Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Sonja Lyubomirsky’

The Christmas Blog I Don’t Have Time to Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Social Comparison: The Cause of So Much Unhappiness

(Warning: the post below does not necessarily show off the author’s finest qualities.  Even worse, I’m hoping you’ll see yourself in these behaviors, because awareness of the unhappiness caused by constantly comparing ourselves with others is the first step toward freeing ourselves from social comparison’s grip on our psyches [and wallets].  Furthermore, since social comparison is a root cause of much environmental devastation, loosening its grip is good medicine individually AND collectively.  But never fear.  If you make it to the close of this little essay, you’ll find some ideas for breaking free or at least harnessing social comparison for the better. )

Mary Jane's extra beans.

Mary Jane’s extra beans.

Last Sunday evening, my friend Mary Jane brought a bag of extra green beans from her garden to share with other attendees at our weekly meditation gathering.  I gratefully accepted half the bag (there was one other taker) as Mary Jane enthused about how well her vegetables are growing this summer.

My garden is NOT doing well.  We’ve never bothered with a fence, but after this year — as all the peas and various other vegetables get eaten by unknown wild animals — we’re starting to think that might be a good investment.  Even my blueberries, which thrived last year, had a lackluster summer.  Could it be because I was a lackluster weeder?

In fact, the blueberries are my only crop.  Unlike almost all my women friends here in Vermont, I am a sorry excuse for a gardener.  Comparing myself to them … I just have to keep my mouth shut and not let anyone know I’m really not in their league.   I hardly ever even come to the ballpark.  It’s embarrassing.

My husband Bob is the real gardener of the family.  Speaking of my husband, he and I have both been trying to lose weight.  It’s discouraging to compare my progress with his, as he is doing significantly better than I am.  I am losing weight, but at our weekly check-ins, I am only down a few ounces,  while he can gleefully exclaim that he’s at a record low for the past five years.

Of course, I can take comfort in knowing I’m still doing better than our friends, another couple, who are part of this challenge with us.

Ugh.  What am I doing with all this social comparison?  Making myself unhappy, of course.  Why can’t I enjoy my husband’s success without also berating myself for my less diligent path?  And why can’t I just admire Mary Jane’s gardening bounty, accept her offer graciously, and not feel “less than” because I’m not a good gardener? And how pitiful to try and elevate my own self-esteem by noting that I am doing better than my friends — they’re my friends, for heaven’s sake.

Garlic social comparison

Not only that, but some of Bob’s gardening is yielding wonderful results.  He is harvesting another year’s worth of garlic, and the potatoes are doing better than ever.  His garlic bulbs are so big and succulent … I found myself looking at yet another friend’s just-harvested garlic and thinking, “your bulbs aren’t as big as Bob’s!”

What???  Petty, ridiculous, mean-spirited.  Okay, I’m not perfect — or as my friend Diana used to put it, “your halo’s slipping a bit” — but I don’t like this in me.  It is downright unpleasant.

Sadly, I could trot out an endless array of this kind of whiny, self-centered comparison — especially after I’ve left the comfort zone of central Vermont and spent time in an urban environment.  Then the flood gates of social comparison burst open, up and down, left and right.  I’m worse than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  No, wait — I’m better than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  It’s a lose-lose mindset.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in The How of Happiness,” social comparison can be a pernicious destroyer of our happiness.  “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” she observes.  Nor can one be happy while disrespecting others.  While social comparison is inevitable and can serve a positive purpose — we can be inspired by others to do better ourselves — it is definitely a big problem for me.  I see it as the weakest link in my personal happiness chain.

Not only that, I believe social comparison is also at the core of many problems facing the planet as a whole.  Lord knows, advertisers play up social comparison to the hilt to get us to buy more stuff, which can have devastating impacts on our lives, the quality of lives of workers in far off countries, and the environment. I’ve shared this link before, and I’m sure I’ll share it again, but if you want a quick primer on how our hunger to “keep up with the Jones'” affects the world around us, check out Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”

Even without looking at the bigger picture, social comparison can fuel endless wanting.  From the Buddhist perspective, that’s synonymous with endless suffering.

