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What stuff do you need to be happy?

July 24th, 2009 · 10 Comments

A friend recently posed this question to me:  if I had to live on a deserted island for one year with no possibility of escape or rescue, what five things, other than basic survival things like food, water, and shelter would I want to have with me.

deserted-island1Here’s my list:

The Tao te Ching (unless there is electricity, then my Kindle, but that seems like cheating)
Paper
Pens
A watercolor kit with paint and brushes
A camera—I know, the electricity thing again, but we won’t be super-strict with the rules.

As I thought about this, I realized I could have fun and stay really absorbed.  And that alone is a happy thought.  I’d keep a journal, of course, and then write all the things I never get around to, teach myself to paint, and take lots of interesting pictures.  My island, as I imagine it, has interesting shells and rocks and birds and plants and driftwood for creative inspiration.

Through it all, I’d read the Tao to keep inspired.  Maybe I’d understand it better at the end of the year.

After doing this little exercise, these questions came to mind:

What possessions really add to our happiness?
What do we really need for entertainment, for inner growth, for self-expression?
What would we be willing to give up if resources were really limited?

What would you bring along with you?  And how would it be to be alone with yourself?  Post your answers in the comments section.

Tags: creativity · desire · happiness

Ten Reasons to be Creative

May 3rd, 2009 · No Comments

colored-pencils1.  It’s fun.

2.  Creativity is associated with positive emotions such as happiness, joy, and love. Contrary to popular myth, the negative emotions of fear, sadness, and anxiety stifle creativity.  Don’t believe it?  Read this.

3.  It’s useful.  When you need to solve a problem, you have more options to choose from if you can access creative solutions.

4.  It helps you access all of you. Creativity uses both right brain, wholisitc and image based brain processes as well as left brain, logical, verbal, sequential thinking.

5.  It requires you to take risks, which develops courage and confidence, and courage and confidence are handy things to have.

6.  It develops efficiency.  When you are comfortable thinking outside the box, you can get to new solutions more easily.

7.  It encourages you to experience “flow,” where you are so fully immersed in what you are doing, that you effortlessly lose your sense of time.

8.  It relieves boredom.

9.  It makes life way more interesting.

10.  Because you are creative.

Tags: creativity · flow · happiness · positive psychology · stillness

Happiness is Contagious

February 9th, 2009 · No Comments

Abstract Molecular Structure in Wireframe A study at Harvard Medical School released in December found that happiness spreads through social networks in amazing ways.  One happy person can trigger a happy reaction in a friend who can trigger a happy reaction in another friend, who can trigger another happy reaction in another friend, who (you guessed it) can trigger another happy reaction in yet another friend. In all, this chain reaction can spread three degrees away from the original happy person.

The influence is not only on friends.  Family members and even neighbors catch it, too.  And what’s even more amazing is that this joyous effect can last up to one whole year!

Here’s another finding of the study:  unhappiness is not as powerful as happiness.  Sad feelings do not spread as efficiently as joyful ones.

The study analyzed data from nearly 5,000 people and found that friends, families, and even neighbors can influence each other in ways that spread to indirect relationships-your happiness can influence your neighbor and her friends, her friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends.

What are some practical implications for those of us who seek to maximize our happiness?  That’s right, hang out with happy people and their friends.  And be aware that your mood can influence others far removed from you.

We may be separated by six degrees, but we are connected by our happiness through three degrees!

Tags: connection · happiness · positive psychology

How to Beautify the New York Subway

September 24th, 2008 · No Comments

Unless you’re a bazillionairre, if you live in New York City, you ride the subway. Suzanne, New Yorker I coach, absolutely despised her commute.  She complained bitterly about the griminess, the overcrowding, the behavior of the other riders.  It was absolutely intolerable, she told me.

Her commute took 45 minutes each way.  That’s more than 32 hours every month, a long stretch of misery in a life. She considered moving closer to work, even changing jobs, but couldn’t come up with a practical solution to the problem.

I had an idea.  “Begin looking for beauty on the subway,” I suggested.  Suzanne laughed cynically and patiently explained to me—a non-New Yorker—what was patently obvious to anyone with two eyes, a nose, and a brain: the New York subway is a human cesspool during weekday rush hour.  It was impossible to appreciate anything about it, and there was certainly no beauty to be found there, she assured me.

But I insisted. “Send me an email every day, telling me of the glorious, beautiful, amazing things you find on the subway.”  Suzanne left our session muttering that I’d given her an impossible assignment.

But she gamely began looking.  With Suzanne’s permission, here are some of the things she found in the next few days:

“We went over the Manhattan Bridge, over the East River. Out in the distance,  beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, three aircraft were buzzing around each other in the air. They were blimps, and they looked like giant honeybees drunk on pollen, bobbling to and fro over the water.”

“A kid had a little glass jar between his feet. It was strangely shaped, like it had contained an exotic food item purchased at an ethnic market in Brooklyn. It was filled with beautiful, thick, cloudy pink juice. Guava? Papaya-passion fruit?”

“The woman across the train had enormous boobs and beautiful deep black skin. The whites of her eyes were so bright in comparison to her skin they looked like keyholes of light in the door of a dark room.”

“This morning I couldn’t count the people wearing shades on the train! I guess when you’re cool you’ve always got the sun in your face.”

“A garish McDonald’s ad greets me and encourages me to ‘Think Good Thoughts….’”

“Ikea’s yellow flags wave in the distance on the waterfront. I bought a carpet there on Saturday night, and the water this morning is the exact same color of that carpet, gorgeous peacock blue.”

“There is a comfy, casual feeling on the train this morning… many wearing their Friday office attire. One woman looks so comfortable in her outfit I want her to take it off and let me put it on!”

