Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Vermont’

What Are You Grateful For?

Gratitude.  Aaaahhhhh.  I just love moments of gratitude.  How fortuitous, then, that practicing gratitude is a scientifically proven method of deepening one’s own well of happiness.

Many years ago, long before I’d even heard of positive psychology, I had a gratitude practice: noting in a daily journal what I was thankful for.  But I confess, I only journalled for a few days, which couldn’t possibly have done me much good.  In The How of  Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirksy stresses the importance of choosing happiness activities that will keep you engaged for a significant period of time in order to actually make a difference.  Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author,explains the brain science involved in an article called “How To Trick Your Brain For Happiness.”  Here’s an excerpt from that article, recently shared through The Daily Good web feed:

“Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.”

Happily, while listening to Lyubomirsky’s book during my long drive from Vermont to Alabama last spring, I had an “aha moment” — rather than write about happiness, I would pull out my watercolors and create a weekly gratitude painting.  Perfect!

Okay, so the weekly painting turned into a monthly painting and I skipped April altogether (hmmm, could that have something to do with helping my daughter care for a newborn???) — but I stuck to it.  It’s working.  I have weeks to contemplate the subject of my next painting; thus, gratitude is frequently on my mind.

My first gratitude painting. I am often surprised by the subject matter that comes to the top of the list when I sit down to paint.

So my mental pump was primed when I stumbled on Ken Wert’s “Meant To Be Happy”  blog list of 48 unconventional things for which he is grateful.   His list  ranges from toilet paper (this makes me smile) to gears (yeah, okay, I can see that) to color (yes, yes, my heart is singing!) to hugs and voice (deep sighs of appreciation).  It’s a pretty darned good list.

Wert’s list, and the many expressions of gratitude I heard at the Happiness Conference in Seattle, made me wonder: what are other people grateful for?

To find out, I put out a few group emails, and changed the question on the blackboard in front of The Happiness Paradigm to, “What Are You Grateful For?”   Naturally, the blackboard collected shorter answers: “Obama,”  “Fall in Vermont,” and “blankets.” The written answers, on the other hand, are wonderfully thoughtful — perhaps precisely because writing takes more thought, and perhaps because almost everyone who responded is involved in some way with the happiness movement.

Their responses are below.  Before you read them, though, I’d like to ask, what are YOU — the person reading this, right now — grateful for?  This collection is neither scientific nor comprehensive, but the more answers the better, because this is good food for thought for all of us.  So please feel free to post a comment or send an email with your own answer to this question.

Now, in no particular order, here are some gratitude answers thus far:

  • Grateful for the fact that I’m alive and well each day. And grateful for the opportunity to work on this (happiness) movement 🙂
  • I am grateful for my Mom who taught me I can do anything!
  • Immense gratitude to all who call forth the most thriving possibilities for humanity and the fullness of life. The call to happiness and compassion has deep roots even beyond the measurable and our time together was soul food.
  • Grateful for all the help from near and far in taking care of a new baby — babysitting, onesies, toys, students taking care of the baby, support from family, etc.  Can barely name it all!
  • I am thankful for old clothes that seem to melt into my body this cold September morning, one that marks the beginning of Fall, a season I love best in New Mexico. And I am grateful for the happiness class I began teaching last week on the anniversary of September 11th. I am grateful that in spite of such darkness in the world we can gather in places like Albuquerque, Seattle, and Maple Corner,Vermont to promote happiness.
  • I am grateful for: 1)  My spiritual teacher Sant Kirpal Singh, and my meditation practice.  2)  Fran Joseph’s uplifting Laughter Yoga Certified Leader training last weekend–and Laughter Yoga itself.  3)  My kindred-spirit office mates.
  • Sleep — it’s like a miracle every night.
  • Shooting stars, and being able to see the Milky Way.
  • I am grateful to have such a good friend in YOU!
  • I am grateful that the conditions of my life allow me to participate in the arena of enhancing happiness, compassion, community, and  creativity; I am grateful that I am surrounded my many whose lives are about lifting the spirit of those that they touch; I am grateful that I live in a place where I have access to nature, culture, and really good food; I am grateful that there are so many people in my life that I love and appreciate; and I am grateful for the authors and film makers that create or capture stories that are captivating and meaningful.

