such a negative impact, and then complaining about it, seems particularly self-indulgent.  If you’re flying, the least you can do is appreciate it!

All in all, I’m grateful to George for raising this important point.  Our individual choices can add up.  I think the preponderance of organic choices in almost all grocery stores is testimony to that.

Now, when I do fly, I feel even more duty bound to focus on the positive. 

 

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Swimming at a state park with my North Carolina friend Lynn!

Counting The Flying Positives, Part Two

The positive framing of my flight to North Carolina was so powerful, I felt like I had changed my brain.  I mean that quite literally. Thanks to neuro-plasticity, I probably  did, at least a little. One of the mot impressive aspects of the education I’m receiving from Tal Ben-Shahar and the Certificate in Positive Psychology program at Kripalu is learning how seemingly small interventions can have a long-lasting, powerful impact.

So it’s a strong possibility that I wore a new groove in my brain — the “flying is fun” neuro-pathway. Creating positive neuro-pathways is excellent for both our short term and long term well being.   Plus, focusing on the positive absolutely made my flight to North Carolina a much more enjoyable experience.  For those reasons, and because I wasn’t about to purposely focus on the negative,  I decided to repeat my experiment to focus on the positives during the journey north.

It was definitely tougher going on the way home.  I was, after all, returning from vacation, which for me was a bit of negative double whammy.  First, that meant it was time for some of the fun and games to end.  Even more impactful, I was wrapping up a week of way more sugar, caffeine, and wine than usual, and, sometimes less sleep than I need.  Thus I arrived at the airport tired, a little sad, headachy, slightly sick to my stomach, and dehydrated.

Plus, it was not my happy little Burlington airport but rather the very busy (ie, stressful) hub airport in Charlotte.  And I kept feeling that my time in the Smokey Mountains with my friend Jeannette — who I stayed with for the second part of my trip — just wasn’t long enough.

Aaaannnndd … I was headed home to my dear husband Bob and the Vermont I love so much — two giant positives.  Maybe the ledger was even.

So, time to start counting the positives for that journey.

  1. Jeannette drove me three hours to the airport — a six hour round trip for her!  That is friendship.  Yeah, that is a friendship that started when we were only 11 years old.  Sweet.
  2. Not only that, on the drive there Jeannette shared with me invaluable insight and information about the publishing process — exceptionally positive for me because (you heard it here first) I am about to embark on the writing-a-book path.
  3. When Jeannette dropped me off at the curb (we were running late, no time for her to park), I felt like I won the air traveler’s lottery!  I dashed up to the curbside check-in with no line at all where a very friendly airline employee took my bag and gave me a ticket smoothly and quickly.  He then pointed to my boarding pass, and the letters “TSA-PRE.”  He said, “When you get to security, go the TSA-PRE line.”  I thanked him, and rounded the corner where there were long lines for all the security checkpoints — except TSA-PRE where the line was non-existent! I went up to the lone employee there and showed him my boarding pass.  I said, “I don’t know why I was given this, I’m just an ordinary passenger.”  He smiled, checked my ID, and sent me right to the X-Ray area where I started to take my laptop out of its case.  I was told, no, no, you don’t need to do that.  And, I didn’t even have to take off my shoes!  I whisked through security in less than five minutes.  Amazing, just amazing.
  4. Later, on the plane, I read about the TSA-PRE program.  There was a bulleted list of categories of eligible passengers.  I was not in any of the categories!  (Did someone tell the airlines I was writing about my experience???)  (I must say, BTW, that the airline in question was United — though I think the positivity exercise would probably work equally well with any airline.)
  5. I had a mini (mini, mini) happy “reunion” when my seatmate turned out to be the woman who had moved her bags out of my way to give me a seat in the gate waiting area.
  6. Lift off — thanks to my meditative mode — was an almost blissful sensation, one of gliding to the heavens.
  7. Outside the window, I saw a cloud formation that bore a striking resemblance to a cement lion, the kind that might guard a driveway, bridge, or la-di-dah front entrance.
  8. It was once again quiet enough for me to meditate.  I was still feeling a little crappy, so it was harder to lean into that experience, but it was still okay — it’s good to try!
  9. I didn’t spill anything on my seatmate.
  10. I had consolidated my packing to make it quite unlikely that I’d lose my laptop again.  Hey, I learned something from my previous travels — woo hoo!
  11. Making my connecting flight was very stressful  — barely enough time to get from my arriving gate to my departing gate, plus lots of unhappy looking people, and other sights I didn’t enjoy (like, rampant destructive consumerism). BUT I was determined to look at the positive, and I found it, especially in relationships.  Adult children taking care of elder parents in wheelchairs, laughing children, people holding hands.  There was a lot of love on display.
  12. I made my flight to Burlington!
  13. My seatmate was active duty military, a very conservative and exhausted fellow returning home from a long overseas flight.  It soon became clear that our views on many topics were miles apart.  Yet, we had a civilized and respectful conversation and, quite wonderfully, found ourselves in fundamental agreement on the concept of Gross National Happiness.  Coming from opposite sides of the political divide, we agreed that measuring societal success solely based on money and materialism is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst.  Further, he shared that his personal happiness is all about time spent with his wife and young children — family and relationships, just like the rest of us. We would never have had this very positive conversation without the airline throwing us together as seatmates.
  14. Finally — you may have guessed — my husband was waiting for me.  We went out to dinner at a great farm-to-table organic localvore taco restaurant, and drove home through the lush late summer Vermont scenery.

