Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Wednesday, November 21, 2012 9:35 AM
Every day, new books arrive in the offices of Utne Reader. It would be impossible to review all of them, but a shame to leave many hidden on the shelves. In "Bookmarked," we link to excerpts from some of our favorites, hoping they'll inspire a trip to your local library or bookstore. Enjoy!
Mary Paterson was forty years old when her father died and felt suddenly
destabilized and adrift by the loss. Paterson’s response to this life
crisis was to embark on a pilgrimage to Plum Village, the retreat of
Nobel Prize-nominated Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Monks and Me (Hampton
Roads Publishing, 2012) chronicles her 40-day journey arriving at the
conclusion that it is important to always find a home within ourselves.
Mindful breathing and remembering The Four Noble Truths helps Paterson
find peace among distractions in this excerpt taken from the introduction.
Ana T. Forrest, creator of Forrest Yoga, says the key to self-actualization is to understand your fear and then hunt it down. It’s not about killing fear but becoming its ally—taking its power. Forrest’s book, Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit (HarperOne, 2012), chronicles her transformation from an abusive childhood to her position as a national leader in emotional healing through Yoga. In this excerpt from chapter one, “Stalking Fear,” she tells of how to get past one of the biggest blocks to happiness through self-study and training—how to go from victim of fear to its attacker.
Tammy Strobel lives with her husband in 128 square feet. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. After years of living with high stress and high debts, the pair changed their attitude toward the stuff in their lives, deciding to dramatically cut the clutter. Strobel blogged about the lifestyle changes and found a huge, receptive audience. You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too(New World Library, 2012) is her “biographical manifesto,” a combination of her story and advice on how to join the simplicity movement.
Thursday, March 15, 2012 1:40 PM
If you died today, what would be your paramount regret? Would you lament the fact that you never got the front porch painted; that you didn’t try that hot new restaurant; that there was one more project at work you wanted to wrap up?
Palliative caretaker Bronnie Ware spent years attending to hospice patients during the final weeks of their lives. In those achingly heavy days, she heard first-hand their regrets over missed opportunities, botched relationships, and squandered joys. Realizing what these end-of-life wishes could teach the rest of us, Ware collected the top five regrets of the dying for her blog Inspiration and Chai and republished them online with the AARP. The affecting list follows:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
It’s easy to inch dangerously close to these common regrets in our own lives. Workaholic family members should know that every one of Ware’s male patients regretted putting their job above their children and partners. Skip the late-night conference call! Too-busy young parents should beware of letting golden friendships grow cold. (“Everyone misses their friends when they are dying,” Ware says.) Have a drink with an old pal! And all of us should remember the most common regret: not being true to oneself. Unleash all those beautiful quirks and aspirations!
The U.S. edition of Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing will be released this month. Gratefully, she hints it has a happy ending, noting that each of the people she cared for came to terms with their regrets and even made major life changes to remedy them.
“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality,” she writes. “I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal.” It’s not too soon for the rest of us to make changes, either—good health or not. Don’t wait.
Image by April Johnson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012 10:43 AM
Was Frankenstein actually about childbirth?
Buying this thing will make you happy.
Grope and Pillage: The woeful budget track record of the TSA.
Every year in Colombia there are hundreds of reported cases of the criminal use of burundanga, a mysterious drug that allegedly robs victims of their free will.
The Great New-York-to-Paris Automobile Race of 1908.
Life lessons learned in a French cemetery.
A historical manuscripts cataloger spends her days archiving old letters, novel drafts, diaries, and odds and ends like Dickens’ cigar case and a lottery ticket signed by George Washington.
Glorious day—new literary prizes for fiction and nonfiction writers!
Why most people get divorced in March.
Bored at work? Get started on one of these: A mural made from 450,000 staples.
Forget your thinking cap. Slip on a white lab coat to focus your brain on a tricky task.
The next time you cut your finger, you could save a life. A new project aims to include a bone-marrow donor sign-up kit in Band-Aid boxes. Dab some blood on the included card, put it in the provided envelope and mail it to a lab, and join the ranks of donors. “I wanted to make it as fucking simple as possible to do something good,” says Graham Douglas, the man behind the idea.
Image by D’mooN, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 4:49 PM
You may have tried buying your way to happiness with new shoes and elaborate getaways; tickets to the big game and a sweet rebuilt guitar; the more-than-twelve-dollar bottle of wine and anything from MartinPatrick3. But recent studies suggest a different method: Give away money and get happy.
Researchers find that donating money to a deserving cause or financially helping a friend or family member in need raises the happiness level of the giver, writes Linda Wasmer Andrews in Psychology Today. She lists several reasons for the uptick:
First, it may foster a sense of social connectedness. One theory posits that the more modest your means, the more you and your close family and friends may need to rely on one another to get by; hence, the greater focus on generosity.
Second, donating money gives you a sense of making a difference. That’s a welcome antidote to the feeling of helplessness that can come from watching wild stock market gyrations and wildly frustrating budget stalemates.
