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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trace Your "Roots"

Back in 1976, Alex Haley published a fictionalized account of his family's history, entitle Roots. One thing that made this of special interest is that Mr. Haley was black, the descendant of slaves, and claimed (though some disputed it) to have traced his ancestry all the way back to the African continent.

Fact or fiction, the book and subsequent mini-series touched a nerve. According to Haley's 1992 obituary in the New York Times,

The writer and television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series "emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC."

That's quite an accomplishment for a "mere" novel.

What was the attraction? I think it might be that, in the increasingly-frenzied swirl of activity in this modern life, we seek in our past an anchor; a source of stability; in short, "roots."

Some of us are fortunate to know the great-great-greats in our families; others know little beyond our parents (and a few, not even that).

But even knowing your heritage (I met a man today who proudly identified himself as an "Irish Catholic") can be a source of nurture in our lives.

Sure, we can't live in the past. But the Buddhists speak of "causes and conditions," the influences, situations and events that brought us to where we are today. Certainly our ancestors and our cultural background are of deep consequence to who we are.

So get in touch with your "roots." Before you decide where you're going, find out where you came from.

You'll be happier.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Be Important to (at Least) One Someone

Here's a longer-than-usual quote. In the film Shall We Dance, one character explains:

We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying "Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness."

I expect to be "vagabonding" the rest of my life, and I want to have that one person with whom I can reminisce, one person who knows all the people I've known for years, one person who can remember all the great food.

For me, that person is my wife.

But a spouse is not the only option. When I worked on a TV show, I discovered that the cowboys who wrangled the show really do run in pairs, and call each other "pardner." I know single men who have partnered up for decades of ministry. And I've known lots of older people with "special friends" of the opposite sex who were always there for each other, despite the absence of any romantic, um, "activity."

I've also seen this kind of relationship between a parent and an adult child, between long-time neighbors, and even between working colleagues. (I've had a few of those myself.)

Call it a friend, in the truest sense. The person you clip out articles for, the first one with whom you share good news, and the proverbial "shoulder you cry on."

So reach out. Find that special someone that you can be special to, in a deep, fulfilling way. And if you already have one, tell him or her how much you value that relationship.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Get Ahead of It

Two words can make all the difference in how happy your life is. These are "reactive" and "proactive."

Are you a reactive type? Are you "fortune's fool," just sitting around and waiting for life to bring what it brings, pluses and minuses?

Or are you proactive, the type who gets out there and stirs up the good stuff, a rainmaker who won't be anybody's fool?

Because a lot of happiness depends on this decision.

I remember a story about two little twin boys, one an extreme pessimist, and the other an extreme optimist.

Their parents sought help in balancing them out. The psychologist gave them a plan...

The morning of their birthday, the little pessimist was brought out to the front yard, and there was a horse! What could be better? And his reaction was: "Do you hate me? Are you trying to kill me? That horse could bite me, step on me, throw me and break my neck! I can't believe you people!"

And he walked away and sulked.

The little optimist was then taken to the back yard, to see a pile of manure. "Yippee!" he yelled, diving in and digging for all he was worth.

"What are you doing?" they asked.

"Well, with all this sh*t," he said, "there has to be a horse in here somewhere!"

Proactively seek the horse in the pile, and you just might find it. Refuse to ride the horse, and you'll never feel the wind in your hair.

So get ahead of it, whatever "it" is in your life.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trap-and-Trace Your Feelings

It's a tense moment. In an effort to find the culprit, the Lieutenant has ordered the tech boys to run a "trap and trace" on a phone call from the kidnapper. Will they find his location in time to save his victim?

And just what is a "trap and trace" anyway?

We used to just call it "tracing a call" when I was a youngster. In any case, the point is to find the source of the call.

And that's what I want to say about feelings.

Most of us are pretty good at realizing that we're angry, or sad, or stressed. But we're not always so good at figuring out why.

And if we could do that, we'd "catch the culprit" and quite possibly avert disaster.

