Why Is America So Glum?

Ponder this:

You might want to read this WaPo (WonkBlog) story for possible answers: The unhappy states of America: Despite an improving economy, Americans are glum.

Or perhaps you have your own theories.

Life is such that there’s always some reason to be glum I suppose. But there’s also always some reason to be grateful, too.

Politically, the U.S. is in a very bad place presently. Economically, things are not as good as some people think nor as bad as some people fear. Financially, things are great for some people, O.K. for quite a few other people, and downright awful and bleak for many people.

Overall, things have been worse and they’ve been better.

You can make the case that our prospects are bleak or that they’re bright. The reality is, no one knows what the future holds.

While you’re pondering all of this, don’t forget to live. Time is running out. For each of us. Being glum is no way to spend it.

Find a path to something that can bring joy into your life. Kick some a** if necessary (not literally). Hug someone who’s lonely and forgotten. Find someone who wants to hug you. Extend a helping hand. Change jobs. Work harder. Stop whining and complaining. Act. Confront a politician. Demand solutions. Move. Meditate. Think. Reject the false stories and promises of ideologues and charlatans and others intent on deceit. Stop watching TV. Read. Get off social media. Spend less time online. Cut up the credit cards. Stop spending. Take a hike. Get in shape. Pursue freedom. Be grateful. Embrace simplicity. Make room for hope in your life.

But whatever you do, don’t succumb to the power of glumness. Time is simply too precious.

Keys to Happiness

“Happy places are highly correlated with healthy food, walkability and lower rates of obesity.” (What Can We Learn from the World’s Happiest People?)

This helps explain why Boulder, Colorado is such a great place to live. Of all the places we’ve lived, Boulder was far and away the leader in healthy eating, fitness (including the nearly complete lack of obesity), and walkability (we walked just about everywhere and could access hiking trails at the edge of town).

Dan Buettner, in his new book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, identified six areas of influence within your control to positively affect happiness and contentment. Interestingly, Buettner found that where you live is a significant factor. In other words, if you’re not happy, move!

Happy locations include Denmark, Singapore, and Costa Rica. Some of the top places in the U.S. are San Luis Obispo, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon.

Of course, as we know, social networks are key, too. If you want to be happier, bring happy, caring people into your lives.

Dude, Nobody’s Normal

Recently, I watched a Netflix show called Atypical. The main character is a teenage autistic boy. There was a scene where he was commiserating with his sister. Some kids at school had been making fun of him. In frustration, he said, “I wish I was normal.”

His sister’s boyfriend, who was present too, immediately piped up. “Dude, nobody’s normal,” he said.

I thought how much better off we’d be if we learned that lesson early in life.

It seems we’re constantly comparing ourselves. To others. To our sense of the ideal person. To someone we’re told we should be. To the kind of person our culture values.

We think there is a normal. That other people have it together. That we’re the only imperfect ones. The only ones who feel broken. The only ones wrestling with certain demons or struggling to hold it together.

But, in reality, the boyfriend was right: Nobody’s normal. When it comes to people, there is no such thing as normal.

We are whom we are. Genetics are part of it. Parenting is a part. Other outside influences, over which we had little or no control, are a part of it. Luck plays a role, too.

When we feel tension between whom we are and the person we think the world is expecting us to be — or the type of person the world rewards or values the most — we might think we’re not normal. Or think life would be so much easier if we could be different — more in line with what people expect or our culture values.

But we are whom we are. Perfection has nothing to do with it. And neither does someone’s expectations (or our own).

Rather, we must live the life that is unique to us —  our life. It might seem harder than the life others have to live and, indeed, it might be harder. But there is nothing to be gained by such comparisons.

We can’t live someone else’s life. We can’t be someone else. We only can live our life.

Normal has nothing to do with it.

 

 

For Being So Little, You Give So Much

You’re small, Vera. I know you think you’re big. And you are, relative to what you were. But even though you think you’re big (as you’re quick to tell me), you’re really not.

Yet there is a lot packed into that small body of yours. You have the uncanny power to bring such joy to people. To make us laugh. To give us hope. Life seems to be so alive in that little body of yours. And intense. Usually in a good way. But not always.

When you visited Friday, you became upset when you parents and uncle left to go to a restaurant. That was a first; you’d never been upset in this situation before. You wanted to go along. After all, that’s what big girls do — they participate in all the adult activities. But, as I said, you’re really not as big as you think you are.

