Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

 

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!).

 

 

 

 

 

My Happy Bedroom

Our new bedroom, ready for us to move in.

Our new bedroom, ready for us to move in.

What if all the steps we took to help heal our hurting planet and wounded society (including, often, our own financial troubles in this era of inequity) were also steps that made us happier?

Though I’m an optimist, I’m also a pragmatist — so I think it’s highly unlike that all such actions will imbue us with joy.  However, I believe that coming from a place of greater personal happiness and positivity will enable us to much more frequently find creative solutions that add to the general well being and our own sense of contentment and pleasure.   Barbara Fredrickson calls this the “broadening” principle — through increased positivity, our minds can take in the big picture and thus we can see more options.

Such is the case with our new bedroom, which is making me so happy!  It makes me happy to go to bed at night, to wake up in the morning, to put my clothes away, to sit in the easy chair and read (right now, Martin Seligman’s Flourish).

I am, of course, enjoying the hedonic hit that comes from having something new and clean and pretty and a little bit exciting.  If that’s all I felt, I wouldn’t be writing about it.  No, what really pleases me is this: my bedroom is  a manifestation of our determination to live more sustainably and responsibly — and to do so in a joyful, colorful manner.

Here’s why we have a new bedroom. Our previous bedroom was on the third floor of our house, which is a converted dairy barn.  Three large floors, with big rooms, and lots of them, translates to depressingly large heating bills.  Last year, our propane bill became a huge burden for us to pay.  It also became unconscionable to me that we used so much propane, because I believe we all must wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  My happiness in having a cozy warm bedroom on the third floor of a drafty old barn came at a cost in dollars and potential human suffering that was just too high.

But what to do?  Often, my house feels like an albatross (I no longer find the idea of living in converted barn romantic).  Selling it doesn’t seem feasible right now, and fully insulating this dinosaur would be a mammoth, expensive task.   There seemed no good options.  Yetl one day last summer, I suddenly had a brilliant, Rube Goldberg plan.  Maybe this idea came to me because I’ve been working on my positivity for so long.  In any case, I realized that  I could move my art studio to the A-frame that had served as the Happiness Paradigm store, rent an office in town and move all my office work there, and then turn the first floor room that for so many years had been both my art studio and my study into our new bedroom.  Then, we could shut off the top two floors of the house (except when company comes) AND I can use my new in-town office to build a mediation and coaching practice in a much better location than a rural A-frame.  Perfect!

Let me tell you, all that was a lot easier said than done!  Clearing out a 12 year-old art studio took a ridiculous amount of time and emotional energy.  An old utility sink had to be hauled out, a very extensively “decorated” linoleum had to be ripped up,  walls painted for the first time since we moved there, and a new closet put in.  Fortunately, my son is also a top-notch carpenter and painter, so we could keep our spending very local!  Plus, he sealed the windows so the new room leaks far less heat than it did before.  And my amazing husband re-upholstered the frayed, old quilted curtains that pre-dated our arrival — so we “upcycled” what was already there, rather than buying brand new curtains.

Here’s something else that makes me happy now: when I have to run upstairs for something, all the rooms up there are COLD!

We still have a long way to go with this house.  We are now talking about replacing one or two of the individual propane heaters with pellet wood stoves.  We will have to take money out of our retirement funds to do this, and there’s not all that much there in the first place.  But just how expensive will propane be when we’re retired?  And how can we enjoy our golden years at the cost of others’ suffering?

Which brings me to Nova Scotia researcher Catherine O’Brien, whose work on Sustainable Happiness I admire so much.  She defines sustainable happiness as “happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global wellbeing and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.”  Like O’Brien, I believe deeply that we are all interconnected, and our individual pursuits of happiness must take into consideration our effect on other humans, animals, and the planet.  Re-doing my bedroom was not just about choosing paint colors — it was about choosing sustainable happiness.

Plus, it’s so pretty!  Meaningful and pleasurable — what a sweet deal.