Did something happen recently to make you feel this way? Did someone say something? Or maybe something happened that you associate with an old hurt (you saw someone from that time in your life, you ate at an old favorite restaurant).

Now, what about those positive emotions? Knowing what triggers those can help you gain access to that good feeling again.

Next time you get a strong rush of emotion, good or bad, take a minute to try to figure out where it came from. Learn to deflect or defuse the bad triggers, and deploy or repeat the good ones.

You can control how you feel. Do it.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Set Long- and Short-Term Goals

I hate stairs.

When I was younger (and slimmer!) I used to bounce up them without a thought.

Now it's trudge, trudge, trudge.

I live on the third floor of a building with no elevator. Since the stairs take a turn between floors, there are four landings in total. When things are especially tough, like when I'm carrying groceries, I like to celebrate "little victories" by counting the landings. "One-fourth," I say to myself, and "Half-way."

The landings are my short-term goals; my floor (and my room) are my long-term goal.

Clumsy metaphor, yes, but I think it will do.

There are lots of proverbs to illustrate the benefits of short-term focus: "One day at a time," and "Small steps," or "Inch by inch, it's a cinch."

But all of these presume that the days, steps, and inches add up to something bigger. We need to be careful that, in focusing on the short-term goals, we don't forget "the big picture." That would be like me settling in on one of the landings before reaching my floor. The long-term goal must drive us on.

As James Cash Penney (you may have shopped in stores bearing his name) said, "Long-range goals keep you from being frustrated by short-term failures." If I stumble on a step, I keep going, because at the top of the stairs is home.

So take some time to clarify your long-term goals. Then, break the process down into manageable steps, and celebrate the little victories along the way. Next thing you know, you'll be there.

And you'll be happier.

Monday, October 26, 2009


In mid-2008 I learned that I was diabetic.

I immediately eliminated all sugar and simple carbohydrates from my diet, a sort of modified "South Beach." Then I slowly started to reintroduce some things, but to this day I still avoid white rice, alcohol, sugared sodas, etc.

And yet, yesterday, Lila and I met friends for lunch, and afterward ended up at a Coldstone Creamery nearby. Yes, they have sugar-free ice cream. But yesterday, I decided to live wild. I had the "Chocolate Devotion™": One scoop of chocolate ice cream, with chocolate chips, brownies, and fudge mixed in.

And today's morning reading was just fine.

Sometimes it doesn't hurt to indulge a little. If chocolate is your weakness, have that Snickers bar or milkshake.

A glass of wine or two won't hurt you. Skip that jog one day, or sleep in a little.

Of course, this not a license to be irresponsible. Violating principles of common sense is a sure-fire way to become unhappy. (Think "hangover.")

Instead, find "the middle way." Give yourself just enough guilty pleasure, and guess what?

You'll be happier.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Relax Your Muscles

Long ago, I read a cure for insomnia.

Lie on a comfortable surface, and start at your toes: Flex, release. Flex, release. Do this several times until you can feel they've relaxed.

Then move up to the foot and ankle. Bend and flex in various directions, with a brief rest in between bouts. Now the calves: tense, relax. Tense, relax.

Keep moving up the body. (I always think of the old hymn, "Ezekiel and the Dry Bones": "Now the toe bone's connected to the foot bone. The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone..." Of course, we're interested in the muscles here, not the bones. But still.)

Finally, you'll find yourself flexing your jaw and your cheeks, and squeezing your eyelids shut--if you can stay awake that long!

But if you do it mid-day, or on the floor instead of in the bed, you might find it a relaxing alternative to strenuous exercise, or more challenging disciplines like yoga and tai chi.

Precede or follow this exercise by a hot bath and you really will be ready for sleep.

Or, at least, you'll be happier.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stop Trying

The Star Wars empire has been the source of large doses of entertainment mixed, some claim, with small doses of deep wisdom.

