Tag Archives: positive psychology

More than a brighter shade of happiness

“What have you been thinking about joy recently?” Mike asked me over lunch the other day.

“I’ve been thinking about that research suggesting that people are happier before they have children,” I said. “And about how happiness and joy are different.”

“Are you going to write the easy post about how you often feel less happy on a moment to moment basis since Dominic’s birth, but you have more joy in your life?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “Because, although I would like to think that this is true, I’m not actually sure that it is.”

Despite the fact that joy is the theme of this month, I’ve been trying not to think too hard about the difference between happiness and joy. This question confuses me, and thinking too hard about anything confusing in the face of this enduring sleep deficit is still a struggle. But there’s no getting around it, if I’m going to exert even a half-hearted attempt to grapple with the concept of joy, this particular question must be confronted.

Mike and I first started talking about joy a couple of weekends ago when we were hanging out at Zen and I was feeling low low low. Mike asked me what I was thinking about regarding joy on that day, too. As I recall, I told him I didn’t feel at all joyful and I didn’t feel like talking about it. Also as I recall, Mike being Mike, he persevered with the conversation, anyway.

“Happiness is present focused,” Mike said when I gave in and asked him what he thought about the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy is more future focused. Also, happiness is more self-focused while joy is others-focused.”

“Like how we feel about Leslie’s and Ryan’s engagement,” Mike continued. “Objectively there’s little in it for us other than a kick ass party, so why do we feel so elated by this? I think that feeling of gladness we feel at their good news, that’s less happiness than it is joy.”

I don’t agree with Mike about joy being tied to anticipating future good things, but then again I don’t think that I’m a very future-oriented person. If anything, I get more joy from remembering past blessings than I do thinking about the future.

However, I think Mike’s point about joy being related to empathy – being rooted in an appreciation for the “good” in life even when that good doesn’t directly benefit you – is fascinating.

Many dictionaries define joy as intense or especially exultant happiness, but this doesn’t seem nuanced enough to me. Even if I don’t find it easy to pin down exactly why, I feel as if joy really should be something more than just a brighter shade of happiness – something wider and deeper, something that stems from beyond myself and my pleasures.

I think the man who listed joy as one of the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:22 would agree. That man would probably say that true joy is a by-product of our appreciation for, and relationship with, the divine.

A good friend recently made a similar point by email.

“Joy is hard to quantify, no?” she wrote. “I think that joy doesn’t always make you happy, because the fruit of the spirit is the result of the work of God in your heart and experience shows this to be not exclusively a blissful journey. (Maybe sometimes we are more like in the stage of ‘the flower-bud of the spirit’? I mean, fruit will probably come, but not for a few months yet…).”

“I love that image of a flower bud of the spirit,” I wrote back. “I will hold the image of jasmine in my mind. At least, I’ll hold it in my mind until Mike teases me that I’m really more one of those carnivorous, meat-eating flowers you find in the Amazon. And then I might wonder aloud what sort of poor marriage decision that little flower made to end up having to adapt to living in the tropics, and tell Mike that sometimes flowers just do what they have to do to survive. Then we’ll both laugh. Thank goodness that, most days, we can both still laugh.”

We did plenty of laughing this morning when Dominic suddenly decided that our dog scratching himself was the funniest sight he’d seen in his whole little life and laughed until he turned bright red and started hiccupping. Today’s so far been a good day full of long baby naps and bright baby smiles and leisurely walks under cloudy skies to pick up groceries. Today I think of Dominic and smile. Today I can say without hesitation that Dominic’s birth has brought great joy into my life.

But today doesn’t tell the whole story of this last week.

Last week at this time I was alone in the house, exhausted from several nights in a row of broken sleep, unable to escape the screech of power tools right next door, and trying in vain to settle a grumpy baby who didn’t want to put down (or to sleep). I was walking the floor of our bedroom with Dominic in my arms, crying, thinking that this could not possibly be the point of life.

I would like to be able to say that even in that desolate moment I felt that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is that I simply felt so bereft of happiness and joy that I had a hard time conceiving that I would ever really feel either happiness or joy again.

