Key to Happiness

What makes you happy?  I recently received an email with that question as the subject line.  The email was actually an advertisement for a week-long vacation cruise to the Bahamas, but it got me to thinking about my current state of happiness.   As a kid I remember singing the song: 

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…If you’re happy and you know it, your face will surely show it, if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” 

Pharrell Williams hit song “Happy” has sold millions of copies.  He also encourages us to, “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof”.

I don’t see many people clapping as they go about their daily lives.  In fact, on a recent trip to the grocery store, I made it a point to count the number of people with smiles on their faces.  I came up with 3.  

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The subject of happiness is nothing new.  Our forefathers talked about the pursuit of it in Declaration of Independence.  Today, there are hundreds of books, movies, and music out all to makes us feel happy, but the pursuit of happiness isn’t easy.  

I think we can all agree that more money and materialistic goods in no way guarantee a happy life.  My mom used to say, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side”.  There is the assumption that having children, getting a new job, or having the “right” friends will also equate to increased happiness, but the results are not always favorable.  

Some research has shown that the tendency to be happy is inherited and that not everyone has a sunny disposition, but there are things we can do to bring more joy into our lives.  

In the book, The How of Happiness, writer Sonja Lyubomirsky states that 50% of our happiness is genetically determined, 10% is affected by circumstances, and the remaining 40% is subject to self-control.  

In other words there are things we can do to put ourselves on a path to happiness.  Here’s a few examples:  

* Forgiving those who do us wrong.  Bitterness only leads to more anger and frustration.  

* Being grateful.  It’s proven that being grateful improves satisfaction.  

* Don’t be self-centered.  Helping others improves our own self-esteem and can set us on a path of happiness.  

* Don’t compare.  Constantly comparing ourselves to people who are smarter, wealthier, or better looking, won’t increase our happiness level. 

I’m not going to argue, that email I received is tempting.  A Caribbean vacation cruise sure sounds good right about now however I do believe in addition to the list of things above we can also spread happiness to those around us.  

The latest happiness research from Stanford University, the University of Houston, and Harvard Business School shows that to achieve an increase in happiness, people need to establish concrete, attainable goals aimed at helping other people. 

The study suggests setting out daily to make people smile.  A simple goal that is attainable within 24 hours.  I tried it and it worked!  Rather than deciding that you will help the less fortunate, decide to donate two bags of groceries to a food pantry every week.  

I realize I can’t change the world, but I can donate my time and resources to local organizations like the Bethlehem Food Pantry or the Union Mission.  

If we each set out make the world a better place one small step at a time, our happiness meters are bound to climb. After all, that’s something money can’t buy.  

My Brain is 80% Song Lyrics

In 1977 my sister spent hours in our living room trying to get me to snap my fingers and kick my leg back at the same time as the disco song “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees played on our parents console record player.  To this day I remember the lyrics: 

Feel the city breakin and everybody shakin,
And were stayin alive, stayin alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin alive, stayin alive.

Just the other day my wife and I were headed to the grocery store and Willie Nelson’s song, “Always On My Mind” came on the radio.  I started singing along knowing every word.  

Little things I should have said and done.

I just never took the time.  

But you were always on my mind,

You were always on my mind.

My wife suddenly turned the radio down and said, “Your brain has got to be mostly song lyrics!”  Perhaps there’s something to this.  I write notes to remind myself to send emails, give the dog his monthly heart meds, or pick up items at the grocery store.   I can rarely tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can remember a song lyric from 1977.  

Rest assured, I’m not alone.  I think more people than we realize have this “issue”.  There are now websites devoted to selling shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers that tout, “My brain is 80% song lyrics!”

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Scientists have attempted to explain this over the years.  According to one research study I looked into, our short-term memory can hold around seven items at a time.  After hearing a song for the first time, the lyrics are stored in our short-term memory.  However, that information quickly migrates over to our long-term memory within minutes.  By the time you listen to a song several times, its forever memorized.  

Radio jingles are the best! I have a friend in Nashville who has made a living writing them.  He says the best jingles are designed to infiltrate our minds instantly, stay there for years, and then pop up when we’re shopping.  When was the last time you were at the store and saw a box of Band-Aids and recalled the song, “I am stuck on Band-Aids’ cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” Or better yet, “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz”.  I don’t even need to mention the name of the product.  I bet you’re singing!  

