The Key to Unhappiness

It is time to turn the tables. Typically, I focus on what works in life. But today I’m taking a new approach.

It hit me like a ton of sun-baked bricks this morning as I observed life and the people in it that there is one surefire way to ensure a consistent level of unhappiness. And as I scan the headlines and Facebook feeds and other news outlets, I see how easy it is to overlook how often we all do it.

That is to judge others. To wish they were different. To complain when they aren’t. To pick and criticize and throw major tantrums. To catapult oneself into a tirade about how very unjust everyone else is being.

2017-06-11 21.00.43If you have been there in the checkout line or the traffic lane or the dentist’s office or any other place where there are people other than just you, you may have experienced how you have looked at another person and judged him or her on the spot without any basis of understanding of who that person is. And subconsciously you may have waited to find evidence that your thoughts are somehow based in reality. So you wait, like a pounce-happy panther, until you prove yourself right.

And then you laugh or cry or rage about it with friends who think just like you do. And you feel, deep down, justified in your judgements.

Am I judging myself for admitting this?

Oh! To be human is to judge. And assess. And want to be right. About pretty much everything. On a personal level, it can lead to disharmony. On a global one, it can lead to war.

All the posturing and posing and presupposing can be quite exhausting. I’m wondering if we, for a moment, could pause from all the judgement to take a deep, long breath and remember how connected we all are. To exercise compassion even when we don’t feel like reminding ourselves that it is true. Because, whether we agree or not, we all share this planet. We all share the human experience.

And there I go again. Looking at what works. Because clearly what we are currently doing to each other doesn’t.

I’m wondering, even if it is hard, to admit we make unfair judgements sometimes. It is what we #ShareTogether. But that doesn’t mean it has to tear us apart. Does it?

Misery loves company. But so does something else.

One nation. Indivisible. For liberty and justice for all. And yet we’re pretty darn divided. In what we believe. In whom we support. We are so torn apart ideologically that many of us, including myself, have forgotten what we have in common. We have become married to our misery, seeking comfort in those who think like we do. And we are getting nowhere fast as we forge distances from those who do not.

And yet empathy, that great emotion of connectivity, is what helps us feel others’ pain. It is what helps us understand another person’s point of view. Compassion is a precious human characteristic, one that can help us find a way back to each other.

Lake Constance, 2017

Lake Constance, 2017

What we have in common is a lot more than you think. And as I got to thinking about it, I realized seeing common ground helps me see more possibilities. And seeing possibilities makes me hopeful. Which makes me grateful. And where there is gratitude, there is no fear, which is at the root of our collective problem. You see, we have a collective problem. You and I. That’s one of the things we #ShareTogether. Our problem is the separateness we feel about people who don’t think like we do.

So I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to come up with all the things we share together, not only as Americans, but as human beings. In order to do it, I need your input.

What is the thing that we all share? I’ve started a list that I will share in meme form on Facebook individually. But first, I’d love to hear yours, which I will happily share with name credit (and with your permission) to my social media network.

#ShareTogether

#WhatWeHaveInCommon

Oxygen. We all need it to survive. Every one of us uses it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A birthplace. Every one of us was born somewhere. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Skin. It’s the largest organ we have. Every one of us has skin. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A favorite song, book or movie. You don’t have to be an expert to hold a favorite song, book or movie close to your heart. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Time. Every one of us has time, even if we live like we don’t. Most of us measure it by the 24-hour clock, others by the rhythm of the Earth. Either way we measure it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The planet. Unless you’re an astronaut currently in space, you’re on it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The sun’s movement. Many celebrated the solar eclipse in the United States yesterday. The sun’s movement is something every one of us experiences daily. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Technology. If you’re reading this, you have access to technology. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Death. You may have never experienced it, but you will one day. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A belief system. Even if you don’t believe in a Higher Power, you believe in something, even if it is nothing. That’s a belief system too. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Childhood. Every one of us has (had) one. Good, bad or indifferent. The fact is every one of us is a child at some point, typically chronologically from the start of life until the end of our teens. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The ability to cry. We have all done it at least once. There is salt in every one of our tears. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for sleep. While the amount can vary, every one of us requires sleep to survive. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for drinking water. It is an essential life force. Without it, every one of us would perish. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

What are your thoughts? Today is a new day. Misery may love company, but gratitude sure does too. Let’s #ShareTogether.