Naturally, Bruce Springsteen captured the tug of social comparison in one of his songs.  In “Badlands,” he sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”  There you go — social comparison all the way around.   I used to compare my poor husband’s arms with the super-buff Bruce, but even while doing so, I knew it was totally unfair to compare my real life regular guy with a mega-celebrity.  Yet, how many people get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves with celebrities — favorably or unfavorably?  I suspect it’s a major cause of unhappiness.

Even in the virtual world, social comparison can be a real downer: last year, a University of Michigan study found that Facebook makes users sadder.  According to an NPR report, research co-author John Jonides, a cognitive neuroscientist, noted:  “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

Happily — really, literally, happily — we can loosen the grip of social comparison.  A few suggestions follow.

First of all, turn it around — I/we can look at ways that we’d like to improve and see if there are others who inspire us.  For example, I wonder about all the ways I can help stave off (or at least ameliorate) climate change.  I know we need big systemic change to do this effectively — and, at the same time, I know that there are many, many small steps each of us can take.  To find out what others are doing,  two days ago I started a new Facebook group called, “Saving the Planet One Small Step at a Time.”  Already, I can compare myself to those who are using very fundamental cleaning supplies (plain baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of store bought shampoo) and with a friend of friend whose blog, “The Non-Consumer Advocate,” focuses on ways we can all end our soul and planet destroying wasteful consuming ways.

I want to compare myself with these folks — they help me aspire to do better.

Even here, though, the comparison needs to be thoughtful.  Recently, when a post showed up on Facebook about a recent study showing that Vermonters spend less time grooming themselves than residents of any other state, I was quite pleased at this distinction.  So were many of my Vermont friends.  One could argue that this shows a heightened connection with nature and an awareness of the chemicals in cosmetics, etc.   Or … could it just be unhealthy Vermont exceptionalism?  I’m not sure.

Sometimes, I strive to be the one others look up to.  When I’m teaching meditation classes, I try to lead by example (ie, meditating every day).  When I mediate, I work at being the calm eye in the midst of a raging conflict storm.  Like most mediators, I try to model productive conflict strategies.

Here, too, it is important to be self-aware.  We are all on journeys.  I myself have a lot to learn about meditation.  And I also can get caught up in personally challenging conflicts.  Even while modeling, I need to remain humble, which is not easy.

Second, we can reframe how we view our own situations.  For example, I have a lot of social comparison issues with my house.  All too often I look at others’ homes and think, I wish I had your house, not mine.  Yet my house has many wonderful aspects.  As a former barn, it is unique, special, interesting, artsy, roomy, and comfortable.  My house is situated in the heart of a thriving, supportive community and across the street from a beautiful Vermont lake.  It is not perfect.  Neither am I.  Lately, when I catch myself obsessing about my house’s shortcomings, I try to reframe my thinking to focus on all its plusses instead.

Third, if you catch yourself thinking that your house — or whatever else — is better than, that is a fine time to practice gratitude.  Feeling grateful for is much more positive than feeling superior to.

Fourth, I’ll turn back to Annie Leonard and her more recent offering, “The Story of Solutions.”  On a personal level, on a systems level, can we turn away from “more” and focus on “better” instead?  Better choices, that is — not “better than.”  This simple formula for re-defining our goals is particularly powerful in curbing materialistic social comparison cravings.

Fifth, try making your own “Positivity Portfolio.”  I learned about this technique in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  Instructor Tal Ben-Shahar introduced us to this happiness tool, first developed by James Pawelski at the University of Pennsylvania.  The idea is to focus on a way in which you would like to change for the better, and then assemble a package of pictures, quotes, music, etc. — whatever stirs your heart and inspires you in this area.  I did a power point Positivity Portfolio on the theme of abundance, to counteract my social comparison tendencies.

At first the project was awesome!  I was so excited listing the abundance in my life, and finding photos to illustrate the list.  But then, the list got too big and the project dragged on and on.  It took me days to build my portfolio. I just have too much!  I mean that in a good way.  Clearly, life is incredibly abundant.  It was an excellent project.

