Happiness eludes most Americans

Ever since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and declared that the pursuit of happiness was our inalienable right, many Americans have felt the need to make this pursuit their number one priority. So that must make us a happy lot. Right?

Wrong. In 2016, residents of Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland ranked highest in the happiness poll. In the U.S., we’ve dropped from third place in 2007 to nineteenth in 2016. And only about a third of us say we’re happy. Among the reasons given by American respondents were lack of social support and the perception of corruption in business and government.

What is happiness?  Do we all agree on a definition? Not likely. But from the “Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” website we have this definition: Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

One reason the editors at The Greater Good liked this definition was that “it captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness.”  I believe that “fleeting positive emotions” is part of the definition. We can’t experience joy 24/7, nor should we want to. Experiencing the contrast between happy and sad makes happy moments even better.

There are almost as many ideas on how to achieve happiness as there are raindrops in Seattle these days. Dr. Amit Sood, author of the Mayo Clinic’s “Handbook for Happiness,” lays out a daily schedule of emotional responses starting with “gratitude” on Mondays and “forgiveness” on Fridays, with compassion, acceptance and meaning (as in a focus on what gives your life meaning) on the days in between.

In “Real Simple” magazine, writer Gretchen Rubin offers her own list of ten practical tips for achieving happiness. Among my favorites: “Realize that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness,” she says. “The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction. People who do new things―learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places―are happier than people who stick to familiar activities that they already do well.”

Another one worth mentioning: “Don’t insist on the best.” Rubin says those who struggle to make the best decision, “expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

Finally, it’s comforting to know the quest for happiness is not as strong in all cultures as it is in ours.  British writer Ruth Whippman says her countrymen are not nearly as obsessed with finding happiness as we are. Since the quest isn’t producing the results here we’d like, maybe we should emulate the British and pursue some other goal.

Whippman shares a World Health Organization report that says while Americans are not the happiest, we are the most anxious. Well, at least we get a first place in something.

If happiness is our goal but only a third of us are happy, perhaps we’re aiming for the wrong target. Whippman cites University of California, Berkeley studies showing “the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.”

Whippman’s article is both telling and laugh-out-loud funny, but she’s also been biased by her setting.  She calls Silicon Valley her home in the U.S. and spends perhaps too much time with techie’s wives obsessed about whether they’re enjoying the lives they could/should live.

PS. I recommend checking out each of the links above. All have useful and/or interesting information and ideas about happiness.

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Forbidden fruits

These days, deciding what goes into making a healthy meal requires serious study…and a certain flexibility about “the latest” research.

A recent issue of “Time” magazine listed twelve foods we should eat (taken from their list in “Time 100 Healthiest Foods”) and gives reasons why they’re good for you. The foods are whole eggs, edamame, grass-fed steak, quinoa pasta, romaine lettuce, whole-grain bread, blackberries, figs, potatoes, acorn squash, almonds and corn.

I have no arguments with the list, except that it’s so 2017 and surely by 2018 one of these food items will be pronounced “unwelcome on any list” and replaced by something currently on the don’t-even-let-it touch-your-lips list.

I looked up Weight Watchers original diet plan and found these “forbidden fruits”: bananas, cherries, watermelon and grapes. Vegetables considered “restricted,” included Brussels sprouts, carrots, eggplant, green beans, yellow squash and tomatoes. Do you know anyone who got fat because they ate too many tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, grapes or watermelons?

Many websites name the villains of the past that have now been absolved of the sins formerly attributed to them.  Anything with fat — think avocados, salmon, butter and nuts — was a no-no. And cholesterol?  Eggs would kill us. And potatoes?  Everyone knew they loaded on the pounds.  Same with whole milk. Yet some research credits whole milk with keeping people lean. I have changed from watery non-fat to two percent, but drinking whole milk still seems sinful.

In the past, one of the biggest health offenders was chocolate. It’s not completely redeemed itself, but I’ve read that we can eat dark chocolate with at least 74% cocoa solids without being chastised for crimes against good nutrition.

Last year, I read that mustard greens had risen to the peak of the best vegetables list. What a blow to kale, which had been number one for years. It’s so hard to stay on top in any field these days.

