Happiness is…a cartwheel and a funny hat

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Today I turned a cartwheel when I got to the office.

You probably don’t hear that very often.  It’s not everyday that someone, outside of a gymnastics coach, goes to work and turns a cartwheel.

It started off as a watercooler discussion among a few of us about a recent Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which stated that many women have an “I hate my body” moment at least once in any given week.  “Not me,” I said.  “I’m not perfect, but I am grateful to my body for allowing me to run, to dance, and even to turn cartwheels.”  The group I was with seemed incredulous at the fact that I could turn cartwheels, as the idea of it doesn’t fit in with my buttoned-down image at work, and after about 90 seconds of goading, I suddenly found myself with my shoes and suit jacket off, turning a full 360 cartwheel in a small 6’x6′ space.

TA DAAAAAA!

Positive body image aside, the simple act of turning a cartwheel filled me with a happiness that lasted the whole day.  I just couldn’t stop smiling at the sheer delight of the spontaneity and physicality of this small moment of joy.

The spillover effect of this joy was another surprise.  I was a little more productive at work, crossing items off my to-do list and wrapping up projects like I was in fast-motion.  It was as if the burst of happiness brought on by the cartwheel gave me a double dose of energy that carried me throughout the day.

But this shouldn’t have surprised me.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

I have a hat that I wear in the winter. It is a funny-looking hat with spiky black nubs, and I look comical in it.  But I love that hat.  Every time I wear it, I get a smile on my face.  I am a little friendlier to strangers, chatting with them in the checkout lines.  I feel a little more lighthearted.  It’s a ridiculous-looking hat but I feel absolutely marvelous in it.  It suits my personality and it reminds me not to take myself — or life — too seriously.  The hat makes me happy.  Or, more accurately, I feel happy when I’m wearing the hat.

It doesn’t take a lot to bring on happiness.  Happiness is not a constant state that one achieves only after reaching a major milestone — marrying that guy, losing that weight, landing that job — but, rather, it is a fluid state made up of many and small moments of joy.

Psychologist Ed Diener has shown that the frequency of moments of joy is a better predictor of happiness than the intensity of your positive experiences. In this case, it’s quantity rather than quality that matters:   somebody who has a dozen moments of joy each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen. Happiness is the sum of a hundred small things. 

So how can you make yourself happier?

  1. Increase the frequency of the moments of joy in your day.  Turn cartwheels, wear a funny hat, or give your sweetie a big hug, then repeat often throughout the day.
  2. Find new ways to bring small moments of joy in your day.  Just like you wouldn’t want to eat the same foods cooked exactly the same way every day, novelty in experiences can increase your happiness the way a new food can wake up your palate.
  3. Share your moments of joy with others.  People with strong social bonds are happier overall, and sharing your moments of joy can increase everyone’s happiness, just like a rising tide lifts all boats.

So rather than wait until the perfect moment to be happy, focus on the small moment and happiness will find you instead.

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“I wash my hands of this weirdness.” – Jack Sparrow

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While visiting my hometown recently, I drove by the local hospital which displayed a digital sign that read:

Staff hand washing compliance

95%

My first thought when reading that sign was, “Is the hospital bragging about the 95% compliance rate for hand washing or is it trying to shame the 5% who were not compliant by making them feeling like outliers?”

My second thought when reading that sign was, “Is this metric self-reported and therefore likelier lower than 95%, or did the hospital have cameras set up in washrooms to measure how many people washed their hands?  How can the hospital be confident in the 95% statistic?”

My third thought when reading that sign was that it is amazing that in 2015, in a developed country where fresh, clean water is plentiful, 100% compliance with hand washing in a hospital isn’t a given.  95%?  Really?  Yikes.  I’d hate to be the patient who gets to be treated or fed by the 5% who didn’t wash their hands.

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that the simple act of washing hands prior to birthing babies decreased mortality rates by 90%.  Just that one simple act.  Since then (or at least since Semmelweis’ death, given doctors didn’t believe his assertion while he was alive), the World Health Organization and medical professionals have touted proper hand washing as the single most effective way of reducing health care-associated infections and incidents of flu, and of generally staying healthy.  In light of this, it’s amazing that there is even hesitation in doing something that we know is good for all of us.

