Improving the Happiness Quotient

I loved reading a quirky, wonderful, unique story: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. It's not every day you read an epistolary novel in which the correspondence carried on is a one-sided outpouring to Richard Gere.

The mother of our letter writer, a devout Catholic, has a somewhat karmic approach to dealing with life's blows and setbacks. She tells her son Bartholomew that for every unhappy there is a happy -- and vice versa.

If you're experiencing something bad, someone somewhere -- not necessarily you -- is experiencing something wonderful. Bartholomew's mother takes solace in the idea that some good is balancing the scales somewhere.

Conversely, if you're happy than somewhere, someone is suffering, or at the least having a bad day.

Earlier this year I successfully completed 30 Days of Biking, to which I added a word/picture of the day challenge to myself. As I wrapped up the series I chose "happy" as my word of the day. I sincerely hope this didn't mean someone else was having a bad day.

I've long held the belief that I should contribute to the net positive balance of energy in the universe by doing good things. If the balance is actually 50/50 as Bartholomew's mother believed, it's important for me to notice and cherish every scrap of happiness because someone is paying for it.

Even though I don't really think you're paying for my happy day, it's still worth paying attention to and appreciating.

The research into people's behavior with respect to their shopping and service experiences says that we share negative experiences much more often than we do positive ones. While I definitely think there's a place for feedback that helps others improve (ask me about my luggage lost en route to Washington, DC, and meetings with members of Congress), we too seldom take a moment to thank someone for a job well done or a really positive experience. We take that for granted and focus on the screw-ups.

What if we made a point of paying attention to our happiness, to good experiences, and sharing those and only those for a day or a week? We'd be adding to the net happiness in the world.

Let's change the equation.

Recent Favorites

These posts are favorites from the past few months--either mine, or the favorites of others based on the number of views they're getting. Enjoy the round-up!

  • Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding
  • We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident: There Is No "Right" to Speedy Travel
  • How I Came to Be a Bike Advocate
  • A Little Kindness
  • So This Interstate Highway Walks into a Bar....
  • 13 Reasons Bicycles Are Perfect for the Zombie Apocalypse

  • In a category all its own:
    This is a page, not a post, that I update periodically with women's bike blogs from around the world. The tally was close to 600 at the last update; I prune defunct blogs and at times the count has been over 700.

    Much of my writing appears in other spaces, primarily the Washington Bikes blog and an occasional piece on my Bike Style blog. The archives here list everything I write in every space, including guest posts, as a purely chronological list.

    How I Came to Be a Bike Advocate

    “How did you come to be a bike advocate?”

    To answer that question as one of the opening speakers at the first-ever Future Bike when we held an “Inside the Advocate’s Studio” session, I had to back up to how I came to be an advocate of any kind.
    I thank my mother for raising me in a way that shaped me into an advocate.

    While she wouldn’t have used the word “feminist” to describe herself, she absolutely raised me to be one.

    When she married my father she had already been an independent woman with a job and a car (which was hard to come by during World War II). She used stories about her mother and herself to illustrate why I needed to ensure that I could take care of myself as an adult before getting married. (She definitely assumed I would marry.)

    She was pro-choice in an era when abortion was illegal, understood that to be a complex position, and answered honestly with good explanations of the various facets of the issue when I asked her position as a young teenager.

    She raised me to look at others with empathy. If we saw someone who was morbidly obese, for example, instead of responding with criticism of their size she would say with compassion, “Just think how hard it must be for her to go to the movies or ride a bus when the seats are so small.”

    Mom had never heard of privilege, but she inherently understood the concept. She told me I was a lucky kid: I had two parents who loved each other, a safe home, plenty of food, a good education, and lots of opportunity. Therefore I needed to use that education and opportunity to help people who weren’t as fortunate as I was.

    I know calling it “luck” doesn’t unpack the invisible knapsack or dig into multi-generational and structural advantages and disadvantages. But Mom—born in 1921—prepared me well to understand it, and to want to address it. She explained pieces and parts of the world’s problems as being rooted in other people not having the advantages I’d had.