Periodically, I feel compelled to stress that my passion for spreading the happiness gospel is based on a fervent desire for a radically different political and economic paradigm — one that is focused on the genuine well-being of people and the planet, as opposed to a world which “has become an idolator of this god called money,” according to Pope Francis.  Like the Pope (I never thought I’d say that!), I “want a just system that helps everyone.”

The events last night that led to my granddaughter Madeleine taking care of her first ever baby doll have once again inspired me to write about the connection between personal happiness and broken systems.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My path is, of course, different from the Pope’s.  I believe that cultivating personal happiness is a key element (not the only element)  in working toward this shift.  Here are a few reasons why.  With greater understanding of personal happiness, comes a deeper appreciation of the sadness, emptiness, and destruction inherent in relying solely on Gross National Product  measurements of success.  When we internalize the knowledge that money and material goods are important but only a piece of our personal happiness, and also understand that chasing the almighty dollar can seriously undermine our enjoyment of life, we can so much more easily grasp the practical and visionary potential of a Gross National Happiness paradigm.

Further, cultivating personal happiness will strengthen the traits we need for the indescribably huge challenges of ameliorating climate change and ending the grown economy.  As we become happier individuals, we are, for starters:

  • less attached to things;
  • more optimistic;
  • more resilient;
  • more aware of what is truly going on around us;
  • more creative;
  • more compassionate: and
  • more grateful.

Oh, yes, and we are also more fun to be around — which no doubt makes us better messengers.

Okay, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and share what made me want to climb up there in the first place.  About a week ago, my daughter Jennifer’s old clunker car finally died.   She and my 20-month-old granddaughter will soon be joining us for a long Christmas break, but for a week and a half, she has had to cobble together a new transportation “system”: getting rides from friends, walking, and taking the bus.  She is fortunate to live in a city with decent public transit, but even so, last night my daughter and granddaughter spent 45 minutes on a cold, dark, and snowy Wisconsin night waiting for the bus to take them home.  It was pretty hard for Jennifer to be happy when her baby was crying from the cold.  My daughter sang to the baby to keep her calm until Jennifer’s cheeks were just too cold to keep singing.

Of course, the bus arrived eventually.  At home,  Jennifer decided it was a good time to open a Christmas present from Madeleine’s other grandmother.  That present is Madeleine’s first baby doll.   Watching her toddler practice taking care of this immediately beloved toy gave  my daughter a lot of reasons to feel much happier — gratitude, love, savoring the moment, etc.  So the story has a happy ending.

To me, this little vignette illustrates both the limits of, and the value of, personal happiness within broken systems.  For starters, cultivating our internal happiness is especially  important in the context of broken systems because, hey, this is the only life we get!  We should make the most of it, no matter the systems we live within.  I am so glad Jennifer and Madeleine got to end their evening on such a positive note.

To be clear, my daughter’s situation isn’t that bad.   She has a great job, a wonderful apartment, and a cousin who is helping her get a new car over Christmas break.  She’s only lived in Wisconsin a short time, yet she already has a group of friends who have been amazingly generous in providing rides.  Jennifer’s monetary resources may be limited, but she has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of friends and family who love her and can help when help is needed.  Which brings me to another reason for cultivating personal happiness, a la nurturing relationships: it provides us the tools to build alternatives to systems that break.

But personal happiness has its limits.  My daughter’s transportation struggles inspired me to write about Gross National Happiness because of the millions of young parents — or old grandparents, for that matter — who struggle with transportation to school, work, and child care day in and day out, in broiling heat as well as frigid cold.  Their own fatigue and discomfort, intensified by their children’s suffering, may well make “happiness” seem like a ridiculous goal.  Not everyone has presents waiting for them at home, and there is no reliable car in the immediate future for untold numbers of America’s working families.  We do not have “a just system that helps everyone.”

