Saturday, November 10, 2012

What Happy People Know


What is it that happy people do or know that allows them to enjoy a human existence? 

So far I have come up with three rules for happiness. I call them Steinman’s Rules for Happiness.[1]

1.  Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, when you are feeling it. Talk about it.

Let’s unpack that a bit.
Happy people know that being unhappy is not a problem or a disease.  It’s part of the human experience. Before you go all crazy on me, please know that I am NOT talking about the very real and debilitating experience of chronic or clinical depression. I’m talking about the blues. Rather than trying to fix their blues, happy people are present with their feelings. Rather than suppressing their anger, they find healthy ways to be in it and express it. Happy people understand that a fully human experience is dynamic and rich and most certainly includes joys and pains. That is the way we are built folks. Happy people accept that it is natural to have a range of emotions.

2.  Do things that you can be proud of.

Unpacking time:
Happy people have  a self-esteem predicated upon some pretty healthy criteria. They behave in ways that they can be proud of. It happens to be a great yardstick by which to measure your behavior; is this something I can be proud of or not? When we behave in ways that will plant the seeds of shame, we are practicing being miserable. This ties into rule number one. Often when you are behaving in a way that you are not proud of it is because you are trying to protect yourself from feeling shame, or fear, or anger, or sadness. If you allowed yourself to stay present with the feeling when it came up, you might not be defending yourself in such a maladaptive way. The antidote for these uncomfortable feelings is doing things that you truly can be proud of. The tough part is figuring out what that is. Doing it is relatively easy.

3.  Be in loving relationships.

No big secret. Again, it’s the way we are built. We need it and we need to give it. Imagine a loveless life……no thank you! The thing is, caring and sharing are essential for our own happiness. I can’t help thinking about my grandfather when I talk about this. He was not an overtly loving or demonstrative man. But put the man near a puppy or one of his beloved dogs and he radiated joy. It was the simplest of affections, give the dog a treat or a scratch behind the ears and the old man was home. 

One quick diversion into “loving yourself”. I always hated that saccharine flavored sentiment. It always sounded like something from a poorly worded book jacket in the self-help aisle. Be kind to yourself feels a bit more authentic. Happy people don’t go around “loving” themselves. They really don’t take themselves too seriously, and love just seems too serious a word. What they do is extend the everyday kindnesses to themselves as well as others. Look you are going to mess up….a lot. Happy people just don’t spend a whole lot of time beating themselves up over this. Unhappy people spend a great deal of energy on self-flagellation. It’s one of their favorite pastimes. Happy people are a forgiving lot. They may not throw a parade for all the screw-ups that permeate the human experience. Nor will they waste too much time agonizing over that stupid slip of the tongue at so and so’s wedding ten years ago.[2]

Being a happy person might just be that simple:
1.     Do things that you can be proud of.
2.   Be in loving relationships.
3.   Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, when you are feeling it.
    -Talk about it.

Oh and be nice. Mean people suck.

[1] I teach a very concrete group of kids, if it’s not a “rule” than it doesn’t count.
[2] Full disclosure time- I may not qualify as a happy person, I cringe every time I think about that wedding and bang my hang against the wall to make all the stupid go away.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Mine Field

         I wrote the following post a few months ago. I left it unpublished because I thought it was too angry….to cynical. I’m not an angry or cynical man. But sometimes you need to rant. Tomorrow I will be more caring and forgiving. Tomorrow I will seek to understand why people arrive at their own cruelty, and hopefully recognize that it is the product of their own, very real, pain. But today…… I will rant.

The Mine Field
         It’s all mine fields. Every step I take as an educator is just another step towards KaBoom.  It’s because we demonize each other and are our humanity. We take every opportunity to beat each other down. When a teacher reveals that they don’t know everything, Kaboom. When teachers don’t have expedient solutions to a bullying crisis, KaBoom. When a teacher turns out to be a human being, KABOOM! Maybe you think I’m being too cynical?
         If so, let’s do an experiment. Imagine you are a parent of a second grader. Your angel comes home and says, “Mr. Smith said the word shit today!”. Do you-
A). Write an Op-Ed piece in the N.Y. Times denouncing the educational system.
B). Start a petition going in order to get Mr. Smith fired.
C). Call the principal right away demanding that your angel be removed from Mr. Smith’s class and threaten to sue the school if the demands are not met.
D). Ask your child for more information, in order to place the event in context.

         Let’s be honest here, if you live in the privileged suburbs surrounding Boston you know that “D” is a rare event. That response is relegated to those who spend their lives in the company of children and who know intimately how quickly those innocent little people can manufacture an “oh shit” moment. You might find out that in the case of our unfortunate Mr. Smith, little Joey turned around really quickly after doing his job as the pencil sharpening monitor for the day and accidentally embedded some graphite into Mr. Smith’s posterior. Luckily for Mr. Smith, he had his back to Joey. This was because he was comforting Lucy, who had accidentally ruined her best friends dress by projectile vomiting the mystery meat served in the cafeteria earlier that day. At least Mr. Smith was prepared for this. You see the kids had been dropping like flies all week and Mr. Smith was a veteran teacher. He has a stash of emergency clothes and disinfectant wipes (that he purchased with his own meager salary, because the school system won’t pay for such things). Still, Mr. Smith might not have uttered the offensive syllable had not the chain reaction of illness begun. One sick child and an inadvertent impaling really isn’t enough to rattle a seasoned teacher. But…. three simultaneous evacuations of the digestive system just as the alarm for a fire drill sounds. Well, that might produce a slip of the tongue.
         Thank god for the ever vigilant helicopter mom who, upon hearing her child utter the very same syllable she learned from Mr. Smith (yeah, right!! Dad is a Red Sox fan!!!), the stay at home Mom with a full time nanny had the presence of mind to inquire a little bit more about the events and felt pangs of sympathy for the dedicated educator. Not a chance.
         Forgive me, but I’ve come to my cynicism honestly. It is so rare that I see folks function with compassion and empathy. We are so reactionary, so quick to blame and demonize. The act of refraining from a judgment or asking a follow up question is intrinsically compassionate. What really gets to me is that inevitably it is the most privileged among us who are so devoid of empathy and compassion?
          It seems that the most virulent attacks come from those parents who feel overwhelmed by a play date involving more than two children. These very same parents feel free to criticize a teacher who regularly handles 24 children with confidence. Likewise, administrators whom have never taught in a subject area feel free to criticize a lesson plan informed by nothing more that a loose understanding of the content.
         It all adds up to one big mine field, just waiting for us educators to be slight less than perfect. Then ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,you guessed it, KABOOM