Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hard Core Happiness Nerds and Goldie Hawn

Have you heard all this hoopola lately about Happiness? You can't get away from it. There is the Happiness project, best selling books on Happiness, and even the most popular course at Harvard is about... more Happiness. Apparently, after eight years of focusing on fear, anger and suspicion, we need some serious training to elevate our moods back to where they belong.

Over the weekend, I attended a conference about Positive Psychology, a relatively new addition to the field, and one that is receiving lots of attention. Essentially, instead of psychologists spending all their time focusing on really fun stuff like anger, depression and fear, as well as classifying mental disorders, they've decided to dedicate some serious research to the upper end of the emotional spectrum. Positive psychology studies areas like learned optimism, authentic happiness, character virtues, and "transformational positivity".

Claremont Graduate University in Southern California is taking a leading role in developing this field, anchored with one of the great minds of our time, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi -- who is the developer of "flow state" now used widely in psychology, economics and sports. The conference sold out their largest theatre of over 650 people, and another 150 watched via Webcast from far away lands like Finland, and Australia -- staying up all night to do so.

Let me tell you, these guys are hard core. This is not Chicken Soup for the Soul or some sort of New Agey affair. Hardly. Dozens of leading scholars in areas such as neuroscience, organizational development, social entrepreneurship and education research marched to the podium with power points displaying stats, charts and graphs galore. Some of them have over 300 publications to their names and combined they have probably published over a hundred books collectively in their specialties.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the "founder" of positive psychology, said via satellite, the field will be developing four main areas: Positive physical health -- how getting fit may have more to do with who you hang out with than what you eat; Positive neuroscience -- learning more and more about how the brain is impacted by positive and negative experiences; Positive social science- how can we make life worth living, more meaningful and bring these strengths to our economics; and Positive education - how to help kids develop more engagement, meaning and good relations in education without sacrificing skills.

If President Obama wants to elevate the sciences back to their rightful place, this is a great place to start. One of the speakers shared how powerful it was that Obama's inauguration speech had some mention of character or virtue in almost every single line -- and he is the only man who could pull that off without sounding corny or inauthentic. The world is listening. We want to be hopeful again, we want to be more dedicated to service, and quite frankly, we'd like to be happier.

One of the best parts of the long and dense day of data download came in the form of a lovely blonde, who floated down to the front row and looked awfully familiar. She had these sparkly eyes, pouty lips and a smile that hasn't changed since "Laugh-In". Goldie Hawn spent the day with us -- intensely taking it all in, writing copious notes, asking questions and, frankly hanging tough with the rest of us geeks.

Goldie Hawn Kicks Ass

She is my new hero. Turns out, Goldie is a big fan of Csikszentmihalyi's flow state work, and wanted to check it out. She runs a wonderful charity called The Hawn Foundation: dedicated to offering "Mindfulness Education" for children by integrating social-emotional learning, cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology and mindfulness-based stress reduction. She was very interested to see this field get the solid attention it deserves.

"Well-Being is a societal goal," said Dr. Edward Diener, was there and is the President of both the International Society of Quality of Life Studies and the International Positive Psychology Association. He is pushing to use a national account of our society's well being to stand in rank and file priority with the daily reports of our GNP, crime rate and longevity. He asserts the societal benefits of happiness result in more volunteering, pro-peace attitudes and cooperative alliances in families, schools, neighborhoods and between countries.

Maybe it's time for a new Cabinet position -- dare I say "Secretary of Happiness?"

What are your thoughts about the rise of the Happiness movement and the renewed interest in character virtures and well being in our society? I'd love to hear your comments in the box below and will try to answer as many as I can. Also, be sure to click on the RSS feed to receive future posts.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Community is the "New Deal"

"Today, we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships."
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt - (penned the day before he died in 1945 to his best friend, Winston Churchill.)

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As a follow up to last week's piece on the importance of "gatherings" for stress relief, I cannot help but comment on the national "coming together" of our nation over the weekend; celebrating Martin Luther King Day as a transformed National Day of Service, as well as the jubilant celebrations as our new leader is being sworn in on this historic day. Wow. Spielberg couldn't have ordered up a more fantastic scene.