I would also like to be able to say that even during that moment that felt so joyless, I still knew that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is, the only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I still wouldn’t wish his birth undone. If the Archangel Gabriel had appeared in that instant and offered me the chance to hand Dominic over, I would have refused (unless Gabriel had promised to bring him back markedly more cheerful in a couple of hours – then I would have relinquished him with great haste as well as both happiness and joy).

Perhaps I still don’t have this difference between joy and happiness all sorted out in my mind because they’re impossible to completely untangle in real life. Sometimes, I think, joy does feel like a brighter shade of happiness. But sometimes in moments when happiness is nowhere to be found, I think it can feel like peace instead. And perhaps sometimes it’s not really a feeling at all, but more an attitude, or even knowledge.

I don’t think that knowing you don’t really want to push the reset button regarding the existence of your child – even in those dark, exhausted, tear-drenched moments – quite reaches the lofty heights of joy. Perhaps, however, joy can sink its roots deep into this knowledge and continue to grow even when the fertilizer of happiness is in short supply. Because I believe now that what I discovered last month about love is also turning out to be true of joy.

Last month I wrote about how love for Dominic hadn’t swamped me like a tidal wave but was creeping in slowly and inexorably, like a rising tide. I don’t know why I expected joy to be a different kettle of fish in this regard, but I did. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking of joy as something you either have – flowering full and perfect in your life – or don’t have at all. It took my friend’s letter to make me realize that I had missed a foundational implication of the fruit of the spirit analogy – the fact that fruit, uh, grows. Slowly. As in weeks, months, and entire seasons slowly. This much I do know about the process, despite the fact that I’ve never been all that talented at growing things and prefer to buy my fruit from others who have done the hard and careful work of tending.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier if we could buy joy from our local grocery store or, better yet, instant-download it directly into our lives using the buy-with-one-click button on Amazon?

Easier? Maybe.

Better? I can’t articulate exactly why, but I suspect not.

I will strive to remember that as I rue the irony of spending the next month thinking about peace in the midst of our ongoing negotiations with our noisy neighbors. I will remember it tonight when I wake up in the wee dark hours, as I will inevitably do, to reach down and place a hand on a stirring baby. And I will remember it this afternoon as I go soon to get him up from his nap, change him, amuse him, feed him, love him. If part of deep joy necessarily springs from focusing on others, this mothering thing surely means that my emotional greenhouse will eventually be a fruitful, joyous, sweet mess of color. And in the meantime, there are fresh mangoes and tamarind available at the little stall just down the street. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for a walk in that direction this afternoon.

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Seeking The Fruits Of Motherhood

Three weeks after my first child was born, my uncle leaned towards my husband, Mike, over the dinner table.

“It would be nice,” he said, “to see something positive on Lisa’s blog about the baby.”

This comment was directed at Mike because I wasn’t actually at the dinner table with everyone else; I was sitting on the couch with my breast firmly planted in the mouth of the small and needy mammal that was under discussion. And the reason I was sitting on the couch was because the little mammal had been almost inconsolable after we fed him just before leaving for dinner, let him sleep for 20 minutes in the car, and then woke him up by carrying him inside. When he started to scream and I went looking for the pacifier, I discovered that we’d left it at home and I was the only effective pacifier available. Parent fail.

Mike and I talked about my uncle’s comment driving home that night.

“Do people actually think I’m serious when I say things like, ‘Last night I almost left the baby in a basket at a bus stop’?” I asked him.

“You haven’t put that on the blog, have you?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “I only said it to our obstetrician. And maybe a couple of people from church.”

“I think most people know you’re not serious,” Mike said. “But perhaps a few are a bit worried by your flippancy.”

“When you’re still recovering from a difficult birth, you are suddenly responsible for a small being who sucks up every shred of time and attention you have to offer, you’re running on less than four hours of sleep a night, and you’re facing the prospect of yet another month apart from your husband when he returns to Laos early,” I said, “it’s sometimes easier to see the negative than the positive.”

“Well, have you had positive moments during the last week?” Mike asked.

