Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Martin Seligman’

Happiness in the Time of Covid, Part 4: Cajoling Your Brain with Stickers

IMG_3003Forward: This tale of tricking my brain to jump start my stalled yoga practice may seem like it doesn’t apply to you, if you either don’t do yoga or do it literally quite religiously. Ah, but it does! For the story here is both literal and metaphorical, and applies not only to each of us individually but also to our communities at large. What we focus on, measure, and hold ourselves accountable for makes a huge difference in what we actually do. If we want happier selves, and a happier planet, we need to make good accountability choices. So, yogini or nogini, please feel free to follow along!

Gratitude journal.YOGA

My gratitude painting for May 2012

Seven weeks into quarantine time, I finally turned on a Pandora yoga music channel; arrayed my mat, blocks, and cushion in the middle of my bedroom carpet; got on the floor, and, hallelujah! — actually did yoga again. Thanks to the trip I took right before Covid-19 hit, it had been nine weeks since my last yoga session — a very long time for me to not do yoga. I love yoga, especially the meditation in motion aspect of focusing on both the breath and the asanas, or poses. It is clear — sometimes painfully so — that my (ahem) maturing body needs yoga to stay flexible and reasonably fit. Some years back, when I was painting a monthly gratitude watercolor, yoga even made the cut. It means that much to me.

Yet, with no in-person yoga class, day after day, and then week after week, I kept not doing yoga. My body tried to tell my brain, “Yo! We need to do this!” Maybe it was grief,  inertia, or an upset household schedule, but I just could not make myself get on that mat.

Fortunately, the science of happiness got me back on track. The mind-body connection is such a wondrous thing. I knew that if I could convince my brain that I truly wanted to do yoga, my brain would lobby my body to get going. And I knew just what would do the trick with my brain: colored stickers. I promised myself I would put a sticker on the calendar for every day I practiced yoga. So far, it has worked: I’ve done between 15 and 40 minutes of yoga poses ten nights out of the last twelve*. Because if I don’t: no sticker.

How silly is that? But it works.

Truthfully, I used several other tricks, as an insurance policy:

  1. IMG_3011Earlier in the day, I put my yoga equipment in the middle of the bedroom floor, where I would have to specifically step over it in order to ignore it. I learned this in-your-face trick from my friend Braco Probic, whose book Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits is full of excellent tips to help us all change our ways.
  2. Another trick from Braco’s book: don’t aim too high. The Japanese have a term for this: kaizen, or improvement by successfully taking small steps (which pleases the brain and makes it want to continue) rather than failing with grander ambitions (which frustrates the brain and makes it want to give up). I want my brain to continue being my yoga cheerleader, so I only have to do one yoga pose to earn my sticker reward. Of course, once I start, one pose flows into another. Thus, each night I can easily surpass my minimal goal, and bask in that accomplishment.
  3. Then there’s accountability — so powerful, I doubled down on it. I IMG_3012not only wrote “do yoga” on my weekly to-do list but also told my husband what my yoga plans were so he could “hold me accountable,” if need be. Really, the list is the more powerful motivator because I am very goal oriented — as long as the goals are my choice (intrinsic) and not a burden put on me by someone else (extrinsic).

There are other tricks, but here’s what you shouldn’t rely on: willpower. Willpower is much more subject to external forces than you may realize, and may even be a limited resource, at least on a daily basis. If you use all your willpower on not eating pancakes at breakfast, you might not have any left to carry you through the rest of the day — especially these days. Sometimes just getting out of bed takes all the willpower we’ve got.

From a more positive perspective, one of my favorite scientific grids comes from Martin Seligman, the unofficial father of positive psychology. Seligman developed the PERMA theory: five core elements that can guide each of us toward more thriving and happier lives. The elements are positive emotions (P); engagement in life (E); relationships (R); meaning (M); and accomplishment or achievement (A). Knowing that accomplishment is such a vital part of human well-being helps explain to me why stickers, to-do lists, and other forms of accountability work. Our brains like achievement.

Another way of looking at all this mental trickery is this: stickers and to-do lists are fundamentally measures, proving on a personal level that what we choose to measure matters because that is what we pay attention to. This is the same basic theory behind the Gross National Happiness movement to change what we measure on a policy making level from focusing obsessively on the GDP and economic growth to a more holistic and inclusive well-being framework.

Here, too, on the macro-level, Covid-19 times seem to be making room for a different set of measures. On May 10, 2020 The Guardian reported that a majority of Britains now want quality of life indicators to take center stage in policy making, thus prioritizing “health and wellbeing over economic growth.” That is an exciting development, but I’m not sure they — or we — have earned our stickers yet. Okay, maybe one sticker.

But let’s bring it back to you, and your happiness during this time. Please understand, I don’t want to push anyone into trying to do something you’re not yet ready for. Maybe you’re working too hard. Or you are still too down. Not only that, the tricks that work for my brain might not appeal to you. Maybe you don’t even like stickers! I just want you to take care of yourselves as best you can. And if any of these tricks or suggestions do help you, that will make me happy.

 

_____

*I could only do yoga on my own because I’ve been taking classes for 20+ years, including almost 20 years from Susi Wahlrab. Her teachings are etched in my brain and body. If you need or want instruction, there are many yoga videos to choose from.

 

A

 

PERMA

GNH measuring what matters

 

 

The Happiness Journey: Meaning and Joy in Florida!