Interestingly, there’s a negative physical response to being closefisted with your cash:
[S]haring even a little money may reduce your body’s stress response. [Psychologist] Elizabeth Dunn…led another recent study that looked at how monetary stinginess affects cortisol, a stress hormone. In the study, college students played an economic game, for which they were paid $10. Students had the option of donating some of this payment to another player. Those who kept more of the money for themselves reported feeling more shame. And greater shame, in turn, predicted higher levels of postgame cortisol.
In these times of economic disparity and the 99 percent vs. the 1, doling out money to achieve happiness can seem futile, but Andrews suggests there’s power in the giving. “A case can be made that giving away a few bucks is good not only for your soul, but also for your mind and body,” she writes. “No matter the amount, reminding yourself that you still have the wherewithal to share could be just what you need.”
Source: Psychology Today
Image by josey4628, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011 4:51 PM
We can learn how to cook like the French. We can learn how to speak Mandarin and Swahili and Portuguese. Can we also uncover the secrets of happiness around the world and learn how to find our bliss?
What, exactly, makes people happy is difficult to discern, but psychologists Ed Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener have conducted dozens of international studies to dig up clues. “The researchers’ questions were part of a bigger project to measure happiness across the globe,” reports Suzann Pileggi Pawelski in Scientific American Mind. “The Gallup World Poll, which includes a psychological assessment of people in 155 countries, shows that nations vary enormously in how happy their citizens are.”
The Dieners, and other scientists like them, detect several basic building blocks to happiness, including “social capital” (which includes the amount of trust citizens have for each other), strong ties with family and friends, a sense of belonging, pride in your country, and a lack of materialism.
But, surveying a country’s happiness level can be tricky: There are multiple perceptions of happiness, and the questions researchers ask make a difference. When polled on “life satisfaction” (an overall appraisal of life, including work, income, and relationships), the rankings look like this:
Highest levels of happiness:
Lowest levels of happiness:
1. Sierra Leone
When polled on “positive feelings” (enjoyment, smiling, and laughing), the results changed:
Highest levels of happiness:
1. Costa Rica
Lowest levels of happiness:
4. Sierra Leone
The Diener father-son team and other happiness researchers still have more evidence to unearth before finding the formula for joy. For now, perhaps we should hedge our bets and live like Canadians….
Source: Scientific American Mind(excerpt only available online)
Image by J E Theriot, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 4:37 PM
Your therapist’s happiness level rises when you visit her couch. Firefighters are delighted to help you get Kitty out of a tree. Sins to confess to your priest or minister? He’s tickled to hear them.
Psychologist, firefighter, and clergy are included in the list of the “10 happiest jobs” based on data collected via the General Social Survey of the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “Since experts say that social interaction drives job satisfaction, it makes sense that clergy are happiest of all,” Christian Science Monitor writes. “Social interaction and helping people [is a] combination that’s tough to beat for job happiness.”
This formula explains why teachers and physical therapists are on the list, but also included are autonomous, creative professions like author and artist, and labor-intensive jobs like operating engineer. “Operating engineers get to play with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors,” says the Monitor. And, “with more jobs for operating engineers than qualified applicants, no wonder they are happy.” The full list follows:
3. Physical therapists
5. Special education teachers
9. Financial services sales agents
10. Operating engineers
Interestingly, many of the occupations that fall at the bottom of the job-satisfaction list involve information technology, which can create isolating work, notes Forbes:
1. Director of information technology
2. Director of sales and marketing
3. Product manager
4. Senior web developer
5. Technical specialist
6. Electronics technician
7. Law clerk
8. Technical support analyst
9. CNC machinist
10. Marketing manager
Where does your job fall on the happiness scale? Are you bolstered by the helping hand you extend to others or satisfied by what you create—or should you pack it all in and learn to drive a bulldozer?
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Forbes
Image by velvettangerine, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 09, 2011 4:39 PM
Economic equality equals happiness. So suggests a new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. In order for Americans to be truly blissed out, it finds, we need to close the gap between our wealthiest and poorest citizens.
“In 1980, the average American CEO’s income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher,” writes Carmen Sobczak in YES! Magazine. “Over the past four decades, according to the study, the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.”
The study, lead by Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia, took into account economic and psychological factors when examining data taken from 50,000 individuals between 1972 and 2008. Not surprisingly it was the lower-income participants—those in the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population—who expressed reduced happiness during periods of greater economic disparity, but their reasons for dissatisfaction were unexpected. Expains Sobczak:
People weren’t unhappy just because their income was lower. Instead, the authors’ analysis revealed that greater inequality was linked to reductions in trust and perceived fairness—and it was drops in those attitudes that made people feel less happy.... Oishi and his colleagues argue that their results may explain why economic growth has not been accompanied by increases in happiness in the United States, unlike in other developed nations. The problem, they suggest, is that gains in national wealth in the U.S. haven’t been distributed equally, and this inequality has caused Americans’ happiness to suffer.
Oishi offers this lucent formula to fix our happiness dilemma: “If the ultimate goal of society is to make its citizens happy, then it is desirable to consider policies that produce more income equality, fairness, and general trust.”