Fifth, perhaps most importantly: meditate.  In order to loosen the grip of social comparison in our lives, we have to first develop an awareness of its existence within.  I can think of no better tool to heighten self-awareness than a regular meditation practice.  Meditation can also help us become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, instead of “less than” or “better than.”

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

In any case, despite what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I think I am improving my ability to recognize social comparison creeping into my thinking.  When I recognize it, I am more likely to lean into my own abundance, and let go of envy.

For example, a few weeks back, during a Bone Builders class, I glanced at the shoes of the woman next to me.  This woman is also a friend, a lovely person who happens to have a lot more money than I have.  She had spiffy new shoes.  Not over the top, but very stylish.  Then I looked back at my own shoes, which are old, with a lot of mileage and one noticeable dot of teal paint on them.  It was a ripe moment for social comparison.  Instead, rather than covet my friend’s shoes — or even worse, resent her affluence — I found the whole situation humorous.  Kind of sweet, even.  My own shoes are just fine.  They do the job.  I like the paint spot.  I do not need to buy new shoes.  All is well.

One final thought: abundance comes in many guises.  True, it has not been a good year for my blueberries.  But there were enough berries this summer to go outside with my two year-old granddaughter almost every day and pick blueberries together.  This was a special activity for just the two of us, and it is a memory I can savor forever.  That, my friends, is abundance.

 

 

 

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!).

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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* Developing coping strategies for challenging times is another of Lyubomirsky’s recommended happiness activities.

It’s Vacation Time! Is Everybody Happy?

This Memorial Day weekend it was snowing at my home in Vermont, but now that the sun is out — and we’re supposed to get 80-degree temperatures in a few more days — perhaps we can relax and believe that summer is finally here.  For many of us, in addition to pulling endless weeds, summer means vacation!  Will those vacations make us happy?

According to research, yes.  A February 2010  New York Times article  reported on findings from the Netherlands that vacations do in fact make us happier, if nothing goes wrong, like an illness or a fight with your spouse.  The Dutch researchers found that the biggest happiness hit comes from anticipation.  We can also savor the joy of vacations in the present moment.  Not only that — Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in The How of Happiness that we can savor these experiences in retrospect, especially with the aid of photographs.

A very happy evening with a simple but savory meal on the beach.

A very happy evening with a simple but savory meal on the beach.

Okay, that’s the research, that’s the theory.  But how does it work in “real” life?  This has been on my mind because a month ago, when I was returning from a blissful week long stay at the beach, I was not happy.  Rather, I was close to tears — and a little bit angry, too.

The anger — or maybe it was resentment — was toward those (temporarily?) fortunate souls who were just arriving on the island and toward those with the financial resources to afford second homes and lots of time in this heavenly spot.  I felt like living proof that our country’s extreme income inequality breeds unhappiness.

I also felt spoiled, petty, and not very highly evolved for even thinking in these terms.  First of all, the trip was an amazing Christmas present to me from my very loving husband, and throughout the week, I was filled with gratitude for him.  But the desire to stay longer overwhelmed me with sadness.  Ah, desire — the cause of so much suffering!

Further, I know that comparing ourselves with others is insidious and a sure fire recipe for unhappiness.  Yet there I was, comparing away, and finding myself very much wanting … Never mind that I was still in a warm, sunny, carefree place while most of my friends were stuck in climates where winter just wouldn’t let up.  Or, the much broader comparison with all the pockets of desperate unhappiness in the world.  I was looking at those with more money and more time than me, and that comparison was anything but cheer inducing.

I’m pleased to report, I’ve got my happiness equilibrium back and can look at photos and videos of the trip and feel joy.  I still long to return, but that longing functions more as an inspiration for me to take the steps I need to take to make that happen.  It’s now a goal, and goals can increase our happiness.  Can increase our happiness, or not — depending on the goal!

