Guaranteed Happiness in 3 Steps

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”

-English poet William Blake

Are you a bubbly unicorn or a grumpy cat? I find it interesting how some people are just naturally “happier” than others. There is a reason for this phenomenon. We are all born with an emotional set point that affects our everyday mood and outlook on the world. My set point is a slightly uncomfortable 62 degrees while Ashley, my effervescent coworker, has a toasty set-point of 78 degrees. How do I raise my good-feelings thermostat? Why are we obsessed with happiness? Is there any hope for us folks who seem to always be sitting on a cactus? In search of these answers, I recently read Spontaneous Happiness by Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil is a hippy who got his MD from Harvard and spent most of his career researching techniques to cultivate happiness.

Before we address how to become happier, we need to first look at some unrealistic expectations. America is obsessed with being happy. Every time we greet each other there is an automatic response of “good” “great” or even “absolutely fantastic.” This drives me crazy because I am usually feeling mediocre or just average. Whenever I respond with a “mediocre” the person who just asked me contorts their face in a matter that says, “do you need the suicide hotline number?” America is obsessed with happiness because of many cultural reasons: constant products being sold to increase happiness, the belief that happy people are more productive, America’s preeminence as being the best in every thing – including positive emotions. Happiness is an unrealistic emotion to have at all times. Think of our emotions as a seesaw, they pivot up and down on a fixed set point. This set point is not happiness but best described with the words: contentment, serenity, comfort, balance, and resilience. The Swedish term for this is known as Lagom and means “just right” or “exactly enough.” So our goal is to increase our frequency of Lagom which provides two things: greater emotional balance and the ability to reach spontaneous happiness more often.

So what is spontaneous happiness? Let me give an example. Say I am reading a book under a comfortable blanket and I feel content and at peace. I am not necessarily “happy” but rather in an emotional equilibrium. As I am reading, the doorbell rings and to my surprise it is a free pizza gifted by a fan of my blog ;). This provides me with a rush of happiness and tilts my emotional seesaw upwards. That is spontaneous happiness. How can we cultivate that spontaneous happiness and increase the set point of our contentment?

  1. Go out in nature: We are designed to be outdoors. When we get more sunlight, fresh air, and exercise we feel better and have a greater ability to avoid negative thoughts.
  2. Spend time with people who bring you happiness: This one seems like a no brainer but we tend to isolate ourselves and spend a lot of time with our faces on our screens. Happiness is best fostered with people who regularly laugh, joke, and view the world in an optimistic light. Avoid interactions with conspiracy theorists or people who regularly write book reports on Herbert Hoover.
  3. Foster gratitude: Gratitude is the single greatest tool that can raise your Lagom set point and hurdle you into happiness. It takes practice but start focusing on three things that you are grateful for each night before going to bed. Gratitude and nature also go hand in hand. Walk outside in the cold and when you get home you will be ecstatic to have a warm cup of coffee and blanket to snuggle under.

We don’t need to be happy all the time. The view that we must feel like a unicorn running through a field of ice-cream cones has in part led us to seek antidepressants at a record number – the rate of depression has increased ten-fold since WWII. Depression is complex but it is many times influenced by our expectations that happiness is the norm and our lack of understanding of how to live a content existence. We need a seesaw of emotions so we can appreciate both the highs and lows. If your “thermostat” runs a little cooler than others don’t feel inferior – it is perfectly normal. If you would like to warm up a little bit just practice those techniques – wrapping yourself in a blanket of Lagom and spontaneous happiness.