Sources: YES! Magazine
Image by Amber de Bruin, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011 3:23 PM
Introverts, stand proud. Even in our world of ever-increasing extraversion and oversharing, there are advantages to keeping life close to the vest.
“We don’t all have to be extraverts to be happy,” writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, author of The Search for Fulfillment, for Psychology Today. “Recognizing and appreciating the complexity of introversion can allow you to accept yourself for who you are, one facet at a time.”
Whitbourne, in fact, lists six facets of the introversion-extraversion scale—warmth, gregariousness, activity level, assertiveness, excitement seeking, and positive emotion—and explains how introversion in these areas can be beneficial to our relationships, personal fulfillment, and general well-being. For example, she says:
You may not be the first person someone meets when they go to a party, but you may be the most interesting once someone gets to know you.
When forced to be alone, gregarious people can easily go stir crazy. People low on gregariousness instead are just fine being by themselves and involving themselves in quiet contemplation.
Because [introverts] react slowly to situations as they develop, they’re unlikely to commit the kind of social gaffes that people who have a higher reactance can make. Not only that, but being thoughtful and low key can make you an easier companion than someone who always needs to be on the go.
Curious to know if you’re a certified introvert? Take the Big 5 Personality Test, a simplified version of the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R), and discover where you rank on the five fundamental dimensions of personality—including introversion vs. extraversion. I’d tell you my scores but, in true introvert fashion, I don’t want to reveal too much.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by gill.holgate, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 10:14 AM
Happiness. Well being. Living fully. The good life. If you’re an Utne reader you might call it mindful living. But what does it all really mean? And how do we find it?
The summer issue of ARCADE tries to tackle those questions from a design perspective. Guest editor Ray Gastil introduces a section called “The Good Life Reconsidered” with a short essay pondering what role design can and will play on the road to a sustainable future and a good life. “Design is a way of thinking,” Gastil writes, “and it has an extraordinarily powerful ability to shape the way we live, and in particular, the way we choose to live.”
Sustainability advocates know that they have to present a future that is desired and chosen, not mandated and enforced. If we are open to it, design can harness the power of aspiration and choice, leading to diverse new ways of thinking, whether from the corporate suite or down the street. We can design a smart, green life, but it needs to have rewards.
Following that introduction we get opinions on the matter from a range of voices, like a reminder from Jessica Geenen, program manager for the Energy Efficient Communities program at Puget Sound Energy, that the “word ‘community’ comes from the Latin roots cum, meaning ‘with,’ and munus, meaning ‘responsibility.’”
There’s also a call for “biophilic neighborhoods” from Tim Beatley, a professor of sustainable communities:
I would like to propose…that we significantly update the neighborhood concept to better take into account our growing appreciation for the value and need to reconnect with nature and natural systems, building on the insights of “biophilia,” a concept popularized by E. O. Wilson. In Biophila, Wilson defines the term as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” something essential for healthy, happy, productive humans and an essential quality of urban life.” Nature, we increasingly understand, is not something optional, but absolutely essential to modern daily life, and not something to be relegated to the occasional visit to some mostly remote place we think of as “nature”—something “over there.”
Those and many more take on the issue of how where and how we live can lead to “the good life,” whatever that may be. What’s your definition of that tricky phrase? And how does your neighborhood, community, and work life lead you toward achieving that definition?
Image by blhphotography, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 17, 2011 10:35 AM
I have vivid childhood memories of the swing that hung from my grandmother’s massive cottonwood tree. Under the shimmering leaves in early summer, I would perch on the wooden plank of a seat, grab onto the thick, rough rope tied to a branch twenty feet above, and pump my legs until I was kicking the clouds. The simple swing offered pure, easy happiness.
Artist Jeff Waldman is spreading that youthful joy around. According to The Huffington Post and funder The Awesome Foundation, he and his friends have installed public wood-and-rope swings in San Francisco, the Marshall Islands, Panama, and, most recently, Los Angeles. Waldman explains the enthusiam for his guerilla swing project:
What started last year as a conversation about the simplistic pleasures of swings has launched into a multi-city experiment in unexpected joy and cerebral happiness. Via contact info we left on the wooden seats, we’ve received notes from those that used them, talking about the surprising smiles that were left on their faces…. The joy felt and the urge to spread it was contagious.
Next up on their quest to spread the bliss of swinging: Bolivia. The country was chosen for the project because of its poverty level and the age of its population (49 percent of Bolivians are under 20), among other factors. “Essentially Bolivia is a country largely populated by children, few of whom ever get to enjoy that childhood,” Waldman writes on his Kickstarter fundraising page. “If ever there was a place in need of a return to innocence and a reminder of the distilled joys in life, this is it.”
Watch an uplifting video documenting Waldman’s work so far and his vision for Bolivia. I guarantee you’ll want to start swinging.
Sources: Huffington Post, The Awesome Foundation, Kickstarter
Image courtesy of Jeff Waldman.