 

The Backward and Hateful Mind

Nestled in the aggregate air of three countries rolled into one atmosphere, I lay awake one starry night to ponder the hating heart. We arrived to our campground on Lake Constance that borders Switzerland, Germany and Austria to the news of a gun shooting at a nearby club just miles from our site. We later ambled to a shopping centre, looking for a chaise lounge, only to see the yellow crime scene tape of the shut down club fluttering in the wind next to the store we intended to enter.

Death’s pallor held sway over us for the remainder of the day. We held our children a little tighter that night and into the following morning. Then news of the neo-Nazi pro-Robert E Lee monument rally in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, hit my Facebook news feed. Standing in our camper in 90 degree heat, I stood slack-jawed and sucker punched at the close proximity of such madness. Again.

In a recent Newsweek article, Deepak Chopra speaks of the hateful brain in which tribalism, our inherent need to belong to a group, can dull our ability for empathy. And as we are entrenched in our own belief systems, we grow farther apart from people who don’t think like we do.

By any measure, it is incomprehensible for me to accept a set of beliefs that excludes an entire race or ethnic group or a group of human beings who love differently than I do. And yet neo-Nazis and white supremacists truly believe they are better and hold the exclusive right to existence.

It’s ludicrous. It’s backward. And it appears to be as prevalent today as it was before the Civil Rights movement.

I have argued unsuccessfully with many a right-wing mind over the past nine months. It has not brought me any closer to understanding why they are so angry, why they feel disenfranchised, unheard, excluded. Like an angry child who didn’t get his way, they stew in their maladjusted righteousness. But about what?

The United States is in trouble. Its political leadership is (in) trouble. Civil society is facing challenges it hasn’t seen since the 1960s. And yet a crowd ten times as large as the rally last Saturday in Charlottesville convened on the UVA Lawn to take it back from the vacuous vitriol the alt-right had sprayed across the grounds just days before and chanted “Love wins.” To regain the dignity of the town in which I grew up. Where I first saw the movie Star Wars. Where I got my ears pierced at the mall. Where I bought my first Levis. Where my family resides to this day.

Hatred lives in the brains of those disconnected from the greater good. How can we draw them back into the fold to seek the light and the love that will overcome the deleterious acts of the uninformed and angered?

I am for the winning team. I am for love. Are you?

 

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

Why I choose to march

It is time to put on those Big Girl pants and act. I have comfortably, and often not so quietly, lashed out at the state of the world. While it may have felt good for the moment, I knew my days as self-important, indignant complainer were numbered.

The moment we lose the will to do something about an issue is the moment we lose our right to complain about it. We need to take action now.

Remarkably, I have come to terms with the fate of our nation, at least for the moment. But that does not mean I have resigned myself to it. Like many of you, I experienced the five stages of grief as I realized how much power we were handing off to a man filled with vitriol, viciousness and vindictiveness. I oscillated between anger and despair, practicing the utmost restraint (and failing miserably) to not be swept up in the online venting we have witnessed since November 8th. Every day we were fed new fodder from well-meaning celebrities or Senators or reporters. It seems to fan the flame of hatred, catapulting so many of us into a new level of confusion.

Not all of my online interactions have been bad. Many of you have helped me see what I can do to make a difference. I have called my senator, signed numerous online petitions, voluntarily watched C-Span (!) and shared information with people far and wide. It may have budged the conversation only a millimeter for a nanosecond, but doing something felt like a better choice than doing nothing at all while saying even less with a ton of empty words.

It seemed, for a while, that if I fed facts to the faltering followers of the PEOTUS, I would gain new ground. I would, in some hapless way, save the world from its self-inflicted insanity.