But we humans are a funny animal.  Despite knowing better, we resist or avoid simple acts that can have a positive effect on our well-being and happiness.  30 minutes of exercise a day helps to keep us healthy, yet how many excuses do we give for not exercising on a daily basis?  Each day has 1440 minutes: even setting aside 8 hours a day for sleep (ha!) and 8 hours a day for work, we are left with 480 minutes.  Surely we can exercise for 30 of them.*

Did I mention sleep?  7 to 9 hours per night are needed so that we  can be productive and safe and even stave off aging, but many of us frequently give up sleep in order to watch a marathon session of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, to scroll through images of people’s dinner on Instagram or to catch up on the million errands that never have an end.  We are a nation (or nations) of walking zombies because we’re too tired to set the right priorities on our health and well-being.

So how can we enhance our well-being?

1.  Measure it by the numbers:  20 seconds of hand washing, 30 minutes of exercise, and 7 hours of sleep can do more for our overall health than most of the more expensive and time-consuming alternatives.  Just think about how much money our health care system could save if we all just followed these few simple ideas.

2.  Take time to take care of yourself.  We trade our sleep or other simple health initiatives for other priorities, but if you don’t make time to take care of yourself now, how will you find time to take care of yourself if you’re sick?

3. Think positively and practise gratitude.   A positive attitude helps build a healthier immune system and boosts overall health and studies show that happiness is related to feeling grateful for what we already have.  People who keep a gratitude journal, writing down 3 things a day or a week that they are grateful for,  feel better and tend to be more optimistic about their lives as a whole.

Now to convince the other 5%.

* More than 30 minutes is required for weight loss or for preparing to participate in athletic pursuits such as marathon races and competitive ballroom dancing, but for general overall health, 30 minutes does it.

My Smartphone, My Self

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Yesterday, I had driven three minutes away from my house and was running late for an appointment when that scary shower theme from Psycho started playing in my head.  I had Forgotten. My. Smartphone.

On a road with no easy exit, it would have taken me 20 minutes out of my way to turn back to get it.  Worse, I was not quite sure how to get to my destination, and I normally would have used my phone’s GPS app to find my way.  So the dilemma was, do I forge on and possibly make it on time, or go back for my phone and most certainly be late?

I soldiered on, the memory of my phone sitting on the kitchen counter taunting me.  What if there was an emergency and no one could reach me?  What if I wanted to capture a moment and tweet about it or post it on Instagram?  What if I needed to look something up on Google?  How would I survive the day without my Blackberry?*

But amazingly, without my smartphone appendage, a funny thing happened:

  • I made it to my destination without relying on GPS.
  • I performed with a dance troupe at a festival.
  • I chatted in person with the family and friends who were with me, rather than by text with those who are far away.
  • I shopped for flowers.
  • I planted herbs.
  • I sat out in the sunshine and enjoyed the view.
  • I read a chapter of my book.
  • I wrote out a list of things I needed to do in the coming week.
  • I planned out the design of my invitations for an upcoming birthday party.
  • I cooked supper.
  • I purged my closet of old clothes that no longer fit me.

Turned out, I was so involved in being present and enjoying the day that I actually forgot to retrieve my phone even when I got home.  By the time I remembered it, 9 hours had passed and I realized I hadn’t missed a thing, but I had been filled with so much. I couldn’t believe how much I had accomplished, freed from the distraction of checking for messages and the constant updates on Facebook.

All this, because I forgot my phone.

The day had felt good and purposeful.  Fulfilling.  Satisfying.

And this is what I learned:

1.  Just as turning the TV off can give you back hours in a day to accomplish things, so can setting boundaries around how much and how often you’ll check your phone.  Every moment of the day does not need to be spent with the head down staring at a screen, but should be enjoyed with the head up being present in the world.

2.  Relying on my smartphone has made me lazy about simple things like remembering driving directions or how to spell certain words.  I’d been to my destination before and knew the address, so the GPS lady was not really necessary.  And I used to be a champion speller in elementary school; surely I haven’t forgotten it all already?!

3.  The world will not stop revolving just because someone can’t text you, or because you weren’t able to post that photo of your lunch on Instagram.  We survived before smartphones and, yes, we can survive a few hours detached from them throughout the day.

Yesterday was such a lovely day that, who knows, I may “accidentally” forget my phone at home tomorrow, too.

* (OK.  Stop laughing.  I happen to like my Blackberry.  Yes, I’m retro.)