Friday, June 10, 2011 11:32 AM
Those who have taken care of a seriously ill partner, a child with special needs, or an incapacitated parent on a long-term basis know the relentless, sapping strain of it. Kristin Neff—a professor of human development and mother of an autistic son, writing for Psychology Today—opines that every caregiver should practice self-compassion to “recharge our batteries and have the emotional energy needed to serve others.”
What, exactly, is self-compassion? Neff turns to the writings of various Buddhist scholars to draw out three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. She explains:
Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail and make mistakes. Mindfulness involves being aware of one’s painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor obsesses about disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life.
Though we can all benefit from practicing self-compassion, Neff sees it as crucial for overburdened, and sometimes underappreciated, caregivers. “Not only will it help to get through difficult situations,” she says, “it will lead to greater happiness and peace of mind.” She continues:
As a mother of a child with autism, I can tell you what a lifesaver self-compassion was for me…. When my son screamed and screamed because his nervous system was being overloaded and I couldn’t figure out the cause, I would soothe myself with kindness. When my son lost it in the grocery store and strangers gave me nasty looks because they thought I wasn’t disciplining my child properly, I’d give myself the compassion I wasn’t receiving from others. In short, self-compassion helped me cope, and that put me in the balanced emotional mind state needed to deal skillfully with whatever new challenges confronted me.
Want to find out how much self-compassion you have? Take Neff’s online test.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by kevinpoh, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 4:52 PM
Ever wondered what makes the super rich lose sleep at night? A new, uniquely intimate survey conducted by Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy reveals the most personal fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams of America’s affluent, reports Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.
The evocative survey questionnaire—which asks questions like, “How would you describe the ultimate goal or deepest aspiration for your life?”—was completed by 165 respondents with an average net worth of $78 million. Among them were jet-setting world travelers, super-yacht owners, and family-fortune beneficiaries who have never, ever had to worry about making rent.
Even so, one respondent noted that “he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion dollars in the bank,” writes Wood.
Such complaints sound, on their face, preposterous. But just as the human body didn’t evolve to deal well with today’s easy access to abundant fat and sugars, and will crave an extra cheeseburger when it shouldn’t, the human mind, apparently, didn’t evolve to deal with excess money, and will desire more long after wealth has become a burden rather than a comfort.
Just as money fails to provide a sense of financial security, the survey also suggests it fails to provide emotional well-being. The respondents listed a host of wealth-related anxieties: that many of their relationships hinge on their wealth; that they’ll be perceived as shallow and ungrateful if they dare to bellyache about their lives; and—most commonly—that their kids will grow up to be spoiled trust-fund brats.
While the study is skewed to reveal the emotional innerworkings of only the people who took time to answer a computer survey, the results hint that those of us with less money in our wallets enjoy some things the wealthy don’t have—including the delusion that next year’s raise or winning lottery ticket just might buy us greater joy. The very rich already suspect that wealth isn’t the answer, Wood concludes:
If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But the truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one’s children won’t grow up to be creeps.
Source: The Atlantic
Image by Tracy O, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 18, 2011 5:00 PM
I miss the days before iPhones. With pocket-sized, portable, 24-hour access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s entirely possible to fill every free second with other people’s family photos, favorite song lyrics, video links, and ideas without connecting to them—or to ourselves—in a significant way.
In Tricycle magazine, Lori Deschene, founder of the website Tiny Buddha, asks us to take a deep breath and rethink our online lives with ten ways to use social media mindfully.
Deschene advises that we examine our intentions before posting, experience life now and share it later, give ourselves permission to ignore yesterday’s stream, and always represent our authentic selves. She writes:
In the age of personal branding, most of us have a persona we’d like to develop or maintain. Ego-driven tweets focus on an agenda; authenticity communicates from the heart. Talk about the things that really matter to you.
And before you flood the Internet with every minor rumination, question if your contribution to the online ether is worthwhile. Deschene reminds us:
The greatest lesson we can all learn is that less is enough. In a time when connections can seem like commodities and online interactions can become casually inauthentic, mindfulness is not just a matter of fostering increased awareness. It’s about relating meaningfully to other people and ourselves.
Image by Alan Stokes, licensed under Creative Commons
Thursday, April 07, 2011 4:53 PM
Finding time for meditation is tricky, but I steal a few moments for it whenever I can: while reclined in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the hygienist; while riding the pleasantly rumbling bus on a morning commute; and, on increasingly rare occasions, while sitting on my bedroom floor in half lotus position. At this woefully meager rate, however, enlightenment—or any of meditation’s benefits—seems miles away.
For devout meditators (some with more than 10,000 meditation hours under their belts), meditation provides clear rewards. Scientists have indicated that meditation can alter experienced meditators’ brains, changing their gray matter to improve concentration and mental health. Now, even the time-crunched masses can enjoy the positive results of meditation, reports Jason Marsh in Greater Good. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagingreveals that “meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy,” Marsh writes.
Researchers studied 16 participants in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. None of them were master meditators, yet their brains were changed by 30-minute meditation sessions.
