Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Poetry’

Happiness: A Miracle? Or Scientifically Predictable?

Thanks to a passionate lesson in poetry from Anne Loecher, I now know the answer is — both.

Anne introduced her happiness poetry workshop by sharing the poem titled “Happiness“, by Jane Kenyon.  The poem begins:

“There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

Immediately I felt the need to interrupt.  “But Anne,” I said, “there is so accounting for happiness.  Scientists have researched happiness, and can say what leads to greater happiness, and what undermines it.  Happiness isn’t that mysterious.”

Balloon happiness

Fortunately, Anne was patient with me.  She gently but firmly suggested I try being a little less literal, that I listen for the magic, for the beauty, for the musicality, for the miraculous.  And, fortunately, I had the good sense to take a deep breath and try again.

The poem goes on:

“And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
       It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.”

Gorgeous.  Stunning.

Of course, I could say, equality in life circumstances is crucial to happiness.  That is, if you are a monk in a cell, and you have more or less the same amount of possessions and quality of life as those around you, you can settle into happiness — though a monk coveting the possessions of a handsome young wealthy neighbor would be less happy.  Or, I could suggest many specific reasons why that clerk is happy.  Or question the viability of genuine happiness for the pusher.  Etc.

Or …  I could and did decide to just sit with the beauty of the poem, savor the poet’s insight, and appreciate the ineffable and unknowable qualities of happiness.  For me, this revelation also opened my heart to the value of poetry itself, more open than I’ve been since my teens.  It was a transforming moment.

Our conversation about Jane Kenyon’s poem reminded me of a recent feed from the online service, The Daily Good, which explored the scientific underpinnings of Bobby McFarrin’s classic song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”  According to that article, McFarrin got the “why” just right.  And yet … perhaps the mere existence of that brilliant piece of art is nothing short of miraculous.

To be clear, given our messy and unhappy world, particularly the threats posed by climate change, I believe it is critically important to individually and collectively understand the scientific underpinnings of happiness much, much better than we do.  We need this understanding as a guide for making wiser choices than our GDP-obsessed culture currently presses on us.

And, thanks to poetry, I have been reminded of the wisdom in both approaches to happiness.  Yes, it is miraculous.  Yes, it can be scientifically understood, quantified, and predicted.   Just typing those two sentences makes me smile.  How cool to hold both concepts as valid!

Here’s something else that’s smile-inducing: a link to the Daily Good article analyzing “Don’t Worry Be Happy”  and, a video of Bobby McFarrin the song itself:  Together, they prove the point quite nicely!

The Happiness Poetry Project

In his brilliant book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, environmental activist and academic Paul Gilding writes that we are headed toward a “happiness economy.”

Of course, we won’t get there easily.  Systems and individuals alike are heavily, heavily invested in the growth economy and will not give up gently.  Gilding posits that economic and environmental disasters will inevitably force the change.  In his discussion of the transition “away from our current obsession with personal material wealth,” he states:

“We need to start thinking now about what this new economy is going to look and feel like.  I don’t harbor any delusions that we’re going to move to this in the next few years, but we are going to at some point, so the more we consider, debate, and experiment with the ideas involved, the better off we’ll be when the time comes.”  (p. 200)

In other words, as I see it, building the new happiness paradigm will take an enormous amount of creativity, from countless numbers of us, each in our own way.

Yesterday, two visionary members of the Vermont legislature — Representative Susi Wizowaty (D) and Senator Anthony Pollina (P) — introduced a series of forward-looking bills, including one to use a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) to guide budgetary policy decisions.  I think of GPI — which the state of Maryland already uses — as sort of a politically acceptable way to sell the Gross National Happiness concept to lawmakers.

So that’s one way.  Encouraging wide-ranging and collaborative thinking through the arts is another way — one more suited to me, that’s for sure.  The idea of zeroing in on poetry specifically came from discussions with my good friend and across-the-street neighbor Anne Loecher, who just received her M.F.A. in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts last week.  With her as a resource, launching a Happiness Poetry Project is a natural choice.   Through this project, we can more deeply and yet playfully explore what each of us thinks happiness looks like for individuals, the community, and Planet Earth.

Poet Anne Loecher, discussing ways to kick-off The Happiness Poetry Project

The project, which we will officially kick-off at The Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience in Maple Corner on January 21st from 11 AM to 3 PM, will give Anne a chance to share some of her knowledge.  She will give provide potential poets of all ages and skill levels with ideas, information about structuring poems, inspiration, and generally good vibes.  I’ll pass out my list of 18 happiness tips.  And, Anne is  adding extra happiness to the day by offering to bake chocolate chip cookies!

In 2011, David Budbill, an accomplished and popular poet from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, published Happy Life.  His poems are personal reflections, yet seem to fit well with a happiness economy paradigm that measures a life well lived according to one’s work, family, community, time in nature, and simple pleasures.

With the Happiness Poetry Project, we can all take a turn.  Haikus, sonnets, limericks — whatever suits your fancy.  You can be whimsical or exceedingly serious.  And you don’t need to live anywhere near Vermont, much less Maple Corner, to join this project.  Just email your contributions to:

I’m also going to try my hand at writing happiness poetry.  I wrote reams of poetry in high school, and again in my mid-20’s — until an acquaintance who taught poetry termed my work simplistic and one-dimensional.  The heck with that kind of thinking!  Now is the time to encourage creativity, not quash it.  I’ll be brave. How about you?

Contemplating happiness poetry will benefit us individually, also, by helping us focus on what we really care about.  In Living A Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of “a Native American tribal leader describing his own inner struggles.  He said, ‘There are two dogs inside me.  One of the dogs is mean and evil.  The other dog is good.  The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.’  Someone asked him which dog usually wins, and after a moment’s reflection, he answered, ‘The one I feed the most.'” (p.58-59)

To me, this story is all about where we put our energy, our thoughts, and our time.  Thus, even though I’m a cat owner, I have to say, let’s feed our happiness dogs with some good poetry thoughts.