Are you familiar with the “Angry Birds” App? I’m having a hard time with that one. Birds are not angry by nature. The icon for the game is a mean-looking cardinal. Huh? Is there anything less mean looking that a cardinal in the real world? Maybe a baby bunny-rabbit, but seriously, I can’t think of many things that are less intimidating than a cardinal. But I guess anything goes in the world of fantasy game apps.
There’s a story circulating about vandalism up at Lake George this summer. Home-owners were finding the rear-view mirrors of their cars smashed. Only the rear-view mirrors were damaged — both sides; nothing else. In one particular area near the northern end of the lake, every single car had smashed mirrors. It didn’t take long to discover the culprit: it was a pileated woodpecker. He was taking out “competitors” whom, he had learned, lived in the appendages of the large, metal, ground-loving things that rolled in and out of his territory. Some might say this was an angry woodpecker. I disagree; I think he was a clever woodpecker. He was proactively managing his competition. Very smart.
Maybe this is where the originators of the game got the idea for Angry Birds. Male robins, cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, etc. can get a little aggressive toward their own reflections during nesting season. But it’s just testosterone…it’s not anger.
I blogged a little about chickadees and titmice in my last post. They look like happy little birds. They’re curious and they make sounds like they’re interested in the new things they find, like peanuts and sunflower seeds. They’re slightly hyper (though not as bad as red squirrels) — always at high speed, flying acrobatically and perching sideways and upside down. Titmice have a little crest they can manipulate up and down, making them appear all the more animated. And how about hummingbirds?! They even giggle as they fly by. So, c’mon…birds are happy creatures! We’re the ones with the anger issues.
I just saw an excellent TED talk by a psychologist, Shawn Achor. Shawn studies happiness at Harvard. How great a job is that? Anyway, Shawn proposes a pretty radical idea: He says, “90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” That’s great news for people who watch a lot of news on TV, which is mostly about natural disasters, death, deviant behaviors, etc. The evening news is like taking a long drink from a glass of sour milk. But Dr. Achor says, “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”
This is stunning news. This means that WE get to control our happiness quotient. The events of the day don’t have to control us. Do you know your happiness quotient? You can take a quick 5 minute test to calculate it here: http://the-happy-side.com/hq.php. Mine was 113, which is not particularly meaningful and only slightly interesting. But the point is: are you self-aware enough to accurately say if you’re a generally happy person or a generally unhappy person?
My mother-in-law is a generally unhappy person: she takes the cumulative effect of all the losses in her life and lives them afresh every day. She is unaware she does this. It’s a learned behavior that’s now ingrained habit. She’s ninety years old and not likely to change much, but recently I suggested that she had a choice when she woke up in the morning: she could be happy or she could be mad — it was up to her. She was mystified by this suggestion. She didn’t think it was a choice at all.
Like my mother-in-law, many of us go through life believing our happiness corresponds to our lot in life: loss, hardship, struggle and suffering lead to unhappiness, while great relationships, safety, security, wealth and good health lead to happiness. Of course we all know exceptions to this rule, like the cancer patient who ministers gratitude to every doctor, nurse and visitor she meets and the people of La Entrada, Honduras for whom life is really hard but they radiate joy in their day to day living. What do these people know? They make a choice. They may have a habit of choosing to look at the bright side of things.
Apparently, it all depends on a little chemical called dopamine. Our brains manufacture dopamine when we’re happy. And dopamine makes you smarter and perkier and more effective at making decisions and diagnosing problems. Dopamine is dope (in the new-fangled slangy sense of the word). I wonder if birds’ brains produce a lot of dopamine?
How do we ramp up our dopamine output? Some suggestions that (sometimes) work for me:
1) Start a gratitude note-book. Every day write three new things that you’re happy about. A year or two ago, I set a goal of writing 1000 things that made me happy. Here are few:
· Soap that rinses clean
· Henry’s toe kisses (To be clear: Henry is a cat.)
· Peyton Manning
· Spinach Quiche
· Zoloft for Centa
You get the idea.
2) Take a daily walk. No earphones, no cell phone, no particular destination; just walk. There’s something about that bi-pedal rhythm. 30 minutes is all you need. Crocheting may accomplish some of the same benefits…but there’s nothing like a walk. Go do it. Right. Now.
3) Turn off the news and turn on the music. Granted, as noted above, the news does not have the power to make us happy or unhappy. By why inundate ourselves with bad news if we don’t have to? It’s like starting your 30 minute walk with pebbles in both shoes. Tune in to Pandora Radio or Spotify. Or find a new station on the radio – new music won’t kill you. In fact, you might find it makes you happy.
4) Go birding. This makes me happy every time I do it. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
I use to think I could never be happy again. In fact, I spent fourteen years believing this. I would say, “What is ‘happy’ anyway?” The word seemed too light and too frivolous to convey anything close to the gravitas of my emotions. I conceded that contentment was a worthwhile goal or perhaps fleeting moments of joy were achievable once every ten years or so, but I thought I had outgrown or outlived being happy. I was wrong. Very wrong. Happy is a choice.