Aaaahhh … there’s no place like home!

Home — which I am leaving again tomorrow morning, by train, to go to the People’s Climate March.  There is no way I can count the positives for this trip — they will be uncountable, I am sure.  I am no longer nervous about going, as I am traveling with friends, and staying with another dear friend.  No matter the trip, relationships are awesome.

More on the Climate March later!

 

 

Mundane Magic: A Quick and Easy Happiness Ritual

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon I will be savoring the beach!

Soon I will be savoring the beach!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Personal Happiness and Broken Systems

Periodically, I feel compelled to stress that my passion for spreading the happiness gospel is based on a fervent desire for a radically different political and economic paradigm — one that is focused on the genuine well-being of people and the planet, as opposed to a world which “has become an idolator of this god called money,” according to Pope Francis.  Like the Pope (I never thought I’d say that!), I “want a just system that helps everyone.”

The events last night that led to my granddaughter Madeleine taking care of her first ever baby doll have once again inspired me to write about the connection between personal happiness and broken systems.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My path is, of course, different from the Pope’s.  I believe that cultivating personal happiness is a key element (not the only element)  in working toward this shift.  Here are a few reasons why.  With greater understanding of personal happiness, comes a deeper appreciation of the sadness, emptiness, and destruction inherent in relying solely on Gross National Product  measurements of success.  When we internalize the knowledge that money and material goods are important but only a piece of our personal happiness, and also understand that chasing the almighty dollar can seriously undermine our enjoyment of life, we can so much more easily grasp the practical and visionary potential of a Gross National Happiness paradigm.

Further, cultivating personal happiness will strengthen the traits we need for the indescribably huge challenges of ameliorating climate change and ending the grown economy.  As we become happier individuals, we are, for starters:

  • less attached to things;
  • more optimistic;
  • more resilient;
  • more aware of what is truly going on around us;
  • more creative;
  • more compassionate: and
  • more grateful.

Oh, yes, and we are also more fun to be around — which no doubt makes us better messengers.

Okay, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and share what made me want to climb up there in the first place.  About a week ago, my daughter Jennifer’s old clunker car finally died.   She and my 20-month-old granddaughter will soon be joining us for a long Christmas break, but for a week and a half, she has had to cobble together a new transportation “system”: getting rides from friends, walking, and taking the bus.  She is fortunate to live in a city with decent public transit, but even so, last night my daughter and granddaughter spent 45 minutes on a cold, dark, and snowy Wisconsin night waiting for the bus to take them home.  It was pretty hard for Jennifer to be happy when her baby was crying from the cold.  My daughter sang to the baby to keep her calm until Jennifer’s cheeks were just too cold to keep singing.

Of course, the bus arrived eventually.  At home,  Jennifer decided it was a good time to open a Christmas present from Madeleine’s other grandmother.  That present is Madeleine’s first baby doll.   Watching her toddler practice taking care of this immediately beloved toy gave  my daughter a lot of reasons to feel much happier — gratitude, love, savoring the moment, etc.  So the story has a happy ending.