“Of course!” I said, a bit shocked that he even had to ask. “I love lying sandwiched between the two of you when you’re both sound asleep. I love feeling Dominic settle into my shoulder with that happy little sigh – all warm and suddenly limp – when he’s milk-drunk. I love watching you talking to him so tenderly as you scoop him out of my arms to take him off and change him. I especially love knowing that I don’t have to change him that time.”

“Maybe you should push yourself a little,” Mike said. “Write about some of those moments. Make it a spiritual discipline to identify and articulate the positive in motherhood.”

I thought about this later that night while I was feeding Dominic again at 9PM. Then I thought about it at 3AM. And again at 4:30 when he started stirring and grunting less than half an hour after I’d put him back in his bed, at 4:45 when I brought him into bed with us, and at 5:15 when he started wailing and I had to get up and feed him again. It was not a night packed full of positive moments. In fact, by 6AM, I was tempted to leave the baby in a basket at a bus stop.

But maybe, I thought, this is where the spiritual discipline part comes in.

The name Dominic means “of our Lord”, and I’ve been startled during these early weeks of his life by how often my thoughts have turned into prayers while I’ve been feeding him. There is something about being up in the wee dark hours that nudges my mind toward friends and family, toward the blessings and challenges of life. And all this midnight praying has made me think of Bible verses that I memorized in younger days.

One that came to mind that evening was Galatians 5:22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

That night I decided to try something new this year – to take a different word from that verse in Galatians as my theme of the month. I would seek to find that theme, to live it, and I would write about how that word was playing out in mothering, marriage, and the miscellaneous of life. I would purposefully seek the positive. And I would mostly refrain from joking about leaving the baby in a basket at a bus stop.

Mostly.

Help me out here as I start to think this through. What helps you be purposefully positive in your life?

PS. For those few of you who are concerned that I may actually leave the baby in a basket at a bus stop, never fear. If I do I’ll wrap him up nice and warm, just like this…

Photo credit: Mike, day six, minding Dominic while hanging out the laundry

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Higgledypiggledy: Weekend Links

Most people say that if you want to build a huge blog readership you should find your theme or your niche or your whatchamacallit – your topic that you write on again and again and again until becomes your brand. Then, they say, if you keep at it and write well your blog will take off like a cat with firecrackers tied to its tail and you’ll have hordes of people coming e-flocking.

Yeah, well. This blog is an odd mishmash of stories related to pregnancy, marriage, family, life in Laos, humanitarian work, positive psychology, puppies, and ice-cream/chocolate. An odd mishmash remarkably similar to my daily life, come to think of it. And so far I’m fine with being all higgledypiggledy rather than trying to be a brand.

So in the spirit of higgledypiggledy I thought I’d share some links with you this weekend – links I’ve recently found challenging, helpful, funny or just plain yummy. Enjoy.

On humanitarian work
A five-part series over on morealtitude on how to become an aid worker:
Know what you’re getting into
Aid work is a profession
Experience, education, and personality
Where do you fit?
Count the cost

On positive psychology
What makes us happy: Fascinating article (long, but worth it) on some of the lessons learned from the longitudinal study of 268 Harvard students that first began in 1937.

The Geography of Bliss: This book is part travel memoir, part exploration of happiness in different cultures and lands. It’s pithy and well-written and I really enjoyed it. 

On parenting
How to talk to little girls: A thought-provoking article on how adults tend to focus on a little girls appearance when complimenting them.

A lesson in fear: A funny essay by my friend, Jos, over at Zozo’s Mom about the challenges of toilet training.

In which I promise not to call myself fat: A lovely blog entry on emerging mummy about one woman’s battle with body image post-pregnancy and her promises to her daughters to raise them to celebrate real beauty.

On puppies
My story about “the Samoyed that almost was” (Friendly companions from Siberia) guest-posted on fellow author Chandra Hoffman’s blog last week. Having just bought home a most adorable Newfoundland puppy (I want one, I want one), she’s doing a dog blog series. 