It may appear arrogant, and perhaps you are right. I see now that I was wrong. We all have our entrenched ways of thinking. Words alone will not do it. For a writer, it is a hard pill to swallow. After all, don’t we shape the world with the words we share?

Talk without action, words without movement, will do little to sway the hearts we so desperately wish to reach.

And so I will march. On January 21, 2017 I will join the marching million on this planet who care deeply about the future of our world. Places as far as Tblisi, Georgia, Calcutta, India and Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya are joining together to show their support. To show they care.

This is not just an American issue.

The nearest march to me is taking place in France. It seems appropriate — no essential — as an American living in Germany to participate in an act of peaceful demonstration in France to support all that I have said I care about. While it is easy to cackle at the mean memes circulating on Facebook, it will do nothing to solve the issues we face.

And so I will march.

My son, who is a budding photographer, will join me. My love and his kids will too. We will stand on an historic place in Strasbourg that has showcased many a demonstration in the city’s long history. We will unite to show that action can speak louder than words.

And so we will march.

We will build bridges, not walls, dialogue, not diatribe. We will stand up for what we believe in.

And that is saying a lot.

 

Gettin’ Jiggy with Hygge

According to the World Happiness Report 2016, Denmark is the happiest country on the planet. If you’re thinking it’s because they have great health care, a substantial gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, an overall high life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and little corruption  — the criteria for happiness in this report — then you are right. They do. But they also have something else that I discovered the other day that is so aligned with the notion of Slow, I simply had to tell you about it.

You see, the Danes, aside from their fabulous butter cookies, have something that a lot of us do not. They have the notion of hygge, which sounds a lot like “hoo-guh”, which, in turn, sounds a lot like a cave man with a slight Irish lilt demanding a hug.

But that isn’t it at all, my friends. Hygge is the idea of going slow in the winter time. It is roughly translated to mean “coziness” (in German: Gemütlichkeit). After all, it gets light late and dark early for five months out of the year in Denmark. Yet they aren’t SAD from all that light deprivation (afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder). They are HAPPY. Thanks to the mental state of hygee.

Hygge says to embrace That Which Is; accept the darkness and leverage it to create a cozy atmosphere. Light candles, slow down, go within, reflect. Celebrate the now. Give yourself what you need – a visit to the sauna, healthy vitamin-rich food, warm meals, a fire in the fireplace, a hot water bottle at night, heat.

My daughter has set up her room such that her bed is in a darker corner of the room so the streetlights from outside aren’t nearly as visible. It is comfortable, warm and relaxing. In my view, it is the perfect hygge design.

Morning rituals in the winter time are different than in the summer time. Slippers and a bathrobe, a hot cup of coffee and warm food create a sense of nurturing to offset the piercing cold.

Warmth is not only a physical state. It’s a mental one too. The Danes figure snow and ice will slow you down so what’s the rush? Get jiggy with hygge. It’s cave time with the tempo to match.

 

Why Should You Care?

The unyielding darkness has started to seep into the Northern Hemisphere. Abbreviated sunlight in November has always affected my mood, challenging my natural buoyancy by the stagger and sway of light deprivation. And this year we have an additional force to reckon with: a metaphorical shadowy veil that has been draped across our world.

Even in these pitch dark moments I see opportunity. We have a chance to stand brightly in the darkness and call out all for which we stand: peace, love, joy, beauty, grace, wisdom. The sanctity of life remains untouched for our willpower and minds remain free, even if we feel shackled by political, environmental, social, cultural and economic realities. We can make a difference. Show up for what you believe in in a non-violent, loving way. Others will notice and may be encouraged to do the same.

Self-care is especially vital when we feel this vulnerable. My hot water bottle has become my trusty companion, feeling its warmth on my lap as I type words and phrases and lines, sometimes blurred by distraction and an urge to check in on the world to see if it’s alright.

My sister graciously shared her strategy for comfort. A shower and a nap are the best remedies for sorrow. With gratitude she feels the spray of instant warm water that she knows so many in this world do not have. A mid-day respite, bowing to the altar of Slow, reenergizes the fuzziness and frayed edges. Jumpiness is replaced by a Zen-like calm and we return to that greater part of ourselves that knows this too shall pass.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, to quote REM, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts leave no room for positive ones.

