Category Archives: Chores. Love. Service

Happiness

Portuguese man o’ war (photo by Fiona Wilkinson)

At seven years old happiness was a day at the beach with my cousins.  One of our adventures was capturing jellyfish in plastic cups.  We were saving unsuspecting swimmers from the stinging nemesis otherwise known as the Portuguese man o’ war.  After a few hours of exhausting assignment, we hungrily ran to our mothers who promptly supplied us with homemade sandwiches and cold drinks.  And life was good.

At around 15 years old, happiness was having to attend school, but getting through it with friends and playing tennis every afternoon, then going home for dinner.  By age 25, however,  happiness became harder to find.  It became selfishly impossible things like not having to work, winning or inheriting  lots of money (so I didn’t have to work), or meeting Mr. Right who would do and say everything perfectly so I didn’t have to get upset or be annoyed.    

Now in my thirties, I can see the self-absorption of my twenties much more plainly  and with some amount of fondness.  Fortunately, I’ve discovered in my slightly wiser years that the keys to happiness does not require me to win the lottery or to find Prince Charming.  But of course I tried first, discovered second.

I bought lotto tickets, gambled in Vegas, entered sweepstakes contests.  I even considered paying thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of buying and flipping real estate with other people’s money.  I also found a guy who with enough elbow grease on my part, could have passed for a prince.  Oh sure, now that I phrase it this way its obvious I’m the one with the issues.  Funny how it didn’t seem that way at the time.  Never does.

Needless to say at the end of my shallow pursuits of happiness I found myself sick and tired of being miserable.  This is not a pleasant route toward changing for the better, but it definitely works.  How ever you arrive at the shores of dissatisfaction, rest assured you are not alone.  

From our most esteemed colleges to conferences on powerful ideas, we as a country desperately desire to be happy.  But despite our power and wealth we remain largely in the dark about what happiness is and how to get it. 

Around the year 2000, Tal Ben-Shahar began teaching Harvard’s course on Positive Psychology or how to be happy.  At that time the most popular class on campus was Intro to Economics or “how to get rich”.  Within six years the Positive Psychology class easily superseded its predecessor with around 900 students each semester eagerly enrolling to learn the secrets to happiness over the secrets to economics.

One of TED’s 20 most popular talks includes The surprising science of happiness by Harvard psychologist Ted Gilbert (2004), author of the New York Times best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness.  In 2005, the New York Times published an article on one country’s mission to measure its well-being by GNH or gross national happiness.  Inspired by this article, Roko Belic traveled across the globe interviewing people for his film on what it means to be Happy.  (Too bad he didn’t visit Denmark, a country known to be the happiest place on earth.  Oops)

Each of these forays into the concept of happiness, clearly conclude that beyond needing money for basic needs and comforts, more money does not make people more happy.  Not having to work actually tends to have the opposite effect on a person’s well-being.

Happiness studies also make no mention of a requirement to find the perfect soul mate.  Like the concept of not having to work, our search for “the one” tends to have the opposite effect on our happiness and inevitably leads to disappointment.  So if neither a boat load of money nor an all-consuming romance is the key to happiness, what pray tell is?     

Happiness studies conclude that the number one predictor of a person’s happiness is the presence (or lack) of a strong network of friends, family, and community.  Meaning life is hard; it’s a downright struggle.  This is a given and so one requirement for happiness is to know unequivocably that we are not alone in this (hard) life; that we are connected to others. 

Of course having and maintaining good relationships requires a lot of time and effort.  So finding happiness means knowing what is important.  Whereas I used to believe happiness was when everything external was perfect i.e. my job was fun and paid really well with lots of vacation, my husband would know me so well that things could be left mostly unsaid, I now believe happiness is exactly the opposite.  Happiness is when everything internal is perfect.  It’s when work isn’t so fun, but it doesn’t bother you, not because you’re settling, but because at the end of the day you have your friends and family and a connection to something larger.

Ted Gilbert says happiness is “synthesized”.  We have to cultivate it like we cultivate gardens.  Tal Ben-Shahar says we have to do things like meditate, excercise, simplify, be grateful, and forgive on a regular basis.  No wonder we prefer to watch T.V. or play video games instead.  No wonder we have to be sick of being miserable in order to change.  The truth is we have to work at being happy.  Happiness is a state of mind achieved only through personal growth.  And so the big fat secret is that most of us are just too lazy to be happy.  We’d rather find happiness at the mall, purchase it and bring it home because its much easier than cultivating more patience through meditation and self-imposed time-outs.

And so as I approach the milestone age of 40, I strive to re-create the happiness of my childhood.  Only after trying the easy way out first and failing miserably, I once again find happiness in simpler things… 

Happiness is a Sunday afternoon swim in the blue Pacific listening to my daughter squeal in delight at every wave.  This despite all the work it took to arrive there and despite the chores waiting for me at home and despite the inevitable Monday that follows every Sunday afternoon.