"May the Force be with you" is easy to parody (itself, perhaps, a parody of the Christian liturgical opening, "The Lord be with you"). And all that sword-master stuff-- "let go of your conscious self"--sounds a little stilted, at best.

But look, I'm a big fan of taking wisdom from wherever you find it. So I have learned from Star Wars, but never more than from that little green man, Yoda.

And my favorite of all his sayings is this: "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."

I recently read an article where the author quotes this, then calls it, "Probably the best Yoda-ism of all time and one I try to live by every day." Do you think the irony was intentional?

Because you see, it's hard not to try. That's why I find this seemingly-flippant remark by Edith Wharton to be actually rather deep: "If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time."

So many of my "secrets" have to do with working at it: making good choices, and paying attention. But there is a sort of "via negativa" in which the aspirant to happiness just stops fretting about it and bes.

Great grammar, I know, but worth it if it gets the point across: Stop trying. Just have a good time.

You'll be happier.

Friday, October 23, 2009


One of the first short stories I studied in college was D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner."

In it, a boy named Paul is magically able to predict winners at the local track by riding his rocking horse.

And what drives him to do so? He heard his house whispering, "There must be more money! There must be more money!"

Paul was "Scrooged," and in the end [SPOILER ALERT!] it led to his death.

How do we get Scrooged? Previously I've mentioned the effects of advertising, the need to "Keep up with the Joneses."

But it's deeper than that. It comes, as in Paul's case, from deep-seated insecurities.

This odd word I'm using comes, of course, from the name of Ebenezer Scrooge, a character in the wonderful Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol. I was privileged to teach it to bright 12-year-olds every Christmas for five years, and they uncovered a wealth of meaning in it.

But it all came down to Scrooge's fear. The fear of being alone, unloved, taken advantage of. And the idea that, somehow, money would compensate for all this.

Remember, it's not money that's "the root of all evil," it's the love of money.

So De-Scrooge yourself. Deprogram the idea that money will somehow buy love. Wipe "the dollar signs" out of your eyes, and take them off the throne of your life.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Learn from Chumbawamba

Here are some lyrics from a song by those sages, Chumbawamba:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You're never going to keep me down

Okay, the rest of the song isn't that useful for our purposes (I don't advocate "Pissing the night away," for example...)

But still...

When I was a kid, I had an inflatable, round-bottomed clown named "Bobo." He was about as tall as me, and had a weight in the bottom, so when you hit him, he stood right back up.

Fast forward to life in Japan three-decades-plus later, where I met the character "Daruma-san." This is a small, gourd-shaped figure with big eyes, representing the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma. He behaved just like Bobo, but with a point: Bodhidharma was said to have sat in front of a wall meditating for nine years, until his arms and legs atrophied--disturbingly like the "Daruma" doll portrayed with neither arms nor legs.

The point of Bodhidharma's nine years of meditation, and Bobo and Daruma popping back up every time they’re knocked over, and the Chumbawamba lyric?

Perseverance. Never give up. As the Japanese say, "Fall down seven times, get up eight."

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Picture this: You and a buddy are hiking in the mountains, and you come upon a beautiful pond surround by trees in their autumn foliage. You’re looking at your reflection in the still surface of the pond, with a halo of red leaves around you, when PLOP! your friend throws a head-sized rock into the water. The mirror-like surface of the pond is shattered, and now all you can see is an image like the one on a TV without a cable box. You have to wait a while before the vision is restored.

New scene: A guy I met grew up in a rural area of the south, and when he was a boy, he and his brother had to fetch water from a spring pool in buckets. His brother would get there first, draw his bucket, then stir the silt at the bottom of the pool so Bob had to wait for the silt to settle before he could draw water.

Different images, same idea.

A mind agitated like a rippling pond, or contaminated like a silty pool, is virtually useless. What is needed is to sit quietly until the mind, like the water, is calm and clear again.

The sages call this "meditation." We might just call it "chillin'."