My new walking shoes!

My new walking shoes!

“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”  — George Carlin

Ah, George Carlin. Since 2009, when I began following my personal and gross national happiness path, I’ve tried to wean myself off shopping.  Among the many reasons to do so is a desire to get off the hedonic consumer treadmill.  An even more powerful motivation came from Annie Leonard, whose “Story of Stuff” video first opened my eyes to the planetary and culturally destructive effects of thoughtless, wasteful shopping.  Individually and collectively, we pay an unacceptably high price to accumulate possessions — much worse than merely taping sandwiches all over our hungry selves.

Plus, stepping aside from a regular career path to follow my happiness calling dramatically curtailed my disposable income.  Tellingly, my life satisfaction has risen.  Partly, that’s because my shopping is in greater concordance with my beliefs.  As I see it, corporate profit derived from constant pressure on all of us to buy, buy, buy is the leading driver behind climate change and income inequality.  The less I buy of a whole host of products I don’t need, and never needed in the first place, the more I can release the corporate grip on my life — freeing me for a life lived in greater harmony with my values.

Of course, it’s not that I don’t do any shopping.  These are aspirational values, not always realized.  However, I do strive to keep it local, used, or something I really want/need.  Which brings me to the brand new walking shoes pictured above.  I haven’t bought new shoes for five years.  But in a month I’ll be going on an internal and external journey, and, for both aspects, I need good shoes. You see, I will be rejoining The Happiness Walk for nine days and 100 miles through northern Florida in mid-September.  And I know from previous experience that it is wise to invest in good shoes!

I was last part of this adventure in October 2012 for two magical yet gruesome days (see this blog for a description).  My heart and soul were singing, but my toenails were in the process of falling off.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

This time, I decided to invest in decent shoes, as well as socks and moleskin to put on any budding blisters. Happiness may be an inside job, but we ignore the mind-body connection at our peril.  It would be much harder for me to have a transformative internal journey if my feet were screaming in pain.

Why Would Anybody Want to Walk 100 Miles Through Rural, Hot Florida?

There are a lot of reasons not to walk, starting with the weather. Mid-September in Florida is bound to be hot, hot, hot — and humid to boot.  Meanwhile, the Vermont weather I’ll leave behind will be glorious.  September is quite possibly Vermont’s best month. Leaves are starting to turn, but we can still swim and kayak –though not for much longer! Knowing that time is running out makes Vermont sunny September days especially precious.

Another reason to stay home is loyalty to my church, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which shuts down for the summer and will just be starting a new church year when I leave for Florida. My little family within the church is the choir.  Last year was rough and sad for us.  We not only sang but also cried together, throughout our beloved choir director’s terminal illness and death.  Now, we have a really terrific new choir director.  I want to be there with my choir family as we regroup and begin anew.  Instead, I’ll be trudging through desolate Florida scenery.

Hmmm.  Interesting how the words “trudge” and “desolate” snuck into that paragraph.  I guess part of me really wants to stay home!  Maybe because I don’t want to leave my husband.  And I don’t want to fly, because of the negative environmental impact.

These are all important happiness considerations — exercising in nature, nurturing spirituality and community, cherishing my marriage, and taking climate action. Still, I am going, because the happiness factors from participating in the walk — for a short period of time, not the kind of commitment Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley have made — outweigh the happiness of staying home.

Before I get into the why’s for me, I invite you to consider what the why’s might be for you.  This is not an exclusive activity.  From fellow walkers to hosts along the route to funders, there are many ways you can be involved, if The Happiness Walk also calls to you. Now, why it calls to me …

First: Right Livelihood. Long before the advent of positive psychology research, Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness, including this: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  The world definitely needs more happiness, well being, meaning, joy — whatever you want to call it, we need more of it.  As for my talents, I spend a lot of time walking the happiness talk — but this is different.  The Happiness Walk is about showing up, asking the right questions, and listening wholeheartedly.  Fortunately, these are just the skills (talents, even) that have been honed in my mediation and coaching work.  I love people, and am tremendously curious about everyone’s stories.  Listening is something I can do, with my head and my heart.  This is good work for me.  It will make me happy.

Second: P.E.R.M.A. Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. framework for individual happiness seems to be my go-to way of assessing life choices.  Using this perspective, The Happiness Walk passes with flying colors:

  • Positivity: Spending nine days listening to others — our hosts, people on the street, waitresses, anybody and everybody we meet — describe what makes them happy?  And talking with them in turn about the happiness movement?  It just doesn’t get any more positive than that.
  • Engagement: From my (hopefully happy) toes, to my heart, soul and mind, I will be fully engaged with the task at hand.  This is field research, as well as an opportunity to spread the paradigm-shifting gospel — both of which are at the core of my life’s work.  Engaged?  Oh, yes. Yes, yes.
  • Relationships: This one is interesting.  In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson talks about the “micro-bursts” of love that can occur between strangers.  The Happiness Walk is just one big micro-burst of love after another.  These relationships are short, but deeply meaningful.  And of course, I’ll be growing my relationship with fellow walker and happiness activist, Paula Francis.  Thus, relationships will also be a significant part of the experience.
  • Meaning: Big time.  I do this work because I believe firmly that the current gross national product (GNP) paradigm is trashing the environment, feeding the flames of greed and income inequality, and causing or exacerbating all kinds of wrong headed policies and actions on both the systemic and personal level.  In other words, the happiness movement is urgently important.  Meaningful?  Yes, so much so that I am deeply grateful to have found this path.
  • Accomplishment: No, and yes.  I suspect that the work of building a movement will not be finished for a long time.  Maybe never.  Instead, I have to find my sense of accomplishment in all the small steps along the way  (small steps, ha ha ha).  When my part of the walk is over, I will feel very accomplished!  And very happy.