“When their brains were scanned at the end of the program, their gray matter was significantly thicker in several regions than it was before,” writes Marsh. He continues:
One of those regions was the hippocampus, which prior research has found to be involved in learning, memory, and the regulation of our emotions. The gray matter of the hippocampus is often reduced in people who suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers also found denser gray matter in the temporo-perietal junction and the posterior cingulated cortex of the meditators’ brains—regions involved in empathy and taking the perspective of someone else—and in the cerebellum, which has been linked to emotion regulation.
Carving out even 30 minutes a day for meditation can feel daunting, but Marsh points out that every little bit counts:
The upshot of all this research seems to be: Small steps matter. Many of us can bring about positive effects on our brains and overall well-being—without an Olympic effort.
Source: Greater Good
Image by titanium22, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 11, 2011 10:30 AM
Can anyone truly measure happiness? The folks at Gallup are giving it everything they’ve got. Their Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, active for the past three years, is a daily assessment of U.S. residents’ health and general well-being. Seven days a week, 350 days a year (taking time off only for major holidays), Gallup intensively interviews at least 1,000 adults on topics relating to their emotional and physical health, work and home life, and access to basic needs like food, shelter, and health care.
This month, the New York Times mapped Gallup’s results and enlisted them to find the happiest person in America by making a composite based on their exhaustive statistics.
Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. A few phone calls later and…
Meet Alvin Wong. He is a 5-foot-10, 69-year-old, Chinese-American, Kosher-observing Jew, who’s married with children and lives in Honolulu. He runs his own health care management business and earns more than $120,000 a year.
If you’re disappointed that Alvin Wong was named the happiest American alive today, don’t worry. Tomorrow, it could be you.
Sources: Gallup-Healthways, New York Times
Image by manduhsaurus, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011 10:41 AM
I’ve been hearing about Bhutan a lot these days. Namely, I’ve been hearing about their pursuit of happiness as a country, as defined by their GNP or Gross National Happiness—the country’s answer to the almighty gross domestic product (GDP). So entrenched are we in the ubiquitous language of GDP, it’s easy to hear talk of National Happiness as synonymous with unicorns and pots of gold at the end of rainbows. How can a country hope to define its national well being in terms of happiness? It’s hard enough for us to say if we’re happy or not on an individual level, much less to try and tell the whole country, Come on, get happy!
In an interview with YES! Magazine Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley attempts to explain how his country is pursuing the goal of happiness for all:
First, we are promoting sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development which can be measured to a larger extent through conventional metrics.
Second is the conservation of a fragile ecology, [using] indicators of achievement, [such] as the way the green [vegetation] cover in my country has expanded over the last 25 years from below 60 to over 72 percent….
The third strategy is promotion of culture, which includes preservation of the various aspects of our culture that continue to be relevant and supportive of Bhutan’s purpose as a human civilization….
Then there is the fourth strategy—good governance [in the form of democracy]—on which the other three strategies or indicators depend.
Those are lofty goals for any nation. But, then again, no one said it would be easy. Which is exactly Andrew Guest’s point in Oregon Humanities. An associate professor of psychology at the University of Portland, Guest makes the case that “Being happy…is much more complicated than it sounds.” The modern science of happiness, Guest tells us, is known as “positive psychology” and it focuses not just on reducing suffering, but increasing happiness through psychology and psychiatry. But just how to do that is still anyone’s guess, with much of the measurement coming from the subjective perception of individuals through rating systems where they define their own happiness (e.g. 1 for not all that happy; 7 for really happy). And while there is a whole field based around studying levels of happiness, Guest points out that happiness may not change much even when an individual’s circumstances change drastically. In other words, if you define yourself as happy now, you’ll probably define yourself as happy 40 years from now.
And then there are the critics who say the very pursuit of happiness is shallow and contributes to much of the suffering in the world. Guest references books like Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich and Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, summing up their ideas—maybe over simplistically—as, “Do you think gaping economic inequalities, unjust wars, and ferocious un/underemployment are problems? Don’t worry, be happy.”
So, are there ways to pursue happiness, both as an individual and as a nation? Guest says it may “come back to a formulation that Freud famously (and perhaps apocryphally) proposed a century ago: love and work.” That is, healthy relationships and meaningful work seem to be important factors in measuring happiness. Prime Minister Thinley seems to agree, saying, “Today, Bhutanese have an appreciable sense of pride and dignity about themselves, which I think, again, is key to happiness. Family values and community vitality are things that we are promoting in a very conscious way.”
Thinley is confused by what he sees as a lack of dialogue in the U.S. about “what matters most”—happiness. “I hope that more will listen, hear, think and speak out what they have in their mind,” he says, “rather than be afraid because it is unconventional to talk about happiness.” In Professor Guest’s classroom, though, that conversation is happening. When he hears his students proclaim that they “just want to be happy,” he wants to tell them, “Happiness…is more complicated than it sounds—but it is also much more interesting.”
