Are You Happy Yet?

This week something awesome happened, something that I had been wanting for a really long time, something I was sure would bring me a lot of happiness. With the typical dramatic irony of the universe, it happened during one of my rare anti-Pollyanna weeks when I was ruminating on the fact that maybe nothing good was ever going to happen. (Melodrama seems to go hand in hand with negativity.) I know that happiness comes from within yadda yadda yadda, and for the past six months I have been all about listening to my own instincts and learning not to expect happiness to arise from anywhere but my own mind.

However, it seemed logical that working to create my own bank of natural happiness would in turn produce more positive outcomes in my life which would create more happiness. It’s practically a foolproof scientific equation. The only problem is that life is not always logical or scientific. And if karma exists, sometimes it takes such a long time to come around, its almost impossible to say whether it is karmic reward/punishment or simply random chance. Either way, its always nice to recieve a positive in life and I certainly had one this week. The strange thing was, immediately following my spontaneous happy dance around the room, my next thought was: “Now if only this would happen, and that would change and the other thing would turn around, then I would be so happy that I would never ask for anything else ever again.” Hmmm.

It’s the old cliche: I would be truly happy if I got a promotion/lost weight/got married/owned my own home/bought that dress … Buddhists call it ‘Attachment’, the natural human tendency to “grasp at a particular thing, person or situation, believing that this ‘thing’ will make us happy- a belief system that is fundamentally flawed.”* Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert claims that in almost all cases, within three months of experiencing a dramatic event – good or bad – it will have no significant impact on our level of happiness. In fact, he cites a study which has found that one year on from their life-changing event, paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy with their lives.** Impossible to believe, right?

All of this got me thinking about happiness in terms of the kindness project, since when I really think about it the idea of spreading kindness is ultimately to increase happiness. It’s easy to do things in an attempt to make other people’s day a little brighter – this week I bought a coffee for someone, donated warm winter clothes to the homeless, took a bunch of flowers to a friend who was feeling down, bought lunch for someone and donated to Beyond Blue , the national depression initiative. But ultimately I have no control over how any of these people react to or percieve these kindnesses (as was so evident with The Flower Incident). Maybe the kindness would not make it onto their happiness radar because they have convinced themselves that the only way they will ever be happy is if they have a new handbag or a wealthy partner or are five kilos lighter… It seems that it’s only human nature.

So what object, person or thing is your happiness dependent upon? And, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya?” Are you happy yet?

* ‘Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World’ by David Michie, 2004
** For more on this see Dan Gilbert’s TED talk ‘Why Are We Happy?’.

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Sunny Side Down

“Y’know, it’s not true that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things happen for no reason, there is nothing to learn, there is no silver lining, and I really don’t think we should have to pretend the glass is half full all the time.”

This is the announcement my gym instructor made the other day – quite out of the blue – in the middle of a class. And her honesty made me laugh because lately I have been feeling much the same way.

In the last few days I have volunteered at the Red Cross Young Parents Program and visited a friend bringing comfort food and a sympathetic ear. I also had my first volunteer day for a Bushcare, which is a fantastic organisation working on various projects to rehabilitate natural bushland areas. I was a little nervous to start, not knowing who I would be working with (except they were all under 35) or even really what I would be doing. But it was great – an awesome group of people with plenty of interesting conversation while we took out non-native plants in a stunning little area of bushland. And they were perfectly welcoming of, and patient with, a non-greenthumb like myself. I kind of feel like nature-lovers are probably a lot like dog-lovers: generally caring, down-to-earth folk. When we left you could really see the difference we had made to our little patch of green, which is always nice.

Sunday was a fundraiser I helped organise to raise money for a friend in Timor-Leste. He wants to plant some trees in his local area in order to enhance the natural beauty, make his people proud of where they come from, attract more tourism and increase awareness of environmental issues. It is very difficult to raise money in Timor-Leste so he asked if we would help him out. So we decided to organise a barbeque and invite all our friends. It was a great success – lots of fun and plenty of money raised, too.