Third: The Hamburger Principle. This one comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, and it, too, is one of my favorite frames for considering happiness.  The cheeseburger part is a long story, but basically, Tal lays out four quadrants to illustrate four options for living life. The idea here is, humans need both pleasure and meaning to be happy — a combination that resides in just one of the quadrants, which are:

  • The Rat Race. This quadrant can be all about meaning, but doing the work in such a single minded way as to leave little time for all else that makes life enjoyable.  While being in rat race mode for a time is okay, it is insufficient to lead a thriving life.
  • Hedonism. This, of course, is all about the pleasure.  I imagine most of you, like me, have indulged in hedonistic episodes (a.k.a., vacation!).  Again, this is fine in spurts. But a hedonistic lifestyle is shallow and also insufficient for a thriving life.
  • Nihilism. In this sorry quadrant, one has neither meaning nor pleasure.  This is a bleak life.  Let’s get out of here, fast!
  • Happiness. And the winner is, that sweet spot where one has a balance of meaning and pleasure.  We are physical as well as spiritual beings who need both purpose and joy to thrive.  And thrive I will, my friends, at least during the happiness walk when I will be solidly in this most desirable quadrant.

Fourth: Self Concordant Goals.  Now, how about a little Nietzche?  He said, “when there is a what for, every how becomes possible.” The what for is, once again, meaning — but we also need the how, we need to take action, we need goals.

There are some caveats here.  First, the happiness of goals lies in the journey, not in arriving at the destination. It’s about being in the present and knowing where you’re going, and why.  This seems a particularly apt point for my upcoming participation in The Happiness Walk, since it is literally a journey.  Though my final destination is Live Oak, Florida, that destination is not at all the point.  It is definitely the day-to-day, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other journey that excites me.

The second caveat is, not all goals are happy making.  Think, for example, of a bright young student striving to get into medical school because that’s what her parents want.  Doesn’t sound so happy, does it?  Now consider “self-concordant goals,” goals which are personally, deeply meaningful.  Tal Ben-Shahar says  self-concordant goals are:

  1. Aligned with personal interests and values (check!)
  2. Freely chosen goals (check!)
  3. Want to vs. Have to (check!)
  4. What do you really, really want to do (and check!)

So, once again, while Paula and I don’t yet know where we’ll be spending the night for most of the time I’m walking with her, this much is clear: following this happiness path seems destined to make me a happier person.  Paula, too, I’m pretty sure.

Fifth and Finally: The Gift of Giving. We all know that acts of kindness, full-hearted giving and tending to others are reliable strategies for feeling better ourselves. Further — looping back to the beginning of this essay, and my desire to step away from shopping — there are so many very special gifts we can give that cost us only our time and attention. For example, there is the gift of listening. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen observes:

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. ”

And the beautiful thing is, the listeners — in this case, the Happiness Walkers — will get just as much happiness as those who are sharing their stories with us. All this and more … reason enough to leave Vermont in September. In fact, the connections will be so powerful, I will likely want to keep walking. Fortunately, there will plenty of happiness arguments to compel me to come home because, you know what? Happiness is where you look for it.

One final gift, for you! A very special offering — “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” by poet John Fox:

When Someone Deeply Listens to You
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Too Much of a Good Thing, Or Where Did I Put My Air Mask?

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Reading to my granddaughter at nap time? Priceless.

Ugh.

I like my coffee dark, but yowza.  On the final morning of my nine-day full-time grandmothering trip, my decision to use all the remaining coffee grounds for that one last pot definitely resulted in too much of a good thing.

Any one who makes coffee, or cooks with garlic, or indeed cooks or eats anything at all, knows that too much of a good thing is no longer all that good.  My coffee that day was more swill than the hoped-for elixir.  In positive psychology terms, it’s what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the Lasagne Principle.  Tal explains that he loves the lasagne his mother cooks, and savors the opportunity to eat his mom’s lasagne on a regular basis.  Regular, but not every night.  Having to eat even the best lasagne meal after meal after meal would soon become altogether unappetizing.

Here’s what I love: my 3 year-old granddaughter Madeleine.  Living in a different state from this beloved child, I both anticipate and savor opportunities to spend quality time with her on a regular basis.  However, on that nine-day trip, I began to feel as though I was having metaphorical lasagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.  Morning and afternoon snacks, too.

I was round-the-clock grandmothering because my daughter was attending an important professional conference thousands of miles from home.  We both knew her extended time “at work” would be very challenging for Madeleine to weather.  Thus, I chose to put on my “Bama” hat and help both my daughter and granddaughter flourish during their time apart. It was a good decision, and … at times, it felt like too much of a good thing.