Source: YES! Magazine, Oregon Humanities
Image by jmhullot, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 15, 2010 2:20 PM
It seems that extraverts increasingly rule the world: People tell all on reality shows, long to be the next American Idol, and rush to share everything about their lives via phone, e-mail, and the Internet. But psychotherapist and Introvert Power author Laurie Helgoe reminds us in Psychology Today that introverts haven’t gone away. We’re just quietly dealing with the demands of living in a loud, in-your-face society that doesn’t understand us—even in its insistence that it just wants us to be happy:
Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.
As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal—they’d rather find meaning than bliss—making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.
If you’re saying “Right on!” then you too are probably an introvert, whose ranks compose a full half of the populace but whose behavior still seems suspect to many—including mental health professionals, apparently. The World Health Organization still pathologizes introversion, and the American Psychiatric Association is “considering a proposal to include introversion in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5),” Helgoe wrote with Nancy Ancowitz on the Psychology Today website:
In the United States giddy and garrulous are good, and quiet and contemplative are suspect. The WHO’s definition and APA’s proposed definition of introversion align with that rigid Western bias.
It seems that things haven’t gotten a whole lot better for introverts since Jonathan Rauch wrote his short essay “Caring for Your Introvert” for The Atlantic in 2003, a deftly written manifesto that was widely circulated.
Helpfully, Psychology Today drops a few tips on what not to say to introverts:
• “Why don’t you like parties? Don’t you like people?”
• “Surprise, we’ve decided to bring the family and stay with you for the weekend.”
• Above all, says one life and leadership coach, “We hate people telling us how we can be more extraverted, as if that’s the desired state.”
Sources: Psychology Today, The Atlantic
Friday, August 20, 2010 8:43 AM
The world's happiest countries have been announced, and three of the top five are among the least religious countries in the world, reports Alfredo Garcia at Religion News Service. Garcia acknowledges that this "might be like comparing apples to bookshelves" and that "measures of 'happiness' or 'religiosity' can often be so vague and difficult to quantify that they lose their meaning" but it's a notable finding all the same. Here's more:
The nations taking the top spots include: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. This might not come as a surprise to many who have been to these nations. What is surprising, however, is that three of these five nations are among the top 10 least religious nations in the world (also from Gallup).
Indeed, Sweden, Denmark and Norway came in at second, third, and fourth, respectively. Only Estonia was less religious than these nations.
(Thanks, Religion Dispatches.)
Source: Religion News Service
Image by Stig Nygaard, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 06, 2010 2:52 PM
The word is airports: What comes to mind? The astonishing carbon footprint of a single flight, perhaps? Equipped with a standard guilty-liberal reflex, that’s what pops into my head—so I was sort of thrilled to encounter a little interview in Psychology Today that reminded me of another airport feeling: that of electric, transformative space.
Check it out: Last fall author/philosopher Alain de Botton became Heathrow Airport’s first “writer in residence,” spending a week stationed at a desk in a terminal writing A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. (From the outset, it was an intriguing exercise: Heathrow paid de Botton the equivalent of an advance, while de Botton retained creative control and the rights to the resulting book.) His chat about the experience with Psychology Today doesn’t appear to be online, so here’s the snippet that tickled me:
What do you see when you live in an airport that you don’t see when you’re rushing to make a plane?
Pure anticipation. People who are rushing to their flights imagine a future without having to live it yet. On the ground, we are more likely to admit that the future will not deliver on its ideal prospects. We may never be has happy as we are in the moments prior to takeoff on a trip.
Of course, anticipation is just that. More food for thought from de Botton:
You’ve written that we travel to find happiness but fail to get there.
In Western culture, there’s a feeling that if you change the décor, or the landscape around you, you will easily be transformed into a calmer, happier person. But that’s a crazy, naïve, childish idea.
One problem with modern travel is that we don’t meet people. People who traveled in premodern times would pitch up in a new town with a recommendation or a letter and find themselves having dinner with six interesting people. Today most of us arrive and go to the Statue of Liberty or a museum. We don’t have any human contact.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Ana Santos, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 30, 2009 11:24 AM
John de Graaf, filmmaker, co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and Executive Director of Take Back Your Time, is reporting for Utne.com from the International Gross National Happiness Conference.
John de Graaf's first dispatch
Held in an enormous hotel in the southern Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, the International Gross National Happiness conference began with a talk from an acknowledged world expert in the field, economics professor John Helliwell, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He led the entire audience of 700 people in rousing if not always on-key English and Portuguese versions of the “happiness theme song,” an old favorite I remembered from childhood:
The more we get together, together, together,
The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.
For your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends.
The more we get together the happier we’ll be.
Social connection, Helliwell stressed, is a key to happiness. But as a worldwide Gallup Poll of 140 countries over three years reveals, other factors matter more than our economic measure of well-being, the Gross Domestic Product. Income is not irrelevant—the highest scores for happiness are found in wealthier countries. Freedom from hunger and physical insecurity is a must. But after moderate levels of comfort and security are met, other factors assert themselves.
Among them are a sense of control over one’s life, government as free as possible from corruption, friends and relatives one can count on, trust in one’s neighbors, generosity (a key question in the poll is “Have you donated to charity this year?”), freedom (another question: “Do you have the freedom to do what you choose in life?”—consistently, contrary to what Americans might expect, the highest scores on this question come in precisely the Scandinavian countries we often mock as “nanny states”).
