Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Like every other coach and blogger in the universe, I planned to blog about how to let go of 2008 and embrace 2009. And it would have been great. Trust me on that. I've been reading a lot of really important science about what makes us happier.

But then my daughter wanted to play hide and seek. We did. The opportunity for a nap came up. I took it. At 4:00, I was mixing up a quick batch of chocolate chip cookies and sipping some red wine (they go together brilliantly). In the midst of mixing, the true secret to being happy came to me: stay in the flow. 

Remember being a kid at play? If you liked what you were doing, you could spend hours engaged in an activity you were playing. You'd lose track of time. You might even forget to eat or use the bathroom. That's what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls FLOW. (Sorry, I could not resist the science.)

As a parent, I get to witness flow every day. See the photo above? That's the result of my daughter getting in the flow—playing beauty shop with her dad. Watching my children get in the flow reminds me to do the same.

So go ahead and write those New Year's resolutions. Then try this, too:

1. Make a list of all of the times in your life you've experienced flow. 
What were you doing? Were there any supporting circumstances? (For example, a writer might remember experiencing flow when on a writer's retreat but not at her home office.) 

2. Review the list. Ask yourself, "What experiences do I want to have more of in the New Year?"

3. Schedule your flow experiences. (Yeah, I know—it seems weird to schedule flow. But if you don't put it on the calendar, it might not happen.)

4. Create an environment that supports your flow experience. 
I get in the flow when I bead. But, for the past few years, I've kept all of my beads in a closet in my office. If I wanted to bead, I'd have to drag them all out, set them up, and then put them away before work the next day. This year I decided to set up a beading table in our library, where I could leave out both my beads and my projects. I'm more likely to have a flow experience because my environment supports me.

5. Repeat daily!

Have a Joyful New Year!
Rochelle, the Right Now! Coach

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Living Nativity

For years, we'd set up the Nativity, and with the exception of those camels (who fall easily), it would sit—perfectly—until we took it down in January. When our son was born, we wondered if he'd want to play with it. He didn't. It sat as perfectly still as ever.

Then came Elly. Ever since she was old enough to reach the Nativity set, she's played with it. Never mind that she has two sets of her own. She likes this one. I'll often find her standing next to it, moving the figures around as if they were her dolls.   

Lately I've noticed that every time I pass by, the figures are set up differently. One day, I saw Joseph far from the manger, hanging out with a shepherd. I asked, "What's up with this?"

Elly responded, "Oh, they're having a conversation."

The first two photos above were taken last night. The whole mess of figures were piled up—kind of like the pile of players that develops at the end of a sports game. "What happened?" I asked Elly.

"They are tickling Jesus."


"I don't know. Ask them."

Then she started playing with them again—you can see her hands at work in the second picture.

This morning when I woke up, every piece of the manger set had been placed in perfect Sunday-school pageant order. Elly did it. When questioned again about what happened, she said: "They wanted to be that way."

I've gotten attached to the surprise of my living Nativity. There's something just right about a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who do more than just sit there, gathering dust. 

Something to think about this Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I Bake

Every Christmas, I bake an enormous amount of cookies and candy. I eat a few cookies. My husband and children eat some, too. I give away most of them. Yesterday morning, as I baked three batches of cookies (Molasses Crinkles, MaryAnns, and Chocolate Chip), I asked myself: why do I do this? 

I bake to stay connected to my grandmother, my first baking teacher. I started baking with my grandmother when I was five or six. When I make her sugar cookies or Molasses Crinkles or Hot Air candy—I think about her and her great love for me. Here's a short excerpt from my memoir about our ritual: 

In the summer evenings, we’d bake sugar cookies together. Her kitchen, a buttery yellow made dingy by years of smoking and frying, would be hot with the heat. A fan, turned backwards in the window, blew the warm air out. She’d drink coffee and smoke as I measured and mixed, using her ancient white kitchen aid mixer. Then, I’d roll the dough into balls and flatten them with a crystal glass dipped in sugar. Next would come the baking—10 minutes per pan. As I waited for the edges to brown, I’d watch the smoke from her cigarette swirl around and out the window. Once when my great Aunt was over, drinking coffee and talking about grown-up things, I listened in. My great Aunt caught my wandering attention and warned, “Watch that girl, she’s not paying attention, she’ll burn them, she’ll burn them.” My grandma laughed, “Don’t worry. She’s doing just fine.”

When I look back on that day, I'm amazed at my grandmother. I was ten! How could she know I wouldn't burn the cookies? My grandma's profound trust in me as a tiny baker girl has given me great confidence. Those are happy memories for me. Science tells us that whenever we savor happy memories—something I do each time I bake—we feel happier right now.

I bake to create happy memories with my children. My daughter loves to bake with me. I can already see the pride and confidence that baking gives her. My son seems to be most interested in the cookies, hovering over us every step of the process asking, "Are they ready yet? Can I have one?" Whatever their connection to the ritual, I hope that our baking creates happy memories for my children to savor. 

I bake because I need happy endings. Life is anything but predictable. In the past few years, both of my children have experienced challenges. This past February, my young daughter was diagnosed with failure to thrive and put on a feeding tube. After a year of not growing, she finally gained weight and height! Yes! Now that we know she can grow, we need to figure out how to get her to eat on her own. It's a challenging and unpredictable process. She might eat successfully one day but get sick from the same food on the next day. 

On the hardest days, I find myself in the kitchen—my daughter by my side—measuring and pouring, mixing and scooping. Baking provides a taste of predictability that soothes us. Throw the right amount of ingredients into the mixer, scoop, bake—and like magic, we have a little baked gem. But better than that, my anxiety over this little girl's eating has disappeared into the joy of working together on a shared project. 

