Central Park is home to hundreds of benches dedicated to people and happy moments spent on these beautiful grounds. Every time I walk past these benches, I can almost see, hear and (yes) feel the memories of people sharing sandwiches, laughs, and good conversation.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and an East Coast earthquake, I find myself pondering the sweet ephemeral nature of life..
When they found me, I was not breathing. This, they took to be rather a bad sign.
It was June of 1998. About fifteen minutes before, the nurse had left me comfortably dosed with pain medication in my hospital room after what was supposed to have been a relatively simple surgery. Indeed, the operation was a success, but the patient nearly died.
What happens in that moment between one breath and the next? Between one heart beat and the next? What magic reminds our bodies to continue these basic functions? How often are we grateful for this simple yet profound process?
Blurred faces. Too many and too close. Distant voices on the wrong speed – a 78 vinyl freakishly played on 33. This is the bizarre scene to which I awakened. Where was I? What was happening to me? When I tried to ask, the words just would not form. So I did the next best thing. I screamed. To the relieved doctors, it was music. The signal of return.
The feeling in that scream reminds me of another experience.
It was January 1994. I was in California working on a recording project. It was a grueling process and I was exhausted. I was sleeping quite soundly on a sofa bed in a friend’s living room when, at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge Earthquake hit.
Awakened by what could only be a bomb dropping, I remember thinking, “this is IT.” The force of the quake threw me from my bed into a darkness filled with other flying objects. Everything was in motion and the noise was akin to that of several freight trains simultaneously hurtling through the room. I still recall with clarity the cacophony of sound as the grand piano in the corner traveled several feet into a wall and out again leaving a sizable hole. Glass was breaking everywhere, but I somehow managed to walk through it all unscathed.
On the airplane on the way home from that trip, we passengers were a pretty quiet bunch. No one made a peep until the wheels touched the runway on steady ground. Then a raucous cheer resounded! Hours later, I was still grinning in excess of the socially acceptable limit. I felt a renewed energy for living.
Today, when I reflect on those experiences, it reminds me to stop and appreciate the gift of being here.
It took a few days after my hospital experience to begin to realize just how close I had come to leaving this life. On the phone long distance with my Dad that week, I recounted all that had happened. He listened attentively and when I had finished my story, there was a brief silence.
“Well,” he said slowly, “At least it wasn’t anything serious.”
Later, outside in my garden, I paused to inhale the fragrant scent of irises–faintly reminiscent of Pez candy. The air, which earlier had been heavy with heat, turned cool and clean after a sudden afternoon downpour. Steam gently rose from the broad leaves on the grapevines. The chickens ventured out to cheerfully probe the earth in search of worms. Hummingbirds zoomed to and from their feeder in the sunshine. The storm was all but forgotten.
Maybe Dad was right. It was nothing serious. After all, here I am years later, alive and breathing, loving this sweet life. So go ahead. Enjoy! Take a deep breath. Release it. Repeat as necessary.
As temperatures cool, the leaves turn color, and we start preparing our Thanksgiving feast, we often reflect on all that we are grateful for. It is a long list, but perhaps it can be surmised in the words love, joy, laughter, and health.
Love is a warm chocolate chip cookie, a kiss on the forehead, and a long-lasting hug. Love may be blessed with strong meaningful friendships and relationships. Love isn’t always perfect, but it is accepting, caring, nurturing, and grounded in respect and trust. I am truly grateful for the love of my family and friends.
Joy, to me, is finding beauty in life’s small moments. I enjoy hearing the sound of chirping birds, feeling the sun’s warmth upon my face, and watching my son pretend to skateboard on a hover board (remember Back to the Future). Most recently, I have found joy in simply knowing where I am in life and by embracing the outcome.
I am grateful for the joy of each new day. Laughter, or the ability to laugh at life’s twists and turns, was always difficult for me as a teen and young adult. It is easy to laugh at a comedian or a funny friend, but the ability to roll with setbacks and to find humor and light often times is difficult. It is all too easy to become consumed by situations outside of our control. If we can just turn up the radio, sing our own personal song, and laugh with our friends, then the rest doesn’t seem to matter so much. I am thankful for perspective, belly laughs, tickles, friends, and movies that make me laugh whole-heartedly.