You can do it in a zendo with people in robes, or in a Starbucks with people in khaki. You can do it in a yoga studio, or on a mountain trail. You can do it with a tai chi master in a park, or with a good book in your room.

But do it.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Be a Smart Consumer

Following along on the last few "secrets"...

Advertising, and media in general, are still taking baby steps here in China. Government controls have loosened in recent years (at least compared to the "bad old days"), and a whole lot of questionable stuff has rushed into the vacuum.

Think "snake oil salesmen" and you'll get the picture.

As a result, the people have not yet developed much in the way of media savvy or sales resistance. I sometimes laugh at the brash outrageousness of the claims made for quack medical products and get-rich-quick schemes.

But are we really any better?

Despite years of exposure to advertising, and even classes in "consumer awareness" in schools, we still fall for what "The Spiritual Coach" Stan Sanderson calls "The Big Lie." As Stan puts it in his book with the same title, "...happiness is not the byproduct of the acquisition of anything. It therefore follows that no ... amount of material success will bring the joy, happiness, and freedom we seek."

Perhaps you know of the Buddhist precepts; one of them is often stated, "Don't steal," but a better expression is "Don't take what isn't given."

Well, how about this: "Don't buy what isn't needed." Stop looking for happiness in Tracy Chapman's "mountain of things," and resist the Big Lie.

You'll be happier.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Find Your Bliss

At the end of the last "secret" I mentioned Joseph Campbell's famous dictum, "Follow your bliss."

That's all well and good, you may say, but how do I know what my bliss is?

There's an old saying: "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like."

Some think this is boorish; others find it the beginning of an aesthetic sensibility.

I'm with the latter.

To "know what you like" is the first step in developing any passion for learning (it's the root of Maria Montessori's original method).

So, the same is true with "bliss." Joseph Campbell spoke of the Indian concept of "Sat – Chit – Ananda," "Being, Consciousness, and Bliss." He said that Being is too transcendent a concept for us to grasp; Consciousness is hard for our own consciousness to apprehend; but by golly, we can recognize what makes us happy. And if we follow that, it will expand our Consciousness to where we can apprehend Being.

But, as I've written about in the past couple of "secrets," it has to be what makes us happy, not what someone else thinks will make us happy. There's the trick; following what makes you blissful, not what your parents want, or what society tells you, or what some cheesy blog on the internet says. (*ahem*)

So get out there and find It. Then follow It.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forget About the Joneses

Ain't the internet amazing?

All my life I've known the expression, "keeping up with the Joneses." As I'm sure you know, it means striving to acquire material goods that keep you at least equal, if not superior, to your peer group in socioeconomic status.

But I never knew where it came from, until Wikipedia informed me that it was the title of a comic strip in the early 20th century. And then they added this tidbit: "The 'Joneses' of the title were neighbors of the strip's main characters, and were spoken of but never actually seen in person ."

Isn't that something? These people of such great significance, who gave the main characters their "reason for being," were never seen in all the 28 years of the strip's existence!

Think about that for a minute: who are these "Joneses" that drive us? Madison Avenue has led us to believe that our very survival as viable members of society depends on "beating" people who don't even exist. They're "offstage" somewhere, "in the wings," and they never appear on our stage.

So, forget about 'em. Let your own internal compass point the way to happiness, and don't be seduced by someone else's idea (no matter how important they are to you).

Follow your bliss.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remember: Different Strokes

Has this ever happened to you?

You find something that really "floats your boat," or, as my friend Wayne says, "makes your heart soar like an eagle."

So you grab it, whatever it is, and run out to share it with your nearest and dearest. And all your gushing enthusiasm is met by a resounding "meh." Or "whatever." Or something else that takes the wind out of your sails.

Just because you are one of the lucky few who find what makes you happy, doesn't mean that what you discovered is going to work for others.

Happiness is not "one size fits all." That's why Heinz has 57 varieties, and Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors.

