Some Kind of Kindness

Scenario one: you are in perfect health and in a loving relationship. You are not rich but your material needs are met. You live in a society that allows you to be yourself. However, people treat each other poorly. Kindness is rare and hardly anyone will ever lend a helping hand, no matter what the need. Are you happy there?

bolder4According to statistics, probably not. On the whole, people prefer to live in a society in which humans help each other. Whether it is a town picnic to raise money for the family hit with insane medical bills or a nationwide effort to send relief to flood victims, the fact that folks look out for each other, even somewhat, makes us all feel better. Interesting, huh?

Where do I get this idea? Well, several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I spent some time reading the report once I became intrigued to learn that six attributes account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed up the six categories as health, wealth, freedom, love, kindness and fairness. I’ve already written about the first four and today I’m thinking about kindness.

The very idea that humans prefer a world in which people look out for each other flies in the face of the writings and philosophies of a still popular author from the 1950’s named Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand grew up in a totalitarian country, and she brought her hatred of government and social obligations with her to the United States where her flair for writing fiction enabled her to reach a wide audience with her ideas. Part of her philosophy, known as objectivism, involved the importance of personal freedom and personal wealth, and these concepts resonated with many. It’s not surprising. Both have been shown to play an important role in human happiness.

raising8As to health and love, the heroes of Ms. Rand’s books were always in perfect health, in spite of smoking a great deal of cigarettes, and they generally found love, at least the romantic variety. However, they all really hated the idea of helping out anyone else, and I think this is where Ms. Rand ultimately lost a lot of followers.

One could argue that we prefer a kinder society simply because each of us hopes that we would be helped if we were in desperate need, but I think it is more than that. Somewhere deep inside, most of us get that we are linked. A natural disaster elsewhere effects us with its ripples, a tragedy in our town saddens not just our neighbors, but us as well. Pulling together to overcome the problems foisted on us by fate or by acts of human destruction makes us all realize that we are stronger together. Being strong feels good. Overcoming adversity makes us happy. We can overcome more adversity when we work together. Working together requires kindness. It’s an equation that resonates inside each of us.

sungazing4How did the happiness survey measure kindness? Good question. For each of the attributes they sought out simple, black and white yardsticks and in this case I do not think that they were able to find one that was adequate. They went with using philanthropy; normalizing donations made based on population and income. While this might be be somewhat indicative of kindness in wealthier counties, even there it also reflects extraneous variables like tax codes and social norms. And for countries in which people barely make enough to meet their own needs, helping others is more likely to be found in giving shelter or food to strangers, or by providing services like health care or construction help to those beset by disasters. These acts of generosity work to hold the society together and bring joy to all, and yet they were missed by the yardstick used. I suspect that many low-income countries received lower happiness scores because of this.

In the end, of course, no country’s ranking matters. What does matter is how the people who live there feel. Are they happy? If it is common to extend kindness, any kind of kindness, to others, then yes. They are happier because they do so.

 

 

Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”

Reason number one: Love makes us happy, and happiness is wonderful.

Several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I’m intrigued that six attributes account for most of this variation, and I summed them up as health, wealth, freedom, love, fairness and kindness. I’ve already written about the first three and today I’m thinking about love.

life lessons6Now, the people doing this survey were not asking questions about romantic love, wonderful as is it. They used a broader definition, by asking something more like “do you have people in your life that you care about and can depend on?” This careful wording included family members and close friends along with intimate partners, and as far as I’m concerned it covered every type of love inclined to bring one happiness. (Unrequited love for someone who does not know you exist doesn’t exactly bring a lot of smiles. A spirited discussion could be had as to whether it is love at all, but that is outside the scope of this post.) Suffice to say, if you have people, or a person, you care about and who care enough about you back that you feel you can count on them, then you have love. Lucky you.

love wins2. “Love Wins” has become associated with the LGBTQ community’s struggles for marriage equality and other rights. I’m a heterosexual woman with a 34-year traditional marriage, and an avid supporter of equality in every sense for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Zane, the main character in y1, is gay, and I did my best to present his love affair with Afi as a beautiful thing to be cheered on by anyone with a heart. In the real world, friends, relatives and co-workers of mine are LGBTQ, and every time “Love Wins” it makes me smile too. Love is funny that way. It likes to see more love.

SPLC3. Love wins every time that hate does not. I’m also an avid supported of the fine work that is done by the SPCL (Southern Poverty Law Center) even though donating to them means that I get a lot of letters from them asking me for more money. It’s okay. I glance through them all and give when I can. Recently I got one such letter that moved me more than usual. It discussed the nine people killed a year ago in the white supremacist attack at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and noted that “Hate won’t win” were the brave words Alana Simmons spoke to her grandfather’s killer in Charleston.