“The faces of buildings and all of the bridges, walls, boats, water, cable lines, roads, signs are layered upon each other like a box of toys thrown around a room during a child’s tantrum.”

“Without anyone speaking, I know I am in the midst of various exotic tongues; Spanish, Polish, Korean, Russian, Israeli, Vietnamese, Czech, Yiddish, Mandarin, Hebrew.…”

“What a gift to be able to look at humanity up close and personal, to look at all of our differences, beauty, ethnicities, blemishes, scars… where else would I be able to notice the super-fine quality of a stranger’s hair follicles, the way his hair grows out of his head in the same direction, the tone of the skin on his scalp, eight inches from my face on this packed train?”

Within two weeks, the subway had transformed.  Suzanne no longer rides in a cesspool teeming with the worst examples of humanity.  Her last email about the subway ended with these words, “Everywhere I turn, there is opportunity for joy.”

As  Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”

How about you?  Is there anything ugly, disgusting, intolerable in your life?  Can you see it with new eyes?

Tags: creating your reality · happiness

Can You Be Smart AND Happy?

September 18th, 2008 · No Comments

This morning, I was coaching very smart client.  She’s an academic at a renowned university, and feeling a little sheepish about the possibility that she could actually be happy.  She has a brilliant, highly-trained mind, and like so many in academia, tends to be suspicious of mooshy concepts like joy and happiness.  Especially her personal joy and happiness.

Another client, a genius with two PhDs, spent years as an academic.  For a while, he resisted some of the more imaginative exercises I gave him.  Even when they helped him stop procrastinating, the issue he’d been paralyzed by and sought coaching for, he feared that, without empirical proof that the techniques worked, he was somehow being stupid for relying on them.   It seemed better to hang onto his dysfunction than to risk doing something that was potentially hocus-pocus. Better to be a brilliant procrastinator than a productive dupe, I guess.

I’ve done my own time in academia, as a law professor, which carries not only the general fear of academia (the worst fate in life is that others will find out I’m not smart), but also the pessimism of legal thinking (if something can go wrong, it probably will, so I have to be prepared for every possible negative contingency).  I spent a long time rejecting the possibility that I could be happy, even when I began to feel happy. I felt sheepish about it.  It seemed so, well, unlikely and foolish.

Ultimately, I got over it.  With practice and a bit of self-compassion my client can, too.

With The Joy Diet Group Dieting Adventure telecourse coming up, I’m thinking a lot about happiness and our resistance to it.  Isn’t is crazy?  A smart person can  justify staying miserable or dysfunctional, because if others find out we’re happy, they might think we’re not so smart.  Sometimes the smartest people do the silliest things, in the name of intelligence.

Tags: happiness · joy diet

Roller Coaster

August 20th, 2008 · No Comments

When you’re disappointed, does your mood plunge downward like it’s on a roller coaster?  Yesterday, my new client, let’s call her Susan, had plummeted like she was on the Coney Island Cyclone. She’d sought coaching after a string of business failures.  She suspected she might be doing something to attract this pattern into her life.

In a voice awash with misery and despair, she told me how she’d been incredibly happy this morning at the prospect of landing a fat new contract for her business, but a half-hour before our appointment, she received an email that the deal had fallen through. She was crushed and depressed.

“So what changed the way you feel?” I asked.

“The company changed its mind,” she stated dully.

“How would you feel right this minute if the email had gotten lost in the internet’s parallel universe, and you didn’t know about it?” I asked her.

“I’d feel great,” she said glumly, “at least until I found out.”

“So what really changed?” I asked.

With some coaching, Susan realized that her thoughts about herself had changed. When she believed she had the contract, she thought she was smart and competent and valued and felt energetic and excited about life. When she got the email, she told herself the company had rejected her and she was incompetent and useless. She became listless and empty.

As Susan discovered first-hand this morning, if we attach our happiness and self-worth to external circumstances, like a big contract, a promotion, or our children’s grades, we climb aboard life’s roller coaster. When circumstances are favorable, we are high, excited, exhilarated; when things change, we nose-dive to the bottom.

We hop on a roller coaster to take this ride when we lose touch with our true nature, what Martha Beck calls our essential self. Our essential self knows that we are always sparkling jewels, treasures of infinite value and worth. This has nothing to do with success in any external form–contracts or promotions or our kids’ grades or any other person or circumstance outside of us.

When we lose touch with that part of us, that all-knowing, peaceful, secure place deep in our hearts, we are at the mercy of life’s roller coaster. Our essential self gets buried by an avalanche of neediness and insatiable hunger for positive attention and rewards from others.

People change their minds, contracts fall through, kids fail courses, and others get selected for promotions and awards. That is the nature of life—change and unexpected circumstances are the only constants we can count on.

When we are in deep touch with our value, our worth, and the joy that lives deep inside us, we survive setbacks and challenges with peace and security. A contract can fall through, and we can put it into perspective. We remain positive and hopeful, and don’t slide into abusive or self-defeating thought patterns.

Sure, it feels good to land a big contract. But when we are in deep contact with our essential self, we never lose touch with our worth and our value, and we remain energized and hopeful. We understand that the loss of the contract could, in some as yet unfathomable way, be in our best interests. We save the roller coaster ride for fun and games at an amusement park. And, we realize that the next gift from life may be just an email away.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re on the Roller Coaster

1. Are you having any negative thoughts about yourself?

2. Is this an honest, factual assessment of this situation?

3. What happens to you when you hold on to these negative thoughts?

4. Imagine being in the present situation without the negative thoughts and judgments. Does anything shift for you?

5. Is there a stress-free reason to keep the negative thoughts about yourself?

6. What is an honest assessment of the situation that doesn’t include any negative or abusive thoughts about yourself or others?

7. Does this change the way you feel?

Tags: self-love