Shenandoah: The Red-Headed-Step Child

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Two years ago on June 21st I married the love of my life. It was one of those days in which time both stood still and flew by-leaving a host of wonderful memories. Following our wedding day, we spent our honeymoon in Yosemite National Park. I thought it would be a excellent idea to camp the whole week-suffice it to say, do not camp on your honeymoon. After only two days, Christina was complaining about her back hurting and our sex life was in a state of drought worse than California. We ended up getting a hotel for the rest of the trip but still had a great time relaxing in nature. It is our goal to visit all 58 national parks in the United States so we decided to celebrate our two year anniversary with a vacation to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Shenandoah is the red-headed-step child of the national parks system. Essentially, city goers in Washington D.C. wanted a national park in the east similar to those found in the west like Yellowstone. The Blue Ridge Mountains were chosen because of their proximity, natural beauty, and the preexisting tourist development known as Skyland Resort. Skyland was a bohemian complex that sat on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains and was owned by George Pollock. Pollock pushed for Skyland and the area around it to become a National Park so he could get more business. Old Georgy got his wish but the National Park Service ended up disbanding his business after the park’s opening in 1935. Shenandoah’s odd history does not stop there. Since the 1600’s, the Blue Ridge Mountains had been settled and owned by all sorts of individuals-generations of families who worked the land. This area was host to complete American towns with churches, schools, and cemeteries. To make a long story short…these people were compensated for their land and told to leave the park. Some were relocated, some did not leave (their houses were eventually burnt down), and some sued the State of Virginia (they lost).

With that history in mind let’s get back to the anniversary trip. Forgetting the nightmares of camping in Yosemite, I thought it would be an excellent idea to camp in Shenandoah. We got to our campsite and commenced a four-hour long operation to get our site completely set up: pitched the Taj Mahal tent, assembled the stove, stacked firewood, sprayed copious amounts of bug spray, searched for the bathrooms, etc. At about 7 pm we collapsed on our cots exhausted and were ready to go to sleep when the sky turned completely black. I knew this was bad and before the thought could register the wind blew so hard that the tent collapsed on our resting heads. Christina jumped up like a chicken and we soon began an hour ordeal in which we were bracing the tent-spread eagle style-while lightening, thunder, pouring rain, and wind threatened to destroy our dwelling. The rain tarp partly flew off and rain began to drench our sleeping bags, clothes, and books that were on the floor. At about 8 pm it was decided that our camping trip was over. The storm began to wane and we jumped ship with all our wet belongings to the nearest hotel-a very sketchy Budget Inn.

The next day we heard on the news that the storm registered 50 lightening strikes per minute. We survived and ended up having an awesome vacation with a ton of beautiful hiking. The tally of nature that we saw was quite impressive: 5 bears including two cubs, four falcons, a snake, deer, centipedes, a host of fish, and a partridge in a pear tree. The highlight of the trip was a 9 mile hike up to Old Rag Mountain which required precarious rock scrambling and copious amounts of trail mix. In the end, Christina and I really enjoyed the adventure with all its twists and turns. Was it right to kick the people out to make the park? It’s a hard question to answer because the park benefits so many people and wildlife now that it is protected land. I have to say that I am glad it exists and hope to go back in the future when the leaves are changing colors in the fall.

 

Towering Trees to Tiny Ticks

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Christina and I just returned from our first camping trip of Summer 2016. We ventured to Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, Michigan. This park is home to 49 acres of old growth pines which are the last of their kind in the state. White pine was extremely common in Michigan prior to European settlement. However, in the nineteenth century the logging industry ravaged the forests of Michigan and cut down almost all of the white pines. Hartwick Pines was donated by Karen Michelson Hartwick in 1927 and there was originally 85 acres of old growth forest until 1940 when a fierce windstorm destroyed half of the pines. White pine is the state tree of Michigan and they are quite majestic when seen up close. There was a great walking trail in the old growth forest and several hiking trails throughout the entire 9,672 acre expanse. The old trees are very delicate and white pine eventually become susceptible to damage because of their relatively thin trunk to height ratio. Some of the trees in the 40 acres are over 400 years old and the grove was believed to have germinated after a fire in the 1600s.

Being out in nature is extremely relaxing when you are comfortable and properly prepared. Unfortunately, Christina and I found 8 ticks on us after hiking an old railroad trail that had a fair share of grassy areas. Ticks freak me out and Christina was ready to get airlifted out of the campground after picking off that many ticks. Ticks are the creepiest bugs because they can linger on you for hours without you ever knowing it. Thankfully, none were lodged into our skin and I think we are in the clear with Lyme’s Disease risk. After this tick fiasco I am purchasing clothes that are treated with Permethrin which is a safe and highly effective tick repellent that stays in your clothes for up to 70 washes. You can buy these clothes at insectshield.com. Besides the creepy tick scare, the weekend was an amazing mixture of relaxation, learning, and nature loving. I am currently reading a lot of Paulo Coehlo fiction and books on Shenadoah National Park for our next camping trip in June. Get outside and be with nature…make sue to bring some bugspray.