A month out from my sad state of desire and social comparison, I’ve landed on three thoughts: first, happiness is a process; second, the ground rules can seem murky sometimes; and third, never underestimate the value of a mindfulness practice.

A Lifelong Process: In my happiness workshops, I like to quote writer Margaret Lee Runbeck, who said, “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.”  I also like to compare cultivating one’s own happiness with maintaining flexibility through a regular yoga practice.  It’s not something we can do once or twice and declare victory.  We have to stick with it to maintain our happiness muscle tone.

So maybe my vacation deprivation was a little teeny tiny example of income inequality — and maybe, much more so, I was a loud example of the need to maintain one’s happiness practices.  After all, I read about this field all the time, and I try to heed the wisdom of the great science of happiness thinkers.  Throughout the week, I consciously savored the experience, expressed gratitude, exercised, and even went to yoga class twice.

It wasn’t enough to carry me through the departure.  Guess I’ve still got work — a lot of work!! — to do on my happiness journey.

The murkiness of happiness practices: Driving home, I mulled over the complexity of happiness strategies.  For example, savoring.  Really, it was a sweet, sweet week — perfect weather, and we saw many wild animals in their own habitat (including a snake that liked our patio, and two manatees in a nearby canal) — with much to savor.  But, did that make it harder to let go?

Then there’s social comparison — obviously, a source of distress for me.   Yet, comparison with others can serve as a spur, providing us with the role models we need to follow.  For example, there was a lot of time for people watching on the beach, and I saw many fit bodies of all ages — an inspiration to me to be more physically active and stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can.  Envy may be destructive, but looking at a woman older than me in great shape, and thinking, “Wow, good for her!  Maybe I can do better, too!” seems very positive and an excellent motivation for long-term happiness.

Mindfulness: I’m beginning to think all roads lead to mindfulness.  It seems like any happiness question or strategy you examine includes a crucial element of awareness.  In this case, thankfully, I was aware and self-reflective.  While I felt bad for myself, I knew that was a) petty and b) temporary.

Mindfulness helps us make better choices.  I say that I now have a goal of getting back to this gorgeous island, but at what cost?  Do I focus on making money for a vacation rather than follow my true calling?  Do I choose a tropical vacation trip over a visit with my granddaughter?  Meditating helps me find the answers to these and an infinite number of other questions, big and small.

I also know that so much unhappiness can come from wanting.  Wanting, wanting, wanting.  And yes, that wanting can sometimes serve us, but more frequently it leads to unnecessary suffering.  A meditation practice is so crucial to building and maintaining an awareness of what really matters in life.

Meditation also strengthens our capacity for compassion.  In my sadness at leaving behind a week of joy, perhaps I could have had compassion for myself; compassion for those who get to spend more time on the island but undoubtedly have their own suffering; compassion for those just arriving for their week’s vacation and who might be as sad as me the following Saturday; compassion for my friends enduring a snowy April; etc. That’s a very big etc., and I’m sure you can fill in the many, many blanks.

The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

I often practice a loving kindness (aka, compassion) meditation, but I did not meditate on this vacation.  I’m sure it’s natural to feel a sense of loss when vacation ends — the high of a good vacation is by its nature fleeting.  Still, I wonder if meditating while on vacation would have made departing an easier pill to swallow.  Hmmmmm … maybe I’ll give it a try next time.

Savoring Happiness

It pleases me no end that savoring — just taking the time to smell the roses and truly enjoy life’s pleasures — is a scientifically proven strategy for raising our personal happiness levels.  How cool is that?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Science? Really? What science?”  Fair enough.  I have zero scientific expertise.  Instead, let me offer up the Mayo Clinic.

In an article entitled, “How To Be Happy: Tips For Cultivating Contentment,” the Clinic cautions that being happy takes “practice, practice, practice.”  They offer multiple options for “choices, thoughts and actions” to get happier, including savoring:

“Don’t postpone joy waiting for a day when your life is less busy or less stressful. That day may never come.  Instead, look for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of everyday life. Focus on the positives in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.”