If you've noticed, this blog promises "365 Secrets"; back at the beginning I wrote, "there's no 'One Great Secret of Happiness.' ... Not every secret will 'strike' everybody. But check in regularly; you're bound to find something good. ... Many of these secrets will overlap. They'll duplicate. They may even contradict each other."

All of that was just my way of trying to say: one size don't fit all.

As the old saying goes, "Never try to teach a pig to sing; it frustrates you, and it annoys the pig." So, accept other people's ways of being happier (moms and dads, this means you.) Don't try to squeeze someone else's life into your "happiness" mold.

You'll be happier.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hold Your Friends Close (Quality vs. Quantity)

You've surely heard of the idea of "Six Degrees of Separation," right? Simply stated, it says that most people are within six handshakes of anybody else in the world.

What you may not know is that this is based on solid research, including Stanley Milgrim's 1960s "small world experiment," in which people were asked to pass a package to a designated stranger in another city, strictly through acquaintances.

The methodology of the experiments has been disputed, but the general principle is undisputed: we are all connected, and if we could but see them all, there are very few links in the chains binding us.

Here's an example: I once had a secretary named Amanda. Her brother was once Nancy Reagan's chief of staff. So: me – Amanda – brother – Nancy Reagan – Ronald Reagan. That's four handshakes. Who did HE know? And who did THEY know?

Or take this: I once dated an actress who knew Al Gore and the Clintons. That's two steps from me to the then-president and vice-president (and current secretary of state). Who could you reach in five more steps, running through all the senators, governors, world leaders, etc.?

What's my point? Simply this: Your circle of friends is huge. And frankly, that does little to impact your happiness.

It really comes down to only a handful of people. Don't seek your happiness through "crowdsourcing." It really depends on the few you can fit around your kitchen table. See yourself in the web, sure. But cherish the few that are close.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Smile (duh)

When I lived in Tokyo, English programs on broadcast TV were hard to find (and I never get cable--otherwise I'd spend my days staring passively at that box, instead of interactively at this one).

One of the shows that we did get in my final years there was the quirky Ally McBeal. And my favorite character on it was the supremely weird John Cage, portrayed by Peter MacNicol.

One of his goofy bits was "Smile Therapy." When something annoyed him (which was usually), he'd assume a fake-looking ear-to-ear grin.

His quirk was based on an unproven idea that, when your face is smiling, it tricks your brain into thinking you're happy.

That may be putting the cart before the horse; and in John Cage's case, the usual result was that he freaked people out.

But look at it another way: let's say you’re in a tense situation. You have two choices: yell at the other guy, or smile at him. He's expecting the yell; the smile might disarm him, which could take the situation in a whole new direction.

There are lots of reasons to smile, some good, some not. But one thing's for sure: smiles get reactions. As the old saying goes, "Smile. It will make people wonder what you've been up to."

And, maybe, you'll be happier.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do Something

W. Beran Wolfe was something of an expert on happiness. A student of Alfred Adler, he wrote How To Be Happy Though Human 'way back in 1931. Check out what he said:

"If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator."

What a great image. (Does anybody remember "collar buttons"? I don't!)

One way to "do something" is to have a hobby.

Do you know what the word "hobby" really means? It started as a nickname for a horse ("Hob" itself being a nickname for "Robert"). Long ago, "hobbies" were horses, like "Bossies" were cows, or nowadays "Fidos" are dogs.

So when a person acquired a favorite pastime, it was called "riding a hobby horse." That was later shortened to "riding a hobby," and we now say "having a hobby."

So get on your horse! Find something to do that you can be passionate about, and do it. If it's your job, you’re one of the lucky few; but if that doesn't do it for you, find a hobby. As Wolfe said, build a boat, write a symphony, teach a child, or grow flowers.

But do something .

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Be Angry

I once took a seminar that took the five stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and applied them to traumas suffered by school kids: loss of a relative, frequent moves from school to school, etc. (FYI the stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.)

