Tag Archives: Happiness

G is for Gratitude . . . and Gayle

Gayle Peggy and John

My family of origin had its own mythical creation story.

In the beginning, we (my two sisters and me), were playing cards in my mother’s stomach. Somehow Gayle won (I suspect she cheated), and got to be born first. Peggy won the second round (more cheating) and was thereafter dubbed first loser. Being lonely for about 33 months, I finally managed to win a game of solitaire, and was officially born second loser (aka Pokey II).

My parents named Gayle, Gale Caren. Being smart, independent, and convinced she knew better than anyone, at about age 12, Gale protested. She convinced my parents to take legal action to spell her name correctly. Who does that? From then on, she was and is Gayle Karen. I will always remember her spelling it, loud and clear, G-A-Y-L-E. Whenever the speech-to-text function on my phone misspells her name, I immediately change it. From early on, Gayle knew what was right. As it turns out, according to the Freakonomics dudes, children who grow up with oddly spelled names experience worse educational and achievement outcomes. Duh! G-A-Y-L-E knew that back in 1964, took matters into her own hands, and changed the arc of her destiny.

As we know from developmental research, girls who grow up with a clear sense of identity and an assertive (I know what I want) style, do well in life. Gayle knew what she wanted. She became known as the “bossy” one. But Gayle was much more than bossy; she was a leader.

The famous existential group psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom (who, by the way, at age 88 will be keynoting again for the American Counseling Association in San Diego in April), says that group leaders are, by default, role-models and norm setters. Whoever takes the lead, implicitly and explicitly sets behavioral standards for everyone else. As group members, we cannot help but be influenced by the leader’s norms and behaviors. Group leaders show us the way.

In my family, more often than not, Gayle showed us the way.

In her early teens, Gayle designed and produced a neighborhood newspaper. Who does that? At age nine, I got to be the neighborhood sports reporter. Gayle mentored me as I wrote my very first publication. How many nine-year-old boys get big sisters who publish their first article?

Gayle organized backyard carnivals. Among the many backyard activities, we had fishing booths; fishing booth are like portable walls that carnival attendees sling ropes over. Then, two people behind the wall who are running the booth, grab the rope, and use clothes pins to clip on the “fishing” prize. These were big events. Gayle was a legacy in the neighborhood; she was a genius at organizing events and willing them to happen. Gayle was often the force that led us to organize ourselves into a family team that made things happen.

Not only did I learn skills of leadership from Gayle, I also learned skills of followership. Put in terms used by the famous psychological theorist Alfred Adler, Gayle taught me how to be in a community and how to cooperate. Gayle didn’t (and still doesn’t) know Adler or Yalom or any other famous names in psychology, but sometimes when I study them, I think to myself, ah . . . I started learning about these things before I turned 10, from Gayle.

Sometimes Gayle made mistakes and taught us things we shouldn’t do. Older siblings are great for that. I remember and tease Gayle for some of her quirks. But I think the only reason I get so much delight in remembering a few of Gayle’s neurotic behaviors is because they were exceptions. Most of the time (and I’m talking directly to you now Gayle), you weren’t just the bossy one; you were the  smart one, the  organized one, the relentlessly focused one, and the one who helped your subordinates (Peggy and me) learn how to be smarter and how to contribute to the good of the family and neighborhood.

Later in life when you experienced challenges and sadness, you modeled for me how people can cope with unplanned hardships and come out stronger on the other side. You were (and are still) a role model for me for that, and for so many other things. But in particular, your ability to sift the wheat from the chaff and focus like a laser on what’s important in the moment is illuminating.

Somehow, despite no college education, you took yourself from waitressing at Earl Kelley’s buffet diner, to being a bank teller, to being a bank vice president, and on to becoming an IT leader with AT&T and Blue Shield of Oregon. You are the epitome of American success. You worked your way to the top.

I hope you know that I know, despite me having a Ph.D., and Peggy (who bit me) having a Master’s degree, in our family, you were always the smart one. You were always the leader. You could discern the right and moral direction without a compass or a Bible. I am amazed and humbled at your success. I am happy and grateful to have been led by you, to follow you, and to learn from you. I am forever grateful that you cheated in our first card game, because, really I was the winner; I won the prize of having you as my big sister.

G is for Gratitude. G is for Gayle. G is for a tie (with Peggy, even though she bit me), for the Greatest sister of all time.