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I meditate in traffic

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

Well I tried it this morning anyway, and you know what? Its do-able.
Yah, it’s far removed from the idealized image of serenity, quiet, and calm somewhere on a hilltop preferably with a gentle breeze and cherry blossom petals floating on its trails. But if I wait for that, I’ll never get to it (sort of like waiting for Prince Charming…just kidding). So I’m settling for reality and making do (exactly like getting married…kidding again) and not meditating at the break of dawn to a beautiful sunrise, but after sunrise during my daily morning bumper-to-bumper commute, which takes twice as long without traffic.

Its perfect when you think about it. I can meditate twice a day—morning and afternoon. I don’t have to set aside extra time somewhere from my busy day. It’s already allotted. And the best part is I can’t get out of it, unless I stop going to work. Normally, I have to shell out money to someone like a yoga instructor for that kind of discipline.

While commuting, I’m completely alone in my car; no co-workers, no kids, no spouses. Just me…and a boat load of other people, also mostly alone in their cars. Wait a second. Complete, un-interrupted alone time 1.5 hours a day? All of a sudden I’m okay with traffic. And I am beginning to wonder whether there is a larger force at work in these high-density cities. As if traffic is a divine plan to slow everybody down on purpose. So far the collective reaction to traffic is road rage and frustration, but what if we respond instead, with a collective sigh of relief for the new-found time to ourselves, and a spontaneous group meditation hour. Imagine that? Either way we are stuck in our cars everyday for that amount of time.

Logistics aside, my meditation in traffic is about breathing out all the worries and logistics of the day. It’s about my mind racing with a ton of things I have to do such as updating my credit card information on all my auto-bill payment accounts (electricity, cell phone, cable TV, YMCA etc) because my old credit card was cancelled due to suspicious activity, drafting a report that’s due, completing employee evaluations, deciding what’s for dinner, getting cash from the ATM machine, yada, yada.

I exhale all of the seemingly infinite details of the daily grind and breathe in peace and calm. I take a deep breath of ‘Everything is fine even though I am stuck in traffic’. I breathe out all the things I think are important and breathe in thoughts like, “Everything I need, I already have.” “For right now, this moment, there is nothing to do, but drive very slowly.”

Right away the background chatter is considerably subdued and I feel noticeably more relaxed and at peace. The chatter about my life is still there, but its background to the brilliant first light of the morning and to the last sharp, orange, light of late afternoon. Its background to the rain in the green valleys and the rainbows arching over them. Its background to an overall sense of well-being and a feeling that everything is exactly the way it should be.

It’s amazing what a difference it makes compared with the enormous amount of energy I normally spend on my To Do lists, or worrying, or worse–being angry and annoyed at all the damn traffic, which doesn’t get me to my destination any faster. Ironically (or not) meditating while driving is exactly opposite to texting while driving. I used to think meditation required shutting my brain down somehow and not thinking, and thereby transporting myself from here to elsewhere, in which case, driving and meditating would not be a good idea. But I’ve never been able to shut my brain off, which I have come to understand is not the point of meditation.

My definition of meditation now includes any time I can quiet that voice inside my head, enough to concentrate on doing only the task at hand, whether that is having a conversation with someone, or eating a meal, or playing tennis, or driving in traffic, or sitting quietly. In fact, I think the crux of meditation is to be able to do it in less than ideal conditions.

The vast, endless, sea of cars

And so I give my meditation muscles a big work out and sit in awe at the vast sea of cars stretching both as far forward in front of me and back behind me on six lanes of freeway. I think its worth a try. You might have a better day at work and return home to your families happy and refreshed. I know I am already feeling better about commuting home later today.

My first week of kindergarten…

…again. This time as a parent.

ahs_library

My recollection the first time around is a memory of surprise at recognizing a boy from preschool and…that’s about it. His name was Derek. This time around as a thirty something year-old, I am likely to remember a lot more including the monumental sigh of relief at making it to the first bell. In the lead-up to the first day I am overwhelmed by the wealth of things I had to do like obtain up-to-date vaccinations, register with a copy of my utility bill (to prove in-district location), and purchasing then labeling a myriad of school supplies with my kid’s name i.e. extra clothes, backpack, folders, art apron, and…each crayon/marker in 9 boxes worth of crayons/markers. Really? Continue reading

Older and wiser (and still looking good)

Cafe Julia

Cafe Julia

I recently celebrated my birthday with a long-time girlfriend who incidentally has exactly the same birthday as me. Since turning 21, birthdays have been fairly unremarkable, for me anyway. But this year’s birthday feels like a milestone of heavy proportions. It brings with it a tangible sense of aging (like fine wine rather than good cheese, thank you.) Continue reading

The day after enlightenment

Three years ago I discovered the secret to life. I was elated and on a high. Nothing could bother me. I felt free and as light as Dandelion seeds completely absent any resistance and taking flight easily whichever way the wind blew. Things that used to infuriate me just didn’t anymore. It simply wasn’t worth my energy to feel rotten and miserable. The secret I learned is that our energy is a precious commodity, even more precious than gems and diamonds.

The euphoria came because it wasn’t just a theory. It was knowledge infused into the very cells of my body. I was a superhero who went out into the world unable to spend my precious energy in any way that was wasteful. Continue reading