But despite all this lovely and very successful kindnesses, other things in my life have left me feeling decidedly …blah. Most of the time I am a glass-half-full kind of person, and I believe this is a conscious mind-set that shouldn’t be reliant on things going my way. In fact, it is when things get challenging that it is most helpful to think positively. Yet I also know that to be truly positive you must express your emotions and deal with issues rather than suppressing them. And honestly its quite liberating to give in to the negative every now and then. Whats even better is that I know that embracing the “blah” means I can deal with the issues properly and before I know it I have snapped back to genuinely positive, finding real lessons and meaning and silver lining all over the place.

Living Above the Line

Days 42-45: When I was eleven years old I was lucky enough to take three months off school to travel around the world. I vividly recall my mother telling me, “Travelling will teach you far more about life than school ever could” – perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever recieved. Highlights included a visit Disneyland in California, seeing our family castle in Scotland and swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. But the place that had the most lasting impact was Zimbabwe, which brought on the biggest sense of culture shock I have ever felt. It was overflowing with spectacular scenery and wildlife. It was also the first time I had experienced a third-world country, seen slums the size of cities, people sleeping in the gutter and tiny children with no legs.

Upon returning home I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude at having clean water running from our taps, a comfortable place to sleep that was free of bed bugs, and a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetables to consume. I felt incredibly lucky to have been born in Australia, where I did not have to deal with the hardships of poverty and homelessness. It was not until later that I understood that these issues are not confined to one single country or even one continent – poverty does not discriminate. There are 1.4 billion people all over the world living beneath the poverty line, both in third-world countries and (literally) on our doorstep.

But as always it is not all bad news and there are things we can individually do to bring about positive change. This is Live Below the Line week, and over six thousand Australians are taking up the challenge to live on $2 a day in order to raise money and increase awareness of extreme poverty. I thought long and hard about joining this project, but eventually decided that considering how crazy I get when I’m deprived of food, sending a hungry, grumpy and jittery Cat out into the world wouldn’t really be a kindness to anyone. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to make this choice when so many have it forced upon them. So instead my kindness is to donate money to my friend Renee Carr who is not only participating in the challenge but also helped get the campaign up and running.

And it certainly seems to be a great success so far. Yesterday I overheard some handymen talking about how hungry they were on the challenge. I decided to put a bunch of coins in a nearby vending machine and then told them to go and check it as I thought it might be broken. I was intending to leave before they found the money but they were too quick and one of them very kindly called to me to say it was working and I had left money in it. I told him it was a bonus for being brave enough to Live Below the Line. He seemed very pleasantly surprised about that. I have also given money to every homeless person I have encountered, and am helping to organise a group of people to get together and give food to homeless one day soon.

Whether or not you are able to participate or donate to this cause, its a good week to realise how lucky we are to have homes, clean water, healthy bodies, an abundance of food and all the other amazing things that come with a life above the line. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could pull those 1.4 billion people up here in our lifetime too?

Something’s Cooking

Days 34-41: Imagine that life is like a big restaurant, and the
meals it serves to each person are symbollic of elements such as their career, relationships, family, living situation… Two people sit down at a table in the restaurant of life. The first is extremely hungry and doesn’t bother to look at a menu, instead asking the waiter to bring whatever they recommend. The second person spends a long time looking over the menu, asking questions about each dish and then requesting certain ingredients be added or removed so it is exactly to their liking.

The waiter returns with a meal for the first person that is quite tasty, but not completely satisfying. (This is like being delivered a partner, a job, an apartment that is perfectly acceptable, but somehow not quite right for you.) The second friend recieves a meal that is almost perfect but slightly undercooked, and sends it back. When the dish is returned the second person is very happy, having recieved just what they wanted and they rave about how delicious it is. The first friend wonders if they should have sent their food back and ordered something they really want, but not wanting to be difficult decides to simply smile and pretend to enjoy it.

Are you the first or second person?

Over the last year I have sent back a lot of dishes, from quitting a job that was making me miserable to cutting ties with people who are all give and no take. But while I know what I don’t want, I still often find it very difficult to ask for what it is I do want. However, I’m getting better and I’ve even realised that sometimes you can do one better than asking. Sometimes you can simply walk into the kitchen and cook up your own meal.