It’s a good month for a happy life

You know you're Greek kalo mina

On the first of this month, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, enjoying the funny cat videos, food photos and inspirational quotes posted by some of my friends, when it hit me:  all my Greek friends had posted “Kalo mina!”  Every one.

“Kalo mina” means “[Have a] good month!” and it is the Greek way of wishing their family, friends and strangers a good month ahead of them, their way of wishing you well.  In fact, Greeks are notorious well wishers and will wish you well for just about any occasion.

Aside from the usual “kalimera” (good day), “kalispera” (good evening) and “kalinihta” (good night), they find other ways and reasons* to wish you well:

It starts on New Year’s Day with “Kali hronia”, [have a] good year.  We’ve already mentioned “kalo mina”, but the start of the week is not to be outdone: every Monday, you’ll hear “Kali evdomada”, [have a] good week, while on Fridays, it’s “Kalo savatokiriako”, [have a] good weekend.

Just before the afternoon siesta, they wish you “kalo mesimeri”, [have a] good afternoon. A neighbour may see you returning from the grocery store and wish you “kalifagota”, good eating.  Before each meal, it’s “kali orexi”, bon appetit, and as soon as you finish, it’s “kali honepsi”, [have a] good digestion!  Digestion, even!

At the beginning of the summer, it’s “kalo kalokeri”, [have a] good summer, and when you get back from summer holidays, it’s “kalo himona”, [have a] good winter.  Even if it’s only the first day of September.

While the economic crisis has resulted in a drop in overall happiness for Greeks compared to the rest of the EU countries, there is something charming and quaint and, well, happy about all this well wishing.  It fills you with optimism that there is at least one thing each day to be happy about.  (And if it’s a Monday on the first of the month just before afternoon siesta, man oh man, so MUCH to be happy about!)

Many of us go around complaining or whining, about the weather, about our jobs, about our life in general.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we pretended to be Greek for a while and started wishing people well for any little thing instead?   Would it create a ripple effect, a wave of happiness that others would pay forward?  Let’s try this challenge for the next month:

1.  When you feel the urge to complain about something, replace it with a happy thought for whoever is closest to you.  As you can see from the examples above, you can pretty much find any excuse to wish someone well.

2.  Keep track of whether your well-wishing is putting you in a better frame of mind about life in general.

3.  Repeat step #1 for the next 11 months.  Have a happy life!

“Kali prospathia”, [have a] good try!

* Thanks to my sister for providing these examples.

The secret to happiness: love, lattes and Danish

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It turns out that the secret to happiness is no secret at all.

We can spend a lifetime chasing happiness, wondering why it eludes us when, really, it’s within our grasp all along.  Happiness is pretty simple, you see:  someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.  (Thanks for that, Rita Mae Brown.)

Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking.  “I’m single.  Are you telling me I’m out of luck for finding happiness?”  No, no, not at all.  “Someone to love” isn’t limited to just romantic love, that Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming, heroine-is-swept-off-her-feet-at-the-end-of-the-movie love known as eros.   Luckily, “someone to love” can be defined much more broadly.  There are as many different types of love as there are types of people to love.

For example, filia refers to the love between friends, an easy camaraderie that comes with years of knowing and hanging out with someone who accepts you as you are.  Storge is another type of love, usually describing the love between parents and children, or between siblings.  Think more Anna & Elsa from Frozen than Snow White & Prince Charming.  (Wait.  Snow White and Cinderella both married Prince Charming?  That’s confusing.  But I digress.)  And, finally, agape refers to the love a person can have for many people, including extended family or even strangers.

Surely you have someone to love in your life.  It may not be Prince Charming (that two-timer!  But I digress.) but it may be a parent, a child, a friend or a brother.

The second tenet of a happy life is to have something to do.  Maybe you dream of running away from your “real” life and spending idle time on a deserted island, but that would wear thin very quickly.  People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and work not only provides income but also gives us a reason to get out of our flannel jammies and move during the day.  Having work to do, including staying at home to raise children, guards against the withering of our brains and our bodies.

Recent surveys have been quoted that up to 70% of Americans hate their jobs or are disengaged from their work.  But people who are working, who are earning and who are contributing to their communities are happier and have lower rates of depression than those who are not working.  Perhaps we have just become accustomed to wearing our complaints about work as some badge of honour.   Maybe the 70% who hate their jobs can reframe their reality by acknowledging that it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, or that it makes them happier overall.  The Danes have got it right:  they have a word, arbejdsglæd , which means “happiness at work.”  I say, let’s be more Danish!