The trainer was a highly-qualified psychologist, and a highly-evolved human being. She talked about "natural anger," and explained that it came and went in a flash. She gave us an image that has stuck with me ever since: Two cats encountering each other, arching their backs and hissing, and then passing on unaffected.

Wow. They feel it, they express it, and they let it go.

Why can't we?

It seems that the problem for us lies in hanging on to our anger, cherishing it, nursing it, and letting it fester, until it owns us.

Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to express the anger we feel. That's a big topic, for another time. But key here is the idea that we should express it, and not let it take control of us.

Do it.

You'll be happier.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stop and Smell the Roses (seriously!)

"Stop and smell the roses."

"Count your blessings."

"Be all that you can be."

All cliches. And all true.

Sometimes we need to re-examine cliches and realize that they became cliches for a reason. They held something in them that made them worth repeating again and again.

So "wake up and smell the coffee" because "today is the first day of the rest of your life."

Grasp some "conventional wisdom" and learn to live by it.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Love who you are

Recently, Lila and I have been watching CSI on DVD. So I've had that song stuck in my head: "Who are you? Who, who, who, who?" It's disturbing.

Step One is the continuing process of knowing who we are.

And Step Two is loving what we find.

Many teachers have pointed out that the well-known injunction of Christ to "love your neighbor as yourself" presumes love of self. But it ain't that easy.

This question of "who we are" isn't always what we think it is. It isn't "what we do" or "who we know," for example, let alone "where we live" or "what we own."

In Zen they ask the question, "What was the shape of your original face before you were born?"

That you.

And then, to love it? More hard work.

No one said that being happy would be easy. (Some have even said just the opposite.)

But get to know you, no matter how hard. Then get to love you, no matter how harder.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Drink less

Call it "The Goldilocks Principle": Too little, too much, or just right?

As applied to drinking, I guess there's no such thing as "too little": not drinking at all, or having a beer or two a year, can't be bad.

"Just right"? Sort of subjective, I guess.

How about "too much"? Aha.

If alcohol has caused you to miss work, or damage a relationship, or have health problems, then you know you have a problem.

But there are others, called "functional alcoholics," who are harder to detect. There are lots of online assessments you can take (the one by A.A. is particularly good--Google it), but here are a few other indications that I like, found on

  • In your 30s or older, you still drink like you did in college
  • You have a high tolerance for alcohol (you can "hold your liquor")
  • You're always the first one to say "Let's have a drink"
  • Drinking is a focal point in your life
  • You frequently joke about drinking too much
  • You're starting to see minor problems arising from your drinking

And of course the old classic: You drink alone.

If any of these is true, drink less.

In fact, if you drink at all, it wouldn't hurt to drink less. Or quit altogether.

You'll be happier.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Andy was the family parrot, and I mean all the family. He lived with us when I was a kid, but he had lived with my dad's family before that, and with my aunt after. So he didn't just belong to the family, but was a part of it.

Andy spoke, but had his own vocabulary and syntax. For example, when the garage door was open and the sun shone in his eyes, he yelled, "Shut up!" meaning "Shut the door."

The one that sticks in my mind, though, was this: when one of us was crying (usually me, the "little brother") and got near his cage, he'd croon, "Why cry? Why cry?"

Why indeed, Andy, why indeed?

The fact is, no one knows why we cry. One theory says it's relationship-building: we cry to elicit sympathy from others, which builds bonds. Another theory says the blurring of vision was an evolutionary adaptation to prevent aggressive reaction to bad news.

My favorite, though, is the idea that crying releases excess "stress hormones" that build up at times of crisis. This fits Aristotle's theory of catharsis, the "cleansing" emotional release that comes at the climax of a drama. (That explains why we cry in movies.)

Whatever the true reason for crying, there's no doubt that a healthy cry can provide release.

So if you’re sad, let it out. If you’re not, watch Terms of Endearment again. (Or Texas Chainsaw Massacre if that's what does it for you.) Whatever primes the pump and helps you achieve catharsis.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Write a Letter

When I was 12 years old, my (step) grandpa up in Kingsburg, CA, passed away. So Grandma left the farm where she'd lived for the better part of two decades, and moved in with us.

