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?


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