Like any metaphor, the lasagne comparison falls short.  Choosing to care for Madeleine in her own environment was a great deal more textured than sitting down for a heaping helping of Tal’s mother’s lasagne. Still, I’ll carry the metaphor just a little further, perhaps to the straining point, to note that there were plenty of side dishes as well.  For example, my husband Bob (AKA, “Poppa”) volunteered to come with me.  He put in his regular work week at an office about 40 minutes away, but his presence in the evenings and on the weekends was immeasurably helpful — even though Madeleine continued to want my attention most of the time.  Though she was especially clingy in her mother’s absence, and I was especially solicitous for the same reason, Poppa nonetheless provided respite.

From Metaphor to Reframing

We can find the good in almost any difficult circumstance — or, conversely, spotlight the negative in even the best situations — by the frames we put around our experiences.  One way of framing these nine days of intense child care (24-7, thanks to co-sleeping) is to label it a sacrifice.  It cost us thousands of dollars to make the trip, I gave up at least $600 in paid freelance gigs (and, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, it’s not like we have lots of spare thousand dollar bills lying around), and lots of my work did not get done (classes not planned, sermons not written, movements not organized …).  It was not an inexpensive trip.  Plus, I had to choose between helping my daughter get to an important professional conference or going to my own important professional conference.  Goodbye, International Positive Psychology Association 2015 conference.

However, there are many ways of framing this story. In most life situations — including this one –we can choose between focusing on the positive aspects instead of, or as well as, the negative.  So let me reframe those nine days: what an amazing opportunity for my granddaughter and me to grow even closer.  Since she and her mom lived with us for Madeleine’s first 16 months of life, we have a very tight bond.  But babies — they just keep growing!  And they don’t remember all the hours devoted to their infant care.  Now, Madeleine may be old enough to remember the time Bama came and took care of her while Mama was away.  I hope I will long remember how precious she was at this three year old stage.  It’s just astonishing how fast young children develop.  It will only be a few weeks till we’re together again, but I’m sure she’ll be very different already.

Here’s one more frame: much of the work we do in building and strengthening relationships is, indeed, work.  The same is true of parenting and, sometimes, grand-parenting.  Although I disagree with the title of Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (because, happily, my daughter and her daughter actually have a lot of fun together), raising children is very hard work. But rather than focus on this trip as a sacrifice, I like thinking of this time as an investment — in our relationship and in helping to shape her as a happy, healthy, empathic, emotionally intelligent, and just generally awesome human being.

For me, the truth of the situation meant using all three frames.  I’m okay with that, life is complex.  There were sacrifices and there were joys and there was hard work in the now as an investment in the future.  Not a bad mix, really.

Even so, after a few days I started to feel an undercurrent of unhappiness.

That’s okay.  I’m not one to run away from unhappiness.  Though I never wish to wallow, I embrace unhappiness as part of life’s journey.  However, given my perch as a student and advocate of greater happiness on both the personal and systemic levels, I often wonder at and explore my unhappiness.  Plus, when I posted on Facebook that I was having some grandmothering struggles, one of my sisters expressed surprise at my complaining tone.  My daughter also emailed me to ask what was going on, why was I having a hard time.

Good question.  First of all, we had a rough day.  I had thought I could put Madeleine in day care for a few days, for her sake (I thought she might be more comfortable with some of her normal routine) and mine (I could get some work done).  But when I left her at”school,” she was so distraught that I drove away shaking and close to tears.  After talking with my daughter and with the school, I decided to go back and pick her up.  I didn’t have to do work that day, and her pain was too big a price for me to pay.

One of my favorite happiness quotes comes from Aristotle: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  Compassion for her meant no day care during my visit.  Compassion for me meant accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get any work done.  Letting go of expectations is a classic Buddhist prescription for limiting our suffering, but western happiness scientist Rick Hanson suggests the same thing.  In his Foundations of Well-being program, neuropsychologist Hanson espouses the value of accepting what we cannot change.  Or, in this case, choose not to change.  With that acceptance, I grew calmer.

Second, I thought often of Christine Carter.  Carter starts her amazing book Raising Happiness (a highly recommended guide to growing deeply happy children) by emphasizing the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first.  Those nine days, I mostly could not even find my oxygen mask.  Much of what I do to keep my happiness muscles toned — such as, getting a good night’s sleep, a daily meditation practice, singing in the church choir, going to yoga and bone builders classes, keeping a daily gratitude journal — fell by the wayside.  I was aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Really, it was a good experiment: the absence of my happy exercises was so noticeable, it highlighted their value.

Of course, on the flip side, there was more play, more touch, more laughter, and ongoing gratitude practices (something the whole family does each night at dinner).  Still, if this were an ongoing situation, in order to best teach and model happiness for my grand child, I would definitely need to put that oxygen mask back on.

Maybe there are some systems issues here, too.

At the time, my thoughts were very focused on the internal, personal factors enhancing or detracting from Madeleine’s and my happiness.  But upon reflection, I began to wonder if some of the stress and distress I was felt was because I have inevitably internalized the values of a Gross National Product paradigm.  I’m not sure … but I think it’s helpful to examine just how deeply imbued those values can be, even for those of us who have been striving for years to move toward a happiness paradigm.

At home, I found myself reviewing my experience through Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. lens.  As usual, I found this theory of flourishing helpful.  My grandmothering intensive had plenty of positivity (the “P” in P.E.R.M.A.), though there were some tears and several very sad hours.  As for “E,” I was often very engaged in our activities, though (here again there is a “but”) three year-olds like repetitive play a lot more than 60+ year-olds.  Sometimes, I was just plain bored.  “R,” for relationships, was nothing but strong, with both Madeleine and Bob/Poppa.  Meaning, the “M” word, was also powerful.  Since the point of the trip was to help my daughter’s professional development and my granddaughter’s emotional development during her mother’s absence, the entire experience was deeply meaningful.