I learned a lot from my grandma, but one of the best lessons was about what we now call "connectivity."

You see, Grandma was a fervent letter-writer, and she did it mainly because, as she always said, "If you want to get mail, you have to write letters."

Now, of course, there's a symbolic side to that statement. It's about karma: what we send out, we get back.

But let's be literal for a moment: Don't you love getting a letter from a friend? Hand-written, and with a photo or some other keepsake enclosed?

How often does that happen? Not as often as it used to, I'll bet. And you know why?

You're looking at it. The ease and speed of electronic communication (phones included) has reduced the "burden" of letter-writing. In doing so it has also taken away a nice custom.

Sometimes, amongst my papers, I find notes that I wrote to someone in my family as a kid (or that they wrote to me). My wife and I virtually never do that; we text, leaving no trace.

So write a note, or a letter. Send a photo or trinket. Reach out and touch someone the old-fashioned way. And if Grandma was right, maybe they'll touch back.

And you'll be happier.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Raise the White Flag

I confess: I like to have the last word.

(Anyone who knows me will be saying, "No duh.")

But to be fair, doesn't everyone like to have the last word?

I mean, it always seemed funny to me when someone tried to get the last word by saying, "You always want to have the last word." They were tipping their hand!

Anyway, as I get older, I have a tendency to raise the white flag of surrender a little more often.

For example, when someone sends an email that ticks me off, I no longer send an instant flaming reply. (I wait 24 hours. Then I send a flaming reply.)

But not always. Sometimes I just "let it go."

And every time I do, after the initial adrenaline rush goes away, I'm happier.

So pick your battles. Learn that sometimes it’s better to be loved than to be right. Every so often, raise the white flag.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Know Your Neighbors

In one of my earlier incarnations, I was a member of the Sheriff's Explorers, a group of Boy Scouts who worked alongside Sheriff's deputies to make the world a better place.

I worked closest with a real mentor, Deputy Digby Rowe of the Community Crime Prevention Bureau. We gave talks to people on how best to protect their homes.

And can you guess what the number one suggestion was? Better than alarms, locks, dogs, and lighting?

It was knowing your neighbors, and looking out for each other.

For most of my time in China, I've been surrounded by neighbors who spoke little or no English, and I speak little (almost no) Chinese.

There have been lots of smiles, and kindnesses done. But it hasn't really been possible to know my neighbors in any real sense.

Now, I'm living back in a school dorm, where most of my "neighbors" are in fact my colleagues. And it's good to know that if I ever walk out without both my keys and my phone, I can knock on any one of a number of doors and get connected with building maintenance through a neighbor.

Not to mention just hanging out in someone's doorway for a chat.

So go knock on the doors on either side of you, and across from you. Anybody that shares a fence (including the people behind you, on the next block). Anyone that shares an eyeline. Get to know them, and make friends. You'll have a better sense of community. You'll be safer.

You'll be happier.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Make Yourself Useful

Lately, I've been running across a lot of pithy quotes from the Buddha. For a while, I couldn't place them. Then it struck me: Someone's been reading The Dhammapada (which means something like "The Path of Wisdom").

These are sort of Buddhist proverbs, and every one of the 423 verses can be useful for us Happiness Seekers.

To be honest, I'm not sure if the saying I want to look at today is from The Dhammapada. It's another of those unattributed quotes, but it's such a great definition of happiness that I couldn't pass it up. Here it is:

"Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others."

Think about this for a minute. There are three positions on the switch: Negative, Neutral, and Positive. "Negative" we could call "Harmful." And "Positive" is "Useful."

So what is "Neutral"? Neither Harmful nor Useful. And I think that describes a lot of us, a lot of the time. You could call it "Harmless." Or maybe "Useless."

And there is no Happiness in being Useless, but great Happiness in being Useful.

