Sunday, May 15, 2016

What's Making Me Happy This Week: "On Being"

My favorite podcast these days is “On Being,” hosted by the insightful and skillful interviewer, Krista Tippett. As a definite aside, she looks quite a bit like Bonnie Raitt, which is not at all how I pictured her.

It’s not an easy podcast to warm up to. I find that most interviews don’t really take off until about 20 or 30 minutes into the hour-long conversation. That’s when I find myself reaching for a pen and scribbling down an observation or a particularly insightful quote. Tippett admits it is true that it takes some time to become immersed in her interviews, but that this reflects the nature of authentic conversations.

It’s worth the effort. I have been listening to her conversations about the big questions of life for about a year now now. These are questions like: How do we find meaning in life? How should we treat each other? How do courageous people face illness, and trauma, and death? What motivates us to be generous, and kind, and loving? How do people find a spiritual center for their lives? What spiritual practices help people keep the important things of life in focus and let go of the rest?

The conversations are not in the least bit prescriptive. Instead, they are a deep look inside the inner life of one thoughtful person at a time. They are Catholic nuns, and Buddhist monks, and community gardeners, and musicians, and activists, and artists, and poets, and neurologists, and physicists, and sociologists, and writers and many others.

These conversations have helped me pick myself up when life feels bleak and like I have used up all my options. I have found energy, inspiration, perspective, and creativity for thinking about life and all its parts from listening to these interviews. There are no easy answers, and the conversations never offer any. Instead, the insights about religion and God and family and work and relationships and the universe are ultimately helping me to shape my life in a more deliberate, meaningful way.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 On Being episodes that have particularly touched me in some way. In almost every case I have written down a quote from the episodes and thought about them for days.

1. Krista Tippett, The Mystery and Art of Living. The podcast turned on its head. A writer and former guest of On Being, Pico Iyer, interviews the host. This is a good introduction to the podcast and Tippett’s approach to and intentions for her interviews.

2. B.J. Miller, Reframing Our Relationship to That We Don’t Control. A palliative care physician who runs a hospice center talks about his personal trauma and helping others approach death with imagination.

3. Bruce Kramer, Forgiving the Body: Life with ALS. A patient with ALS shortly before his death about accepting the constant losses that accompany ALS and living with dignity.

4. Louis Newman, The Refreshing Practice of Repentance. An ethicist and professor of religious studies on a spiritual practice of renewal.

5. David Steindl-Rast, Anatomy of Gratitude. A Benedictine monk nearing his 10th decade on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

6. James Doty, The Magic Shop of the Brain. A brain surgeon on the connection between the brain and the heart.

7. Mary Oliver, On Listening to the World. The brilliant poet on the salvation of poetry and the healing power of the natural world.

8. Simone Campbell, How to Be Spiritually Bold. A Catholic nun, lawyer, lobbyist, poet, and Zen contemplative on listening to God and finding your calling.  

9. Jennifer Michael Hecht, Suicide, and Hope for Our Future Selves. A poet, philosopher, and historian on our essential need for one another.

10. Ellen Langer, Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness. A Harvard psychologist and “the mother of mindfulness,” on the illusion of control, aging, and living mindfully.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What's Making Me Happy This Week: Implausibly Perfect Nails

There are the big three of happiness: gratitude, social connection, and a sense of sense of connection. Right behind these is a somewhat lesser-known but nearly as important fourth: a seriously good manicure.

Maybe this latest discovery of mine is backed by zero evidence, but there it is. My perfect manicure—with black nail polish, no less—is making me happy this week. I'm not sure why. I usually dislike being made conscious of my nails, which are almost always in a state of ragged neglect, by colored polish. But my sister in law took me for a manicure for a Christmas gift, and I love it.

Sometimes there's nothing deep about being happy. Sometimes it's just a really shiny set of nails. Even if I do look slightly like Cruella de Vil.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What's Making Me Happy This Week: Not the Weather

The calendar says otherwise, but the morning thermometer reading of 9 degrees proves that spring has not arrived in Boston. On the bright side, streets clogged with snow and effectively one-way are once again functionally two-way, thanks to a couple of days’ worth of thawing sometime last week.

I’m also trying to take some pride in being a veteran of Boston’s snowiest winter on record (if we had to put up with the snow, at least we got the bragging rights to go with it!), but these positives are only getting me so far. I’ve had to kick my happiness efforts up a notch lately.