If you are struggling with how best to care for yourself, consider this:

  • Switch off the noise – both internal and external. Surrender to your need for rest when you require it.
  • Minimize your exposure to online vitriol. It won’t help you, but will only serve to fuel confusion, wrath and disconnection.
  • Eat vitamin-rich food. Especially now as the sun quickly genuflects to the horizon, Vitamin D is essential. Ensure you get natural sunlight. Compensate with supplements if you cannot.
  • Connect with others. Isolation feeds insanity. Gather your tribe.
  • Hug more often.
  • Watch a comedy. Laughter heals.
  • Express love and gratitude.
  • Respect our differences. Remember that you may appear as foreign to someone else.
  • Create a safe environment for dialogue with people you meet.

Why should you care? Because you can. Because you do. Because caring for self is the first step in caring for others. The opposite of love is indifference. Recent events have shown we are not indifferent, although we may feel powerless. Your power begins within you. Embrace the power of Slow. The result of its force is mightier than any politician on the planet.

Shadows in the Light

Where there is much light, there will be much darkness. Ah yes, those ubiquitous shadows that dance in the sun’s rays. My intention in life has always been to spread love and light wherever I can. I really mean that. It may sound naive, and perhaps it is. But I am always shocked when I meet people who don’t live with that level of integrity. When they feel more drawn to the darker side of things because, well, it’s cooler and no one can see what they’re up to. If no one witnesses your lying as you lurk in the shadows, have you really lied at all?

Dancing with the Freiburg sun

I recently watched a fascinating documentary called Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies. It turns out we all lie, yet most of us still think we are good people. We are hopelessly optimistic that somehow we are above average. We cheat mostly when our social surroundings support that behavior with the promise of a more favorable outcome with a very low to zero chance of getting caught. So it’s not the honesty we care about, but about whether we can pursue our advantage by whichever means available to us while still being liked or loved.

Shocking. And somehow so true.

Have you ever been in the check-out line at the grocery store and you forget to place one of the items in your cloth bag onto the conveyor belt. You noticed it when you get home. You literally stole it without knowing it. Do you make your way back to the store to return or at least pay for the item? Chances are if the cost in terms of time and energy is above a certain threshold, you won’t. You’ll live with yourself and your justifications about how it doesn’t really matter. Most likely, you will believe what you are telling yourself. And even if you tell your friends, they most likely will too.

Have you ever received too much change after a purchase transaction without giving it back? Have you ever run a red light? Walked across a crosswalk while the pedestrian sign says ‘Don’t walk’?

We look for shortcuts to get things done faster. In the name of economy, we lie our asses off. And sometimes when we get caught, we feel a sense of shame. But usually only the first time. The more we lie, the more it feels normal. Dishonesty tells a few sobering tales about some liars who ended up getting jail time.

So what about those shadows and that light? What makes us choose to step into the light instead of hiding out in the darkness with our reasons and fear? It turns out even being reminded that there is such a thing as a code of ethics can vastly impact a person’s willingness toward honesty. Study after study showed that when participants first read a line about the moral standards set out at the university at which the research was being conducted, people shaped up and gave honest answers. That’s encouraging. So we can learn to be upstanding with a little nudge from the ethics’ committee.

André Gide says: “The color of truth is grey.” A little light. A little shadow. A blend of the two makes up what we believe to be right. Even if we’re sometimes wrong. Or naive. Or both.

 

Capturing those Fifty Bits

The slant of morning light tells me fall will be awakening soon. The dusting of leaves on the city sidewalks layer over the summer’s heat. A gust of wind sweeps them skyward as a crow calls over the sun-scorched meadow.

It has been a fun-filled summer and although it is not over yet, I can feel the urge to brace myself for the darkness that will come.

It always does.