And then there’s the obvious: we should all be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  A political and economic system focused on the well being of people and the planet would surely be moving rapidly toward excellent systems of mass transit.

Another obvious point: transportation is just one of our many broken systems.  That is why, this Christmas season, I will be spending lots and lots of time with my family and friends — giving and receiving, singing, playing in the snow, laughing, meditating, and doing my best to live a happy life.  At the same time, I’ll be working with my friends at Gross National Happiness USA and The Happiness Initiative to move towards a world of greater peace and justice, a world that does more than pay lip service to well being for all.

As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”  Everyone.

And now I have to go bake cookies.

Simply Happy

I am a big fan of Annie Leonard and her colleagues at Free Range Studios.  Their 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff,” dramatically shifted my attitude away from consumerism and a growth economy.  Thanks to this zippy, powerful 20 minute video, I create most of my art now with recycled materials; I find replacement wine glasses from used stuff stores (since my household seems to be in contention for the wine-glass-breaking record); and even most of what I buy for the precious grand baby comes from consignment stores.  Watching “The Story of Stuff” was transformational.

That video is also one of the reasons I am on the happiness path, which offers an appealing alternative to the hedonic treadmill and the environmental and cultural devastation wrought by our stuff addiction.  Research shows that happier people buy less stuff — which makes sense, because happy people are busy experiencing life, being kind, exercising, meditating, taking care of others, etc.

Leonard’s 2007 video helped convince me of the urgency for massive cultural change away from the Gross National Product (GNP) paradigm and toward a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — a shift that needs to happen at every level, within us as individuals on up through international systems.   Now she and her crew have a new video that is almost as powerful: “The Story of Solutions,” which describes both the current paradigm and the much needed paradigm shift in far more understandable language.  “More” drives our lives as cogs in a growth economy.  “Better” is the goal for sustainable solutions and happier humans.  So simple, so elegant, so spot on.  Though the phrase “Gross National Happiness” resonates with me, it has not been universally embraced.  In contrast, who can argue with the clean, clear, bottom line: “better”?

My work is mostly focused on helping individuals make a happiness paradigm shift at a personal level, beginning with myself, of course.  I often ponder the choices my husband and I make in the context of climate change and happiness writ large and small.  This helps me understand ways I need to grow toward sustainable happiness, and ways to share these options with others.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Last night was no exception.  I was thinking of “The Story of Solutions” because we had a “better” not “more” kind of evening.  My husband and I were enjoying the pea soup he had cooked while I was in town co-leading a “How of Happiness” study group.  Is there a food more humble than pea soup?  We also had locally-baked bread to dip in garlic oil (the garlic came from our backyard) and a salad.  It’s gotten cold here, so the wood stove in the kitchen was blazing.  For many, many years we’ve eaten dinner by candlelight — always sharing a toast with a glass of wine (white for him, red for me).  That’s what we did last night, too, but there was nothing fancy about the entire scenario — just a humble meal for a long-time married couple.

I was, simply, happy.

Who needs more?

I happen to love pea soup, but the point is, choosing better over more is not  a sacrifice.  It is a happy way forward, for ourselves and our planet.  It’s a solution we can live with.

Falling Into Happiness

The Bone Builders of Maple Corner performing at our annual Fall Foliage variety show.  That's me in the blue shirt, partially hidden by my friend Linda.

The Bone Builders of Maple Corner performing at our annual Fall Foliage variety show. That’s me in the blue shirt, partially hidden by my friend Linda.  Photo by Erika Mitchell, the unofficial Calais photographer.

Last Friday morning, I again woke up feeling weighed down with sadness.  Though I’ve found my equilibrium after my granddaughter’s move and closing the happiness store, life is full of sorrows.  On Thursday evening, a friend and colleague had shared her cancer diagnosis.  She was in a state of shock.  It’s early, and she may be fine.  But my immediate reaction was one I’d rather not write here.