This week I’m finding it in music -- not Katy Perry or Gym Class Heroes this time -- Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. You know, the one that debuted on the charts at number 1 in 1890.

The director polled the church choir about preparing this piece last fall. I felt too stupid to ask, “What’s a Foray Requiem?” so I went along with the much more musically advanced choir members in endorsing the idea. Then I found out it’s a Catholic mass for the dead. In Latin, with a sprinkling of Greek. And it’s 35 minutes long.

And it may be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. We learned it and performed it last Sunday, and it was amazing. Even now phrases from the music are running through my head. From a happiness standpoint, it fired on a bunch of different cylinders: the social experience of singing with the choir, the sense of achievement from mastering Latin pronunciation, and the sense of awe from the deeply worshipful nature of the music.

It turns out that music we like prompts our brains to release dopamine, the chemical associated with reward for biologically necessary behavior like eating and having sex. And some unnecessary behavior, like dopamine-hijacking drugs.

Well, duh. People listen to music because they like it. But there’s more to it than that. In some circumstances music boosts the immune system, reduces stress, shortens recovery time after surgery, and reduces the perception of pain. Music classes have been shown to reduce anxiety, loneliness, and depression. If that’s not enough, music can also improve efficiency of oxygen use, boost endurance, and help exercisers feel more positive during workouts -- even the really grueling ones.

If the Faure Requiem is not up your alley, it’s OK. In fact, for most of music’s benefits, the more you like it the better. For the exercise benefits, pick one that matches the tempo of your workout (is this why A-ha’s “Take On Me” ran through my head every time I ran a cross-country race in high school?). An up tempo in a major key tends to be more happiness-promoting than slow music in a minor key, but other than that it’s up to you.

What's making you happy this week?

Monday, March 2, 2015

What's Making Me Sweaty This Week: YouTube Workout Videos

Even though comfort food really does make me happy, baking is out and YouTube workout videos are in.

I've now been doing these videos for about eight weeks, trying Livestrong’s STRONGER series, Fitness Blender, and T-25.

The Livestrong series might be my favorite. It’s short and intense, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s led by a good-looking soccer player with a British accent. Fitness Blender, a slightly bland husband and wife team, is slower paced and takes much longer. T-25 is insanely intense. At one point on the video, one of the incredibly fit back-up dancers actually had to stop and take a break. (He’ll never work in this business again.) If he can’t do the workout, how can I?

I'm now bored with/traumatized by all of these and getting a little desperate. There is overwhelming evidence that exercise makes people happier, though, and is less fattening than comfort food, so I can’t give up.

The other day I found a list of best free workout videos on YouTube and picked Pump It Up The Ultimate Dance Workout, complete with ‘80s music, retro high-cut leotards, coordinating leg warmers, and a trainer who I suspect was chosen because she looks like Olivia Newton John in "Xanadu." And has an Australian accent. The requisite Cher look-alike was in the second row.

Important features of this video included aggressive hip thrusting, hair extensions, heavy make-up, and sultry looks. There was quite a bit of head tossing as well, which I mostly skipped. It's sexy, but what if I strain my neck?

Nearly all workout videos’ primary purpose is in demonstrating the value of a second take. Did the trainer actually say “Fasten it up!” instead of “Faster”?

Jillian Michaels was another video on the best-of list, and I agree that it’s a good workout. But she scares me a little. I consider that a negative; maybe you're in the market for a drill sergeant as a trainer. On the plus side, her tights were so low-rise that I kept expecting a wardrobe malfunction. No such luck.

Yesterday I was looking for something else, but the YouTube search function on my TV was a little slow and unwieldy, so when I landed on Billy Blanks Cardio Tae Bo I went with it. The goal of this workout apparently was to count to 8. I didn’t think the back-up dancers could keep it up the entire workout but indeed they did. Especially the one wearing the pirate pants (are those actually stylishly torn on the bottom?). I know what she's thinking: "Do you think anyone wants a roundhouse kick to the face while I’m wearing these bad boys?"

She seemed to be the head cheerleader, counting to 8 with singular enthusiasm and even occasionally throwing in a “Hey hey!” And once or twice, even an inexplicable, “Ow! Ow!”

Despite her encouragement, I could not make myself do an 8-count 57,000 times. Was that part of the workout? Was I deprived of some calorie burning potential? I think I can live with that.