Yes,“Hate won’t win” are brave words coming from someone who has been grievously wronged, and the words brought a tear to my eye. I know that love wins every time that hate does not.

cosmic conduit 24. The last reason has to do with music. I’m fixing up the music pages on each of my blogs, and today I was expanding my post about David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love.  As the lyrics to One Love say …. “if we stand together than we’ll be okay.” You know, more love wins kind of stuff… and it’s what got me started on this post.

Think of how many great songs there are about love. Luckily, far more than those about fear, hate and hopelessness, although I will concede that there are a few great songs about those emotions too. Yet in the grand overview of musical topics, love wins and I’m glad.

I’d forgotten about exactly how I’d referred to the song in the book, and when I found the excerpt it made me smile.

Joy felt like she was living two lives at once. In one life, she taught Samoan third graders by day, dressed demurely in lightweight long-sleeved tops and loose colorful skirts to her ankles, and pretended to be Afi’s wife by night. Given the vast number of options open to humanity in 2010, it wasn’t a bad life. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t hurting, she had a friend nearby, and she was doing useful work. Life came a lot worse.

In her other life, she sailed the ocean, barefoot in a tank top and gym trunks. Her hair blew free while her body moved softly with the thunk of the boat hitting the waves and with the rhythm of her latest favorite song. For the past few weeks David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love had been about every third selection on her MP3 player, and when she wasn’t listening to it she was generally singing the song in her head while she imagined Toby’s hand on her thigh as he sat at the helm of Miss Demeanor. She would see his hint of a smile as his fingers started to rise higher up her leg and then each time he would turn to her, with his soft brown eyes asking her a question. As the song picked up tempo she felt herself smiling her answer back to him and then he always set the sails and they went below deck where the song was playing loudly and life was very, very good.

Of course, that other life existed only in her mind. But anyone who had ever been in love would know that it was the more important of her two lives.

Ah, yes, that romantic love stuff does bring us joy, even when it is just in our imagination.

I confess to having a weakness for amateur videos that make me feel like I am standing right  at a concert and this simple and seldom viewed video of One Love being performed at Electric Zoo in 2011 took me in with its tag line of “right place right time last song.” I’ve had that feeling and it’s a fine one. Go ahead and sing along with the audience, and enjoy letting love win in one more way.

 

None of us are normal, if we’re lucky

My friend’s husband often brings her coffee in the morning. He confessed to me that if he really wants to make her smile, he brings it to her in a mug that matches what she is wearing. “Don’t tell her about that,” my friend responded. “Now she’s going to think I’m crazy.”

true voice 8Well, yes, wanting your coffee in a mug that matches your clothes is probably not normal, but my friend should know by now that I never thought she was normal, and I honestly don’t know anyone else who is either. So no worries about the color thing; it’s just another quirk.

Did you know that I code all of my to do lists? I have seven different symbols I use, depending on whether the task described is a household chore, or related to my writing, or a favor for someone I love. Seriously. I do this. Is that normal? Probably not, but it makes me happy.

Which gets me back to my current fascination with happiness. A few weeks ago I wrote about a report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University about which countries have the happiest people. The results  came from asking people to evaluate six parts of their lives which account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed these six up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness.

Today, I’m thinking about the freedom part.  We usually consider freedom in grandiose terms, as in the right to free speech, or to bear arms, or to choose our own religion. Obviously these are important topics, but I think it is the little freedoms to be ourselves that make for true delight.

Yes, we all do have to fit in enough to function at our jobs and be able to relate somewhat to our friends and family. Past that, though, it’s the goofy little things about us that make us smile. Getting to be quirky, our own harmless kinds of quirky, yields not only happier people, I believe that it also yields healthier ones — physically and mentally. In other words, acting a little odd doesn’t make you crazy, it helps you to stay sane. And once a society starts to tighten the constraints on individual expression, that society gets more pathology, not less.

good sign 2We tend to take the freedom to dye our hair purple or own six gerbils or collect rugby memorabilia as a given, because no one passes laws against these things. But society has other ways to force us into abandoning our happy little habits. Work places, living spaces and organizations all impose restraints which should be for the good of the group but which sometimes seem designed more for conformity. Religions restrict behavior in ways intended to be for the good of the individual, but many edicts seem to be more about simple control. Perhaps most effective in today’s world are the many public ways we have of shaming each other into conformity. From commercials that make fun of the outliers to posts on social media, we exert a pressure on others to conform to the styles and tastes of the herd.

I contend that the endless struggle to be normal is much like the endless struggle to make more money and have more things.  Up to a point it yields a certain amount of happiness,, and then after that it just doesn’t make a lot of difference. In fact, endlessly chasing after the money to buy the latest possession (yes, I’m talking about you iPhone 6s Plus) is like endlessly trying to have the latest possession to fit in. Neither is really going to make your insides glow with joy. And now we have a study to prove it.