I was accepting of the sadness which seemed a highly appropriate reaction.  Yet, I knew I was moving into a day with little room for grief.  Here in Maple Corner, Friday marked the beginning of our 50th Annual Fall Foliage Festival, including the annual Variety Show (quite purposefully not called a talent show!).

That meant, I had to hurry to the community center to rehearse with my fellow Bone Builder thespians.  Bone Builders is a group open to anyone, though usually only women of “a certain age” show up.  We meet twice a week and go through the same routine with weights over and over.  And over.  And over.  Somewhere along the way, to relieve the tedium, the group started to sing while exercising.  That led to the inevitable observation, “We should perform in the Variety Show!”

Of course, we all knew all about the “Variety Show.”  It’s an annual community tradition, and we’re all about community up here.

Unlike Bone Builders, the Variety Show attracts a wide array of performers — both skilled and … uh … enthusiastic.  The youngest performer I remember was a three-year-old who sang the A-B-C song.  There have also been skits with highly-localized humor, professional musicians, and even dancing turkeys (one of the highlights of my own Variety Show career).

If you clicked on the dancing turkeys link, you’ll know there was a lot of pressure on me last Friday to shelve my sadness and get serious about the task at hand: practicing our skit, with weights, to a re-written version of “Jacob’s Ladder.”  A sample lyric: “Every round goes higher, higher.  We are starting to perspire.  We are truly feeling fire.  Women of Bone Builders.”  It was funny!  Really — especially the highly expressive acting choices some of made to illustrate perspiring …

Rehearsal made me quite happy, and it’s easy to see why.  First, there was plenty of exercise as we went through our routine repeatedly — and even more exercise when the rest of the group arrived for our standard Bone Builders’ workout.  Exercise is a sure-fire happiness booster, as is laughter, and there was plenty of that.  Plus, we were learning new lyrics, an improvement penned just the night before — learning is always good.  Then there was the singing.  I have not seen a lot of research on the link between singing and happiness, though I’m sure the research must be out there because I find singing so healing, so transformative.  Perhaps the biggest happiness boost came from being in community — first with my fellow Bone Builders, and later that evening, with the broader community.

We were a hit.  I don’t think we’re ready for Montpelier, much less Broadway, but we earned laughter and grateful applause from our neighbors.  What a high — really, an enormously fun cycle of giving and receiving between audience and performers joined together in celebration of shared community.

The Variety Show was just the start of a very full weekend, which included:

  • a “Beggar’s Breakfast” and “Beggar’s Lunch” at the community center with donated labor and food (I was a cashier, my husband baked bread);
  • a silent auction (including two of my watercolor clocks);
  • an art show featuring a local painter;
  • soccer for the younger community members;
  • an all-ages contra dance in the barn across the street;
  • Octoberfest activities at our local pub, the Whammy Bar;
  • a traditional concert in our historic Old West Church;
  • high tea at the Adamant Co-op;
  • a hike through the town’s forest; and
  • a triathalon along our dusty dirt roads — all graced by the gorgeous fall foliage, just slightly past peak.

So here’s where I’m going with all this: despite my choosing “Falling Into Happiness” as the title — an irresistible play on words — this kind of community doesn’t just happen.    Like cultivating happiness, sustaining a community takes intention and attention.  In a way, we did sort of fall into this town, after visiting a friend who lives here and deciding we wanted to be part of such a vibrant community.  But, as soon as we got here, my husband and I rolled up our sleeves and started pitching in.  I volunteered for the community center board, he taught after-school chess classes at the local elementary school.  And on and on, for both of us.

To be clear, we live in a real community — not a Disney World attraction or a Stepford Wives illusion.  There is no shortage of either challenges or sorrows.  (Plus, Black Flies, for heaven’s sake!)