One of the most inspiring and unexpected possibilities of Barack Obama's election is the reestablishment of a sense of community in our country. During the presidential campaign, people from all walks of life donated money, registered to vote, got on the phones to canvas, and drove with their families to swing states to knock on doors. On Election Day, masses swarmed and took their tears of joy to the streets to celebrate a turning point in all our lives as our broken country had a new ray of hope. Bringing us together could be the single greatest contribution of his presidency.

It has felt so good to be a part of something greater than ourselves -- to serve. Like a southerly breeze fluffing dead sails; the winds of change are swinging away from fear and consumerism to regeneration and commonality. Our country has been asleep in a divisive rat race, and the time to cast away hedonism and embrace greater good for all is at hand. We are ready and yearning for it.

Demonstrating the simplicity and power of community has been absent from our leaders for so long. Dare we to hope it will last? I'd like to explore the subtle messages that underlie our "Obama Optimism" -- just why ARE we so excited? The First Family represents so many of the simple things we desperately need to model in our own lives; honest connections with our partners, family, friends, neighbors -- Let's check them out one by one:

Partners: In watching Barack stand with Michelle as true equals through the process, and seeing the authentic love they have for each other -- somehow the stability of their relationship deeply reassures the innocent one in all of us. Watching their signature, "knuckle high five" at the convention and their casual intimacy has made monogamous marriage hip again. 2009-01-19-fistbump.jpg


Family: America is ready to fall in love with those adorable girls, become caught up in their daily lives and wonder what type of puppy they'll get. "Family Values" has had a bum rap, and its time for a fresh face. Last week, President Obama set an example for all Fathers as he published a letter to his daughters. He said:
"When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me -- but then the two of you came into my world with all your curiosity and mischief and those smiles that never fail to fill my heart and light up my day. And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn't seem so important anymore. I soon found that the greatest joy in my life was the joy I saw in yours. And I realized that my own life wouldn't count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours. In the end, girls, that's why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation."


Friends: How about a president who body surfs and is a basketball fanatic? A man who represents a level of balance -- time to work and time to play? Life is measured in moments, not in accomplishments. The Obama's have a tight group of friends they stay connected with- for their sanity and their daughters'. Life is sweeter when shared with those who know you best - even if you are a president. Maybe we can finally extend the same conviviality to our friends in other countries, on Capitol Hill, or around corporate board rooms.

Neighbors: The Obama phenomenon has brought millions of neighbors together; united for a common cause, banded like a tribe. The residual effects of developing these relationships will reverberate far beyond the politics -- into a deeper sense of rooted-ness, into belonging and acceptance, and concrete involvement in local issues. Standing together, it is easier to inaugurate ourselves and take our own oath of commitment to service -- big or small.

The quote at the beginning of this article was from FDR, who wrote letters almost daily to his best friend, Winston Churchill. FDR helped the United States to form a sense of identity that we long to be a part of once again. He and Eleanor knitted this country together with community - fireside chats that literally brought tens of thousands of families and neighbors huddling together around a crackling radio of hope.

Community IS the "New Deal." Developing authentic relationships with those around us is the stimulus package of our collective soul.

How are you inspired by the inauguration and national commitment to service? Feel free to post you comments here, as this space offers a rich opportunity to 'gather'.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why Gathering with Friends is Key to Stress Relief

How important is it to have a robust group of friends in life? Can it be that having a regular gathering with people you have come to know intimately is one of the most cherished aspects of daily life? I think it is, or can be. I believe we have lost this in modern society. Fewer of us go to churches or synagogues to see friends and neighbors, we are driven to work longer and harder, and reality shows look pretty good at the end of a long day to watch others get together while we collapse under the covers.

Extended families are dispersed so we rarely see distant cousins for holidays, and nuclear families run here and there without a moment to breathe; having 'take-out' dinners in the car between baseball and hockey practice. Dining room tables are used for storage, or simply collect dust when they should be the centerpieces of memories.