This week the kindness project has had me donating money to Wires, baking brownies for my extended family, buying a takeaway pizza for a guy working at 7/11 who was starving and unable to leave the shop, sending a bunch of flowers to my Mum at work for her birthday, baking a cheesecake for a friend who is going through a hard time, buying a big box of organic fruit and vegetables and attending Red Cross volunteering. Undertaking this project has allowed me to cook up something I really want – that is, for each day of my life to be surprising, challenging, inspiring, and full of kindness. Yum.

Shoulda Woulda Coulda

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.”
~ Reinhold Niebuhr

Days 31-33: Life is full of should-haves. I should have gone to the gym. I should have brought an umbrella. I should have taken that job. I should have stood up for myself. I should have travelled more. I should have told him/her how I really feel. I should have saved more money. I should have been more helpful, more assertive, more careful, more bold, more considerate, more healthy, more creative, more positive… Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by should-haves they are like a little swarm of bees buzzing around in by brain. And all that noise makes it virtually impossible to hear my instincts and my inner positive Pollyanna (both of which are essential for any real sense of happiness and calm). Why do we beat ourselves up over things that we should have done? It does not create a more positive outcome, but simply a more negative opinion of ourselves.

Over the past few days my kind deeds have come pre-packaged in should-haves and what-ifs and the general uneasy feeling that I haven’t done enough. First, on Wednesday, I didn’t do anything kind at all. I was distracted and uninspired. I felt too busy with my own issues to help anybody else with theirs. I had an opportunity for kindness present itself on a silver platter and I did not take it. On the bus to work a man got on who had bought a concession ticket but was clearly not a concession. The driver would not believe he had bought it by mistake and the man did not have the money to pay the fare. Both driver and ‘non-concession man’ became very agitated and argued for a good few minutes before the man swore and stormed off the bus. It would have been so easy for me to step up and put my bus ticket through the machine again to pay for the man’s ride. It would have made the man happy, the bus driver less disgruntled, and saved everyone on the bus time. But I didn’t. I just watched it all take place with detached interest like every other person on the bus even though it was perfectly within my power to positively change the whole situation. For the rest of the day I felt like I had failed a small but important test.

On Thursday I went out and bought a reusable eco-cup for my Mum when she gets take-away coffee. If you drink several take-away coffees each week, just consider how many cups you would throw away in a year. And, as we all know, every time you drink out of an eco-cup instead of a disposable one, you save a whale.

 

Then on Friday as I was leaving the gym to go to work, I noticed a group of birds attacking something in a tree. I walked a little closer and realised it was a baby possum. As they swooped it ran down the tree and out onto a major road, where several cars slammed on their breaks and swerved to avoid it. Startled, it raced back up the tree only to be attacked by the birds once again. Why was the possum out in the daylight in the first place? Was their something wrong with it? How could I help it? I wanted to catch it but had nothing to throw over it. And even if I found a box or blanket, then what would I do with it? It would surely put up a good chase and then if it was caught, a good fight for freedom. Besides all this, if I didn’t leave right then I was going to be late for work. Eventually I decided to call Wires (Australian Wildlife Rescue Organisation) and since they were out of office, left a message explaining the situation. As I left the little possum running frantically in between the frypan and the fire, I didn’t have very high hopes. All day Wires were fantastic about calling me back to check on the situation – but I had no information to give them, and since they couldn’t be sure the animal was still alive, they couldn’t send anyone out. I should have at least tried to catch it. I should have just called in late to work. The more I thought about it, the more disheartened I felt. I never did find out what happened to the possum, but I felt I had let the helpless little thing down. This morning I have donated some money to Wires (for all the amazing things they are doing, click the picture above), and its good to realise there is something I have the power to change in this situation.