The Hike of a Lifetime

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

-John Muir

One of the top things on my bucket list is to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT is 2,200 miles and stretches from Georgia all the way to Maine. The trail was completed in 1937 and is maintained by hundreds of volunteer clubs. Each year, over 2 million people hike the trail at least 0ne day and over 2,400 complete a thru-hike of the 2,200 miles. A thru-hike is extremely difficult-those who attempt this endeavor take an average of 6 months to complete the expanse and 75% will fail in their pursuit. If you can’t get 6 months off from work then there is the option of section hiking the AT-this officially counts as completing the entire trail and can be completed over a lifetime. My goal is to section hike the trail over a 3 year period. I think one-month stretches twice a year during the best times for hiking would make the trip much more enjoyable. My ultimate goal is to hike the AT along with the Continental Divide Trail (3,100) which runs through the Rockies and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,600 miles) which runs through the west coast.

So the question is why would anyone want to hike over 8,000 miles of wilderness? What is the point? It is a hard question to answer because in a sense it requires one to describe an instinctual urge. I feel better in the woods. I feel more happiness in the woods. I feel alive in the woods. The woods bring me into nature in the most intense way because they encompass every sense: the sight of trees, the songs of birds, the smell of fresh air, the texture of trail beneath my feet. In addition to the surrounding nature, the act of hiking is the most relaxing and pleasant activity. Hiking is the foundation of mankind’s physical prowess. We walked across continents and spread throughout the entire world with our ability to hike. When I’m hiking in the woods my mind is in a proverbial hot tub of relaxation. Moving through the woods tangibly connects me to the earth and to the ancestral urge to explore. Contrast all these feelings with the unnatural state of everyday life: driving in a climate controlled vehicle, staring into a computer screen, shopping at Walmart, watching TV commercials, etc.

I think most of you who are reading this agree with me about the awesomeness of hiking. However, I still haven’t justified why I want to hike 2,200+ miles while carrying a backpack and sleeping in a tent. Backpacking is a humbling experience because you can only carry so much stuff and what stuff you do pack becomes quite heavy overtime. It is the antithesis of our consumer culture where we accumulate tons of stuff but never really feel the environmental impact of our consumption. This antithesis attracts me to backpacking and my minimalist lifestyle delights in carrying only the most essential. So what is the point of hiking all those miles? The point for me is to push myself and see what I am capable of. God has blessed me with great health and I want to utilize those blessings to the fullest. This logic runs parallel to my proclivities for reading and writing-I don’t want my talents to be wasted so I regularly do both of them. We all have goals but unfortunately many of them are misaligned. I want to get a promotion. I want a new car. I want an extra 20,000 a year in salary. I want a remodeled kitchen. I want bigger biceps. Humans need goals and we like to conquer those goals. That is why I want to hike all these miles. It is a challenge that brings me closest to my naturally aligned physical and mental state. What do you think? Would you like to join me?

The Asthmatic Boy who Became the Unstoppable Man Part 2

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Theodore Roosevelt is by far my favorite president. He lived an extraordinary life that in many ways transformed the world we live in today. Do you like National Parks? Thank Teddy. Do you like Wall Street regulations? Thank Teddy. Do you like food that is safe to eat? Thank Teddy. Do you like Teddy Bears? Thank Teddy. His accomplishments while in office were extensive and to completely understand his political mastery you should read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. I honestly did not know much about Teddy’s political accomplishments before reading this book. In high school, we were taught that he carried a big stick and was a imperialistic bully. That caricature is quite inaccurate and not even close to his level-headed-fair demeanor in domestic and foreign affairs.