    She had watched her own father, whom she described as a proud man, go door to door during the depths of the Depression asking if he could rake leaves or shovel snow to try to earn a little money so he could give his three children a birthday or Christmas present.  She knew what it meant that she had been able to attend a two-year teachers’ college to earn a degree and what a difference access to an education made.

    She knew how far my father had come from his humble beginnings, how hard he had worked to rise through the ranks at the lumber company he worked for, and how much it meant to him that every one of his six children earned a college degree.

    Mom told me a story that has always stuck with me, perhaps more than almost anything else she ever said.

    One summer she and Dad and the four older kids in the family (I and my younger sister not yet having made our appearance) went to Chicago for several weeks. Determined to make the most of this opportunity in the big city, every day she got on the city bus with the kids, a map, and plans for some cultural or educational destination.

    On one of these outings as she stood waiting at a corner for the light to change, a funny feeling crept over her. When she looked around to figure out why, she realized she was only the white adult in sight. The only other white people were her four children.

    This woman, born and raised in lily-white Lewiston, Idaho, could have told me about her anxiety, even fear, at these unfamiliar circumstances. What she told me, though, was this: “I realized this must be what it feels like to be in the minority.”

    As an adult I understand that in that moment she still carried with her all the advantages American society gives those who are white. She certainly spent the vast majority of her time in a world that didn’t expose her to that feeling, let alone cripple her access to what she wanted in life because of her skin color.

    But as a child, I heard her tell me that there was something wrong with our world if being a minority made you feel funny, feel different, feel left out.

    She reinforced this with other stories (quite a storyteller, my mom), like the one about a friend whose bitterest regret later in life was that he refused to attend his daughter’s wedding when she married a man from Hawaii who was of Japanese descent. Mom’s friend did this because of his experiences during World War II, but he came to appreciate his son-in-law and thanked him for being such a good husband. She credited him with overcoming his discrimination.

    Or the one about a white family in Lewiston whose son married an African woman he met while serving as a missionary, how wonderful Mom thought it was that the mother-in-law welcomed her new daughter-in-law with open arms, and how there were others in town who would not have done so. Her disapproval of those who would criticize or reject a loving couple was clear.

    Raised an Episcopalian and later a Lutheran, she didn’t bat an eye when one of my brothers married a Jewish woman from Brazil; rather, she read up on the significance of the bris ceremony her first grandson would have. She chose a formal departure from the Lutheran church because she couldn’t accept that being a good Muslim or follower of Australian aboriginal beliefs or anything else meant you couldn’t go to whatever reward might await after death, modeling religious openness and justice. I know this because she told us so--her values were there for me to learn from.

    When the message from your mom is that you’re lucky, you should use what you have to give back, lots of people are unfairly discriminated against for who and what they are and what they believe, and good people don’t do that, you grow up to be an advocate.

    And as soon as you bicycle on almost any street in the U.S., you become a bike advocate because you see how critical is that we change our streets so that everyone from age 8 to 80 can feel comfortable riding. Mom's dementia meant that she never really knew this became my job, but I know she'd approve.

    Related Reading

    Goodbye, Mom

    So strange, to feel sad and yet to find a bit of gladness at the same time.

    Last Saturday I took Eldest Daughter Kate to Lewiston for a visit with Mom. We arrived at the midday meal time. The first thing that struck me as I walked in and looked across the room was how very much she resembled her own mother, my Grandma Humphrey, with her hair now snow white.

    Mom slumped, birdlike or perhaps mouselike, at the dining room table, nibbling sporadically at half a roll smeared with jam. A full plate—chicken drumstick, roasted baby red potatoes, steamed orange and yellow carrots—had been pushed aside, as had small plastic glasses of water and pink lemonade.

    As always, she brightened when we greeted her but didn’t really know who we were. We settled in, one on either side of her, resting our hands on her shoulders and talking gently. At one point she laughed merrily, sounding so much like her old self that I put my head down and cried.

    Kate encouraged her to eat some of her other foods but Mom wasn’t interested. She finished the roll—a 40-minute task after we arrived plus who knows how long before we got there to eat the first half.