    My gratitude painting for May — grateful for yoga!

  • While eating corn on the cob last night I realized how grateful I am for my teeth…many of which are implants.
  • I’m grateful to be reminded how happiness and gratitude go hand in hand ….  And that you keep me on your email & Facebook lists. I’m really appreciative of the work I have, even when it keeps me fairly close to home.
  • Ginny, I’m grateful for your regular messages on happiness and your ongoing curiosity about what creates it; I am so grateful to be here in Vermont where people still work at “creating a more perfect union,” as Bill Clinton reminded us yesterday was a goal of our nation’s founders. I am also very grateful for an amazing partner with a heart bigger than problems we’ve faced together. Together! I’m grateful for that word.
  • Silence, even though I love music.
  • Antibiotics that kill Lyme disease.
  • Right now I am feeling grateful for the people that have a passion and act — you in your store and how you reach out with your great loving positive energy, Linda and Paula and their big walk and listening hearts, and just a ton of people I read about and listen to that open their eyes to understand, then open their hearts for generous selfless action.
  • I always come back to gratitude for the most basic things.  I am again and again overwhelmed with gratitude for my senses – –  For being able to see (beauty of all kinds) and smell (roses, lavender, verbena, pine, chocolate) and hear (music, rain) and feel and taste.   I am also frequently grateful for having a soft clean bed to sleep in, a roof over my head and a safe, warm and dry place to call my own, and a fridge full of wholesome food whenever I open the door.  So many others are not this lucky.

    In June, gratitude for the trees my neighbor planted.

  • To all this wonderful gratitude others have expressed, I will add something to just reflect that gratitude can be for big deep things, but it can also be for little things:  today I’m grateful for pure maple syrup!
  • Today I’m grateful for this space in time:  a few hours to listen to my inner messages, to detach from the pull of outer events, & to process emotions.  So, really, I’m grateful to my Self for choosing to give me this gift in spite of all the pressing “shoulds.”
  • Our own little savings and loan down the street that only makes local loans.
  • Skype.
  • I am truly grateful to be able to be doing this work. Part of it is because of the wonderful people. Part because of the learning experiences. But mostly, because we are so very lucky to have the opportunity to do this work. It’s a grace not many people on this planet get.
  • I just got back from a short meditation retreat in Canada.  While there I got the news that two different old friends had died in last few days, greatly heightening my appreciation and grateful was for my Buddhist practice.  The outlook is so precious in preparing for decline and death, which we all must do; to have a path of joy in such reality is a great gif
  • I’m grateful that my husband thought to take my RAV4 to our neighbor when I drove it ’til there were no more brake pads, and he was able to earn some extra cash, and I was able to avert driving into a ditch.  I’m grateful that we have a generator as we just lost all power with this rain storm.  I’m grateful that I’ve been sober 11+ years, and I’m able to be of service to women who struggle with alchoholism.  I’m grateful to have a Mother-In-Law who is full of joy and laughter.
  •  I am grateful for so much, including my life and that of all beings (may all be at peace).   I am grateful for  connection, blessings, challenges and the opportunity to grow and share.

And me?  So many many things, from that first cup of coffee each morning to the glory of puffy white clouds in azure autumn skies and opportunities to be of service to others.  But, right now, having a six month old granddaughter (who lives with us!) trumps all else.  I am in love, I am happy, and I am grateful for this precious new life.

The Urgency Of Sharing Happiness

In early July, I spent hours and hours painting 170 glittery hearts on small rocks I pick up while walking on Vermont’s dirt roads.

170 heart stones ready to hand out at the parade

I normally give heart stones to people who come to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience as a tangible reminder of how important generosity is to happiness.  This batch of stones was specifically painted to hand out to spectators at Montpelier‘s Fourth of July parade.  A group of friends and family joined me in a Happiness Paradigm contingent, including my husband Bob playing happy songs on the ukulele with a miscellaneous group of back-up singers.