Since becoming mindful of savoring, I’ve noticed that it is almost always an option, regardless of immediate circumstances and surroundings.  This makes it a particularly helpful tool.  In crabby-making situations, if I remember to look around and drink in whatever beauty or joy is at hand, I can get an immediate happiness  boost.  As I write, I can pause to more deeply appreciate the Ravi Shankar music playing on Pandora or to breathe in the aroma from a pine scented candle just to my right.  No big deal — it just takes intention and attention.

Of course, what and how you savor will likely be quite different from my choices.  My scented candle would give some of my friends a headache.  To me, that’s part of the attraction of happiness-building activities — they are based on science, but you can choose strategies that most appeal to you and apply them in your own unique way.

Another lovely aspect of savoring is that it need not be restricted to the present; you can also relish past memories and anticipate future pleasures.  Thus, as Sonya Lyubomirsky observes, “when you master this strategy, you ‘will always have Paris.'”

Lyubomirsky lists savoring as “Happiness Activity No. 9”  (out of 12) in The How of Happiness which I listened to last March while driving from Vermont to Alabama for the birth of my granddaughter.  I think I’ll always remember how much I was able to savor the beauty of a perfectly ordinary rest stop in Virgina that day.  The clouds and the wildflowers were so normal, and so sublime.  Drinking in the beauty that surrounded me filled me with gratitude.

Our little Christmas baby.

Our little Christmas baby.

Since Madeleine was born and moved in with us, I have had countless opportunities for savoring.  However, when I interviewed environmental activist Kathryn Blume for an article in Vermont Woman, she suggested I might also observe how the baby herself provides a case study for human happiness.

For example, one day I headed up the stairs to her room.  Knowing how pleased she would be to see grandma, I made lots of noises to give her plenty of time to anticipate my arrival.  When she finally saw me, she squealed and jumped with pleasure.  It was quite amusing!  I come in her room to greet her almost every day, but building in the anticipatory savoring made the experience so much sweeter for her, and me.

She has no problem savoring the ordinary.  Ordinary, extraordinary — it’s all the same to her.  One of her favorite toys right now is an old jewelry box.  It’s just decorated cardboard, but really — how charming is the silky lining, how solid it feels in the hand, and what an ingenious opening mechanism!  Madeleine reminds me daily that savoring opportunities abound.

Now that the holiday decorations are up, we have a special set of objects and experiences to savor.  Through Madeleine’s eyes I have learned that the snow in the Santa Snow Globe is actually teal, that the Santa wine bottle cover has bells that ring (and a beard that can be pulled off), and that the little blue ceramic Santa has a bell that can almost always coax a baby smile.  I’ve always loved Christmas lights, but I don’t know how much I actually savored them.  Now, following Madeleine’s lead, I take the time to hold her as we both gaze and savor the amazing reality of colored lights.  Wow!  How glorious!

And of course, I keep savoring her, storing up these precious memories — so I’ll “always have Paris.”

A Serendipitous Note

Gratitude is another one of my favorite happiness tools, and this morning I was reminded of a person to whom I owe much gratitude:  Dr. Lynn Johnson, who introduced me to the importance of savoring.  In November 2010, I took a daylong seminar from him (“Happiness: How Positive Psychology Changes Our Lives”) and later read his book, Enjoy Life.  Today I received a link to his own blog also on savoring.  Naturally, Dr. Johnson’s take is very different from mine (warning: it may make you hungry).  Between his words and mine, perhaps you’ll have a whole new approach toward smelling roses, literally and metaphorically.

There’s Room For Everyone In The*Happiness*Movement

Imagine my surprise, while attending a national Happiness Conference in Seattle, to find the soundtrack in my head was from “Pete’s Dragon,” a 1977 Walt Disney movie.  The particular song looping repeatedly through my brain was “There’s Room For Everyone,” which asserts:

“There’s room for everyone in this world
Back up and make some room
Let’s all move over and share this world
Everyone make some room

Just think how far out the ocean goes, the whirling wind blows
Shore to shore, door to door.
Think of the valleys, the mountaintops, the Earth never stops.
So deep so high, with miles of sky, we all have part of the pie.”