In areas where the economy is depressed or jobs are scarce, it is still possible to fulfill this requirement for happiness. Volunteering regularly is as effective in fulfilling a purpose as paid work.   When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and happiness in American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.  So go help in a soup kitchen.  Offer your labour to a community garden.  Paint an elderly neighbour’s house.  The best part of volunteering?  It not only gives you a reason to roll out of bed, but it also adds to your work experience, adding to your resume and potentially leading to a paying job.

Too much and too frequent idle time leads to boredom, and boredom breeds unhappiness.  As a kid, whenever I said, “I’m bored,” my mom would tell me to go help someone. (And when my mom said “help someone”, she really meant “go clean the bathroom.”  I tried not to be bored too often.)  Being useful to others made me feel purposeful and suddenly, my boredom would vanish.  No paid work?  No worries.  Go help someone.  Volunteer. Contribute your time, your energy, your labour to someone or some cause that needs it.

The third requirement for a happy life is something to look forward to.  Anticipation leads to happiness.  It could be as simple as getting together with friends during the week or planning a vacation 6 months out.  A Dutch study showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation, even more so than actually taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.

As for me, I look forward to my weekly splurge on coffee.  I generally limit myself to one Starbucks latte every Friday.  No matter how bad my week is, knowing that on Friday morning I can treat myself to a double tall non fat no foam equivalent of joy in a cup, I have a small skip in my step.  Actually, it’s a large skip in my step.  I look forward to that coffee with such glee that my coworkers have named the moments leading up to it as my “Friday Morning Latte Dance.”

Feeling like you need more happiness in your life?  It may already be within your grasp.  Do a quick audit of your life to determine the abundance that is yours already:

1) Do you have someone to love?  A spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend?  Love comes in many forms.  Don’t limit yourself to thinking it needs to be romantic, fairy tale, only-in-movies love to count.

2) Do you have something to do?  Work gives you a reason to get up in the morning.  Hate your job?  Think about the purpose of your work and connect your work tasks with this greater purpose.  Don’t have a job?  Volunteer and help someone who needs your ideas and energy.  Write a book.  Design jewellery.  Build a deck.  Do something.

3) Do you have something to look forward to?  If your calendar is blank, make a date with a friend for a Tuesday.  Plan a vacation.  Research upcoming local festivals that you can attend.  It doesn’t have to be grand.  You could just join me on Friday at Starbucks for a latte.

You don’t have to search far and wide to find happiness.  Have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, and happiness will find you.

From chicken to champ

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Remember that kid in school who was always the last one picked to be on a team in gym class? The one who would hear groans from the team that ended up with her and cheers from the team that did not?

Well, I’m that kid. In my family, sports were not emphasized and so I never learned the skills or had the confidence to catch a ball, throw a Frisbee or kick a goal. Gym class would fill me with dread whenever the phys ed teacher instructed captains to choose classmates for yet another game of softball or dodge ball or some ball that was like an alien object to me. (To paraphrase John Bingham, I’m not sure who invented dodge ball, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t the kid in the class who couldn’t play sports well.)  Seeing a football sailing in the air would cause a paralysis of limbs, even as my teammates would shout at me to raise my arms and CATCH. THAT. BALL!

My idea to get around this embarrassment was to make friends with the jocks, the athletes most likely to be chosen as captains of these teams. The strategy was that they would be more likely to choose me out of a sense of loyalty rather than let me languish in the land of the athletically unwanted. But competitiveness and the desire to win seemed to beat out friendship every time back then. That’s OK. I didn’t take it personally.

I couldn’t wait to graduate high school so that I would never have to subject myself to the embarrassment of being picked last for a team or, worse, not being picked at all.

In one episode of The Simpsons, Bart tries to teach Santa’s Little Helper how to fetch and catch and do things that come naturally to other dogs and, in one scene, Santa’s Little Helper gets hit in the eyes with a Frisbee, garnering groans and great disappointment from the little boy who just wants to play. It’s like the writers witnessed my childhood and wrote my humiliation into a scene. I can relate to Santa’s Little Helper. I am Santa’s Little Helper.