Happy late birthday from your brother, who, as you know, is usually late in all things.

Happy, Happy, Thanks

Turkeys in Yard

Yesterday several naïve turkeys gathered outside our front window, apparently oblivious to the upcoming holiday. My not having a turkey hunting license or a shotgun made them safer than they might have been otherwise. Today, along with a thin blanket of new snow, I’m wishing them a happy day.

Having started reading “There, there” by Tommy Orange has added complexity to my urges to offer the traditional American Happy Thanksgiving greeting. I’m just speaking for myself here. These are personal reflections, not political reflections. As the late William Glasser (1998) liked to say (paraphrasing here), trouble tends to start when people discover, not only what’s right for them, but also what’s right for others. To honor Glasser (and avoid trouble), I feel compelled to write: I recognize that my own personal reflections may or may not be relevant or meaningful to you, and that you should celebrate as you like.

Here are some words (among many) from the prologue to There, there, that complexify my Thanksgiving Day greetings:

“In 1621, colonists invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, to a feast after a recent land deal. Massasoit came with ninety of his men. That meal is why we still eat a meal together in November. . . . But that one wasn’t a thanksgiving meal. It was a land-deal meal. Two years later there was another, similar meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship. Two hundred Indians dropped dead that night from an unknown poison.”

As a nation, we’ve not been good to Native or Indigenous peoples. That’s obvious, even based on most (rather whitewashed) history books. Our historic oppression of Indian people has been horrific. That’s a fact I find important to acknowledge. I’m an Italian-Austrian-French-English Jewish-Catholic mostly white male. It’s doubtful than many or any of my ethnic/racial peoples were particularly good to the Indigenous Americans. I feel sad for that.

But somewhere in my brain I hold onto the idea that maybe Thanksgiving can still be meaningful. Giving thanks, showing gratitude, and being generous are behaviors that improve communities and enhance physical and emotional health. All the happiness researchers repeatedly say that we should be repeatedly grateful, and that expressing gratitude offers bidirectional short- and long-term benefits. Both the giver and the receiver of gratitude are on the receiving end of increased health and wellness.

For today, I offer gratitude to my Native American and American Indian friends and students and brothers and sisters. I’m grateful to have learned from you and to have you in my life. Although I cannot fix past wrongs, today and in the future I can recognize your value, contribute to your causes, appreciate your culture, and be grateful for what you bring to the world. For many reasons, we now find ourselves in this together. I hope to be gracious and helpful as we live together in peace and equity. There will be bumps in the road; my hope is that we can smooth the bumps together. Just because the narrative around that first Thanksgiving was fictional, doesn’t mean we can’t build a future that includes coming together and sharing our lives in important and meaningful ways. It’s possible that I and many of my ethnic/racial peoples can be particularly good to the Indigenous Americans in the future. I feel happy for that hope.

Happy, happy, thanks to everyone.

Resources: Huffpost published a nice article on six things non-native allies can do for Thanksgiving.    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ally-to-native-americans-on-thanksgiving_l_5ddc4237e4b00149f7223b30?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuaHVmZnBvc3QuY29tLw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAjPZEONsO8kbskt8Qfrnm4VaVkk0kZo1hmmiYv9dANmXAL4aKKHsfcH-Oj5-HBI917vRV6-BSQGvu4G0fWSxIYxK1_hdfDrPqlEXqKCdjh9CysuPHTMZbjJAolZJ0JjfwDpdocP_pYGzuKejzZjKVZwbROe-8HyHfA7-itWaale

In today’s Missoulian there’s an article on the Happiness class Rita and I are developing and that I’ll be teaching this Spring semester at the University of Montana: https://missoulian.com/news/local/happiness-there-s-a-university-of-montana-class-for-that/article_7789f0fd-cb94-505d-a708-ab4bc214a4ff.html

Positive Psychology for the Weekend

Rock People

Yesterday I happened to meet up with a guy in a coffee shop. We recognized each other immediately. While chatting, we got coffee, sat down, and talked about positive psychology.

The meeting was neither random nor happenstance. We planned it. I know it’s silly to say that something goes without saying, and writing that something goes without saying is sillier yet, but I’m writing it anyway: Planning and intentionality are very good things. Without intentional planning, I never would have met my coffee-buddy, and I’d be less smart today than I am now.