Two children — 3 year-old Edwin and 5 year-old Avery — were the primary stone givers.  Edwin was low key in his baseball cap, but Avery was sporting an amazing face painting, a cape, a wizard hat, and bells strapped to her shoes so she made music when she ran — which she did, quite earnestly, to put the stones in welcoming hands.  Anyone fortunate enough to get a stone from either child had to have experienced a surge of happiness.

Edwin and Avery, getting ready for the parade to start.

It was a delightful and lighthearted experience — and, very, very serious.

Working in the happiness field has a multitude of rewards, but what truly motivates me is my concern for the environment — more precisely, climate change.  I am a strong believer in the urgent to need to shift our personal and societal definitions of success toward genuine well being and away from money and material goods.  The latter not only fails to take happiness into consideration but also feeds our runaway consumerism.  This, among other evils, trashes the environment to such an extent that our very survival as a species is in peril. Whereas, following the happiness path is a map toward a compassionate and sustainable future.

You may think this is hyperbole, but I don’t mean it as such.  Many brilliant, sober, knowledgeable individuals have connected the dots between our obsession with a growth economy and the destruction of the earth, our home.  For just one quick example, check out Annie Leonard and “The Story of Stuff.”  It is no accident that everything for sale at The Happiness Paradigm is re-cycled or re-purposed.

But back to the parade … our weather that evening was heavenly, an absolutely perfect summer blessing.  The same could not be said for Washington, D.C. where we lived for several decades before moving to Vermont.

The weather there was dreadful.  The unprecedented derecho that clobbered D.C. residents — along with millions of others from Chicago through West Virginia and out to the Atlantic Ocean — was enormously destructive.  At least 22 people died, and nearly 4 million customers were without electricity for nearly a week — a period of “unrelenting, stifling heat,” according to an AccuWeather.com report.

That means, many millions of folks were truly suffering.

I knew heat when I lived in D.C.  One summer weekend, when our kids were away at summer camp in Vermont, the temperature crept into the low 100’s.  My husband and I got cold salads from the grocery store and camped out in our bedroom, where we had a window air conditioning unit.  It was just too hot to be anywhere else in the house.  We did go to a movie that night, and I remember standing in line outside the theater in the early evening when it was still hot and humid enough for sweat to roll down my back.

One weekend of that in the 1980’s was kinda fun.  It’s not fun anymore — especially when you factor in the fires, floods, tornadoes, and a drought being compared to the dust bowl, all in our country in the last year.  Scary.

And scarier: read Bill McKibben’s new article in Rolling Stone magazine: “Global Warming’s Terrifying Math.”  McKibben, who strikes me as more of a straight-shooter than a fear monger, says he is almost without hope that future humans will be able to survive on this planet.

It just doesn’t get any bleaker.

Fortunately for me, I’ve also been reading Barbara Frederickson’s seminal book, Positivity.   Frederickson’s words are helping me keep my own spirits buoyed, which is absolutely a good thing.  Her years of research have proven that negativity shrinks our ability to see options.  Positivity demonstrably leads to greater resilience and increased creativity in problem solving.

Frederickson calls this broadening, and I saw this principle at work yesterday after a session of laughter yoga at the Happiness Paradigm.  We were discussing why happiness matters in light of climate change, and one participant observed that when we’re happier, we have much broader vision and greater appreciation for the beauty of the natural world around us.  Thus, we will be much more motivated to take better care of the environment.

Another giant in the positive psychology field, Martin Seligman, stresses that working from strengths makes us individually happier — and his website has a free test anyone can take to learn more about what our personal strengths are.  It also seems extraordinarily practical to know how to make our best contributions to tackle the challenges ahead.

Happier people are also more optimistic, a precious trait in tough times.  As Seligman, puts it:

“Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life.  With a firm belief in a positive future, you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.”

There is an awful lot right now that is larger than we are, tribulations that will severely test our resilience, and tremendous problems that will demand widespread creativity to solve.  Frederickson and Seligman both remind me of the urgency in spreading happiness.  So does this Albert Einstein quote recently making its way through social media:  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The “same thinking” has been the growth economy.  We need a new paradigm to solve the problems.  A happiness paradigm.  ASAP.