In the current era, to quote my family doctor, “Gluten is the new Satan.” Not to say that some people don’t suffer if they eat it, but that many who studiously avoid it probably don’t need to.

So what’s a cook to do? I think we can assume that fruits and vegetables aren’t going to kill us or add too many extra pounds. As far as the other food groups, we have to go with what we know now, realizing that in a few years we’ll see headlines naming our favorite food as the latest miscreant. For now we have to take all this nutrition information with a grain of….no…wait…not salt!

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the study that lands chips and salsa on the healthy food list.

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Who inspired you?

my bad photo of my good photo of Guanajuato, Leon, Mexico

Who helped you find a direction, got you thinking along different lines about your future, and built your confidence along the way?  I am at the stage of life where I enjoy looking back and attempting to answer these questions. It makes me realize how fortunate I have been at every period in life to meet someone who pushed me to try something new or influenced my life choices.

I was inspired to write about this topic by an essay by Dr. Nobuo Haneda in his book “Dharma Breeze.” He named three sources of inspiration that led him eventually to his position as director of the Maida Center of Buddhism in Berkeley, California. Two out of the three  — one being famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy — were not people he had ever met.

For the sake of keeping readers from using this blog post as a cure for insomnia, I’m going to limit myself to only a few examples of those who provided the inspiration — or a kick in the behind — to me.

I don’t remember the name of the first one I thought of. He was known as the Colonel. I met him while working in a low-paying, dull job in a college admissions office to save enough money to travel to Europe. We couldn’t have been more different. I was twenty-one, going through my hippie stage, and he was much older. He came across as stiff and formal. Four months later, after quitting my job and going to Europe, I returned home to visit the people I had worked with, including the Colonel. I had no more than greeted him when he said, “I imagine you need a job. There’s an opening for a much better-paying one at the community college.  I know people there. If you’d like, I’ll call now and give you a recommendation.”  This unexpected gesture of kindness helped set the course for my future as an administrator in public education.

Keeping with Dr. Haneda’s experience of choosing authors for inspiration, I choose Betty Friedan as my second infl. She was a leader of the feminist movement and author of The Feminine Mystique.  Many years later, I don’t remember anything from the book except that she said men could wash dishes too. This was a huge revelation. My husband and I were living together at the time but not married, and I did the housework.  She helped form the basis for a forty-five-year (so far) marriage in which we now actually fight for the job of washing dishes.

my bad photo of my good photo of Guanajuato, Leon, Mexico

My third choice is my husband’s Spanish teacher at the University of Washington. He signed up for her class after we’d taken a trip to Mexico.  At the end of the school year, she convinced him that his language skills would improve faster if he immersed himself in a Spanish-speaking culture. I had taken Spanish for five years in junior high and high school, so I was game to join him for this experiment in immersion. We spent a month in a language school in Mexico and lived with two Mexican sisters. The next few summers we chose a school in another town and lived with a woman and her children, someone we still consider a sister and keep in touch with today. Thanks to the Mexican adventure we made friends in Texas and California, and have had Mexican guests visit us here. I was able to use my Spanish skills on the job and made many new friends through my work with Spanish speakers.

Remembering the people who impacted your life is a worthwhile activity.  I’m still smiling as I think about those summers in Mexico and all our adventures there.



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When it comes to aging, attitudes matter

In 2009, 100,000 American women, middle-aged and older, demonstrated that when it comes to health and aging, our attitudes matter.  Those with a more hopeful outlook on life (optimists) were less likely than those with a more negative view of the future (pessimists) to smoke, or suffer from diabetes, depression or high blood pressure. And the former “lived healthier and longer lives.”

From another study, at much greater risk were younger people “with a high degree of cynical hostility…a deep mistrust of others.”

So says Dr. Hilary Tindle, researcher and author of “Up — How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging.

The New York Times reviewer praised the book as “not simply another self-help book, but a thought-provoking and intelligent read.” As an optimist, I didn’t spend much time on the self-help part of the book; I was more interested in the “thought-provoking” piece.

The author divides aging into three parts (consider my summary a grave oversimplification):  wrinkles and slumping posture; deterioration in the brain; and changes in the cells of all our organs.  All in all not a picture to promote optimism. The good news is that while the skin is not likely to lose its wrinkles, we still have a chance to effect changes in other body parts.