William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 which transferred the head office to Vice President Roosevelt. The funny thing was, none of the big business men wanted Roosevelt to be president and that is why he was given the worthless position of Vice President. They were afraid that he couldn’t be bought and that their extensive monopolies would be attacked. Roosevelt was not anti-industry but rather respected the need to give laborers more rights to maintain social order and the need to prevent monopolies from controlling prices. During his two terms, Teddy negotiated the end of a major coal strike, brought 40 anti-trust suits to court, broke up the biggest monopoly in the world-Standard Oil, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won the biggest popular vote landslide in 1904, established 5 national parks, purchased the land for the Panama Canal, proclaimed 18 national monuments, protected 150 National Forests, pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, hosted the first black man for dinner in the White House, defended the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to accomplish all these things because he knew how work the media and befriend almost anyone he met. The “big stick bully” is not how he carried himself; when it came to decision making he took his time and always thought about every outcome with the highest degree of civility.

I really admire Teddy not only for his political accomplishments but his life outside the office. He was immune to discomfort and would be outdoors whenever possible-regardless of the conditions. Nature was his first love and he traveled throughout the US during his two terms hunting, camping, exploring, and vigorously exercising. Along with his love of the outdoors, he was an avid reader who could sit for hours immersed in books of all subjects. He could out smart, out hike, and out eat almost any man he encountered. Teddy’s life is an inspiration for my own life and sadly I am no where close to his manliness levels. I watch a lot of TV, I don’t like to go out in the rain, I need a noise-maker to sleep, I waste time online, and I hike with a walking stick to fend off small dogs. I strive to be more adventurous, more erudite, and more compromising like Teddy and I know it will take me a lifetime. My biggest obstacle to being more like my favorite president is TV; my goal is to watch less so that I can read more and spend  more time outdoors. Small steps must be taken to stand on the great shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
-Theodore Roosevelt

 

The Wealth of Poverty

Have you ever sat outside and taken a deep breath…observing the beauty and subtleties of nature? In our nonstop-technology-filled world this simple practice is rarely performed and given little respect. I love nature and have sat in a quiet meadow listening to the wind sweep across the grasses. I have hiked up mountains where the texture of stone beneath my feet makes me think of the weight of the world. I have seen the stars over the ocean and thought of my place in this big universe. My experiences in nature are some of my most coveted and life shaping moments. My love for the outdoors and what it can teach us led me to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I respect Thoreau immensely and think his insights on life are more pertinent today than when he was alive. Thoreau is about simplifying life to its core so that life can be better understood-removing the white noise of the superfluous. The essentials of man include food and heat. Simple food, lodging, and clothing were tenets to Thoreau’s life when he lived at Walden Pond. He is a philosopher and I really like his definition of what that means…”To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” Living the simplest way possible frees man from the bind of arduous labors in the pursuit money. The pursuit of excess is not the ultimate goal but rather the pursuit of exploring the mind, nature, and the world we live in. A key point of Thoreau is that garnering true wisdom internally is the greatest wealth a person can obtain. No matter how fancy a person dresses or what size house they live in, if you stripped that all away what would you be left with? The result would be a person that has built a foundation of virtue or a person that has a foundation of vice. 

Thoreau released himself from the comforts of society and put himself into nature to better understand his place in the world. I think that in today’s society we put so much effort on being comfortable that we miss the benefits of simplicity and nature. To live like the world is to live with an unending desire for more; that relentless pursuit is the opposite of simplicity and creates the effect of people rarely ever living in the present. Shed all the fat of societal comforts and find what brings true happiness: pursuing knowledge for knowledge sake, understanding your strengths, feeling the raw contrast of pain and pleasure. So how can you apply this thinking to your own life? I think a career is commendable and certain people fit best into that environment of structure and purpose. However, I believe that most people if released from the chains of money would live lives which entailed more time spent on personal/social enrichment and less time at work. Simplifying your life as much as possible decreases your reliance on money exponentially. All you need money for is food, security, heat, and friendship-everything else is just waste. Once you are free from the ideology of “MORE” then you can begin to appreciate the ideology of “less.” It is my goal to spend more time outside through camping and to appreciate the beautiful world that God created. My ultimate goal is to simplify my life to that of Thoreau while making compromises with my wife so she doesn’t leave me :). Go outside, take a breath, and live.

“Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth”

-Henry David Thoreau