 

 

 

Happiness fascinates me

My dad used to say “Work fascinates me. I can sit and watch someone do it all day.” Sometimes I think I have the same relationship with happiness.

I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from depression, but rather just from a driven personality that is always trying to get the next thing completed and always falling short of the grandiose plan. (You should see all the things that I hope to do with this blog.) Any finished thing that is less than perfect leaves me vaguely unsatisfied. Needless to say, I’m almost permanently in this state.

I’ve found a simple antidote that works well for me, when I can remember to take it.  Like my vitamins, most days it gets forgotten.

gratefulIt’s called gratitude. I understand that concentrating on what one has to be thankful for cannot cure every form of unhappiness, much less depression or the pain of those dealing with specific sad issues in their lives, although it probably can help at least a little. But if your problem, like mine, is that you always want more and better, then gratitude may well be the magic pill that you need.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University about which countries have the happiest people. The results do not come from asking people if they are happy. Rather, they come from asking folks to evaluate various parts of their lives. I was fascinated to learn that six attributes account for most of the variation. I summed these up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness.

Today, I’m thinking of the first two. Because I’m from the United States, I live in a culture that constantly encourages me to spend more money. Because I am female, I’m prodded continually to be healthier (well, at least skinnier). I can’t get through the checkout aisle of the grocery store with out seeing headlines for six dream vacations I have to take and three workouts designed to give me my best butt ever.

bolderStop, I tell myself. Money buys happiness when it gets you the food you need, a safe home, and medical care.  It buys freedom from worry about your car being repossessed. It buys you joy through pretty clothes, a night out with friends, or gifts for those you love. But at some point (it was about $70,000 a year a few years ago) studies show that it has bought you enough of those things and more of it doesn’t make you happier no matter how much you think it will.

America was ranked the thirteenth happiest nation on earth, it part because a larger proportion of its citizens are near, at or above this magic threshold. You would think that this would be a very good thing. However, in order to meet all of the sales goals of all the fine companies that keep this nation great, we need to be persuaded every day that we still do not have enough. Work harder. Buy more. It feeds right into the mantra of a perfectionist like me.

I try to remind myself. You have all that you need, and much of what you want. Be grateful for it.  Be happy with it. And no, your next vacation does not have to be your dream one. An affordable yet pleasant time relaxing with someone you love will just have to do.

raising 1As to the link between health and happiness, there is no doubt that chronic pain or a worrisome condition wear the human spirit down. An actual life threatening disease or injury puts one in a whole new arena.  But for those of us who are just whining about how hard it is to keep weight off while chomping down our calcium pills and extra Omega-3 capsules, it is worth remembering that most of us are basically healthy. We are even basically attractive. We do have to face the painful fact that, like everyone else on this planet, we had our best butt back when we were eighteen years old and nothing is going to change that fact. And we need to get over it.

So, health and wealth. Studies show that both bring us joy, but only if we are wise enough to notice that we have them.

 

If you want to be happy move to a cold country?

beach vacationIt is hard to believe. Whatever happened to the idea that the ultimate in happiness was lounging on a tropical beach, umbrella drink in hand, while island music wafted by on a soft ocean breeze? Wait, that was the ideal vacation. What about the ideal life?

Well, the annual happiness report for 2016 is in and there is little that is sunny and warm about the locations that produce the most content people. The top thirteen, in order, are Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel, and the U.S.

winter-vacationsDon’t believe it? Then let’s ask exactly how this happiness thing is being measured.

This is the fourth such report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The results are not obtained by just asking people if they are happy. Rather, they come from asking people in 156 countries to evaluate various parts of their lives on a scale from 0 to 10. Lots of variables are examined, but six attributes account for most of the variation among countries. I would sum these up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness. And yes, I could see how those all would contribute to happiness.

(Note that the more precise, but less succinct people who generate the report refer to these as real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity as measured by donations.)

What countries currently have the least happy populations? Starting with the unhappiest, they are Burundi, Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Liberia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Yemen, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Yes, there are a lot of warm, sunny places in here. More to the point, there are places torn apart by war, struggling with disease, and centers of extreme poverty, so clearly this isn’t really about climate.

Other happy countries include Costa Rica (#14) Mexico (#21) and Panama (#25).  Plenty of wonderful beaches in all three places. Meanwhile cold weather hardly guarantees happiness, with Bulgaria coming in at #129, the Ukraine at #123 and #Mongolia at 101.

raising ecstacy 1It is often said that happiness is an inside job, and to some extent that is true. We all know people who can be miserable anywhere, under any circumstances. But on the whole, in aggregate, we humans do respond to our environment. If we are materially comfortable, in good health, surrounded by those we care about and by others we perceive as fair and kind, and if we are free to life our lives as we want, then well, guess what. We are more likely to be happy.