Happiness And The Kindness Of Strangers

The Tennessee Williams quote “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” makes me smile, thanks to the brilliant satirical musical “Streetcar!” on “The Simpsonsback in the 20th century.  Marge sang the lead, with absolutely fabulous back-up singers who belted out, “You can always depend on the kindness of strangers … A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met.  Streetcar!”

This blog, though, is sober — deadly serious, in fact.  Two days ago, the kindness of a stranger may have saved my son Ben’s life.  The stranger’s kindness has filled my family with gratitude (a key happiness tool) and has spared us from immeasurable pain.  We don’t know who he is, and he will never know how profoundly he helped Ben — but his actions illustrate how interconnected our lives are, and how our choices can impact the happiness of others.

Ben on his first birthday, 38 years ago this month. He’s still pretty cute, though.

Here’s the story:

Thanks to another gift — a very, very small inheritance check from his grandfather — Ben bought a new-to-him pick-up truck from a dealer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, about an hour and a half away.  I drove him to pick up the truck.  We decided not to convoy on the return trip, as he needed to stop for gas.  Also, he observed, I had my cell phone so he could always call if for some reason he needed help.

Or not.  In this part of rural Vermont, cell coverage is highly sketchy.

Did I mention the tornado warnings?

Right before we left home, I learned from The Weather Channel that our entire area was under a tornado watch.  And as we drove north, I kept the radio on, just in case the dreaded emergency broadcast signal began.  It did, with warnings of a severe thunderstorm headed toward in the same direction as we were.

So when we left the dealership, I was eager to skedaddle south as quickly as possible — radio still on, with more warnings.  Tornadoes, this time, in the towns I had just driven through.  I quickly calculated that, even stopping for gas, Ben was probably through those towns, too.  All was well.

At home, I breathed a sigh of relief and then looked at my cell phone.  Ben had called twice.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Anxiously, I called back.

He was stressed, though alright.  He, too, had been trying to drive out of the tornado zone — but ran out of gas and was stranded along the interstate, in the bull’s eye of the oncoming storm.  Minutes before it hit, the stranger picked up my son and dropped him off at a gas station in town.

The tornado touched down nearby, taking out hundreds of trees and one chimney — but, as it turned out, that wasn’t the real danger.

When Ben finally got back to his truck hours later, it was … gone.  As in, totally destroyed.  And shoved several hundred yards farther down the highway shoulder.  During the fierce storm, another trucker had accidentally rammed into the back of Ben’s new truck, completely wrecking it.*  Without the kindness of the earlier stranger, Ben would have been in the truck at the moment of impact…

Okay, that’s all my mother’s heart can bear to write.

I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama‘s wisdom that, in every interaction with every person, we can either contribute to that person’s happiness or contribute to that person’s unhappiness.  Usually I interpret that as sharing smiles, pleasant greetings, or maybe a hug.  Not, saving someone’s life.

I’m reminded, too, of an incident many years ago when Ben may well have saved the life of another stranger.  It was a cold November evening and Ben was outside having a cigarette (that’s another story!).  From somewhere in the woods at a bit of a distance from our house, he heard — or thought he heard — a very faint cry for help.  Together with his dad, Ben took off running toward the voice, which belonged to a hunter who had fallen from a tree and broken his leg.  The hunter was alone and unprotected.  The night was about to turn freezing.  Thanks to Ben, emergency personnel got the hunter to safety.

None of us know who that man was, either.

I have on my bookshelf Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, a review of morality and happiness by the very thoughtful Sissela Bok.  I have thought about the concept of morality of happiness from the viewpoint that our happiness choices might have a negative effect on others — ie, drinking non-fair trade coffee could lead to suffering and exploitation of those who pick the beans in countries far from me.

But the truck incident has turned my thinking around.  Our moral choices, decisions made from kindness or a generosity of spirit — say, picking up a driver stranded by the side of the road — could well enhance the happiness of others far beyond our knowing.

My daughter Jennifer wrote on Facebook of her gratitude to the stranger who saved her brother’s life:

“So I say: THANK YOU with all my heart to the man who potentially saved my brother’s life yesterday by being generous and giving him a ride.
And I invite you to think about what you can to with small gestures that make a world of difference.”