I assured you that your parents would return, but apparently I wasn’t persuasive. It’s hard to persuade a two and a half year old of such things. They know what they see and experience. And you knew they left without you. And you didn’t like it. Not one bit.

After reason failed, I immediately went into distraction mode, realizing what I just wrote is true: the present experience is what matters. I didn’t try to convince you of anything; rather, I sat down at my desk and started watching a Peppa Pig™ video on my computer.

Immediately, from across the room, where you were looking out the window of my office, half expecting your parents to return for you I suppose, you turned your attention away from your disappointment. I knew you really like Peppa Pig (who doesn’t?) so I wasn’t surprised. But I didn’t push you. I simply watched the video by myself, trying not to let you see that I was checking in on you with quick glances.

It wasn’t long before you appeared by my side and wanted up on my lap. All was well.

We then had dinner and everything was fine. Later, after your parents had returned (just as I promised), you put on your shoes and then came over and landed a big kiss right on my lips, accompanied by a Vera hug.

The power of hugs and kisses never cease to amaze me.

Your hug reminded me of another hug. Upon returning home this fall following the out-of-state auto accident that could easily have claimed my life, I was greeted by a big hug from your dad. I didn’t want to let go. I had tears in my eyes. The good kind. The power of hugs.

You will get big someday. Perhaps just as tall as your dad. You seem to be certain of that. But perhaps not. In any case, I hope you carry some of your current practices with you into adulthood. I hope you never forget the power of your hugs and kisses.

Handling Disappointment

Everyone experiences disappointment. Lots of it.

I started by jotting down some of mine. But it seemed too much like a list of grievances. Like whining. A pity party. So I’ll keep them to myself.

But that doesn’t make them go away. Or stop them from affecting me. To the contrary, disappointments cannot be so easily neutered; in fact, they tend to have quite a bit of power over us.

They skew our thinking. Affect our attitude and mood. Impact our outlook and plans. Define our relationships.

But should they?

Perhaps not. At least not if happiness is the objective. And why would it not be?

I suppose it helps to consider the source of our disappointments. Most if not all of them — at least in my case — stem from the failure of reality to match or exceed my expectations.

So perhaps that’s the root of the problem: my expectations. If I were to have none — expectations, that is — then perhaps I’d never have to experience the sting of disappointment.

But is that even possible? Is it possible to expect nothing of a situation? Or other people? Of ourselves?

I doubt it. Yet I do think it’s possible to manage my expectations better. And, in some cases, to resist the urge to have them in the first place.

Expectations of myself is one thing. Expectations of others is quite a different matter.

I control my own actions (in the main). I do not control others. I am at their mercy.

It’s probably unfair to impose expectations on other people. What gives me that right? As best I can tell, nothing.

And it’s not as if it’s a benign thing either. Expectations and disappointments tend to contaminate relationships. They tend to be the source of conflict. And negative emotions, not the least of which are anger and resentment. Frankly, I think we’d get along better — and be happier — if we had fewer expectations of each other.

But we have to be careful. Ridding ourselves of expectations is not the same as expecting less or expecting nothing, both of which can be toxic in their own right.

Take you for example, Vera. My aim is to expect nothing of you or our relationship. I don’t expect you to go to a particular school or college. Or to pursue a particular career. Or to marry or, even if you do, to marry a particular kind of person or to have kids. Or to visit me. Or even to care about me.

That’s my aim because I’ve come to believe that, in general, expectations get in the way of healthy relationships. And I desire for ours to be healthy. So my attention will be on being the best role model I can be and helping you learn some of the things you’ll need to navigate life successfully (to make wise decisions).

So what, if anything, will replace them — the expectations, that is? Desire. And unconditional love.

I desire nothing but the best for you, whatever that happens to be (which, likely, is beyond my discernment capabilities). And I desire to love you and to be loved. And to be there for you if and when you need me — as you choose.

It means I may have to bite my tongue on occasion. Or to suffer in silence. But it also means I will not contaminate our relationship with expectations I seek to impose on you, even if the motives are pure (or at least as pure as humanly possible, which may not be as pure as we like to think).

But it doesn’t begin or stop with you. My aim is to harness any urge I might otherwise have to impose expectations on any other person. And, perhaps most important of all, on myself.

Self-imposed expectations can be the deadliest of all. They can be the source of much unhappiness and despair. Feelings of failure can pull us into an abyss from which we may not return.

In my later years, I try to expect nothing of life or others. If I am the recipient of good fortune and good relationships (as I am), I want to feel gratitude and nothing more.