This guy (I’ll call him Carlton, because that’s his name) was inspired to reach out to me with an email because I’m teaching a Happiness Class at the University of Montana this spring semester. He has a Master’s degree in positive psychology. He wanted to talk. Positive psychology people are like that. After using my impaired scheduling skills to mess up our first planned meeting, we were able to get together on our second try.

Carlton was abuzz with positive energy even before he drank his Americano, but that should be no particular surprise. He told me about taking red-eye flights from Seattle to Philadelphia to complete his “commuter” M.A. in positive psych. Clearly, he’s high on life, which made for an episode of fast talking and listening that got cut short by my need to drive east to Absarokee. So, what happened during this short, speedy conversation that made me smarter?

Turns out, we’re from the same hometown. I’m sure that made me smarter. After all, that was the town where I read nearly every Norman Vincent Peale book ever written. Apparently, I learned that growing up in Vancouver, Washington creates a need for positivity. But, of greater relevance was the fact that he was (another non-surprise) a treasure of information about positive psychology.

Carlton told me of some of his favorite positive psychology ideas and activities. I took notes. I’m not going into the details. Most of the information is top-secret and you’ll have to take my Happiness class to get the down low. Instead. I’m presenting you with one highlight to take with you into your weekend.

The best part—amongst many good parts—was being re-introduced to one of the biggest positive psychology names of all time. Although I knew about Christopher Peterson in a distant sort of way, I’d never really plunged into his work. Maybe that’s because I figured if I knew about Martin Seligman, then I didn’t need to know much about Chris Peterson. Or maybe it was because sometimes I have a limited and narrow take on the world. Somehow, sometimes, I presume that if I don’t know about something, it must not be all that important, or I would have already learned it. I recognize that as a terribly self-centered perspective, but it can creep into my psyche anyway, leading me down a road where I think I already know everything I need to know. When that happens, I need to do work to get around and past or through my own narrow mental world.

Carlton not only offered to lecture in my Happiness class (yet another reason to register now!), he also helped open my mind to deeper issues in positive psychology. He told me about a video where Peterson boils everything about positive psychology down to three words. The three words, “Other people matter.”

Being a big fan and proponent of Adler and social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl, I experienced deep and immediate love for Peterson’s three words. They were simpler and deeper than other positive psychology words and ideas I’d experienced previously. And remember, I spent most of the late 1970’s reading Norman Vincent Peale. In addition to The Power of Positive Thinking and You Can If You Think You Can, both of which I now consider mostly a load of crock (I’m not quite sure what a crock is, but I’m using crock as a euphemism so I can claim that at least some of my blogs are profanity-free). I even read some of Peale’s less popular works, like, Sin, Sex, and Self-Control. . . the reading of which may partially explain my interest in having at least some profanity-free blogs.

This morning I looked at my notes and I looked up the Chris Peterson video. Spoiler alert, my favorite part is when Peterson says:

“Sometimes when I give a talk, I tell the audience, if you really don’t want to listen to me for the next hour, listen to me for five seconds, because I’ll tell you what positive psychology is all about. Other people matter. Period. I’m done with my talk.” (Chris Peterson, Ph.D., from an interview and shown as a part of a Positivity Project video that you can watch here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEc2W8JVuRw).

Obviously, that’s an awesome quotation, and an amazing five-second talk, but I like this next Peterson quotation even better. The story is that one of Peterson’s research buddies, Nansook Park, asked Peterson how or why he gave so freely of himself to others. Peterson responded, “Other people matter and we are all other people to everyone else.”

I know everyone reading this won’t feel the tingle I feel, but I love the statement, “Other people matter and we are all other people to everyone else.” Peterson’s message is circular. If I want to be loved, then I love. Okay, maybe it’s just a knock off of the Golden Rule, which may be a knock off of ancient Egypt’s “Do to the doer to make him do.” Even so, I find the statement that “Other people matter and we are all other people to everyone else” an empowering way to think about how important it is to lead with love and kindness and respect. It’s important for them, and it’s important for us.

Now that I’ve quoted and re-quoted Peterson several times, I’m sensing that this blog is moving toward its natural conclusion. But, just like it’s hard to find the natural origin of the reciprocity maxim (i.e., Golden Rule), it’s also hard to find the natural conclusion. I could end with Adler (always a solid choice). In his boldly titled book (What life should mean to you) from 1931, Adler said that the meaning of life was to have “interest in others and cooperation.”