We schedule our kids and grow up to be scheduled adults. Our social time is now being squeezed into micro sentences posted on Twitter- who has time for a regular conversation! Getting 4 or 5 couples together for an evening of cards? Forget it. No one has time. We don't have time to eat, take evening walks, or have leisurely conversations in the back yard. And, forget about a commitment to weekend "get-together's" with neighbors and friends that drag on all day long. Does anyone else miss that?

In our rugged culture of individualism, we are all standing alone, yet we are not meant to be such solitary creatures. We are creatures of relationship. And not just one, we need layers of connections in order to feel whole. We need good food, exercise and proper rest to be balanced in our physical body; but we also need our partners to be present with us, we need good friends, we need close family ties, we need to have an open neighborhood culture, we need our work relationships to be meaningful and not cut throat, and we need to feel part of a global family.

The backlash to this crazy, compartmentalized modern life has been a recent craze of "hobby groups" to satisfy this need without consciously realizing it. No longer a part of daily life, we have to fabricate excuses to get together regularly. Today we will make time to be part of some sort of book club, coffee klatch, golf group, supper club, hiking group, game night, or knitting circle - does anybody focus on the book or task exclusively? Of course not! It's a place to gossip, relax and unwind. Perhaps we are driven to squeeze in time for these groups because they are a powerful contributor to health and well being. I may be so bold as to say it rivals anti-depressants, raw veggie diets and obsessively exercising at the gym.

Even some of our greatest minds in studying human behavior and the new rage of "Happiness" books may have overlooked the power of a regular monthly poker game with the guys. Certain elements are always the consistent that become a type of ritual: same table, same food, same cigars, same easy laughs. It takes away the stress of every day life, engages a flow state to slip into, and is a routine that not only takes the edge off; it is a component we build our overall sense of happiness in general.

While we give these social groups barely a nod scientifically, the sheer volume is worthy of investigation. Americans regularly get together to enjoy: Girl's Night Out, Monday Night Football, bridge night, pick up basketball, book club, Sunday night dinners, knitting circles, AA meetings, Weight Watchers, new mom's groups, babysitting co-ops, poker nights, weekend bar-b-ques, bunko or bridge game nights, soccer clinics, stock club, scrapbooking, garden clubs, meditation group, hiking, charity non-profit groups, gourmet supper clubs.... The list goes on and on.

We are wired for 'village style' community lifestyles at the very core. Our modern society has stripped away the importance of these groups to such a degree most of us do not even realize it is the "What's Missing" in our lives. Fundamentally, we long to belong. We crave a place to be part of a group with whom we are accepted, where we can care and be cared for. It helps us to hear that others are feeling the same way, or have experiences we can relate to. It may not solve anything, but it lessens our burdens to know we carry them with others.

Many people I have met have never experienced a deeply connected group, and wish they could. I believe having a special group does not have to be left to chance or random circumstance -- it can be consciously created at every layer of relationships in your life.

Maybe you once had a special group of friends in your life. If not now, why not? Is it too hard? Are all the people around you unapproachable? Are we all mildly depressed and lulled into a solitary funk?

Those who have a robust social life derive the benefit of having reinforcing encounters on a regular basis, and are great mood elevators. If you are rushing through the bank and run into someone who recognizes you -- what happens? An instant rush of positive emotion, you feel rooted in your community to see someone you know and like, you have common topics to discuss without requiring any extra time or work to maintain such a quick exchange.

In a down economy with no cash to spare, spending times with friends is cheap. It feels good, and it improves your health. When people get together, oxytocin, the "feel good" hormone is released that combats the negative effects of stress. Tom Rath wrote a book called Vital Friends and in it he describes the astounding response on a Gallup poll to improved work performance at almost every category if someone felt they were working with a "best friend."

So, maybe 2009 can become the year of gathering. The year to put regular dates on the calendar to get together with those friends you always wanted to know a bit better, to turn off the reality shows at night and have a game of Scrabble with your spouse. To clean the bills off the table and have a family dinner with the lit candles, cloth napkins and a vat of mac-n-cheese on a school night. If you can't afford your therapist, better not scrap those martini nights with the girls...sometimes it's all you need to get by on a bad day.