Or, should I say, I was Santa’s Little Helper.

In university, a friend forced me outside for a quick lesson on how to catch and throw a baseball.  Within an hour, I was, well, if not great at it, at least able to hold my own during an intramural game later that afternoon.  A few years later, I was introduced to indoor rock climbing by another friend.  Scrambling up those walls made me feel strong and powerful in ways I’d never experienced in high school.  A casual invitation to play badminton one afternoon led to 4 years of league play.  Not long after that, I started running, working my way up to distances that took me through dozens of 10K races and 3 half marathons.  Suddenly, I was athletic.  Suddenly, I was an athlete.  Who knew?!  If only my classmates could see me now!

In thinking back to my earlier, uncoordinated years, I realized I’ve learned some important lessons:

1.  Athleticism, like artistic abilities, comes in many forms.  I can’t catch a ball like Calvin Johnson but I can run and jump and climb and skip and dance and turn cartwheels and swing a racket.  All of that counts.  I just had to find the right sort of athleticism that suited me.

2. The only person who set limits on my ability was me.  My friends all believed I could do it and didn’t give up on me as I tried again and again to get it right.  They were patient and willing to take their time with me.  If I focused on the fun of it, I could usually do it, at least in a way that didn’t embarrass anyone too much.

3.  I have great friends!  Throughout the years, even as I believed I couldn’t, they knew I could.  If your friends are not encouraging your heart, it’s time to find new friends.

So after years of avoiding any sport in order to avoid embarrassment, I now can’t wait to get out there and try new things.  In fact, the sun is shining and my runners are calling my name; time to go for a run.

 

Table for One

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I travel a lot.  I mean a lot — sometimes as often as once or twice a week.  My father was a merchant marine, for years travelling to various parts and ports of the world, and some of his wanderlust filtered down to me.  As a kid, I bussed tables at a restaurant to save money, not for a car at 16 but for a plane ticket to a far away locale in Europe or Australia.  As an adult, one of the considerations for which job I will take includes the potential to travel to some of my favourite places.

As much as I love travelling, and as antsy as I get when I am home for too long between trips, there is one major downside to it all:  I often eat alone.

People exclaim when they find out:  “You eat in restaurants by yourself?!?!!  You are so brave!”  But it’s not really bravery that drives me to eat alone in restaurants; it is the soul-crushing thought of eating alone in a hotel room that spurs me out into the public.  Room service is meant for lovers having a tete-a-tete who can’t bear to leave the hotel; it is not meant for the solo traveler to be holed up alone, with only the TV for companionship.

So, I often eat alone. In restaurants.  In public.

I hate eating alone.  There.  I admit it.

Man (and woman) was not meant to eat alone.  Eating is a social act, a way to bind friends, family and community together.  Food is not just for sustenance and survival but serves to build community and bond relationships.  The word “companion” derives from the Latin words for “with” and “bread” — in other words, companions are those with whom we eat bread.

Every week, a fellow in Paris hosts Sunday dinner at his place for the first 50 or 60 people who call or email him, with the goal of encouraging people from all parts of the world to meet, to talk, to break bread and to become friends.  He has been doing this for almost 30 years, for free.  Here is a man who understands of the concept of “companion” and opens his home to anyone who would like to come, in an effort to build community among strangers.

Some restaurants offer communal tables where single patrons can sit together for companionship and conversation, reducing the awkwardness that solo diners often feel when sitting conspicuously at a table for one.

There are times when a person might crave or relish the thought of eating alone: when trying to get away from the noise and pressures of too many people at home or the office; when time is needed for introspection.  But if anyone tells you they enjoy eating alone in restaurants, especially on a regular basis, well….don’t believe them.  Trust me. Solitude is often aligned with spending time with nature or meditating, not for eating out alone in public.

Eating with others changes the feeling from “me” to “we”.  So here are some suggestions for those of us who want to establish connections and community with others rather than bury our faces in our books and our Blackberries:

1. Use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to find friends and acquaintances in places you’re travelling to, and invite them to join you for dinner.

2. Research restaurants with communal tables and venture beyond your comfort zone to talk to strangers.  Who knows — you may make a new friend.

3. Strike up a conversation with others sitting at tables around you or, if that feels awkward, with your server and the restaurant’s chef.

As for me, next time I’m in Paris, I’m having dinner at Jim’s place.