Alternatively, I might end with a quick summary of a 75-year longitudinal Harvard study. The researchers concluded: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

Instead, I’ll point you to a video written by Tiffany Shlain and Sawyer Steele, titled 30,000 Days. I discovered this video while in pursuit of information on Christopher Peterson (instead of being in the pursuit of happiness). Watching the 11 minute 30,000 Days video is one way to launch your upcoming fantastic weekend. Here’s the link: https://vimeo.com/226378903  

 

 

On the Road to Billings . . . and Well-Being . . . and Happiness

Baby Laugh

Tonight I have the honor of offering a public lecture in Billings. Situated as a part of a series of community suicide-related talks, my title is “Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I suspect somewhere between 3 and 30 people will be in attendance. Although I’m hoping for 30, I’m realistically assuming that Rita and the program’s host will show. Counting me, that makes three!

To help get attendance over 3, someone suggested I edit this post to include the time and location. I’m on at 7pm till 8:30pm on the second floor of the MSU-B library, room 231. Hope to see you there.

Below, I’m pasting the handout for tonight. Being in the green lane, I’m trying to save paper and make these products available online. Here you go!

Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness

John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.

Following is a summary of key points for John Sommers-Flanagan’s presentation for the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program and Montana Social Scientists, LLC, Billings, MT – November 7, 2019

Introduction: Happiness can run very fast. So, let’s chase well-being instead

  1. The Many Roads to Well-Being. You can find well-being on emotional, mental, social, physical, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and environmental roadways.
  2. It’s Natural, but not Helpful, to do the Opposite of What Creates Well-Being. If we want to catch well-being, we need to actively plan and pursue it.
  3. The Pennebaker Studies. Writing or talking about deeper emotions and thoughts will make you healthier (better immune functioning) and happier. Choking off our emotions is inadvisable.
  4. The Cherries Story. It’s not what happens to us . . . but what we think about what happens to us . . . that increases or decreases our misery. Focusing on your good qualities can be difficult, but doing so helps build a strong foundation.
  5. Savoring. Use the power of your mind to extend and expand positive experiences.
  6. Why Children (and Adults) Misbehave. When people feel a deep sense of belonging and socially useful, the need to misbehave and feelings of suicide diminish.
  7. Exercise is the Solution (No matter the question). Exercise reduces depression in youth and offsets the genetic predisposition toward depression in adults. You can stretch or lift or do cardio, but get moving!
  8. Holding Hands and Hugging is a Chemical Gift (or not). Consent, timing, and desirable companionship are foundational to whether touch contributes to health.
  9. If You Can’t Catch Happiness or Well-Being, Start Chasing Meaning. Regular involvement in spiritual, cultural, religious, or social justice groups will feel so good that you might experience happiness and well-being along the way.
  10. Remember gratitude. All too often we forget to notice and express gratitude. Put it on your planner; both you and the person who receives your gratitude will thank you for it.

 ****************************************************

John Sommers-Flanagan is a Professor of Counseling at the University of Montana. For more information, go to his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com. John is solely responsible for the content of this handout. Good luck in your pursuit of wellness.

Happiness and Well-Being (in Livingston, Montana)

Cow

Yesterday, at the fabulous West Creek Ranch retreat center just North of Yellowstone Park, I introduced community leaders from Livingston, Montana to a man named James Pennebaker. It was a brief meeting. In fact, I’m not sure anyone remembers the formal introduction.

I should probably mention that James Pennebaker wasn’t in the room. The meeting consisted of me putting a short and inadequate description of one of his research studies up on a screen. The study went something like this:

Back in 1986, Pennebaker randomly assigned college students to one of two groups. The first group was instructed to write about personally traumatic life events. The second group was instructed to write about trivial topics. Both groups wrote on four consecutive days. Then, Pennebaker obtained health center records, self-reported mood ratings, physical symptoms, and physiological measures.

Pennebaker reported that, in the short-term, participants who wrote about trauma had higher blood pressure and more negative moods that the college students who wrote about trivia. But the longer term results were, IMHO, amazing. Generally, the students who wrote about trauma had fewer health center visits, better immune functioning, and overall improved physical health.

Pennebaker’s theory was that choking back important emotions takes a physical toll on the body and creates poorer health.