It’s the “A” that I found particularly enlightening.  I realized that much of my stress came from a sense that I wasn’t accomplishing anything.  Yes, yes, caring for a young child is meaningful — but it’s not like at the end of the day I could check the “done” box.  I think that’s part of why I felt the pressure of wanting to do my own work.  I wanted to accomplish something!  I wanted to cross something off my list.

Also, despite the hard work, I wasn’t getting paid for anything.  This is where my questions about internalized GNP values come into play.  Did I feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything because I wasn’t contributing to the GNP?  And, therefore, everything that I poured into being the best grandmother I could possibly be was less valuable to society than a wide range of other well paid activities?  Certainly, I don’t think grand parenting is a high prestige occupation.

I don’t have any answers.  Maybe it was just me.  I really do like to tick off my accomplishments at the end of the day.  Maybe it is also the money- and material-oriented paradigm that hangs over us all.  For me at least, it is worth taking time to think about this.  As much as possible, I want my own personal decisions to be based on genuine well-being — not on accumulating more money or trying to meet GNP-oriented definitions of success.  Trying to understand where the traps lie is a helpful exercise.

But I don’t want to end it there …

… because I’d much rather focus on the magic.  I know I am blessed to have such an awesome little human in my life, blessed to have such a strong bond of love between us, blessed to share her very precious three year old world.  Each day at nap time, for example, as we lay down together, Madeleine would point to the ceiling and whisper in a tone of awe, “Look!  There are millions and millions of stars!”  Then we found stars of various colors.  She always captured the purple one, brought it down from the heavens, and put it in her belly.  When Poppa joined us for this activity, he grabbed a blue one, and put it in her pocket.  Fortunately for me, there was another purple star for me to reach.  I put mine in my heart, for more loving kindness.  Our last afternoon together of this trip, Madeleine predictably caught another purple star, but unpredictably, put this star in her heart, for more loving kindness.

This kind of magic? Priceless.

All You Need Is Love … Or Some Other Signature Strength!

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

Bob and I, freshly married, November 1970.

As I recall, the girl sitting next to me in home-economics class was named Diane.  She was a cheery sort, and we chatted amiably while working on our sewing projects.  I was making a pair of identical paisley print bolero vests.  One was for me, I explained, and one was for Bobby Sassaman, the love of my as-yet-very-young life.

“You like him??” she almost gasped in disbelief.  Clearly, Diane did not see Bobby as acceptable boyfriend material.  I saw way more than boyfriend potential: later this month, we’ll celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.

We still have the vests.

To be clear, when we got married, I believe a majority in the church — including me — were sure the marriage was doomed.  I was a pregnant high school senior, barely 17 years-old.  Bobby was enrolled at the local community college, but he was still just a paper boy.  Neither one of us had driver’s licenses, much less a car.  I was fired from my part time job as a short order cook because pregnant teenagers didn’t fit the restaurant’s family fun image.  Not too promising, right?  I mean, I was crazy in love, but I wasn’t stupid.

Yet, here we are.  Still crazy in love.  Nobody’s betting against our relationship anymore, especially not me.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

44 years later, on top of the world, Mt. Mansfield, Vermont.

Perhaps that’s because the odds were in our favor all along.

Recently, I asked Bob (the extra syllable disappeared a long time ago) to take the VIA Institute on Character free online survey.  I’ve taken the “test” a few times, and used it in workshops, so I have a good idea of my top strengths.  I was curious about his, and one Sunday night he announced his results.  Turns out, we have the same signature strength: the capacity to give and receive love.  The fact that humor is also tops for him, and forgiveness is number two for me, doesn’t hurt either when it comes to maintaining a thriving relationship for the long term.

Okay, there are many other factors that helped us along the way, including the love and support of our families.  Still, I was really struck by our common survey result.

I had taken the survey again as part of my home work for the Kripalu Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  The faculty are very generous with their time and expertise, so I asked program director Maria Sirois if she thought there was any connection between the longevity of my marriage and our capacity to give and receive love.  I wondered, is the shared strength of love the chicken that laid the egg of a long marriage, or, is a long marriage the egg that hatched the chicken of love as a signature strength within each of us?  Maria responded,

“Some strengths – core strengths – seem to be with us from the beginning – I like to think of them as cellular but I don’t know that the VIA people would use that language. They simply are who we are. If you both had this as a core strength from childhood I could see how it could contribute to your longevity in relationship. And since it is a strength, at least in the recent decades, that you share, you can be sure that you reinforced it in each other and in so doing elevated other strengths that support your relationship as well. Self-esteem and competency both rise when we are in our highest strengths, and the love strength is also closely associated with generosity – which can only help a relationship. So I’d say you have a fabulous chicken and a delicious egg thing happening here.”

Thank you, Maria!

Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?

Well, no.  Nor is it from a magazine like “Cosmopolitan” or “Redbook” (are they still around?).  The VIA index stems from solid research.  According to “VIA Character Strengths – Research and Practice: The First 10 Years” by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., the index of 24 universally admired virtues and strengths “emerged from several scientific meetings led by Martin E. P. Seligman and rigorous historical analysis led by Christopher Peterson, who collaborated with 53 other leading scientists over a period of three years.”   This is serious stuff!