Most of all, I don’t want to feel entitled. When things don’t go well, or when things unfold in a way that seems unjust or unfair, I don’t want to feel victimized or self-pity. Or resentful. It’s easier to avoid those self-destructive reactions if I had no expectations in the first place.

But, again, the void created by jettisoning expectations is not filled with nothingness, cynicism or apathy; rather, it is filled with desire, hope and gratitude.

I desire and hope for a better world. I desire and hope to be an agent for good in the world and in the relationships I have with others. I desire and hope for good things to come in the lives of the people whom I love. I desire and hope for happiness. And a sense of gratitude.

Expectations are a hard thing to let go. They seem to want to cling to us like that cellophane that’s so hard to get off your fingers. Yet I’ve come to believe they do us no favors. And are the source of much strife and discontent.

My aim is to expect nothing of the world or its inhabitants. But to desire and hope for much. And, most of all, to be grateful for whatever comes my way.

The Day Death Chose Not to Stop

I remember hearing the sound of a violent crash. The next thing I knew, I awoke, only to see a spidered windshield and deformed car door pressing against me. Concussion-induced amnesia stole from me (perhaps protected me from) other memories adjacent to the collision.

I do recall emergency personnel being on site, but don’t recall being extricated from the car or loaded into the ambulance. Vera, I remember calling your grandmother from the ambulance because I was concerned she’d go to the airport to meet me as planned. But I don’t recall sending an email and photo to her and your dad and uncle, although later I was presented with proof that I had. It was an odd thing to have done.

I recall arriving at the trauma center, the hall lined on both sides with medical personnel anticipating my arrival. Once on the table, I recall someone struggling to remove my wedding ring, to no avail. I recall suggesting lubricant. It worked.

I recall someone cutting off all my clothes. And I remember a doctor examining my spine for injury. I especially recall the intense pain as I was rolled on my side as they checked for internal hemorrhaging.

I’m sure there had to be more, but that’s all I remember, until being moved for CT scans. A short time later, I recall the excruciating pain as technicians endeavored to move me into position for x-rays.

Twelve hours later, after IV drips, pain meds, more tests, sutures, a failed attempt to set a bone, and a splint being plastered on me, I was discharged, barely able to walk but one lucky guy.

Reflecting on this day later, the thing that stood out for me, through it all — the trauma, pain and vast unknowns — is that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of fear.

It wasn’t a matter of courage. It was more like an act of grace. And peace.

Beginning with the moment I regained consciousness to the present, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and the feeling that death had passed by on that road, but for reasons I’ll never know, decided not to stop.

The paramedic remarked that I probably would not have survived if I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt. When looking at the crushed metal from my captive, scrunched position inside the car, and later when viewing a photo of the exterior of the car, I knew that it took more than the seatbelt to save me that morning and, at the very least, the injuries could have been much, much worse.

I’m healing now, as are the occupants of the other vehicle, who remain in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Yesterday afternoon, we picked you up from your school, Vera. I couldn’t lift you up to put you in the car seat, and I think you’re wondering why I have so many boos-boos and a strange thing on my arm. But it doesn’t seem to matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to me, either.

Today, I will be wheeled into an operating room for back-to-back surgeries. Bone stuff — nothing life threatening. And then I will get to know my oral surgeon and dentist even better. There are worse ways to spend time.

Along this short, intense journey, I’ve encountered people of compassion, ranging from health care professionals, taxi and shuttle drivers, airlines personnel, strangers who offered assistance at the airport, friends from Colorado extending their arms 1,000 miles, family and others.

I also encountered some people who weren’t helpful or, worse yet, were actively unhelpful. But I’m just going to pretend I didn’t.

Some people say they’re sorry. I don’t say it (because I appreciate their concern), but what I’m thinking is, “For what?” 

There have been times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself. But this hasn’t been one of them.

I used to close letters and emails (and sometimes still do) to certain people with the words, “Peace and grace to you.”

This past week, the words returned home to me.

 

Gallery

The Trivial

One thing I’ve learned from living six decades, Vera, is that humans spend a lot of time on trivial matters. It’s not that we think they’re trivial when we’re spending time on them or, worse yet, worrying about them. But they are. So much of what we do and think really doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Oftentimes, it doesn’t matter. So what if it’s not truly significant? If it’s what we want to do or think, then so be it.

Oftentimes, however, it does matter. I see it play out in two arenas all the time: 1) work and 2) relationships.

In the work environment, spending time on the trivial means you’re not spending time or putting effort on that which truly matters. In the corporate and nonprofits worlds, this manifests itself as busy work and subpar performance and results.

