The teachings of two of my favorite happiness teachers — the Dalai Lama and Tal Ben-Shahar — recently merged in Miami, Florida. The Dalai Lama’s unforgettable wisdom came from a book I can no longer remember: in our every interaction, we can increase either the happiness or the unhappiness of the other person, or people. On the other hand, I know exactly where Tal Ben-Shahar’s teaching came from: Module 10 in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I took in 2015-2016, and again in his keynote speech in Miami last month. Tal taught us that, in every moment, we can choose to increase or decrease our own happiness as well.
Tal’s keynote rocked the house at the first World Happiness Summit (WoHaSu), the reason I was in Miami. Along with my GNHUSA friends and colleagues, I spent an amazing four WoHaSu days learning, connecting, and celebrating. This left me even more highly attuned than usual to positive thinking and acting; naturally, I ended up having memorable experiences outside WoHaSu as well, in interactions where at least one of us chose happiness. Here are four of those stories.
Story #1: The Generous Cabdriver. It was my first morning in the city, and I was nervous about getting from my airport motel to the downtown venue. I had hoped for a shuttle, but no such luck; the motel clerk directed me to a waiting cab. The driver seemed nice enough, it was warm and sunny, and I was headed for what I expected would be an awesome day, so I soon lightened up and started chatting about the happiness summit. He asked thoughtful, complex questions and shared his own life perspective. It was a great discussion. At some point, I mentioned that I was stressed about money and keeping an anxious eye on the rapidly rising meter tab — but, I was still choosing to be happy and enjoy the beautiful day. I only shared the meter story to give my happiness decision some context, to stress that choosing happiness is never about seeking perfection in life. I wasn’t complaining.
When we arrived at my destination, the meter read $27.50. I dug $35 out of my wallet, but the cabdriver insisted, $20 only. Only.
I think it was his way of saying thank you for the happiness conversation. Whatever prompted his unexpected generosity, it was a gift that filled me with joy. We both made the happiness choice that morning, from both the Dalai Lama’s and Tal Ben-Shahar’s perspectives. The memory still makes me smile.
Story#2: Paula at the Cafe. Sunday morning, the last day of WoHaSu, it was my friend and chief Happiness Walker Paula Francis who deliberately chose happiness. We were paying for coffee at an unexpectedly wonderful cafe (unexpected, because it was housed in a gas station) when Paula asked the clerk, “Has anything really great happened for you today?” He rose to the bait brilliantly, throwing his hands up in the air, and gushing, “I’m alive! It’s a beautiful day! I can see!” We all smiled and laughed with delight.
Paula’s choice to create a happiness boost for the clerk filled each of us with contagious positivity — which turned out to be very helpful when she and I boarded a city bus just a few minutes later.
Story#3: A Crowded and Grumpy Bus Ride. Since I would later be leaving WoHaSu for the airport, I had both my suitcase and my cup of coffee with me when I sank into the bus seat. The woman next to me did not like either of these items.
“Don’t let that touch me,” she said unpleasantly, pointing to the suitcase. “I have to go to work. Don’t get me dirty.” After I assured her that I was holding the suitcase tightly between my knees, she pointed at the coffee. “You’re not allowed to have that here. Didn’t you see the sign? No food. No drink.” Though her tone was decidedly hostile, she had a point. The coffee cup appeared to be against the rules. I apologized, explained that I didn’t know it was forbidden, and I wouldn’t do it next time. She glared back at me. “You’re American,” she practically hissed. “You should know!”
Okay. So there we were. Seat mates for another 10 or 15 minutes. I could let her get to me, and bark back with some witty insult I’d regret later. I could ignore her, which would still be uncomfortable — not only for me, and maybe her, but also the others immediately surrounding us. The negative energy of this encounter was infecting them, too.
Or, I could choose happiness. Really, after Paula’s beautiful example and my own overflowing happiness cup, how could I choose otherwise? So, I turned on my mediator training/active listening skills. “You’re not American?” I asked her. “Where are you from?” Rome, she answered. “Oh, Italy! How wonderful!” I talked about my favorite Italian writer, Piero Ferrucci, and the melodious quality of Ferrucci’s language in his kindness book. Ah, yes, she agreed — it is a beautiful language. I found out that she was going to work in her church. That her mother was only half Italian, having grown up in Philadelphia. Philadelphia — where my daughter lived for many years, so we had something in common. We chatted about that coincidence.
Rather quickly, my seatmate’s iciness thawed even though she remained worried I’d spill my coffee on her. I have to say, those who know me know that’s a legitimate worry! I definitely did not want to spill the coffee on her white skirt; I was being extra careful with how I held my cup. Then my neighbor seemed to absolve me of all wrong doing. Pointing at the cup, she said, “It’s not your fault. The bus driver should have told you when you got on.”
All was well. Thanks to my conscious decision to at least attempt to increase everyone’s happiness, Paula and I got off the bus smiling as our new Roman friend wished us a good day. She was smiling, too.
Story#4: Happiness at the Airport.
When I left for the airport (in my first Uber ride ever, thanks to the very kind Brian Kaminer, the third member of our GNHUSA WoHaSu team), I was wearing a brand new t-shirt purchased from the Live Happy WoHaSu team. The two teams had just enjoyed lunch together, and now I was on my way home sporting a shirt that says happiness in 13 languages. I was leaving sun, warm temperatures, and an amazing summit — but I was headed for a loving home and community, with a head full of new ideas for spreading the GNHUSA message.
Once again, my spirits were high as I approached the ticket counter.
This time, maybe it was the shirt that chose happiness. It certainly inspired the agent on the other side of the counter. He told me that he loved the shirt, because he recognized the Arabic writing, and was pleased to see such an inclusive message. Well, one thing led to another, and soon we were hugging — not an easy thing to do when there’s an airline counter in the way! Then I headed merrily for security.
Four perfectly normal and simultaneously extraordinary interactions — all turned into wonderful memories, thanks to the super power we all possess: the ability to choose happiness, for ourselves and all we meet. You don’t even need a cape.