Since 1986, Pennebaker and others have conducted much more research on this phenomenon. The results have been similar. As a consequence, over time, Pennebaker has “penned” several books on this topic, including:

  • Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions
  • Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval
  • Expressive Writing: Words that heal
  • The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us
  • Opening Up by Writing It Down

As most of you know, after a couple decades presenting on suicide assessment and treatment, Rita and I have pivoted toward happiness and well-being. The coolest thing about talking about happiness and well-being is that doing so is WAY MORE FUN, and it results in meeting and laughing with very cool people, like the Livingston professionals.

Speaking of Livingston professionals, just in case you forgot that you met James Pennebaker, here’s a link to my powerpoints from yesterday: Livingston 2019 Final

I hope you had as much fun listening as I did talking.

On the Road from Suicide to Happiness: Please Send Directions!

IMG-5436

Buddhists often say that life is suffering. Some days, for many of us, that feels about right.

But on other days, the inverse also rings true. Life is joy. Joy is the dialectical sunshine that intermittently breaks through clouds of suffering to interrupt our melancholy.

Don’t worry. Even though there’s currently a September Winter Storm Warning happening in Montana, I’m not going all weather on you. Besides, there’s not much I love more than clouds, rain, and winter storms. Also, to be fair, Buddha and the Buddhists recognized long ago that there’s a road we can take to get away from storms of suffering.

Maybe it’s my penchant for bad weather that’s drawn me, for the past two years, deeply into the professional monsoon of clinical depression, suicide assessment, and suicide interventions. What’s odd about that is that I don’t believe that depression or suicidality should be as pathologized as they have been. I’m a proponent of the right to die. I also find light and hope in the existential perspective that encourages us to embrace and integrate our darker, depressive sides, so we can emerge more whole and, as the existentialist Kirk Schneider likes to say, experience a Rediscovery of Awe.

For the past two years, focusing on suicide has felt very important. Our society isn’t very good at discussing suicide in an open and balanced way. All too often, suicide gets inaccurately conflated with illness or shame or moral weakness. These inaccuracies have inspired me to talk openly about suicide whenever given the opportunity.

But, to be honest, talking and writing about suicide—even from a professional perspective—isn’t all that fun. Those who know me know how much I like to tell funny stories. For years, I’ve had an untreated addiction to showing Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons during presentations. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find suicide cartoons that are workshop-worthy. When I show my cartoon with the white rat in the cage hanging itself and the lab scientist saying, “Looks like discouraging data on the antidepressant” if there’s any laughter it’s a painful and strained laughter, at best.

I do have one amazing depression cartoon; it’s a Gary Larson Far Side scene of a sad looking man on a bed in a messy room with the caption, “The bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.”

But let me get out of my addiction and to the point. In my work on suicide prevention and intervention, I’ve slowly realized that we need to paddle upstream. I won’t stop talking about depression and suicide, but I want to more explicitly acknowledge that disabling depression and tragic suicides are often the inverse of well-being or happiness turned upside down. To address this effort at integration, I’m preparing materials to teach and present on the science of happiness. This is where I need your help. Yes, please send more suicide and depression cartoons, but even more importantly, send me happiness cartoons! I’m expanding my focus, and getting ready to spend more time talking about how we can all live happier and more meaningful lives. One way I’m doing this is by teaching a new “Happiness” course this spring at the University of Montana.

As background, I should let you know that I’m familiar with the Yale Happiness Class, the Penn Positive Psychology Center, and other popular resources. Although I’ll use this mainstream material, I want to do something different.

Here’s how you can help.

I’m looking for lecture material and happiness lab activities. Examples include,

Lecture content

  • Video clips
  • Songs with meaning
  • Demonstration activities
  • Quirky/meaningful stories

Lab activities

  • 30-60 minute specific experiential activities that can deepen student learning
  • Evidence-based experiential activities that demonstrate how to counter depression or embrace meaning

Because I’ll be delivering the course to undergraduates, as you contemplate sending me a map with directions to happiness, please put on your 19-year-old hat and help me find destinations with academic substance, but that will still appeal to the college-age generation.

As always, thanks for reading. I wish you a weekend (and life) filled (at least intermittently) with the sort of happiness and joy that’s palpable enough to sustain you until the next bluebird of happiness lands on your shoulder. And if you live in Montana, be sure to stay warm in the winter storm.

John S-F