Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dan Buettner: Tips for happiness

I went to a talk by a well-respected neighbor of mine, Dan Buettner, whose latest book, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, is about tips he gleaned from worldwide research, database correlations, and conversations with individuals in the happiest cities in the world.

I brought my 6-year-old son, who contentedly sat in a corner reading "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Later I was congratulated by some audience members for having a child so focused on reading. Honestly, my son is pretty happy doing any number of things. He was born that way. And Dan Buettner indicated that much of happiness is innate. But the research for his book also finds that about 40 percent of our happiness can be nudged by our own influence on it.

I think often of the personal struggles single women I hear from are going through as they work toward becoming mothers. It's hard to be happy when what we want most of all is to share a family life with someone, and no partner is evident as we enter our 30s or near our 40s.

It's hard to be happy when we are spending a great deal of time and money in a paper gown at the fertility specialist's office, trying to conceive with sperm from a vial, instead of on a romantic vacation or simply a passionate night with someone you love.

It's hard to be happy when we've done eight cycles of attempts with no success, or when we're told that no, Guatemala isn't re-opening for adoption anytime soon, or "thanks for your paperwork, hopefully we'll find an adoption placement for you in another year or two."

It's hard to be happy when your beloved child is in your arms, crying yet again on a sleepless night and you have no one to take over so you can get some needed rest.

It's hard to be happy when you've been laid off, single mom of two, and the oldest needs braces.

When times are especially trying, I always recommend that you consult with someone on our Top 15 Choice Mom-friendly therapist list.

I also hear the stories of women who have pushed through real obstacles, fears and worrisome places to find happiness. Lately, that's included Valerie, who freaked out with humor during her home study process; Felicia, who found support after she decided to become a single mom at 40; Lorie, a Christian woman raised by a single mom who had initially hoped for a different path but ended up on an adventure in Russia. You can read all Choice Mom profiles here.

What Dan told us in his talk is that entire towns (San Luis Obispo, for one; Albert Lea coming up) are refashioning themselves to make for happier citizenry. One town in Denmark simply finds it unfashionable for status to be useful; doctors and garbage collectors are on the same footing. An extremely happy community in Mexico, where annual income is roughly $5,000/year, doesn't let work get in the way of family rituals. In Singapore, security is key so parents feel free to let their kids play anywhere.

Here are some of the tips he shared of ways individuals can influence their happiness:

1. As we talk about so often (keyword: support network) on, community connections are key. Dan says living in communities with big sidewalks, where people walk their dogs and get together for regular block parties, can compel us into contentment. Especially if we live near a body of water.

2. He also mentioned what many of us have talked about at events when we contemplate dating again: Moms tend to be a lot happier with family-oriented partners than successful career men. (Also alluded to in our podcast conversation with fellow Choice Mom Lori Gottlieb.)

3. Socialize seven hours a day. Now, this one is hard for me to fathom, even if it sounds right. As a self-employed introverted person, who often finds it taxing to chat, I was proud that I created a new "Socialize" Post-it note for my weekly to-do list. Now each WEEK, not each day, I am doing something non-kid or meeting-related. That's a good step. But it's nowhere near seven hours a day. So for now, I'm content having post-school hours with my kids and will keep working up to more in-person adult interaction as well. Thanks to stepping out of the box and leading a discussion group every other Monday night, I'm finding it as liberating as I do at our Choice Mom networking events to really deeply ENGAGE with people, even if it can't be on a daily basis.

4. Invest in experiences. My trip this summer with the kids and my parents through Europe -- even though I'll be paying it off for awhile -- was definitely more important to us in the long run than getting the iPad the kids are longing for. Moving the TV out and creating a new monthly Group Family game night option is something I'm newly proud of. I hear often from women who are concerned about being able to afford parenthood on one paycheck, which is a viable concern that I still feel myself 12 years after embarking on Choice Motherhood. But as Choice Moms often share with each other, don't forget that it's the rituals and moments we have with our kids, and others, that end up being what we remember.

5. The friendships we pick are huge. Dan reports that proactively picking happy friends DOES make a difference. He also warns that if your friends smoke, overeat or are lonely, it can often have a similar impact on you. As I reported in another post, Dan's website has some excellent tips on ways to expand your inner circle.

6. Create a pride shrine. A prominent place in your home where you can be reminded in photos and memorabilia of the bliss of your life.