Religion is definitely a plus for individuals, but probably because it helps build social connections. Countries with the most religious fervor, like the United States, don’t necessarily rank near the top in life satisfaction. The consistent happiness champion? Denmark—with Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden not far behind.
Jon Hall, an Englishman now with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, followed Dr. Helliwell with encouraging news. The OECD (made up of about thirty of the world’s richest nations) is looking for a whole new set of indicators on which to judge the progress of member countries. Its new “Global Project” aims at collecting so-called “best practices”—social and economic policies that are clearly shown to increase life satisfaction.
Hall cited other good news: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, only two years ago the champion of economic growth and American-style economics, recently organized a commission led by Nobel Prize economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. The commission called for a focus on indicators such as health, family cohesion and leisure time instead of the current emphasis on GDP.
A new European Commission is called “GDP and Beyond,” and OECD’s recent World Forum in Pusan, South Korea, brought together two thousand researchers and activists to consider policies built on measures of life satisfaction, rather than economic growth. “It really is a movement now,” Hall declared. The point is to find ways that can clearly tell us whether people are satisfied or suffering. “Statistics,” as they are now, Hall suggested, “are people with their tears washed away.”
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 1:14 PM
Spiritual children are in general more happy than children who don’t have spiritual aspects to their lives, according to research from the University of British Columbia. Religious practices, on the other hand, don’t have the same positive effect. LiveScience reports, “Religion is just one institutionalized venue for the practice of or experience of spirituality,” and it’s spirituality, not religion, that predicts happiness.
That dichotomy between spirituality an religion isn’t particularly helpful to tease apart spirituality and religion.” Many religions fuse together aspects of family life, social justice, and community making the split between spirituality and religion nearly impossible to define.
I’m not so sure you can
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1:58 PM
Last spring, Utne Reader scrutinized the rise of obligatory office fun, a trendy corporate core value that the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash dubbed a “condescending infantilization” of the workplace. Whether the intentions were noble or purely monetary (happy is good; happy employees are also more productive), it was clear that top-down injections of joviality into the workplace weren’t panning out. We were left to wonder: When did our jobs become jokes?
Fast forward to just over a year later. Unemployment is projected to continue rising throughout the next year and to remain elevated for 5 years, reports the Washington Post. Those of us who do have jobs feel the strain of keeping them, and/or having nowhere else to turn. What was tacky—funsultants, gleetivities—has become downright distasteful.
Somber as the mood might be, this isn’t the time to abandon the pursuit of happiness in the workplace, say the editors of Greater Good. On the contrary: It is precisely in this climate that we should be thinking about what “employers and employees alike [can] do to make their workplaces happier, more satisfying places to be.”
To that end, the online-only magazine, a publication of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, has devoted its July 2009 web exclusives to the question of happiness in the workplace. Journalist Alex Frankel shares a few lessons he researching his book about workplace culture, Punching In. Frankel’s first piece of advice, especially for hourly employees, is to “go for flow.”
“Most hourly jobs treat time as monochronic,” Frankel writes, meaning work is viewed as a linear progression of tasks, each happening without overlap. This mindset drives employees toward clock-watching, which is problematic, since “perceptions of time . . . are closely linked to the employees’ feeling of freedom: The more constrained the environment, the slower things moved, and the less happy employees were.”
Frankel experienced the alternative while working at a computer retail store: “At Apple, the polychronic view of time prevailed, so that we could do several things simultaneously, manage our own tasks, and feel pride in accomplishing things, as opposed to just waiting out the hours.”
Greater Good also taps an Australian positive psychologist, Timothy Sharp, for his two cents. Sharp’s advice is geared more toward the organizational level, practices that wise managers might take note of to nurture employee morale in unhappy times. Sharp asked 50 people to name the top “keys” to happiness in the workplace. The responses, which he characterizes as “remarkably consistent,” included providing leadership and values, communicating effectively, giving thanks, focusing on strengths, and—wouldn’t you know—having fun. Just hold the gleetivities.
Sources: Weekly Standard, Washington Post, Greater Good
Image by joshuahoffmanphoto, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 1:14 PM
Money can’t buy happiness. In fact, it can make you less happy. According to ScienCentral, researchers followed recent college graduates for two years after graduation and found that attaining intrinsic goals, like rewarding relationships and contributing to the community, increased psychological health and well-being. On the other hand, psychology professor Edward Deci said that achieving extrinsic goals, like money and prestige, “actually contributes to their greater ill-being, which is to say more anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
The study’s authors defined extrinsic goals like money and happiness as “American Dream” goals. According to a recent documentary by American RadioWorks, the American dream is often defined as: “you are what you acquire, like a home, a car or two, or a large-screen TV.” It wasn’t always that way, however. The documentary tracks the evolution of the phrase, from its idealistic roots to its more consumerist meaning. Years ago, the American dream was closer to “the chance to better your circumstances no matter what your family name or what your station was.”