Start now. Don't just stand there, do something, for yourself and others. You'll be useful.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thank the Universe Every Day

"Surya Namaskar."

To my ear, it even sounds cool.

It means "Sun Salutation," and it's a routine that's part of yoga practice, rooted in the Hindu Vedas. And by golly, if I weren't fat and lazy, I'd do it every day.

Some of its components just sound right: "Stretch heart and arms toward heaven." "Send greetings to the sun." "Ground yourself through contact with the earth." "Lift your gaze." "Extend your spine." "Radiate energy from your heart."

And through it all, breathe.

This is a formal (and for me too strenuous) way to do something that I do do every day: Thank the Universe.

If you have a personalized God, thank Him or Her. If not, thank "The Force" or whatever you perceive as the power behind it all. If you're non-religious, just thank "nature."

But be thankful.

When a Japanese person sits down to eat, he or she usually says, "Itadakimasu." It literally means "I humbly receive [this]," but when I asked my friends what it meant, they said it meant "Thanks for this food." When I pressed further with the obvious question--"Thanks to who?"--the answers ranged from the farmer to the trucker to the cook, to parents and employers; and to the sun and the rain and the chopsticks used to pick the food up.


So thank the Universe for all that you have.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Take No One for Granted

Twice a day I board a shuttle bus to get from the campus where I live to the one where I work (and back).

And (almost) every time I debus, I tell the driver "thank you."

I also play with the security guards (saluting, waving, smiling), and greet the maintenance staff.

To a lot of my co-workers, these men and women are invisible, part of the scenery, like a tree or a trash can.

To me, they're brothers and sisters, people who make the life I live possible.

Maybe it's my "democratic" roots, but I just can't receive help from someone--a car door opened, a lunch tray dumped--without acknowledging the presence of the person who did it.

In my case, there's a wall of language difference between me and most of these so-called "little people." But that doesn't prevent a simple "xie xie" (thank you), or a smile, or a hand raised in greeting as a bus driver I know goes by.

So remember that we're all children of the universe, and take none of your brothers and sisters for granted.

You'll be happier.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Join the Club

There's joy in jargon.

There's nothing finer than to be with a group of people who "speak your language" regarding something you really care about.

This is never clearer than when the opposite happens: a group of "experts" gets together, and a "newbie" is there who has to ask for clarification every few sentences.

Of course, this is how the "noob" becomes an "expert."

Right there are two reasons for joining a hobbyist club: one is to be around people who speak your language and share your enthusiasm; the other is to learn from those further down the path.

You can do this virtually, of course; there's a forum, mailing list, or social networking site to cater to almost every interest. But much better it is to find some real people and go to a meeting.

I can't imagine model railroading online. Or hang-gliding. Or surfing (the real kind).

Sometimes you just have to breathe the same air as like-minded individuals.

So look them up and get out there and join the club.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Go Cash

Nearly 20 years ago I had a financial (and emotional) train wreck. Practically overnight I went from being a married career educator with a house and a few cars to being a single handyman living with my parents.

I'm married and teaching (and living in my own space) again, but one of the good things to come out of all that was simply that, to this day, I have no credit cards.

Whenever possible, I pay for things in cash, or by a wire transfer. But sometimes (like when paying for my website, or ordering books from Amazon) the system won't let me do it any other way, and then I usually ask a friend or relative to make the purchase for me with their card, and pay them immediately.

I know, living in a cash economy is "un-American." But for the better part of two decades, I've been living within my means.

And there's great freedom in that.

For some reason, I'm reminded of a line from the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman film Papillon. Hoffman's character--a bit loony--has broken his wire-rimmed glasses, and to fix them, he has bent the rims around a remaining piece of lens. "Instead of trying to make the orifice fit the lens," he explains, "I made the lens fit the orifice."

When you "go cash," instead of making your income fit your needs, you make your needs fit your income.

Try it. You'll be saner. You'll find that you don't miss what you can buy on installments.

You'll be happier.