Before I was willing to believe anything else Tindle said, I needed to know what she meant by optimism. With this quote she convinced me to keep reading. “Optimism shares very little with those bumper sticker mantras, which seem to be unrealistically optimistic.”

It seems that if we want to age well, we have no choice but to nourish a positive outlook. The prescription?  A significant element comes back to my last blog post:  keep moving. “Research on mice and men (and women) has demonstrated physical activity’s clear benefits to our brain, both for helping us manage negative states of mind such as anxiety, sadness, and addiction cravings, and for improving memory long term.”

In addition to getting exercise, Tindle says we need to sleep, spend time in open green space, and maintain a social support network. For readers whose genes and traumatic early life experiences make it difficult to change perspective, “Up” has many specific strategies for steps to help pessimists move farther along the scale toward optimism.

After reading the book, I still struggle with the reality that I am optimistic about my future and pessimistic, even a bit cynically hostile, about the future of our country and of many people less fortunate than I. But I tell myself to stay focused on healthy aging, especially to keep moving, for I won’t be of any help to others if I don’t.



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Keep moving

Courtesy of Exercise zones, Fox and Haskell formula by Morgoth666 in Creative Commons Share-Alike

“Keep moving.” That’s my new motto. I want it to apply to everything in my life, starting with exercise.

I’ve shredded my list of fitness goals since my first Fitbit fell off my wrist and an essential plastic piece in my second Fitbit broke. I don’t worry about walking 10,000 steps a day, or the 15,000 that  a University of Washington research team is now touting. I don’t want to count minutes or steps. I just want to keep moving.

There are plenty of good reasons to live the motto. When you Google aging and movement, you get the following titles (and many more):  “The Biggest Anti-Aging Secret on Earth? Moving Your Body;” “Aging Intelligently: Use your brain; Move Your body;” “Moving Your Body is Good for Your Mind;” “Exercise and Aging: Can You Walk Away from Father Time?”

Father Time will always catch up to us, but the study on which the latter article was based showed that the following improvements could occur with exercise that increases your heart rate and breathing:
*decrease in heart vessel and heart muscle stiffness,
*decrease in resting heart rate and blood pressure;
*increase in metabolic rate;
*decrease in body fat and blood sugar;
*increase in quality of sleep; and
*decrease in memory lapses.

 “Keep moving” is a prescription for healthy aging that extends beyond the physical to the mental/emotional side of life. I want to keep moving in my different communities, among my friends, continue to explore interests and feed my passions, all of which require taking action.

None of this is news. The issue is how to keep moving even as your body or brain tell you it would be nicer to take a nap, sit down with a book, or watch that miniseries you recorded last week. Nothing wrong with these options, except when they replace movement.

However, I’m finding that it’s so easy to slow down or even better, do nothing. Last spring, I walked three or four miles, five days a week.  Then we went on vacation.  After we returned, one hip started to hurt, and that was a good excuse after the vacation broke the routine, and the daily walks became weekly walks. I’ve returned to walking more often, but I know how fragile the relation between exercise and me is.

Since I retired, I’ve found it’s nice to slow down a little.  I like to begin the day with the cat on my lap and a cup of tea in my hand and work in other activities later in the day. I have fewer goals and write more grocery lists than things-to-do-lists.  Yet going too slowly has its risks, and that’s where constant reminders to keep moving come in.  It’s an easy motto to remember. I’ve written it on sticky notes and posted these in places where the temptations are overwhelming to read one more “New York Times” article about our failing political system, check “like” on another Facebook post, search for that chocolate bar I hid a few weeks ago, or lie on the couch with my eyes shut and wonder what to fix for dinner.

Once the sticky notes are unstuck, I’ll just write “Move.” That’s all I really need to remember.






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Why we need older friends

Flagstaff Gardens, Melbourne, Australia, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

Earlier this week, I watched three buses from an elder housing community pull out of the parking lot near a theater where we had just seen a play. Ah, so that explained the presence of so many eighty-somethings in the audience.