Indeed.  Sometimes we need a kind stranger, sometimes we’re called upon to be that kind stranger.  Happiness may depend on how, or whether, we answer that call.

* The other driver was uninjured, and Ben’s truck was insured.

Happiness Is A New Baby!

Happiness is a new baby — especially when that baby is a much longed for, dearly treasured grandchild.  Meet the newest addition to our family: Madeleine Arden Sassaman, shown here at six days old.

My granddaughter Madeleine, six days old.

It’s a no brainer that new babies bring joy.  They are fresh, innocent, full of hope and potential —  the personification of pure love.  Most people respond with warmth and smiles to a baby, any baby.  That reaction is magnified a million fold when the baby is near and dear to your own heart.  Some life events cause our natural happiness levels to soar dramatically; Madeleine’s arrival is the happiest event I can even imagine.

I won’t try to over analyze this most obvious of happiness highs.  But I do want to highlight a few fundamentals of day-to-day personal happiness that my granddaughter’s  birth brought into sharp relief.

First, savoring.   Over and over in Madeleine’s first week, I watched her mother delighting in her every detail — the perfect fingers, the amazing tiny toes, her head of silken hair, soft breaths, ability to hold her head up, etc.   Jennifer just drank in every aspect of Madeleine.  “I don’t want her to ever change,” Jennifer sighed.  “She’s perfect right now.”

New babies are scrumptious — but more ordinary opportunities to savor are multitude in our daily lives.  For example, as I rocked my grand baby on the front porch this morning, I could also savor the beauty of pink balloons wafting across a leafy green and sky blue background.  Earlier, I savored the coffee that helped wake me up before going on baby duty.  I could hear birds, and my daughter’s laugh, and watch butterflies, bumblebees and wild flowers.  All this, in an ordinary neighborhood in a rural southern town.  Here, there, everywhere, we can savor away … The very thought is enough to make me smile.

Gratitude.   Jennifer went into the birth experience somewhat apprehensive of hospitals and modern medicine and determined to have a natural birth — but that was not to be.  Despite many, many hours of excruciating pain, Jennifer’s cervix did not dilate enough for the baby to come out the birth canal.  Without an epidural, my daughter’s agony would have been unspeakable.  Worse — in another time and place, when C-sections weren’t viable options, Jennifer’s situation may have led to both maternal and infant death.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe that’s over-dramatic — but both she and I are very grateful to Doctor Jennifer Logan and all the compassionate and skilled staff at Montgomery Baptist East Hospital for providing the care that meant a happy, healthy homecoming for mommy and baby.

This is gratitude writ large, for sure.  Also, for sure, we all have many reasons to be grateful every day.    Today, I have been grateful for things large and small — like Madeleine finally falling asleep and a well-stocked refrigerator as lunchtime drew near.  Like savoring, the opportunities for gratitude are always at hand.  We need only invest a conscious effort in acknowledging our appreciation.

Community.  While I would never want to relive my daughter’s labor, I will always treasure that night.  The community gathered around Jennifer — the baby’s dad, the doctor (on-and-off), Jennifer’s best friend and the friend’s teenage daughter, and I — shared her sacred journey.  We laughed, cheered, cried, wept, ate, slept, and waited during a period of time in which no reality existed beyond Jennifer’s efforts to give birth.  As we supported Jennifer, we also leaned on each other literally and emotionally.  We were intensely connected.

The next day, as I walked past the labor room on my way to Jennifer’s hospital room, I felt a pang of nostalgia.  There was so much love and beauty in that one-time-only community!  It was a powerful reminder of the importance of building and maintaining community connections in our “regular” lives.

Then there’s money. It is costing me a lot of lost income to be with my daughter and granddaughter for a few precious months.  I live in Vermont, my daughter lives in Alabama.  To be here, I had to close my “Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience” for two months, and turn down other income-generating opportunities. Plus, the trip here and back — by car, and staying with friends — is pretty pricey.

I am not entirely sure how I’ll pay my bills over the next few months, but there was really no question about what I should do.  How could I have possibly chosen money over the opportunity to be with my daughter before, during, and after she gave birth?