All of these workout videos are helping -- I’m back down a couple of pounds. And my experimenting was a good break from Livestrong, but now I'm going back to my British soccer player.

But is this making me happy? The jury is still out on that. It is, however, making me sweaty.

What’s making you sweaty this week?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Happiness Epic Fail: Snow

After five consecutive weekends of snow totaling 100 inches in Boston, I'm at the end of my rope. Remember Jack Torrance in The Shining? He went mad and tried to kill his family because of snow. The haunted hotel may have had a little something to do with it, but everyone in Boston now knows from personal experience that it was really the snow.

Roads are all lined with 8-foot snowbanks, so once charmingly narrow two-lane roads are now one lane. They are still theoretically two-way, so every encounter with a car coming the opposite direction is a game of chicken. Am I going to pull into a driveway or are you? Can we find a spot just barely wide enough to pass each other v e r y slowly? And who is the moron who actually parked their car on the street?

I've taken to gunning it whenever the road I'm driving on is clear of other cars. Maybe I can get to the end of the block before someone else pulls onto the street.

My response to claustrosnowbia has been to bake. Winter came late to Boston this year, so the first big storm was magical. The kids had a day off from school, the meeting I didn't want to go to anyway was cancelled, and I made a hot breakfast for my kids plus a treat later in the day. Cinnamon swirl bread. We had friends over, went sledding together, and drank hot chocolate as we warmed up afterwards.

Now, six days and one February break later, there have been chocolate croissants, hot cross buns, German apple pancakes, filled pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, black and white cookies, peppermint meringue kisses, Rice Krispie treats with Oreos, and oatmeal cookies with dried cherries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. 

And I have gained six pounds. 

The baking was clearly an epic fail, but the snow is going nowhere, probably until April. I wish I were kidding but I'm not. I need another solution.

On the plus side, I've discovered a new podcast: Criminal. The episodes are short and engaging, if a little heavy. Like Serial, there are not many answers and happy endings, but there are a lot of really good questions.

What's keeping you sane this week?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What's Making Me Happy This Week: The New England Patriots

Sorry West Coast friends, but what made me happy this week was the Super Bowl.

Actually it's been making me happy for weeks. There have been play-off games, a hilarious local response to deflate-gate (Matt Damon confessed), and a palpable sense of optimism wherever two or more Patriots fans are gathered (which is everywhere).

And it's hard to imagine how the game Sunday could have been any better. Tightly contested to the last seconds, minor miracles for both teams (I've watched Kearse's catch probably a dozen times and still can't quite believe it happened), and of course the improbable interception that won the game for the Patriots. The best half-time show ever didn't hurt. Even if Katy Perry is a Seahawks fan.

But even better than all that was watching the game on a super comfy couch surrounded by family. Even my five-year-old niece was transfixed.

Last Sunday, the Patriots made me happy. (I'm not making this up -- science backs me up on this.) What's making you happy this week?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's Making Me Happy This Week: Chocolate Meditation

Meditation is ridiculously good for you. On a quest for happiness, it should probably rank right up there behind getting enough sleep, exercise, and gratitude.

Meditation reduces anxiety, depression, tension, sadness, and reactivity to stress. It improves memory, self-awareness, goal-setting, and empathy. On a physical level, it increases immune response, and decreases blood pressure.

I could go on, or you could just watch this two and a half minute AsapSCIENCE video, "The scientific power of meditation."

(AsapSCIENCE videos also make me happy. I watch them with my 10-year-old and don't even feel guilty about the screen time. Just choose your videos carefully. We opted out of "Does penis size matter?" for example.)

And yet ... meditating is difficult. The basic premise is that you clear your mind, inducing an altered state of consciousness and deep physiological rest.

Ha. Just the thought of clearing my mind makes it race.

I've tried mindfulness meditation, concentrative meditation, body scanning meditation, and loving-kindness meditation, all with limited success. But this week, in a meditation workshop I started taking recently, I discovered chocolate meditation.

Take one piece of chocolate (we used Hershey's kisses), and focus on nothing but the chocolate for five minutes. Longer is probably better. Smell it, unwrap it, feel it against your teeth as you bite into it, taste the sweetness spreading through your mouth as the chocolate melts over your tongue.

Now this is meditation I can do. I think I'm supposed to progress to other, less interesting, food like peas and corn, but I'm a beginner. I'll stick with chocolate for awhile.

Actually ... I think I'll go meditate.

What's making you happy this week?