I’ve often wondered how Vermont in general, and my little corner of Vermont in particular, developed and maintained such strong communities through the centuries.  My theory has to do with the harsh winters, and the inevitable help Vermonters needed to give, and receive from, their neighbors.  Maybe it also has to do with the beauty around us, and the reverence most of us feel for our natural world — perhaps that translates to enhanced respect for our neighbors.  Certainly, we tend to get outside and play or garden; we are visible to one another.

This I do know: living in a thriving community is a powerful contributor to personal well being.  I am happy do my part to keep community ties strong — especially when I get to be a dancing turkey!

I was momentarily at a loss for words after choir practice last week.  I had just introduced myself to a new choir member who smiled and said, “Oh, yeah, you’re the happiness lady, right?”

I was briefly taken aback because I didn’t feel that happy.  In truth, I was sad.  Of course, cultivating happiness is not about dismissing or ignoring negative emotions.  They are valuable contributors to the palette of life.  So I quickly recovered my equilibrium enough to smile back and say, sure, yeah, I guess  I am the happiness lady.

My sadness is still with me today, and I’m okay with that.  I just had two major losses in my life: 1) I closed my Happiness Paradigm store and 2) my baby granddaughter, who had lived with us for almost all her first 17 months of life, moved with her mother to a distant state.

My granddaughter "helping" me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

My granddaughter “helping” me with my suitcase as I prepare to leave her new home.

Though both events are positive developments, there is nonetheless grief.   My daughter landed an excellent job, which is critical to the long term well being of her and her daughter.  Still, I deeply miss having a beloved baby under my roof.  How could I not?

As for the store … one reason I closed it was to open a new space in a more populated area where I can do workshops, mediations, coaching, and writing.  But my new office is still being built from two old closets and isn’t ready yet.  I’m feeling un-moored.

Plus, it’s fall and the darkness is closing in.

So, what is a sad “happiness lady” to do?  Or you, for that matter?  It’s a fundamentally important question, not only for my current minor distress but also for the much more daunting pain and struggles we will all be forced to grapple with sometime (s).

Indeed, small challenges are also opportunities for us to practice the coping skills that we will need to endure the really tough suffering.

What might those skills look like?  For starters, they might look like the previous paragraph: shifting one’s perspective to find the positive aspects in a negative situation (ie, challenges are also opportunities).  In my mediation training, we called this “reframing;” you could just say it’s looking for the cloud’s silver lining.

Being aware of, and present to, our sadness is vital — as is humor.  Comedian Louis C.K. combines both in this timely video my daughter alerted me to (a video that will be especially entertaining to Bruce Springsteen fans).  Louis C.K. also highlights ways not to deal with sadness — another valuable lesson.

I’ve cried on and off these past few weeks, and that’s good,  too.  In another timely internet offering, neuroscientist Mark Brady’s new blog on “Crying In Restaurants” observes that “tears of grief are filled with neuro-toxins and crying is one way the body is built to move them out of our system.”  Tears are a great gift — if we give ourselves the time and space to cry them.  I’ve found the time to do that, choosing to stay home alone or with my husband and just be with the sadness.

There are so many other ways to cope, and your choices will be different from mine.  My coping strategies include singing in the church choir (which combines community, spirituality, service, learning, and the transformative power of music); hard work (a huge home improvement project, designed to simplify our lives and substantially curtail our personal contribution to climate change); service to others (through another church committee, “Lay Pastoral Care”); and exercise (yoga, bone builders, and kayaking).

And then there are my two favorite happiness strategies: gratitude and savoring.  It is, after all, autumn in Vermont.  When Bob and I kayaked on one of our favorite local lakes, the sweetly named “Peacham Pond,” it was a brilliantly sunny, cool, and windy Saturday.  Perhaps because the water was choppy, we had the lake to ourselves — except for a half dozen loons.  I was in love that day with Vermont, with Peacham Pond, with the tantalizing beauty of the foliage just starting to change, with my husband, with life.  So much to be grateful for, so much to savor.  My current bout of sadness isn’t through with me yet, but it sure did leave me alone for that glorious afternoon.

 

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.

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