This is a particularly valuable lesson for me personally.  I constantly struggle between the desire to move away from the demanding paradigm of making more money, and the desire to actually make more money.  Perhaps my choice this spring will help me find greater comfort and balance around money questions in the future.

One last observation: caring for a newborn and the newborn’s mother is hard work — so much so that I haven’t found time to invest in my specific happiness strategies since Madeleine was born.  I haven’t meditated, done yoga, sung in the choir, written in my nightly positive journal, or painted a gratitude watercolor in weeks.  I miss those practices, but Madeleine has lusty lungs and will not be ignored.  Soon enough I’ll go back to Vermont, where I will no doubt pine for the hours of rocking this infant to sleep. I love her.  That love fills me with more than enough happiness for now.

Happiness In Unlikely Places And Forms

The shell casing I was given at a garage in rural SW Virginia.

Last Wednesday got off to an easy, breezy start.   Then, as life is wont to do, the day took a more challenging turn.

Here’s the cool thing: the worst, highly  stressful, and most expensive part of my day grew into a sweet,  surprising and profound life episode.  It was an unlikely lesson in happiness.

This blog is a little long, almost a short story.  I’d love to know your reaction.  Here goes:

The weather was fabulous.  I was feeling fine, cruising along life’s metaphorical highway, and the very real real I-81 — an overcrowded interstate with the benefit of spectacular mountain scenery on both sides of the road.  Savoring is a highly effective happiness strategy, and I was savoring the view big time.

While I drove, I listened to The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  Though I was familiar with many of the book’s concepts, much of it was new and exciting.  Learning makes us happy, and I was in the learning flow.  Quite happily.

I was also happily driving toward my daughter’s house, to help her in the weeks before and after she gives birth to her first baby and my first granddaughter.  Helping others — again, an excellent happiness strategy.  Building connections with loved ones — bingo, lots of happiness there.

But that’s not all.  Before I got to Alabama for the birth, I’d be stopping in the western highlands of North Carolina to stay with my friend of 40+ years, Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin.  Jeannette had arranged to host my first ever “Happiness As A Way of Being” 3-hour workshop — so I had a clear purpose to aim toward.  Guess what?  Having a purpose is happiness inducing.

I picnicked at a roadside rest, where I could pat myself on the back for savoring the wildflowers, the clouds, and the butterflies, and being grateful for my husband for packing my food and for the custodial staff who kept the rest area clean and beautiful.  Uh-huh, I was doing just fine in the happiness department.

And then …  happiness became harder to access.

I had stopped for gas in a tiny town, far in the southwest corner of Virginia.  I misjudged my turn into the gas station driveway, and ran over the curb.  The sounds from my car’s underbelly were ominous.

Nonetheless, I paid for and pumped the gas.  I was eager to get out of there.  Not only was I worried about reaching my rural destination in the daylight, I felt like an unwanted alien in this part of the world.  In our red state-blue state country, I felt like my Vermont license plate was a bull’s eye.

So I gave the car a once over, saw nothing amiss, and started up the ramp toward the interstate.  The next sounds were unmistakably bad; I had busted up the front right tire pretty impressively, even cracking the hub cap.  I backed down the ramp — something my righteous self always judges others harshly for doing — and returned to the gas station.

Happiness?  What happiness?  Fears and anxieties were coming on strong.  I am not good with things.  I generally operate on the assumption that they will always work.  When they stop working, usually my husband (who can fix most anything) takes care of it. Now, I was alone.  I was going to be late.  This would probably cost a lot of money.  I was stuck for at least a little while in an uncomfortable environment.

Fortunately,  my happiness studies have taught me that one reason to continually strengthen the brain’s ability to access happiness is to be able to bounce back when your life gets derailed.  Obviously, in the scheme of things, a busted tire is minor, just a baby blip.  Still, I was upset and aggravated.  And, I had an excellent opportunity to walk my happiness talk.

First up: dropping the internal wall I had built between myself and the folks who lived here, folks whose help I now needed.  I struggled to put my own prejudices aside, and reach out, person-to-person.