To me, this little vignette illustrates both the limits of, and the value of, personal happiness within broken systems.  For starters, cultivating our internal happiness is especially  important in the context of broken systems because, hey, this is the only life we get!  We should make the most of it, no matter the systems we live within.  I am so glad Jennifer and Madeleine got to end their evening on such a positive note.

To be clear, my daughter’s situation isn’t that bad.   She has a great job, a wonderful apartment, and a cousin who is helping her get a new car over Christmas break.  She’s only lived in Wisconsin a short time, yet she already has a group of friends who have been amazingly generous in providing rides.  Jennifer’s monetary resources may be limited, but she has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of friends and family who love her and can help when help is needed.  Which brings me to another reason for cultivating personal happiness, a la nurturing relationships: it provides us the tools to build alternatives to systems that break.

But personal happiness has its limits.  My daughter’s transportation struggles inspired me to write about Gross National Happiness because of the millions of young parents — or old grandparents, for that matter — who struggle with transportation to school, work, and child care day in and day out, in broiling heat as well as frigid cold.  Their own fatigue and discomfort, intensified by their children’s suffering, may well make “happiness” seem like a ridiculous goal.  Not everyone has presents waiting for them at home, and there is no reliable car in the immediate future for untold numbers of America’s working families.  We do not have “a just system that helps everyone.”

And then there’s the obvious: we should all be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  A political and economic system focused on the well being of people and the planet would surely be moving rapidly toward excellent systems of mass transit.

Another obvious point: transportation is just one of our many broken systems.  That is why, this Christmas season, I will be spending lots and lots of time with my family and friends — giving and receiving, singing, playing in the snow, laughing, meditating, and doing my best to live a happy life.  At the same time, I’ll be working with my friends at Gross National Happiness USA and The Happiness Initiative to move towards a world of greater peace and justice, a world that does more than pay lip service to well being for all.

As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”  Everyone.

And now I have to go bake cookies.

Simply Happy

I am a big fan of Annie Leonard and her colleagues at Free Range Studios.  Their 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff,” dramatically shifted my attitude away from consumerism and a growth economy.  Thanks to this zippy, powerful 20 minute video, I create most of my art now with recycled materials; I find replacement wine glasses from used stuff stores (since my household seems to be in contention for the wine-glass-breaking record); and even most of what I buy for the precious grand baby comes from consignment stores.  Watching “The Story of Stuff” was transformational.

That video is also one of the reasons I am on the happiness path, which offers an appealing alternative to the hedonic treadmill and the environmental and cultural devastation wrought by our stuff addiction.  Research shows that happier people buy less stuff — which makes sense, because happy people are busy experiencing life, being kind, exercising, meditating, taking care of others, etc.

Leonard’s 2007 video helped convince me of the urgency for massive cultural change away from the Gross National Product (GNP) paradigm and toward a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — a shift that needs to happen at every level, within us as individuals on up through international systems.   Now she and her crew have a new video that is almost as powerful: “The Story of Solutions,” which describes both the current paradigm and the much needed paradigm shift in far more understandable language.  “More” drives our lives as cogs in a growth economy.  “Better” is the goal for sustainable solutions and happier humans.  So simple, so elegant, so spot on.  Though the phrase “Gross National Happiness” resonates with me, it has not been universally embraced.  In contrast, who can argue with the clean, clear, bottom line: “better”?

My work is mostly focused on helping individuals make a happiness paradigm shift at a personal level, beginning with myself, of course.  I often ponder the choices my husband and I make in the context of climate change and happiness writ large and small.  This helps me understand ways I need to grow toward sustainable happiness, and ways to share these options with others.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Last night was no exception.  I was thinking of “The Story of Solutions” because we had a “better” not “more” kind of evening.  My husband and I were enjoying the pea soup he had cooked while I was in town co-leading a “How of Happiness” study group.  Is there a food more humble than pea soup?  We also had locally-baked bread to dip in garlic oil (the garlic came from our backyard) and a salad.  It’s gotten cold here, so the wood stove in the kitchen was blazing.  For many, many years we’ve eaten dinner by candlelight — always sharing a toast with a glass of wine (white for him, red for me).  That’s what we did last night, too, but there was nothing fancy about the entire scenario — just a humble meal for a long-time married couple.

I was, simply, happy.

Who needs more?

I happen to love pea soup, but the point is, choosing better over more is not  a sacrifice.  It is a happy way forward, for ourselves and our planet.  It’s a solution we can live with.

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.

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!