I initially learned about the VIA index in 2010, at my first ever positive psychology training led by Dr. Lynn Johnson.  Dr. Johnson shared the VIA list with us, and I now share it with you:  1) Creativity, 2)  Curiosity, 3) Love of learning, 4) Wisdom/perspective, 5)  Open-mindedness, 6)  Bravery, 7) Persistence, 8) Integrity, 9) Vitality, 10) Give & receive love, 11) Kindness, 12) Social intelligence, 13) Citizenship, 14)  Fairness, 15)  Leadership, 16) Forgiveness, 17) Modesty/humility, 18)  Prudence, 19)  Self-regulation, 20) Appreciation of excellence & beauty, 21) Gratitude, 22) Hope, 23) Humor, and 24) Spirituality.

You may glance at the list and immediately have a sense of your strengths, but, if you take the online test at the VIA site, you can learn so much more!  Plus, there’s lots of information about these strengths and how real people have applied them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Here’s the best part about the VIA online test: everybody has signature strengths!  Everybody is a winner!  Go ahead, take the test, find out how wonderful you are!

A couple of caveats and clarifications:

  1. First, the VIA index does not cover all my strengths, or yours.  I know, for example, that I have a facility for painting with watercolors.  Apparently, I also have very flexible shoulders.  Which is to say, we all have many gifts to share with the world and make our own lives more enjoyable.  After you get your VIA list figured out, dig a little deeper.  What else makes you wonderful?
  2. Strengths and Virtues can present in different ways.  Take bravery, for example.  A few summers ago, on a vacation trip with Bob, my sister Kathy, and her husband Rick, we climbed a waterfall trail in the wild woods of Maine.  While Rick clambored to the top of rocks overhanging a steep waterfall drop, I found a rock far, far away from the edge to sit on.  I couldn’t even look at Rick.  I was terrified.  When he was finally safe and we were walking down the hill, Rick remarked on many of the emotional risks I have taken, risks that would have terrified him.  Point taken.  Bravery wears many faces.
  3. Don’t overuse your strengths.  Tal Ben-Shahar, the primary teacher in the Kripalu program, sometimes talks about the “Lasagne Principle.” In short, he loves lasagne, but if he ate it at every meal, the lasagne would be significantly less appealing.  Just as our diets are diverse, so too are our strengths and virtues.  Love is not, in fact, all I need.
  4. Remember your weaknesses.  While our strengths deserve top billing, paying an appropriate level of attention to our weaknesses is also a good idea.  Case in point: for some reason, I am challenged in getting dates and times right.  Twice, I showed up as a weekend guest in a friend’s house a week early.  Once I took my kids to a road show of “The Sound of Music,” also a week early.  Fortunately, there are these wonderful items now called “calendars.”  It’s taken me a few years, but I have finally learned to write down appointments and also to regularly check what’s in there!

“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”

As mentioned above, the VIA index is a serious topic for research and discussion among eminent leaders in the positive psychology field — but it can also be fun!  Nancy K, one of the TA’s in the Kripalu program, demonstrated that in grand style when she posted her list of 24 music videos, one for each of the virtues and strengths.  She invited the rest of us to consider what music videos we might choose for our own signature strengths video.

Lord knows, there are a lot of love songs out there, but most of them are focused on romantic love between partners.  The capacity to give and receive love that Bob and I share is broader than that.  Yes, we love each other — and, we each love many others.  So even though love is not all I need, let me close this blog the way I began — with love.  And the Beatles amazing song, “Love Is All You Need” .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pump It Up: Happiness Through Strength

Though I am “pumping iron” these days as part of a local bone builders class, and exercise is hugely important for happiness, today I’m using that term metaphorically.  The focus of this blog is actually internal, on our innate and unique character strengths.   Since it’s summer, let’s start outside, in the blueberry patch.

Finally!  I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Finally! I have weeded and mulched all 17 blueberry plants!

Blueberries and happiness: For two and a half years, six bags of unopened pine mulch lay undisturbed along the border of my small blueberry patch.  Last summer, my daughter and her newborn with uncooperative sleep habits moved in with us, so I think I have a good excuse for never finding the time to weed and mulch the blueberries.  As for summer 2011 … hmmm, I can’t quite remember what got in my way.  Finally, after seeing the bags of mulch in the Google satellite image of my house (ummm, that’s embarrassing!),  I was determined to get it done this summer.   By mid-June, I had finally weeded and mulched the entire patch.  No more accusing mulch bags spoiling my backyard view.

Now you may think that a job with such limited parameters that still took me more than two years to finish does not play to my strengths.  Perhaps, but I’m still a lot better at digging in the dirt and strewing mulch than I am at storing the harvested berries.  With no knowledge of how to make jams and preserves, I’ve just popped them in the freezer.

Then, while weeding, I had an “aha blueberry moment”.  My daughter LOVES to cook and she LOVES to research, so I made a deal with her — I’ll pick the blueberries and supply jars if she’ll figure out how to make jams and then proceed to do so.  She happily said, sure!  Happily because, in part, she’ll be working from her strengths (much more so than me!).

Strengths as a path to happiness: When I went to my very first seminar on positive psychology in 2010 (probably even before I bought all that mulch), I gained an intellectual understanding that pinpointing what our strengths are, and using those strengths, can lead to greater personal joy.  But it took me a long time to really “get it.”