Flowers with a friend at Pike Place market in Seattle.

In the film, the pie was about sharing small town life with — you guessed it — a loveable but lonely dragon.  In Seattle, at the conference sponsored by the Happiness Initiative last weekend, the “pie” was a great deal bigger: the happiness movement itself.  Indeed, “big” scarcely scratches the surface of describing our efforts to shift the dominant cultural paradigm away from the environment-destroying GDP definition of success and toward a life-enhancing Gross National Happiness metric instead.  There’s definitely room for everyone in this movement!

And just what will everyone do?  Heeding the wisdom of Martin Seligman, I suggest we each tap into our personal strengths and do whatever it is we each do best.  The diversity of speakers at the conference’s plenary session — from renowned ecological economist Robert Costanza to representatives from the Compassionate Action Network and the hardworking staff of the Happiness Initiative — collectively demonstrated that there are probably an infinite number of doorways into this work.  Why not pick the path that plays to our strengths?

Of course, the speakers and presenters were only a fraction of the amazing people and energy gathered together at Seattle University.  Here are a few others I met:

  • Pete, a very smiley Bangkok student now planning to lead a Happiness Initiative at the University of Michigan;
  • Mike, a media expert on hand to discuss socially responsible ways to market the happiness movement;
  • Maureen from Missouri, a new grandmother and determined activist for the “Take Back Your Time” cause;
  • Barb, a colorful individual who leads “Spirals of Joy” workshops in Eugene, Oregon; and
  • Justin, a young Japanese-American musician specializing in Brazilian music in New York City. Justin is new to the movement, and looking for his particular doorway to participation.

So which doorway should Justin, or any of the rest of us, take?  Though it isn’t necessarily easy to know what we’re best at and where we fit in,  I think it’s worth the soul searching it may take to find the answer(s).  Those of us in the happiness movement should walk the talk as best we can.  In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky stresses the need to find the best individual fit for happiness increasing activities.  Similarly, we should find the best fit for our individual roles within the happiness movement.

The next question is, how?  Once again, happiness research offers the answer: mindfulness.  “To lead a happy life, we need to make good decisions,” write father and son happiness researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  “Making good choices in life depends on recognizing not just rewards but the likely problems in choices as well.”  Mindfulness helps us cultivate the wisdom and awareness to make appropriate choices.

The Dieners remind us that happiness is a process, not a destination.  Certainly, it has been a process to find my own niche within the happiness movement.  I was fortunate to be in the right place and time to serve as one of the founders and co-coordinators of GNHUSA, yet eventually felt the tug to step away from that group to follow my own creative passions.  My process ultimately led to birthing the Happiness Paradigm, which continues to evolve through choices that feel are in closer alignment with my talents and passions.

Now, with greater mindfulness, I’ve returned to work with GNHUSA again on various projects — including, in October, joining  fellow co-founders Linda Wheatley and Paula Francis for a few days on their “Pursuit of Happiness Walk”from Stowe, Vermont to Washington, D.C.   Sometimes the journey is both literal and metaphorical!

The benefit of finding and sharing our strengths was very clear on day two of the Seattle conference, when Scott Crabtree, Steve Poland, and I had the honor of co-presenting a workshop on personal happiness.  Scott — a young, polished, and engaging businessman — went first, with a high energy, professional presentation.  Next up was Steve, a deeply thoughtful psychologist and academic who brought a teacher’s care and concern to the group.  Finally, I shared my artistic (perhaps quirky?) individualized approach to spreading personal happiness.  This combination seemed to be well received by the 30 or so people in attendance.

Throughout the conference, there were many references to, and practices of, gratitude.  Indeed, those of us who are already activists in the movement are very blessed to cultivate a deep internal happiness while giving our best in service of greater well being worldwide.   We have much to be grateful for. Those of you not yet actively on board, please know that you — the real you, the authentic you — are welcome to join us in this work.  We’ll be grateful to receive your gifts.