It was an easy leap at that moment to imagining a time when I will have less control over my life, just as this older crowd seemed to. Will I ever live in a facility like theirs, have to be chauffeured to entertainment with others who live in the same setting, and build my social life and group activities around them?  Would I still see old friends who weren’t residents there or would my life center around “The Home.” (A group of friends and I joke that we’re going to establish our own version of “The Home”.)

Everyone I know wants to live independently forever. But watching the older adults as they exited the theater and boarded their buses, I became very aware that aging takes different forms.

What people need are older role models. I’m serious. What better way to learn about next stages in life than from those who are living them?  The fastest growing population in the county where I live is the eighty-five and older group.There must be plenty of people to look up to and model myself after right now. I have good friends aging along with me and a few older ones. It’s time to ask them what they’re thinking about as they age and what changes they’re experiencing, no matter how subtle.

My best — though atypical — guide to the future is Eleanor at ninety-six. She has as much spark and energy as she probably had when she was forty. Something about her high level of activity and involvement in many projects tells me she’s not yet concerning herself with what will happen next.  She’s decided she wants to live to 101 and I’m confident she’ll make it at least that far. I hope she lives longer.

March 20 Addendum: I can’t believe I forgot to bring up another role model, my 85-year-old yoga teacher, Joyce. I will never have hamstrings as limber as hers. Some of my classmates have been studying with her for more than twenty years. Now that’s loyalty and proof that she’s a good teacher.  She’s studied with some of the best and never pushes.  “You’re in charge of your body,” she says.  “If it hurts, don’t do it.”









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Have an adequate day

Above average – Pixabay: Public Domain pictures

“Have a great day.”

Americans have a knack for exaggeration, our president more than most –“huge, best, greatest” being his frequent and usually self-referential contributions — but the rest of us are also guilty of using superlatives in everyday conversation.

“Have a great day,” was the Starbucks barista’s send-off yesterday as she handed me a cup of tea.  “Awesome,” was the email comment I just received from a friend for whom I had done a tiny favor.

These comments got me thinking about how to describe most of my days. After a bit of a struggle, I settled on the word “adequate.” If something extra special happens, such as going out to dinner or a play, my days become good days, one degree above adequate. According to my on-line dictionary, one definition of “adequate” is “pretty good.” It’s sad to think that we view a pretty good experience as somehow below par.  It could be worse, though, if it were “average,” meaning “usual” or “ordinary.”

The problem as I see it:  We’ve reached the point in our culture — the Lake Wobegon” effect — “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Being told we’re less than perfect whether’s it’s on the job, in school, after a music lesson, or in appearance is grounds for considering, if only briefly, the application of a sharp knife to one’s wrists or, minimally, a lawsuit. While I might mock the barista’s use of “great day,” I’m as guilty as anyone else in using exaggeration to label everyday events or conditions. I say “great” (“considerably above normal,” “magnificent,” extraordinary”) when someone refers to any positive situation.  Other Person: “I’m going to skip work and sleep in tomorrow. Let’s have lunch.” Me: “Great!”

I can testify personally to the horror of once being called “average.” After my first year on a new job, my supervisor called me in for my end-of-the-year review, which turned out to be an oral report consisting of one sentence:  “I can say with confidence that your work this year was average.”  It didn’t matter that she was teasing.  It felt like the lowest blow she could hit me with.

I have a possible solution to our obsession with greatness, a solution that would only be acceptable to people of a certain age.  Years ago, my husband and I spent several Julys in Guanajuato, Mexico living with a Mexican woman, Marilu, (now our Mexican sister). When asked how she was doing, she used an expression  –“Estoy contenta” — that I’m considering adopting.  “I’m satisfied. I’m content.” What if more of us found ourselves feeling content? Not perfect, not awesome, not great, but also not lacking for anything or requiring much more, simply satisfied. Maybe if we just said, “I’m satisfied,” often, we’d begin to believe that feeling content was a very good way to experience life.




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Music as meditation

jamming in the hallway

jamming in the hallway at Wintergrass

No one would call me mindful.  I forget where I set my reading glasses, have returned empty envelopes to Comcast and others while leaving the payment checks in my checkbook, and once left my cell phone on an outdoor bench in Haarlem, The Netherlands. (After a complicated series of events I received it in the mail after we’d returned home.)