    For some time Mom’s speech has been a garbled mix of English and Klingon (or perhaps something less guttural than Klingon). She’ll start a sentence with a few words of English and segue without a hiccup into a waterfall of speechlike sounds: all the intonations and accompanying facial expressions of a sentence and none of the meaning.

    We’ve learned to respond to her tone of voice and non-verbal language for an interaction that seems to satisfy her. Amazing how far an “Oh, really?” or “I see what you mean” can carry a “conversation.”

    She came across loud and clear with “Don’t push me!” as Kate and I tried to maneuver her from dining room chair to walker to upholstered chair in the main seating area. That made us laugh because she communicated quite clearly in that moment.

    With the aide’s help we got there at last and nestled in, talking and giving her some loving human touch with pats and hugs. She told us quite a bit, most of it in words we couldn't understand.

    But at one point she said "Jan," my older sister's name, very clearly in the middle of a sentence. We loved hearing that because Jan has been the one on the front lines with both Dad and Mom for at least a decade and it felt as if this still registered with Mom. She also said "Bill" a couple of times--my dad's name and we think she meant him, in whatever mash-up she was sharing.

    At one point Kate, trying to reach Mom with who we were, leaned in and said, “This is your daughter, Barb—Barbara,” pointing to me, “and I’m her daughter, your granddaughter.”

    Mom looked right at me and said quite clearly, “You have the world. Bless you! You’re mine.” I burst into tears. It felt so strange and wonderful to have her say something that made some kind of sense. When she said, “You have the world. Bless you!” I felt as if she were responding to Kate’s identification of herself as my daughter because all Mom’s life being a wife and mother meant more than anything to her. “You’re mine” meant she knew I was her daughter.

    I don’t know if any of that is true. Life is what you make of it and that will be my truth for this visit.

    We hugged and kissed Mom and told her we love her, then headed back to Spokane.

    There I helped Kate move and did a thousand other things for the next 3 days: worked on presentations for the conference I was to attend later in the week, rode my bike officially and unofficially, went to meetings and events, smelled the lilacs in Manito Park, ate ice cream at The Scoop, spent time with friends, and drove back across the state to Grand Mound, near Olympia.

    All of this hurly-burly explains why I didn’t look at personal email until late Tuesday night. That’s when I discovered that Sunday night Mom’s hip broke and she fell. She was in the hospital and failing fast.

    Operating on a 92-year-old woman with dementia who’s on blood thinners and who doesn’t understand what’s happening didn’t make sense.

    We were waiting for the end and she would spend the rest of her life—however long it lasted—in bed on pain medication. I felt angry that we treat our animals better than we treat humans when it comes to the end of life.

    Wednesday morning my brother Don called, sobbing, to tell me she had died peacefully in her sleep during the night. I called my younger sister and couldn’t reach her so I had to leave a message. There’s no harder voice mail to leave in the world but who would want to learn this from an email rather than a human voice? I knew we’d start planning the service via email and she would see that; with 6 siblings we carry on a lot of family business that way.

    I’m so sad. I’m sad that my parents didn’t have the old age they deserved. I’m sad that Dad lost his loving companion of so many years and had only her shell there with him. I’m sad that when he died just after Thanksgiving in 2012 we couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t understand, if she did it would cause her pain, and then she would forget but have a lingering sadness, so why do that to her?

    I’m sad that a woman who was a storyteller all her life and kept all the family memories in circulation had to lose her memory. I’m sad that the woman who made sure she never missed a birthday card to anyone couldn’t tell you how old she was or how many children she had. I’m sad that she suffered pain and had to go to the hospital.

    And yet I’m glad. I’m so glad that Kate and I had that last sweet visit. I’m glad Mom laughed and that my laugh sounds a lot like hers. I’m glad we hugged her and kissed her and told her we love her. I’m glad Mom spoke so clearly and said something I can treasure. I’m glad that at the end she didn’t have to suffer long and she went to sleep.

    My older sister Jan wrote a beautiful obituary that tells you more about her life.

    Goodbye, Mom.