It sounds so cliché, but it is easy to take our health for granted. For most people, their bodies move and function fully without much thought. Recently, I have come to know several people who have suffered as a result of serious automobile accidents, diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, and other ailments. The lives they once claimed have been dramatically altered forever. I am so grateful for my healthy body, for the coordination of my limbs, for lucid thoughts, and the gift of being able to help others work through their physical limitations. Today, take a deep breath and find some time to walk, run, or kick the leaves outside. Let your body know that you are thankful for it.
Laugh a little, love a little, be healthy, and enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving!
Personal happiness may be the most studied facet of human life in the psychology field. Just a brief search in a library database of scholarly journals produces thousands of results featuring research and assessments on human happiness; not to mention the endless selection of titles in the self-help section of your local bookstore.
The Declaration of Independence tells us happiness is one of our certain unalienable rights parents always express their wish for their children to achieve happiness as they grow to adulthood and The Beatles have been telling us happiness is a warm gun since 1968’s White Album. For most of us in the Western world, achieving happiness is of paramount importance.
In well-developed, wealthy nations like the United States, happiness if often measured in the procurement of a respected career path, the money that results from said career and the tangible good that are possible to obtain because of the money earned. Psychologists, sociologists and economists are fascinated by this cycle and the hypothesis stating that money and things directly relate to human happiness. But is that really the case? Do individuals with more actually find greater happiness than those individuals with less?
Yes and no, say researchers of a 2010 study featured in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. In their article It’s not the money, it’s the quest for a happier self: the role of happiness and success motives in the link between financial goals and subjective well-being, researchers found that job success and money are indirectly instrumental in allowing humans to achieve some semblance of happiness as it provides a relief from poverty, and supplies resources that allow basic human needs to be met. However, once basic quality of life issues are attended to, money is often superfluous to happiness and subjective well-being.
As Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness suggests, there may be a huge difference between the happiness quotient of an individual who earns $10,000 per year and an individual who earns $50,000 per year – simply because this earning gap is the difference between poverty and middle class. However, the happiness quotient of an individual who earns $100,000 per year in relation to someone who earns $5 million is relatively the same. Gilbert continues to state, “Economists explain that wealth has ‘declining marginal utility’, which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper.”
Then, why do people, namely Americans, feel the need to consume as a way to achieve happiness? The western world puts a large emphasis on the consumption of money and tangible goods as an outward expression of power, status and worth. It’s a tool of survival in a materialistic society – a society that grows more materialistic with each new generation.
A PBS documentary, titled Affluenza, which originally aired over a decade ago suggests that allowing money and things to have too much power over your individual happiness is a social disease that began shortly after World War II. Although consumerism is necessary for the prosperity and propagation of the United States economy, I think we are all very aware of what happens when overt consumerism gets out of hand. Affluenza suggests that the balance between money and happiness peaked during the late 1950s and has declined since. It has been argued that individuals with more actually experience higher rates of stress anxiety than their cohorts that consume less (as long as basic needs are met).
Didn’t Biggie and Diddy tell us this back in the ‘90s? Mo’ money, mo’ problems!
The odd part of the money/happiness correlation in Western society is that the ability to consume does not necessarily prompt the consumers to feel more grateful for who they are or for what they have. It is interesting to notice how in the recent economic downturn, when identity and happiness are no longer able to be derived from money and possessions, how many people are forced to turn inward or to their family and friends to the find happiness they once found externally.
Money is a necessary component of life and there is no denying that the occasional purchase does cause elevated dopamine levels in the brain and hence a temporary euphoria. Earning money and being a consumer of products is not the problem, but rather a problem arises when people expect their entire scope of happiness to hinge on these things.
As we arrive at the beginning of another holiday season, we are given an opportunity to assess our own happiness and reflect on what we are thankful for. Surrounded by your loved ones on Thanksgiving Day, when it is your turn to share what you are thankful for, your mind will likely turn to much more basic, emotionally driven thoughts – gratitude for your family and friends, your health, etc.
I very much doubt you would express your gratitude for your shiny new car, fancy new watch or the huge bonus you will receive next month. And even if these items are on your list of things to be thankful for, try to squeeze grandma in there somewhere.