Hot or cold, in sunshine or in snow, those places that are wise enough to make it a priority to foster such an such an environment for all are going to be the best places to live.

 

It didn’t take a spaceship

Dalai 6I had this odd reoccurring daydream that started when I was about thirteen and kept me mentally entertained whenever I was bored.

I was on a spaceship by myself on a very long journey. I was quite happy about it, and was planning my schedule. How would I use my days? I’d allocate time for exercise (practicing yoga, perfecting the hula), for chores (doing fun space ship things) and for learning (French? Ancient history? Organic chemistry? Modern literature?). I would try to think of every aspect of my being and how to best enrich it and then I added to and rearranged my schedule endlessly, much to my own delight.

I’m serious.  I spent hours doing this. I have no idea why.

Then, of course, I grew older and filled my life up the way that adults do and I forgot about my favorite fantasy. A few decades passed, and now I realize that I should have given it more thought. If I had, I might have realized that

  • In spite of a friendly nature and tendency to smile at people, I am an off the charts introvert. Anyone who fantasizes about being alone on a spaceship as a child should not be surprised by her Myers-Briggs test results twenty years later.
  • There was no need to fight my compulsive desire to make lists. It was a losing battle. They say be true to yourself and planning my day is being true to me.
  • I love to learn, and should have made more time for it sooner. I’m making time for it now.
  • I don’t like other people telling me how to spend my day. This makes me a poor candidate for a traditional job, but a job is what I needed for the last couple of decades. We don’t all get the luxury of deciding that working for someone else is not our cup of tea. However, today I do have the option of working as a consultant in my field, and I should embrace this opportunity (and its many downsides) with all my heart.
  • We all want to be happy.  Knowing yourself is a giant part of finding fulfillment and contentment. Listening to your oddest, most secret dreams will tell you how to seek out joy in your own life. There are no right answers.

raising7Why did I suddenly remember this daydream? Well, I have a little more flexibility and free-time in my schedule now than I’ve had for years. With it has come an increasing excitement for planning my days and filling them with just the right mix of activities that enrich every part of my being. So I guess that is the last and most important thing I learned.

I don’t have to be sequestered on a spaceship by myself in order to do the things I want. I get to do them right here, right now, and can even sometimes share my joy with another like minded soul or two. In other words, I get to have my childhood fantasy, and it’s better than I thought.

The real eulogy that I never gave

It was written eight years ago and it is the oldest file on my computer. I found it cleaning out a folder called “other writing” looking for any forgotten gems that I might want to roll into the book I’ve just started. It isn’t the oldest thing I’ve written of course, I’ve been doing this stuff since junior high. But most of that is all gone now. This isn’t.

I hear my own voice, from the year my mother died. I’ve changed in the passing years, and I’m not sure I agree with all of this now. But I think it is a perspective worth sharing. It’s called “Teach your children.”

You teach your children every day.  Not by what you say but by how you live your life. It is so easy to find yourself teaching them that life is drudgery, that marriage sucks, that work is to be avoided, and that you never get a fair deal.

I will never get to deliver the eulogy for my parents which I would like.  But if I could – it would go something like this.

Dalai 9The most offensive and ridiculous thing my parents ever said to me was “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.”  They thought it was terribly funny, which made it all the worse.  And they quoted it often.  You see, my parents basically liked to drink, gamble and have sex.  And overeat. They  avoided cigarettes and drugs, although my father smoked for awhile and tried pot in his youth.  I don’t think stopping either had much to do with self restraint – rather the first was more of an aesthetes choice and the second had more to do with what vices were readily available within their social circle.

And while my parents were busy enjoying life and telling us not to, they were also, in a way they never suspected, busy teaching me and my sister.

And what were we learning?

  1. If you want to have a good marriage, have all the sex you want but only have it with your partner. Nothing else will result in love after 40 plus years and having someone love you when you are 60 is about as good as it gets.
  2. If you are going to drink alcohol, only drink after five o’ clock except on holidays and special occasions. Only get drunk on weekends and not on all of them. This works a lot better if you can manage to be a happy, or at least not a belligerent, drunk.
  3. Gamble all you want, but never ever what you cannot afford to lose.
  4. Keep you weight to within 40 pounds of your ideal.  There are a lot of ways to die and frankly odds are yours will have nothing to do with your weight if you keep it somewhere under obese. Meanwhile, you will enjoy your life a lot more.

So today – I am slightly chubby and happily married for 26 plus years.  I drink less than my parents did, which is good, but I do drink only on nights and weekends. I hate most forms of gambling but play the stock market as hobby, but of course only with what we can afford to lose. I pretty much have a great life.

It is a shame I will never get to deliver this tribute, because it brings two things to mind which should be said.

  1. I hope my husband and I have taught our children as well.
  2. Thanks Mom and Dad. I am doing what you did, not what you said, and it’s working out just fine.