After a few phone calls, my angel arrived in the form of a young man named Jake.  Jake drove a black Camaro and had such a thick mountain accent that I couldn’t always decipher his words.   Nonetheless, he made clear from the get go that he was there to help me.  He was unfailingly polite, kind, and non-judgmental — even when I couldn’t tell him where the jack was located in my car.  I felt like an idiot, but a grateful idiot.

Jake eventually got my car to the garage where he and his father work.  He urged me to come in out of the hot sun.  When their garage didn’t have the right sized tire, Jake took off for the local junkyard, and got into an argument with the owner who was trying to close for the day.  Jake insisted that the junkyard stay open long enough for him to find the tire that I needed.

Meanwhile, Jake’s daddy came over to talk to me.  “You are a very lucky person,” he said.  His words threw me for a loop.  They felt like a message from the Universe.  “I believe I am,” I replied.  “But why are you telling me that now?”

He replied, “Because you got my son to help you.  Most people these days, they won’t help.  But he’s a good boy.  He’s made an enemy of the junkyard owner, all to help you.”

I decided to tell the dad about my happiness workshop.  He told me, “You want to be happy?  Find God.”  My defenses wanted to rise up, but I managed to beat them back and keep listening.  “I was never a godly man before,” he said.  “But a few weeks ago, a lady came in here and we test drove her car to see what was wrong. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my car,’ she said. ‘God is trying to get your attention.  There’s going to be a tornado, and it will hit you at this spot in the road.'”  A few weeks later, as killer tornadoes struck throughout the South and Midwest, the dad and his truck were indeed lifted up and thrown down by a tornado in the exact spot that woman had predicted.  The truck was totaled.  Three people in town were killed.  He believes in God now.

I was amazed at the story, and at his decision to share with me.

He continued working while we waited for his son to return with the junkyard tire.  After a bit, he asked for a favor.  He pointed out his boss, the garage owner.  “If you do nothing else today, tell him what a good job my son is doing for you.”  Of course, I said I would.

So I struck up a conversation with the boss.  Turns out, he’s a granddad of three, happy to wish me well on my journey.  After I told the boss how grateful I was for Jake and his dad, I came out and exchanged conspiratorial nods with the dad.  Those nods gave me a surge of joy.  We were connected.

All the while, I kept beating back fear and anxiety.  How much time was this taking?  How much money would it cost? How far was I from Jeannette’s house?  When would it get dark?  Would I be too tired to drive?  Would I have more car troubles?

Concurrently, I practiced happiness strategies — gratitude, connection, and a reminder that I was actually perfectly okay in the moment.  The strategies kept me calm, and aware of the good in my situation.

In preparation for the happiness workshop, I had with me a bin of gifts I like to hand out: common stones on which I’ve hand-painted glittery hearts.  To me, they symbolize giving from the heart — and I gave one to Jake when I paid the unexpectedly low bill.  I explained that the stone was a token of my appreciation for how well he treated me.  Jake seemed pleased.

His daddy, too.  The dad quickly said, “I have something for you!” and then handed me the shell casing in the photo.  He was glowing with pride and joy as he gave me this precious offering.

A shell casing?  Me?  I didn’t even know really what it was.  Part of my brain — the judging part, the part that puts distance between me and others — was ready to spring into action and say, are you kidding?  No thanks, buddy.

Instead I said, and meant, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Thank you.

Just before I got in my car, he gave me another present.  “Watch your speed!” he admonished.  “The next county is full of cops.  They’ll pull you over if you’re even five miles over the speed limit.”

And so my journey continued.  The exuberance from the earlier part of the day was gone, but a deep sense of wonderment and awe and spiritual connection had taken its place.  I was tired and still stressed, but in some ways happier.

So what’s the lesson?  For me, it’s knowing that happiness takes many unexpected forms, if only we can quiet our reptile brains and open our hearts wide enough to receive the bounty.  That sweet and peculiar sequence of events was also a gritty affirmation of my intellectual belief that we’re all connected — a belief I don’t always nurture in real life — and that happiness grows in those connections.  I don’t necessarily have to understand it.  I can just feel it.  Finally, as I wrote about in November 2011, happiness doesn’t lie merely in giving.  We must also receive, with humility and gratitude.