7. Know your sense of purpose. What uplifts you? Where can you volunteer for your values? How do you engage your passions?

8. Healthy living. As his Blue Zones series also pointed out, we can all benefit from a plant-based breakfast, at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night, meaningful hobbies, volunteerism.

9. Vote for happiness. Look for candidates who understand that we are all equal, as it is in our social connections with others where investments really pay off. The interconnected web of community requires that we can all thrive.

Dan also talked about an old farming town where kids were taught to appreciate art, express themselves creatively, apply civic duty, talk about what matters. Aren't these all wonderful ways -- in our control -- for building our own reservoirs of happiness?

In 2010 the watchword for the Choice Moms mission was "simplify." In 2011, let's start to engage in "conscious conversation."

What would YOU like to talk about?


Monday, November 01, 2010

The Nature of Borders

A recent conversation with a friend of mine reminded me of the borders that are so easy to construct in our relationships with others. The role we play in keeping people at a distance.

And simply the fact that so many of my friends are single. The nature of my very business with the Choice Mom community is working with women around the world who are raising kids alone.

Why is this, I wondered? Why, at this middle age point and beyond, is it sometimes so easy to find that we have fewer people meaningfully in our lives, rather than regularly adding to our existing company of close friends?

In a conversation led by the Rev. Karen Hering, a guest at our First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, the nature of borders was discussed. How borders are man-made, creating differences between neighbors that don't naturally exist.

She told the story of how a childhood friend believed, until she was old enough to drive, that there was a physical speed bump between states because her father would always brake slightly and announce they were crossing borders.

Wouldn't it be something if there was a physical barrier that we could see and point to as a reason for our separations? A concrete excuse for losing contact with someone. For not having an intimate connection. For making it too hard for us to sustain a social life.

I'm in one of those current lulls. In the past few years I proudly made about 20 new friendships. All with much younger people who I simply enjoyed seeing at music events. In the meantime, I also let go of a few friendships I could have maintained but chose not to. And lost a relationship with a family member for reasons I haven't forced to become explained.

I've also heard from Choice Moms who are feeling isolated, especially in these early days of motherhood when our infants, toddlers and young school-aged kids seem to take priority and sap us of the energy, inclination, time or funds for maintaining our own adult lives.

In the conversation with Rev. Hering, she told the stories of families who were separated by government walls in other countries. People who spoke poems to each other on either side of borders erected by their governments, as a form of protest. About the U.S. fence constructed over a prehistoric First Nation village, in a former gateway community archeologists had discovered had featured a melding of tribes.

Is this what security looks and feels like, she asked?

She talked about how yin and yang translate as sunlight and shadow, light and dark. I was especially interested in learning that this long admired symbol represents the waxing and waning of the moon. She explained it as a "fluid relationship of polarities held together in a larger whole. The line between them, that curving edge, is understood not as a barrier that cuts in two, but as a meeting place, a point of relationship, a place of identity embedded in interconnectedness...It does not stand still in time, fixed and hard, a cutting reality, but but it waxes and wanes with a rhythmic fluidity that defies solid walls and wire fences, and separations whether visible or invisible."

She quoted Desmond Tutu: "We are made different in order to know that we need one another. We are made to complement one another...A person is a person through other persons. In order for me to be me, you must be you. We are meant for togetherness, as those who belong in one family."

She asked us to think about who, as a nation and individually, we wish to lock out and fence out? "Who are these so-called strangers that we turn away? What part of ourselves do we turn away when we do? What does it mean to make a border into a wall? Are we really safer by barring passage, communication, trade and relationship?"

We all know how racism, sexism, and nationalism fence us off. We know about Choice Moms who have had to sever relationships with family and friends who don't accept our choice to become a single parent.

She encouraged us to think about erecting steps to cross over fences, or to erase a line of conflict drawn in the sand with another. To let go of the sharp edge of religious or political difference that is separating us from another.

In this week of U.S. elections, I welcome each of us to contemplate what barriers have become rigid in our lives that we'd like to soften. As Rev. Hering encouraged, "Think of a way in order to reach across this border. Something you might say or do, or not say or do, that would make a little opening, invite a little movement or invitation to cross that border to build connections."

I'm contemplating which of several new openings I could create in an old fence.
What connection would you like to make, or mend?


For a full podcast of the Rev. Hering's talk, click here.