It’s so easy for us to think we’re accomplishing something important (and that we’re really important people for doing so) because we’re busy. But activity often merely disguises waste and inefficiency. Or is a symptom of self-aggrandizement. The failure to prioritize well and, therefore, to accomplish much is, from what I’ve observed, an epidemic in quite a few organizations.

As for relationships, the tendency is to make too big a deal out of things and, in so doing, failing to foster caring relationships. Also, when we lose sight of triviality, we tend to infringe on people’s space and fail to respect boundaries, which inevitably leads to hard feelings, conflict or worse.

I think this is one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable being a grandparent, Vera. With age, I’ve come to realize many of the things I thought were important when I was younger really aren’t all that important and, in some cases, our focus on them did more harm than good.

Indeed, my basket of trivialities has grown exponentially with age while my basket of things that truly matter has shrunk dramatically.

I wonder what it would be like to relive life with this time-tested perspective.

I think it would be nice.

Expecting Life To Be Fair Leads to Persistent Unhappiness

Shane Parrish recently wrote, “Expecting life to be fair leads to persistent unhappiness.” I think he’s right. The unfairness of life is difficult for some of us to deal with.

I don’t know why I think life should be fair. My theory is it’s because of my upbringing in Christian churches. Hearing about the Gospel of Jesus. Always thinking about how people should live, how the world should be. Could be.

Churches do their kids a disservice by talking so much about the shoulds. They should talk more about the way things really are and how one is to navigate a cruel and dangerous world.

Better yet, they should talk less and put more effort into showing by doing. Seeing someone live a happy, loving live while embracing noble and honorable values goes further than listening, especially when deductions of hypocrisy are inevitable when observing the gaps between words and actions.

There is a lot of unfairness and cruelty in the world. You even encounter it a lot among churchgoers. Perhaps it’s an essential element of being human.

Martyrdom is one answer of course. And the church talks a lot about its martyrs. But most people aren’t martyrs. Most of us don’t have what it takes. Church should talk more about the ways the rest of us are to navigate an angry and selfish world without allowing it to get us down.

Some religious folk deal with this by hanging out primarily with their own. Take the Amish. Or Bruderhof. Or Mormons.

That works for some, but others either don’t have that option or haven’t realized the risks associated with living in the midst of rampantly individualistic capitalists who have no pretense of fairness or common good.

The problem isn’t them. The problem is us, that is, if we think they should behave as we’d like them to behave: fairly and with respect and concern for the community and others.

If I had life to live over, I’d try to have no expectation or illusion of fairness. I’d try harder to accept the world for the way it is and not the way I (or anyone else) think it should be or how we want it to be.

That doesn’t mean I’d forfeit fairness as a value. Rather, it means I’d forfeit expectations of fairness.

Why? It’s simple and selfish: greater happiness.

I think Shane is right.

What To Do When Confronted by Bad Behavior

Everyone is confronted (aka victimized) by bad behavior from time to time. Sometimes it comes at the hands of a boss. Or spouse. Or friend. Or customer service rep. Or fellow driver. Or any number of other people whose paths cross ours.

It was tempting to write bad “people” versus bad “behavior.” But that would be an overreach. I used to think there were bad people. And perhaps there are. But I now try to distinguish people from their behavior, recognizing that all (or at least the vast majority of us) do some bad things at times. Moreover, I’m weary of the demonization of people, which seems to be a national pastime among certain groups. So I’ll focus on behavior.

All of us are imperfect of course. All of us wear gray hats. When we think our hat is pure white, or others’ hats are pure black, we delude ourselves, not in a benign way, but in a toxic way. Unfortunately, it’s a story that sells, particularly in times such as this. But it’s based in something other than reality.

In any case, no matter where people land on the morality and ethics continuum, people are capable of behaviors that can fairly be described as bad — at least from our perspective. Basically, it means it’s hurtful to us. Or disadvantages us or others in a way that seems unfair to us. You’ll know it when you see it, Vera. And when you feel it. And I guarantee you, you will see and feel it in your life. Perhaps many times.

I’m writing about this because I haven’t been very good at dealing with bad behavior, at least not in my personal life. I’m better at it in my professional life, that is, when representing people or organizations as their lawyer. I suppose it’s easier in that context because it’s not personal with me and, therefore, I’m not emotionally invested. In one’s personal life, it’s hard not to react emotionally.

So what have I learned over the years about reacting to bad behavior? Continue reading