Some keys to happier living make instant sense to me — like gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, savoring.  Those make my heart sing. Other strategies take more time to internalize.  With strengths, sometimes I’d get hints at how they work —  like the time a teacher told me that she and her colleagues were unhappy because they had to spend too much time doing paperwork rather than, duh, teaching — but I had to experience it in my own life before gaining a genuine understanding.  This experience, which transformed a grumpy me into a happy me, happened last winter.  Let’s go back inside.

The painting episode: I came to a Small Group Ministry meeting at the Montpelier Unitarian Church because I hoped discussing spiritual beliefs in an intimate setting would feed my soul.  When I got there, I wished I had read the fine print.   Already in low spirits (it was January and grey and I was sick with a cold that took about two months to conquer),  I was quite disgruntled to learn that our group was expected to perform a service project.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

Two of the paintings our church group created at the local food shelf.

“Service project!?!?”  I thought.  “I didn’t sign up for any service project!”  Between helping care for my live-in baby granddaughter and planning a free-to-the-public happiness weekend, I felt like my whole life was a service project already.  I was displeased, and, this being a setting where we encouraged to share our genuine feelings, I said as much.

However, at our second meeting, when the subject of our service project arose, one group member suggested we paint the walls of the local food shelf, to make it more inviting for their customers.  And here’s where it all shifted.  I said, “A few years ago, I led a group of fifth and sixth graders painting a fruit and vegetable mural for their school cafeteria.  Maybe we could do something like that?”

Much to my surprise and pleasure, the group readily agreed.  Because painting is definitely a strength of mine, suddenly, this project became joyful.   I was also grateful, because the whole group enthusiastically worked from my strength.  I got to draw each fruit or veggie, then instruct the other group members on how to apply the base paints.  Several of us did the shading that is so vital in making paintings come to life.  In the end, we left behind paintings of a pumpkin, eggplant, cherries, grapes, a carrot, peas, and tomatoes.  Other than the grapes (my fault entirely), I think we did a pretty good job.

(BTW, this was anonymous — a random act of kindness.  Only the director of the food shelf knows who we are, so please don’t spill the beans.)

So I was happy, and glad my fellow group members pulled me out of my funk and taught me a valuable lesson.  Since then, I see the strengths issue frequently.  For example two weeks ago, I heard a brilliant — and very Vermont — radio commentary by Helen Labun Jordan on using her strengths to contribute to the vitality of her community — in this case, baking pies for the Adamant Black Fly Festival.  Very funny!  (P.S., she won!)

What about you?   Working from our strengths is a happiness strategy Martin Seligman tested and proved with his graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.   Seligman, who is a towering, momentous figure in the positive psychology world, does a great job explaining the strengths strategy in part of this video.  He and his colleagues have also given all of us all a great gift: a free VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which takes about 20 minutes to complete.  I was a little surprised at my results (I expected creativity to show up higher on the list), and maybe you will be too.

In any case, the next time you find yourself feeling grumpy — and we all know there will be a next time — maybe knowing your strengths will help you find your way back to happiness a little faster.   Maybe even with pie, or blueberry jam!

Gander & Goose Happiness

Right before the latest big blizzard, I read a post from a Texan who wrote that it was 60 degrees and sunny in his neck of the woods that day.  “Why would anyone ever want to live in the northeast?” he asked.

My internal response was, “Texas?  Really?  Are you kidding me?”  Large swaths of Texas have been on fire the last few years.  The state as a whole has lately suffered crushingly hot temperatures and frightening drought.  Why would anyone ever want to live in Texas?

As they say, different strokes for different folks.

When it comes to happiness, I suspect our differences emanate from a soul level.  Certainly each of us needs to chart our own distinct happiness paths.  As Sonja Lyubomirksy observes, “there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier.  All of us have unique needs, interests, values, resources, and inclinations that undoubtedly predispose us to put effort into and benefit from some strategies more than others” (The How of Happiness, p.69).

Or, in more folksy terms, what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.  Or is it?

The Gander. That would be my husband, Bob.  This coming Saturday afternoon, he will undoubtedly get a huge happiness boost by once again leading his merry band of ukulele players in the Maple Corner Mardi Gras parade.  I’m guessing that getting into the flow of mastering the ukulele is partly why this experience gives him joy.  Also, I know he appreciates this opportunity to contribute to our community’s vitality.  Because performing makes his uke brothers and sisters happy too, by organizing this event, Bob further benefits by giving them this gig.

That's Bob in the Hawaiian shirt in the 2012 Maple Corner Mardis Gras

That’s Bob in the Hawaiian shirt during the 2012 Maple Corner Mardi Gras Parade

Plus, of course, it is just plain fun and not really something that needs to be analyzed.

The Goose is me.  I joined Bob in the parade last year, playing the only instruments I can even begin to handle (kazoo and tambourine); I may march again this year.  But, I’m excited about something radically different this coming Saturday morning:  a gun control rally in front of the Vermont Statehouse in nearby Montpelier.  Fun is not my strong point, alas.  I’m more in my element as a rabble rouser — or, as I might reframe it in positive psychology terms, I really like “having a purpose.”

At the Vermont statehouse for a 2011 Occupy protest.

That’s me at the Vermont statehouse for a 2011 Occupy protest.