Postscript:The next day, I wrapped up the happiness workshop with a seven-minute Loving Kindness Meditation.  After I explained how the meditation would work, I realized my chime was in a different part of the house.  But a water glass, and the shell casing, were sitting nearby.  Thanks to Jeannette’s suggestion, I began and ended the meditation by clicking the shell casing three times against the water glass.

Perfect.

I am a lucky person.

A Very Happy Night

In a few days, I will leave home for nearly two months to support my daughter during the final weeks of her pregnancy, in the delivery room, and for the first month or so of my granddaughter’s life.  I am excited and busy.  My mind is swimming with details.

Last night, though, I put details aside to be with a group of friends who held a Grandmother Baby Shower/Blessings On Your New Adventure/Please Return Safely ceremony for me.  It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

Previously Loved Baby Presents

Happiness studies show that we each have a natural happiness level, which can be raised by developing happiness habits.  Joyous events and circumstances, like the communal love I felt last night, raise our happiness level for a while. Sad, tragic, and dreary situations lower our happiness. In either case, we eventually settle back into our natural level.

This morning, I’m tired (I was too wired up to sleep well!) but still enjoying a happiness upswing.

Why so happy?  Silly question, right?  Anybody could look at the circumstances and say, of course you’re happy!  You’re about to become a grandmother, your friends just celebrated your joy — and, icing on the cake, you’ll be driving away from the tedious end of a Vermont winter into sunny warm weather in Alabama.  Who wouldn’t be happy?

Even so, I want to break it down a bit.  Grand-babies don’t come along every day, but the other ingredients of my current happiness high are available to each of us on a pretty regular basis.

Gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most reliable contributors to personal happiness, and my gratitude cup is overflowing.  Hugs, blessings, good food, thoughtful presents … I’m so, so grateful.  I’m not very good at writing thank you notes, but I’m going to send a heartfelt thank you to send one to everyone who made last night special.

Community. My town has pot lucks, talent shows, silent auctions.  We take meals to people who are sick, and check on pets.  We sing together, swim together, skate together, snow shoe together.  It’s like a bank: we make regular deposits in our community account.  And when we need a withdrawal, the “funds” are there.  It’s a solid investment strategy.

Forgiveness. When I looked around the room, I felt such pleasure in my relationship with each woman in the group. Because we’re human, I’ve been in conflict with some of the women in the past — conflict that we worked through together so we could move on.  I’ve forgiven, been forgiven, and deepened relationships.

Touch. Twice we stood in a circle holding hands.  Hugs were also abundant.  Gretchen Rubin, author of the blog and book The Happiness Project, cited research on hugging from  The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  Rubin wrote about Lyubomirksy’s “study in which students were assigned to two groups. One group was the control; one group was assigned to give or receive at least five hugs each day for a month – a front-to-front, non-sexual hug, with both arms of both participants involved, and with the aim of hugging as many different people as possible. The huggers were happier.”  Let’s hear it for hugs!

Mindfulness. Savoring, and being fully present, are excellent happiness tools!  Perhaps I’ve been sharpening those tools lately through a ramped up meditation practice.  And/or, perhaps the loving energy and shining eyes all around the room were too powerful for my mind to wander, despite my pre-trip to do list.  I knew I was experiencing a very special, once-in-a-lifetime event.  I was definitely present, and in full savoring mode.

Recycling.  My friends know, I strongly believe changing our shopping habits to be less voracious consumers of Planet Earth is a requirement of our long term personal happiness.  So I was thrilled that several of the presents were items previously-loved by other babies.  I was especially pleased to know that my young friend Edwin (just three years old) gave the thumbs up to passing on one of his old trains to the new baby. Learning to give is good for Edwin’s happiness, too.

Acknowledgement.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs includes the need for recognition from others (as well as internal self-eteem). In general, I try to give generously of my time, and my heart, with no expectation of any recognition (except from my faithful husband; his support is usually enough).  But I just flushed with pleasure last night when one friend explained that they wanted to have this party for me because I “do so much for the community” and I “will be missed.”  It makes me feel good even now to type those words!  Sometimes, recognition does matter.

Okay, enough analyzing.  I’ll get out of my head, and slide back into enjoying the moment.


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: Happinessparadigm@gmail.com.

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.