Readers, think about your own lives. List the rituals that allow you to:
  • savor happy memories
  • build confidence
  • create happy moments
  • experience the joy of predictability
  • connect with those you love
In this season of short days and long dark nights, practice the rituals that bring you hope and happiness and joy! 

For those of you who want to bake, I've included a link to one of my favorite baking cookbooks. It has great information, the most amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe, and enough other treats to keep you baking and eating happily for years!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Need a Lift? Become a Well-Wisher

I love this picture. It's a photo of my daughter, Elly, and our friend Tracy. In March 2005, Tracy had a seizure that damaged her brain. At first she could not walk or breathe on her own. Almost four years years later, Tracy walks but has difficulty dressing and remembering things. Tracy lives in an assisted living home and spends her days at an adult day care facility. We got connected through our church in the summer of 2005, after my daughter developed a seizure disorder. In the past three and a half years, our visits with Tracy have become an important and joyful part of our life. A recent conversation with my son helped me understand why.

When my son Sam goes to church with his dad, he always sits with the same woman—a middle school teacher who shares his love of cats and playing guitar. Last Sunday, they played guitar and sang with a group caroling at a nursing home. When Sam got home from church, I asked him about this connection. I wondered if he considered this woman to be a friend or a mentor. He answered without hesitation, "She's a well wisher." 

"What's a well-wisher?" I asked.

"Someone who wishes you no harm. Only good."

Wow. My surly tween had suddenly become a wise one again. (Most of the wisdom I know comes from my children and the young people I meet at Dream Keepers.)

Thanks to wise Sam, I realized that our relationship with Tracy brings much joy because we can be well-wishers for one another. Once when we were visiting Tracy, Elly tripped and fell. Tracy held out her arms and said, “Oh baby, oh baby. Are you okay?” As Tracy held Elly, I could see that the two were well-wishers for one another. We need and care for each other.  

You can guess that being a well-wisher makes the world a better place. Being a well-wisher also makes you more likely to be happier and mentally healthier.

On the day before Thanksgiving, we spent an hour with Tracy and her friends at the adult daycare center. We played Uno (Tracy won). Elly and Tracy helped each other decorate the Christmas tree. I noticed that Tracy smiles a lot when she is being Elly's well-wisher. Elly and I certainly feel happier after we spend time wishing Tracy well. 

The holiday season is a perfect time to become a well-wisher. How? Perform a deliberate act of kindness. Befriend someone just for the sake of wishing them well. Send a note to someone for the sole purpose of wishing them many blessings. See if it makes a difference in your life. I'll bet it does. 

If you end up getting work as a well-wisher this year, leave a comment here. I'd love to hear how it went—and if you feel happier!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Build a Happiness Network!

I'm absolutely delighted right now. And why wouldn't I be? We're in the midst of a major storm system. I had to cancel my evening dinner with a friend because of the weather. I have a huge pile of editing work to get through before I can even think about my own writing project. We have a leaky pipe in the basement. The squirrels have moved into my attic. Oh yeah, and the skunk family is back living under my front porch. Still, I'm beaming. Why?

I just learned that happiness is contagious. I have a 7-year-old daughter in the next room who is laughing right now. Every few minutes she runs past my office giggling or stops in to tell me something silly. I could be annoyed by this. After all, I'm trying to work, and work is serious business. But I'm not annoyed. 

I now know that being directly connected to a happy person makes me 15 percent more likely to be happy. So I am. But don't feel bad if you don't have a contagiously happy person in your home or immediate circle. Researchers James H. Fowler (UCSD) and Nicholas A. Christakis (Harvard Medical School) found that you can increase your happiness by 7 percent if a friend of a friend is happy. Even if a friend of a friend of a friend is happy—your happiness increases by 6 percent. Similar effects are found if your neighbors are happy. Crazy, eh?

Crazy and wonderful. Because get this: happiness spreads more quickly than sadness in a network. According to the CNN report, "Each happy friend increases your own chance of being happy by 9 percent, whereas each unhappy friend decreases it by 7 percent." (Elizabeth Landau, CNN, "Happiness is Contagious in Social Networks".)

So why care about being happy? After spending the last three years studying the field of positive psychology, I know that happy people live longer, produce more, are healthier, more satisfied with their work, and are less likely to suffer from depression. In fact, happiness is sees as so beneficial, the remote kingdom of Bhutan has put happiness at the heart of government policy. In addition, the World Health Organization has recently considered happiness as a key component to health.

Looking for a happier 2009? Don't wait. Start building your happiness network right now. Here are some ideas:  
*Hang out with the happiest people in your family, neighborhood, or circle of friends. 
*Network with happy people. Go to networking meetings, book groups, church, synagogue, or a volunteer organization—and sit by the people who are smiling or laughing. 
*Build your happiness network by inviting one happy person to have coffee with you.
*Connect with young people. Two years after starting the Dream Keepers Teen Writing Group, I realize that our meetings always improve my mood. Why? The young people tend to be more happy and hopeful than I am. I need that. You do, too.
*Connect to happy people online. The researchers in this study are currently researching Facebook to find out if smiling users are have friends who smile. Next time you consider a friend request, look to see if the person is smiling. (And don't forget to smile in your photo!)
*Line your home and office with photos of happy people from your family and extended network. Every time you look at one of those pictures, you'll feel happier. 

Okay, I'm off to play snow tag with a seven-year-old. Go and do likewise!