These differences between my husband and me play out most Sunday mornings.  While I head off to sing in the church choir and get a weekly booster shot of support in leading a good life, Bob heads for his ping pong club and several hours of very vigorous exercise with his buddies.  His table tennis time is just as sacred to him as my church attendance is to me.

These musings reminded me of the following section on the Pursuit-of-Happiness website about Martin Seligman and different levels of happiness:

“Seligman’s bottom line is that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated:

1. ‘The pleasant life’ is realized if we learn to savor and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.
2. We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience ‘the good life,”’ which is achieved by discovering our unique virtues and strengths and employing them creatively to enhance our lives.
3. The final stage is ‘the meaningful life,’ in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by mobilizing our unique strengths for a purpose much greater than ourselves.”

Writing this blog, and looking at my husband’s and my choice of activities through the lens of Seligman’s three levels of happiness, I now see that what’s good for the gander can indeed be good for the goose — just not in the way I’ve interpreted this cliche before.  I always thought it meant the goose and the gander should be doing and liking the same things.  Now, I see that by doing and liking different things, the goose and the gander can help each other expand and enrich their levels of happiness.

Nearly everything I’ve read about what makes people happy stresses the importance of relationships, and good connections with others.  Perhaps one reason this is so is because other people inevitably provide us with more varied happiness opportunities.   We help each other cultivate different dimensions of happiness.

I definitely need to nurture “the pleasant life”  more.  Bob helps me be more playful, and that is definitely a good thing.  So … hand me a kazoo.  And see you at the rally.

Learning To Be Happy

Two weeks ago, I picked up two books from our local post office.  I had ordered them for an online course called “The Philosophy and Psychology of Happiness” offered by The Pursuit of Happiness Project.   When I told our postmistress about the course (because, it’s that kind of town, where we take the time to chat with each other), she exclaimed, “But you’re already happy!”

Well, I’ve been working on it for a while now, and I think it’s a fair assessment to say I’m a reasonably happy person.  But happiness is a process, not a destination.  I’m always learning how to stay on that path myself, as well as discovering new ways to help other people better understand and apply happiness tools.

For example, in this course, I finally grasped the distinction between Positive Psychology research and the Science of Happiness.  It’s not so hard — Positive Psychology, as its name makes clear, focuses on mental and emotional states.   It’s very internal.  Whereas the Science of Happiness includes much more physical aspects,  like the effects of certain foods and the need for sufficient sleep.  This distinction helped me appreciate that studying happiness is quite broad.

The two books I got that day further illustrated the breadth of happiness studies: from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl‘s seminal book, Man’s Search For Meaning, to Benjamin Hoff‘s light-hearted philosophical gem, The Tao of Pooh.   Seeing them side-by-side amused me.

The two books I needed for my online course in happiness.

The two books I needed for my online course in happiness.

This class also gave me the opportunity to reflect on one of the most vital components of human happiness: lifelong learning.  As one researcher put it, “We have big brains, and we want to use them.”

Not only was I clearly happier myself while immersed in this course, but I also got to study Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi work on “flow” — or, having an “optimal experience,” a time when we are so engrossed by our activities that we lose track of time.  This flow can happen while creating art or working out or many other experiences.  Learning provides great flow options, because flow can arise when the task at hand is somewhat challenging but ultimately doable.

After reading about flow, I got to experience it!  On the final day of class, we had to present happiness power points.  Because I have never done a power point before, this was a challenging assignment.   Of course it was doable, but it was enjoyable and meaningful.  I spent many more hours creating my power point than I had allotted — hours that I look back on fondly.  I was in the flow, and that is a happy space.

In fact, though it was a lot of work, I miss the whole class — both the learning itself and our community of students and teachers (connection is, of course, another critical happiness piece).  It was very special to spend the week in the online company of others who share my passion for happiness research.  This cohort contributed to my learning through some rich discussions, especially on the topic of optimism (which is so valuable but can also veer uncomfortably close to denial).

This wasn’t my first online happiness course.  Last year with my daughter in Alabama, both before and after her baby was born, I studied “Sustainable Happiness” on my laptop — often with an infant sleeping on my chest.  Here, too, I combined multiple happiness strategies — which is a good thing, because a third — sleep! — was in short supply.

Another independent study experience that gave me great joy was learning to speak Latin American Spanish through the recorded Pimsleur method.  The pleasure of learning was again enhanced by connection, as my husband joined me for most lessons.  We were highly motivated to learn, because our son at the time had a strong relationship with a woman in Venezuela and her two children, whom we visited twice.  I took pride in my achievements, deeply enjoyed the Spanish language, and had fun speaking Spanish with my husband.

Sadly, after the Venezuelan relationship broke up, we lost our motivation.  I still keep the CDs in the car with me, and keep thinking I’ll get around to studying some more … but it hasn’t happened.  Maybe I should make that one of my happiness strategies that I measure.  Devising accountability tricks (like stickers on a calendar) helps me stick with a new activity.

Here’s something else I’m intrigued by: the multitude of online courses that are many universities are offering at no cost.  I’ve read about this in the New York Times, and heard a great NPR piece on these courses last October when I was driving to meet Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis to join them for part their 600 mile Pursuit of Happiness Walk.  Right before I hooked up with them, they had met with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania — home to Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology.  Paula and Linda told me that those folks are considering offering some online courses through the free platforms.  Exciting!

Or should I say, “Que bien!”