On chocolate and ice cream
Molten fudge cake with raspberries and cream: This recipe was posted by my friend Nicole Baart under the title “Best Desert Ever” and I don’t think she’s far off on that! I made it yesterday and it was yumscrumptious. If you go visit Nicole’s website check out her wonderful books while you’re there.

Chocolate caramel slice: A couple of you have written asking what slices are. Well, here’s a link to a quintessential Australian slice – chocolate and caramel. They’re dense, gooey and yummy (or sickeningly sweet, depending on your tolerance for sugar).

Just for fun
Lioness tries to eat baby at zoo: Don’t worry – there is glass in between the two.

And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles: The story of a giant metal chicken and a wedding anniversary.

What will you be grateful for today?

I chatted to Mike over breakfast for a good 45 minutes this morning. In one respect, at least, this three-hour time difference serves us well. Mike can get up at 6am (or, often, before) and make coffee and get breakfast. I am up at 9am having just finished mine, and we both at the same level of “awakedness” and being ready to embrace the day. Consequently, we have much more substantial conversations over a virtual breakfast table when we’re separated by the equator than we do when we’re living in the same house.

At home our morning routine for the past six months has involved Mike bringing a plate of fruit and a cup of tea up with him when he re-enters our bedroom to shower and get ready for work at 7am. I work on waking up while he’s in the shower, and our conversation usually consists of little more than me telling him about anything wacky I dreamed about the night before and asking him what he has planned for the day while he’s getting dressed.

No, wait, sometimes Mike also looks at me sharing my fresh mango with Zulu (who has been sitting patiently by the side of the bed waiting for just this moment) and shakes his head. Then Mike tells Zulu that he’s the luckiest dog in Laos and better nourished than many of the country’s children. Sadly – even though that little mutt’s diet consists mostly of dog food, fruit, empty yogurt containers, and the odd piece of cheese – this last statement is probably true.

Today, however, Mike and I covered all sorts of substantial topics in the early morning hours – recent allegations of deceptive marketing practices by Nestle of infant formula to mothers in Laos, boundaries in committed relationships around spending time alone with people of the opposite gender, and the more prosaic how we are both faring on this fine Tuesday morning.

“I don’t know,” I said, when Mike asked that last question. “I haven’t figured out yet what sort of day this is going to be.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“Well, every day is different at the moment,” I said. “Yesterday was a great day. We saw whales out to sea during breakfast. I had coffee with a friend in Lennox and spent too much money buying gourmet ice cream to bring home (purely as a present for my hard working mama, of course). There was a lovely sunset. I was happy. But two days ago many of these things also happened and I was definitely not happy. So every day is a bit of a puzzle at the moment mood-wise and I haven’t yet figured out which way today is going to swing.”

“Well, I command you to make today a good day by banishing negative thinking,” Mike said.

“You command me?” I said.

“Yes,” Mike said, flashing the particularly guileless and genuine grin I often see when he knows full well that he’s tap dancing on thin ice. “Because I am your husband and when I decree things then it’s your job to make them happen.”

Mike usually only says things like this when he’s safely out of striking distance – whatever else he might be, he’s not dumb.

“So, what are three things you are going to be grateful for today?” he asked while I was still glaring at him via skype video and flirting with the notion of playing right into his hands by rising to the bait.

“That’s changing the game,” I said. “The positive psychology exercise is to identify three good things that have already happened that day and their causes.”

“I’m a game-changer,” he said. “So, three things…?”

“OK,” I said, thinking about the upcoming day. “Tash is coming tonight to stay for five nights!”

“Good one,” Mike said, sighing only a little at the thought of missing out on that fun. “What else?”

“I can see trees tossing in the breeze out of every window,” I said. “Whether it’s cloudy or sunny, rainy or clear, it’s so beautiful up here.”

“And number three?” Mike asked.

I had a third one, I know I did, but now (a whole two hours later) I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. Never mind, now that I’ve started thinking about it there are plenty of things I could tack onto that list – not least of which is the fact that there are two cartons of gourmet ice cream in the freezer.

All the positive thinking and gratitude exercises in the world wont ensure a decent mood, of course, but they are one good place to start. What about you? What helps get your day off to a good start? What three things will you be grateful for today?

The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!