I’m not looking for miracles, but would like to make some improvements. I know, I know, just shut my eyes, count my breaths, dismiss distractions, and my blood pressure will drop, I will no longer stew over the state of our country, and soon will be floating in a Nirvana-like state. In fact, there is a great deal of research on the effectiveness of meditation in relieving stress and improving health, but I haven’t put in the amount of time needed to improve anything. I work my fifteen minutes in before bedtime and immediately return to reading my library book, which is a lot more fun.

more jamming

more jamming

However, something that happened recently gave me an idea of a new approach to achieving some level of mindfulness. For four glorious days my husband and I attended a music festival called Wintergrass.  This year’s theme was “Bach to Blue Grass.” We heard fourteen different musical groups, playing about 45 minutes apiece.  (Yes, sitting that long does take its toll, but there are three venues, so you get a little exercise walking between rooms.)

By day three I found my mind wandering less. By day four I was able to banish many random thoughts and found the music completely absorbing. Also, I attended Sunday church services and found myself completely absorbed in chanting, and listening to the entire congregation chant, when normally I think about my grocery list for the week.

I’ve decided to try music meditation. It’s been thirty years since I listened to classical music. A good starter would be a record (my husband has saved plenty of vinyl from the old days) by British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, preferably one of his pieces described as tranquil, even mystical. If, after a few weeks, I’m still putting eggs in the freezer or forgetting where I left the cat, at least I will have broadened my musical horizons.

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Aging like a monkey

Sock monkey I made

I don’t usually write about — or even admit to — aging as it affects me, but after reading an article in the New York Times, “What Old Monkeys and Old Humans Have in Common,” I think it’s time we talked about getting old, and what we can expect as far as behavior changes specific to aging. Researchers are studying Barbary macaque monkeys in retirement (about age 20). From their work, we can see what we might become if we haven’t already become it.

Monkeys and humans get pickier as they get older and less interested in trying new things. Humans might eat at the same restaurant again and again. We might create schedules that call for doing certain things on particular days, for example, dine out on Wednesdays, go grocery shopping on Fridays, and clean the house on Sundays. We might get cranky around strangers (I’m assuming this means that we’ve already gotten cranky around our loved ones and have just extended this to strangers later in life).

Monkeys and humans tend to socialize less as they get older.  Monkeys pay attention to what’s going on around them, “but they don’t want to participate themselves.” Some days humans don’t feel like socializing, and map out a day around  watching TV…alone. Both humans and monkeys tend to take fewer risks as they age.

We humans are aware that we only have so much time left and prefer to spend it in the ways we choose.  No one attributes this awareness to monkeys, so researchers are looking for the roots of our common behaviors in biology. Meanwhile, if we want to know more about what to expect, we can hang out at the zoo and observe the monkey elders.


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The satisfaction of doing it yourself



Have you held on to something you created earlier in your life,  maybe an elementary school finger painting or a junior high wood shop birdhouse? I have collections of greeting cards I made and never sent, and booklets I made and never used. Why am I still keeping them? Because I made them.

And I’m not alone. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls feeling good about things we make the “Ikea effect.”  You can read his piece in “Why We Love Our Own Creations,” at dailygood.org.

If you’ve ever assembled a piece of Ikea furniture — despite it often being a frustrating and time-consuming experience — you’ll know what he’s talking about. When you complete the project you look at the results and feel pride. “I did this,” you tell yourself, “and it looks good.”

Ariely says that makers of cake mixes figured out this aspect of human nature a long time ago. In an earlier era, when cake mixes required cooks only to add water, they didn’t sell well. Later, when homemakers had to add eggs and oil to the mix, they became more attached to the cake. It became their creation.

In one of Ariely’s experiments, subjects folded paper cranes. Even if their creations were ugly, they liked them because of the effort they’d put into making them.

The point of the Ikea effect is that it shows us we get something in return when we do projects for ourselves, when we don’t expect manufacturers/businesses to do all the work. When I take a loaf of homemade bread from the oven, I feel thrilled.  I hover around it, stick my nose near it to inhale the aroma, sometimes take a picture. It is the most satisfying experience.

Ariely says for those creators, “the lesson here is that a little sweat equity pays us back in meaning — and that is a high return.”



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