Perhaps it is the wisdom of my years that has settled in, but I have started taking things for granted less and appreciating the moment more. A soft afternoon with my life partner’s aging mother. Laughter in the kitchen with my teenaged children. Drawing boundaries. Saying no here. Saying yes there. Capturing the essence of life in the here and now so that when darkness descends, I will have the rich memories of days filled with light and delight.

Living off the racetrack makes paying attention easier. As a result, I have experienced the most marvelous things. Throughout my wanderings this summer, I stumbled upon a delightful book whose American author, Bob Nease, happens to live on a vineyard in Italy. With my commitment to Slow, I would have preferred a week-long interview at said vineyard, to which he invited me. Given other commitments, we opted for an email exchange instead.

He kindly sent me — upon my request — his latest book, The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results. It is based on a simple premise: the human brain processes millions of bits of information at every moment, but only fifty of those bits seep into our awareness. In fact, he claims, our brains are wired for inattention and inertia. With our limited ability to pay attention, we may harbor good intentions but because we are most often on autopilot, we don’t act upon them.

Anyone who signs up for a year-long gym membership come January 1 knows what I’m talking about. We want to live better lives. Then we do what we always do with little effort to really change things. That is, unless you have a pain point so strong, you simply have to take action. Or the other option seems more appealing.

Trained as a medical professional with a large dose of engineering who worked for years at Express Scripts, Bob has designed ways to out trick our wiring to make the better option the more convenient one – or at least the more obvious choice based on our ever-slacking attention span. He offers all kinds of engineery-type arguments, most of which are extremely amusing. I found myself trying really hard to pay attention to his logical thinking. Sometimes I failed because although his writing is clear and very well thought out, I was more aware of not being aware than of comprehending what he was saying. I may have to gather my fifty bits and give the book another read because I do think what he has to say is extremely important. I have managed to make it palatable to a handful of friends. The book itself came up in conversation so much that I found myself quoting from it nearly every day.

Therein lies the lesson. We cannot cruise through life without mindfulness. It’s a richer one when we pay attention -or at least try to. And even if we don’t always understand what is happening, what others are saying or what we ourselves are doing, there are ways to improve our thinking and actions. And to cherish the moment. Right here. Right now. With every bit available to us.

Breaking the drama cycle

Are you as tired of the apocalyptic news reports as I am? I am not advocating placing our heads in the sand, but I will say this: the 24/7 access to negative news has left an imprint on our souls. The more negative news we hear, the more depressed we become. The more depressed we become, the less productive, joyful and hopeful we are. The less productive, joyful and hopeful we are, the more we become like the people the news stations report about.

We can break the cycle of drama by hitting the “off” button and turning ourselves on to the life we are meant to lead.

Taking a hiatus from the news — and yes, even Facebook has been infected with tirades about All That Which Is Wrong With the World — will help considerably. Watching a funny movie, reading a humorous book and — above all else — having a good laugh at ourselves will help right the wrongs we seem to think are dictating the world we live in.

Oh, the healing power of laughter! If we can still laugh at ourselves, then there is hope. Losing our sense of humor in times like these would qualify as the greatest loss of all.

I keep a journal that I ignore a lot. Every once in a while, I’ll get in the mood to write something in it. Typically, I will journal at times in my life when I need to release some negative emotions so, as you can image, it’s not a very uplifting read. Last night I scanned some of the entries and recognized that I’ve written about the same things over and over again. Only the cast of characters has changed. The common denominator is always me and the feelings I have. It made me laugh out loud at myself because there it was — clear as day and in black and white.

Life has little to do with what happens and everything to do with how we take it. 

The only way to affect change is to shift our perspective, which then informs our actions. After only a few entries, I grew tired of my own complaints. It was a wonderful mirror and reminder that we can indeed change how we see the world. But first we need to recognize that we tend to see it a certain way. And if that way isn’t working for us, well then! I guess it’s time to look at it from a different angle.

Like turning off the incessant news feeds that feed nothing but our fear. Or flipping through a journal that plainly shows a remarkable trend in attitude.

We can make this world a better place and break the drama cycle. It begins here. And now. With you. And me.