Neurologist and Psychologists who study the effects of music on the brain have found music with a strong emotional connection to the listener is difficult to forget. I also read recently music can help Alzheimer’s patients remember things better and learning to play an instrument may delay dementia.  I think we all can agree that music is powerful.  It has the ability to even lift up our spirits on a gloomy day. 

Perhaps all this music in my head is not a bad thing after all.  Our brains hold about 2.5 petabytes.  That means if our brains worked like a digital video recorder on our television, we would have to leave the TV running for more than 300 years continuously recording to use up all that storage.  

That’s a relief!   I still have room for a few more thousand songs up there. 

Thanks to the Bully

You can’t pick up the newspaper or turn on the television these days without hearing some story about a child being bullied.  

It’s nothing new, especially on the school grounds, but with the Internet and modern technology, the schoolyard bully is way fiercer than they were even 20 years ago.  

 

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The National Center for Educational Statistics reports nearly 1 in 3 students are bullied during the school year (64 percent of children who are bullied don’t even report it). Looks, body shape, race, and gender expression are the top  “reasons” for being bullied.  

I’ve got to say, these numbers are alarming!  

I remember in grade school having a sign that read, “punch me” taped to my back. I walked around maybe 10 minutes before I realized the joke. It seemed so innocent back then — I don’t ever remember being punched. To me, it was just a cruel joke.   

Another incident I remember was being called a nerd in high school for being more interested in photography than sports. I never let that bother me either. In fact, looking back, I think it propelled me peruse my passion even more.  

These days bullies are even using social media to taunt their victims to death.  Cyberbullying, as its called, is a type of bullying that happens electronically. It can be a text message, email or an online post. Some children have reported being taunted on social media sites or had the bullies share embarrassing photos or videos of them online for the world to see.   It’s not just the stocky athletic boys picking on the skinny boys either. Girls get in on the action too by spreading rumors to harass their peers or by getting a group of kids to gang up on one or more of their peers. Researchers say girls get away it more because adults are less likely to pick up on their tactics.   

Last year a girl jumped to her death after some classmates allegedly bullied her online and posted a message that she should “drink bleach and die.” Two teenagers were arrested on felony charges in that case.  

Incidents that were once isolated to the playground, classroom or hallway are now in the palm of the bullies’ hands in the way of smart phones which has made cyberbullying even easier.  

Some argue bullying makes children stronger and its all part of “growing up.” The reality is children who are bullied are more likely to be depressed or in some instances suicidal. Show me a child who is being taunted daily, and I’ll show you one who is powerless, depressed, or possibly loosing all interest in school and the world around them. Other warning signs include unexplainable injuries, changes in eating habits, declining grades, and sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.   

Research also shows that many youngsters give up sports because of bullying from the sidelines. Sometimes its teammates, but most often the ferocious behavior comes from coaches, parents, or other adults who are taking the game more seriously than they should. Constructive criticism is acceptable, but negative comments should not be tolerated. They’re children, not professional athletes!

It’s time we as a community stand up to the bullies of all kind. Children shouldn’t have to endure this at any age. Encourage those kids around you to speak to a trusted adult if they’re bullied or see others bullied. It’s proven that more than half of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. I think schools should also ensure that students who report such acts are protected. 

According stopbullying.gov, there are some practical ways that parents, school staff, and caring adults can help children understand bullying and hopefully prevent it:  

•Keep the lines of communication open. Check in with kids often.  Listen to them. Know their friends, ask about their school, and understand their concerns.  

• Model how to treat others with kindness and respect

• Talk about strategies for staying safe, such as staying near adults or groups of other kids.  

• Urge them to help kids who are bullied by showing kindness or getting help.  

October is typically designated as National Bullying Prevention Month. It’s going to take more than just a monthly observance to tackle this issue. It’s going to take parents, educators, community leaders, and all of us working together to impart to these youngsters the importance of getting along and working with others. Television, movies, and video games may glorify it, but its time we step up as adults and teach our children otherwise.   

Oh by the way – to the guy who called me a nerd for being interested in photography and for being part of the school newspaper, I now support my family with that camera and this column for that matter. Hope you’re doing well.  Thanks for encouraging me!