Each and every minute of every day we are faced with choices, both trivial and life-changing (sometimes both at once). Sometimes – whether it be through fear, lack of knowledge or simply being human – we make a mistake. We leave the house without an umbrella on a rainy day. We don’t tell that person how much they mean to us and they slip out of our lives. We don’t help someone out when they most need it. But while we may have made a bad decision a minute ago, we must be grateful that in the minutes following that we have another choice to make. We can either lower our opinion of ourselves with ‘should-haves’, or be courageous and either change things if possible, or accept what has happened and take on the lessons it has provided us with. My lesson? I can’t help every single man, woman and gorgeous little possum, and I accept that. With serenity.

Set Yourself Free

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” ~ Lewis B. Smedes

Days 28-30: On Sunday I bought a Big Issue from a very friendly homeless man and had a chat to him about the beauty of Sydney and of all things, the Royal Wedding. I must admit this exchange secretly made me think of a Seinfeld episode when the characters are very bemused by a homeless man that talks about current television shows: “If he’s homeless, how does he watch TV?”

On Monday I put money in several parking metres that were about to expire. As I was leaving I noticed a parking attendant approaching and for the first time ever actually felt quite happy to see one, knowing I had prevented several people from being fined.

Today’s kindness was a little more personal, and a lot more difficult. I forgave someone for a past wrong I had been holding onto for some time. My forgiveness of this person was initially a kindness to them, but in hindsight it was an even bigger kindness to myself. While I have made the conscious choice to surround myself only with people who add to my life, I have to remember that I will be doing myself a favour if I can forgive those who may have taken more than they gave, and wish them well. Holding onto negative thoughts and emotions is always far more damaging to yourself than anyone you are supposedly directing them at. And yet when it comes to forgiveness, even knowing you are stuck in a cage of your own creation, sometimes the hardest part is setting yourself free.

How Do You Measure Happiness?

“The gross national product… measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” ~ Robert Kennnedy, 1968 

Days 24-27: Gross National Product seeks to define the prosperity and quality of life in a nation by assessing the market value of the goods and services it provides. But as we all know, there is far more to living a rich life than economic wealth. With this in mind, in 1972 the 5th King of Bhutan – a small landlocked monarchy in Southern Asia where the average income is around $3 – coined the idea of Gross National Happiness. Its an idea that is slowly gaining popularity around the world. The GNH survey has even been taken by Australians, who on average rate their own happiness level at around 7.9 out of 10 (‘Growth Matters’, Andrew Leigh, 2006). In fact, the recent studies of international happiness have consistently placed Australia in the Top 10 Happiest Countries.

At first I thought perhaps sunshine and warmth had a lot to do with it, but many of the other happiest countries are cold and snowy most of the year. None of the countries are poor, but again the wealth of a nation doesn’t directly correspond to its happiness level. So how exactly do you measure a nation’s happiness? Assessing GNH currently involves a nationwide survey which includes questions such as: Do you consider karma in your daily life? How much do you trust your neighbours? Do you feel you have the right to freedom of speech? How do you dispose of household waste? How often do you experience compassion? They are then asked, “All things considered, how happy are you with your life?”

How would you answer this question? What things contribute to your happiness level?

 

When I asked myself this question, I had to admit the Year of Kindness is certainly making me happy – though little has actually changed in my life, a lot has changed in my perspective of it. This week I babysat for my dear friends H and R (who haven’t been out to dinner since their daughter was born 2 1/2 years ago!), paid a visit to my Grandpa and left him some home made jam drop biscuits, practised listening more and speaking less, and bought my boss a tea cup lid (she is forever re-heating her tea as she never has time to sit down and drink a whole cup). None of these things were at all remarkable or difficult, and yet they made myself and others very happy. I know the age-old saying that the only person that can truly make you happy is yourself, but I have never actually experienced it quite so literally before. I don’t know how you can measure this kind of wealth – maybe in the quantity and quality of smiles? – but simply because it can’t be measured doesn’t take away its significance. 

So today why not forget about financial wealth as the only marker of success and think about how much happiness you have in the bank. Take Bobby Kennedy’s advice and focus on your wit and courage, wisdom and learning, and compassion. You’ll probably find you’re a lot richer than you thought.