Sources: ScienCentral, American RadioWorks
Thursday, April 23, 2009 11:46 AM
The recent issue of The Sun features an interview with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (article not available online), a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, director of the University of North Carolina’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab and author of the upcoming book Positivity.
While humans pay more attention to negative experiences—an evolutionary result of having to constantly scan for threats—positive moments are far more abundant. Fredrickson says a focus on day-to-day feelings of satisfaction can lead to a happier life, and that an awareness of the present moment, paying attention to human kindness, and enjoying nice weather can increase positivity.
Positive emotions can also affect how we perceive people of other races. Scientists had found that when looking at people of a different race, we often look at individual facial features. People “use the same process they use to recognize objects, which suggests there’s some dehumanization going on,” Fredrickson says. “But what we’re finding is that, under the influence of positive emotions, people use the same holistic process for cross-race faces that they use for faces of their own race. It’s as if people, when they’re feeling good, are better able to see the full humanity of people of a different race.”
Still, denying negative emotions is unrealistic. Fredrickson instead advocates taking stock of the positive moments. “Negativity doesn’t always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice.”
Sources: The Sun
Image by Christine Szeto, licensed under Creative Commons
Friday, January 30, 2009 1:06 PM
In such depressing economic times, the phrase “money can't buy happiness” is at once wishful and trite. But it's worth a shot to at least try to let go of our national money obsession and instead focus on quality of life, isn’t it? That's why Yes! magazine has devoted their entire Winter 2009 issue to “Sustainable Happiness,” the balance between happiness for humans and the planet they inhabit.
Articles include one family’s success with a “no-buy” Christmas and a list of “10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy” with basic-but-true ideas like “Savor Everyday Moments” and “Avoid Comparisons.”
Image by Sabrina Campagna, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 1:24 PM
The fact that friends influence their friends’ moods should be no surprise, but new research shows that friends-of-friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends—even those who’ve never met—have the power to influence each other’s moods, too.
The influence people hold over other people's moods wanes the further apart they are socially, according to the research reported in the New Scientist. A person is 15 percent more likely to be happy if a friend is happy, but it drops to ten percent for friends of friends, and six percent for friends three-degrees-removed. Six percent may sound like a small number, but a $5000 raise has been shown to bump contentment by just two percent.
The influence ends at three degrees of separation, according to the researchers. After that point, sway through social networks becomes insignificant. Interestingly, the study suggests that social influence doesn’t operate in a simple ripple effect—three is apparently the magic number. After three degrees of separation, “a kind of social dissonance saps the transmission of behavior, almost like a wave.”
Monday, September 29, 2008 3:05 PM
Though National Singles Week (September 21-27) has come to a close, Bella DePaulo assures singletons that not being in a committed relationship does not necessarily equate to loneliness or solitude. DePaulo, a psychology professor and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Systematically Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, gives the lie to academic studies and conventional wisdom suggesting that married people are happier, and that a single life is an incomplete life.
DePaulo also targets discriminatory practices that favor married people, such as “the 1,136 federal benefits, protections, and privileges that are available only to people who are legally married” and the Family and Medical Leave Act. The 100 million unmarried American voters remain an untapped political demographic, DePaulo writes. And the media portrayal of marriage and couples’ culture is not doing people any favors.
“You are no more likely to live happily ever after if you get married than you were when you were single,” DePaulo writes. The statement could be reassuring or unsettling, demanding on your point of view.
Image by desdetasmania.blogspot.com, licensed by Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008 1:29 PM
Megan Hustad has written a book called How to Be Useful, a self-described “beginner’s guide to not hating work.” Rather than bombard us with, say, seven habits of highly successful people, or try to tell us what color our parachute is, Hustad explores some fundamental ways in which people can be happier at their jobs by making themselves more useful, even if they’re not at their Dream Job, or are stuck working for The Man.
Hustad's career counseling comes at a fortuitous time for the under-30 set entering the workforce and struggling to find their niche, while their older colleagues wonder, sometimes bitterly, how to best manage coworkers in this generation. It's a clash we documented in “The Kid in the Corner Office” in our January/February 2008 issue.
Over at the Millions, Hustad is responding to various contributors’ descriptions of their first jobs out of college, positions at which—surprise surprise—they didn’t feel terribly useful. Readers can even submit their own first-job anecdotes, because misery sure loves company. In today’s troubled job market, we could all use a morale boost, and maybe become more useful in the process.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007 10:17 AM
Happiness is cheap. In fact, real happiness comes from little things like a chocolate bar, an afternoon nap, or a good book, Science Daily reports. University of Nottingham psychologist, Dr Richard Tunney compared the happiness of lottery winners with non-lottery winners, asking each group what they did to make themselves happy. The study found that "cost-free" activities, like pursuing a hobby or laying in a hammock, contributed more to happiness than buying stuff, even expensive stuff. "It appears that spending time relaxing is the secret to a happy life,” said Dr Tunney. “Cost-free pleasures are the ones that make the difference—even when you can afford anything that you want." This is good news for people who think that happiness is constantly out of reach: A good nap is really all people need. —Brendan Mackie
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