With Strings Attached

September 3, 2009

I watched a movie years ago that made fun of one of the main characters’ unrealistic and flighty viewpoint in the following song lyrics:

“Be optimistic,

Don’t be a grumpy,

When the world gets lumpy

Just smile, smile, smile and be happy…”

Of course, this was not done in a flattering way. Adele August, played by Susan Sarandon, never acknowledged what was really going on in her life, choosing to only pay attention to the things that she liked instead.

Some people view any optimistic viewpoint in this same light. I’ve heard it said that an optimistic viewpoint means that you aren’t paying enough attention, or that you are not facing the real facts.

However, I do not believe that this pessimistic “gloom and doom” viewpoint is any less skewed. It has long been one of my mottoes that at any moment, any of us can look around at our life and find just as many things to be happy about and grateful for as the opposite.  Our outlook, mood, and level of happiness simply depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

Of course, this is not to say that bad news should not be paid attention to. Rather, it should immediately be dealt with so as not to hold a raincloud over our heads. Indeed, a Chinese study* released this month found that people react to daily stresses more effectively when they hold an optimistic world view. So if you choose to harp on that which you are happy and excited about rather than choosing to continually remind yourself of the bad things that could happen, it seems like when those bad things do happen every now and then, they are better handled.

It seems to me that those of us who believe that if we don’t always remind ourselves of the worst case scenarios in order to “be prepared” for them should try to take a more positive approach, for just the same reason.

Funnily enough, both optimists and pessimists believe that the future will be better than the present**. Optimists may simply see things as getting better and better over time, and pessimists may assume that since today is bad, tomorrow must be better.

The difference from here may be whether tomorrow actually does get better. Since today’s tomorrows inevitably become todays themselves, someone who sees their current environment as a more positive place may come out ahead after all.

With this in mind, try for the next few days to look at your current environment and spend more time thinking about the things you like than the things you don’t. What will you remember in the years to come? What will you miss?

(this article has been a weekly pick-me-up, courtesy of A Luminous Life)

*(2009). Dispositional optimism buffers the impact of daily hassles on mental health in Chinese adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(4), 247-249.

**Busseri, M., Choma, B., Sadava, S. (2009). “As good as it gets” or “The best is yet to come”? How optimists and pessimists view their past, present, and anticipated future life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(4), 352-356.


The Luckiest

August 24, 2009

This post will be a departure from my ordinary pick-me-ups, courtesy of A Luminous Life. It is an edited excerpt from my personal daily writings, and it is posted here as per a suggestion from my mentor (his blog can be found here).

August 21, 2009 (Friday)

Earlier in the week Terry suggested that we go have a picnic on the beach. We’d been talking about how, since our moving day will creep up on us we’re sure, we should start enjoying the things that we’ll miss after they aren’t available anymore. The biggest one? The beach, of course.

Yesterday was a rough and tumble day at work, but a good one because I won’t be going to that building for a week because of my ITP doctoral seminar next week. T called me in the afternoon and said that, in order to get all of the things done last night that we needed to, we should go to the beach first, relax and enjoy it (considering that beaches will be a memory in a scant few months from now), then come back and get to work packing and doing other “need to’s”.

When I got home my mostly unused wicker picnic basket was sitting open on the dining table, already holding wine, olive oil, and some chocolate-covered blueberries. Bread was warming in the oven, and as it did, Terry finished filling the basket and M and I chatted at the table about some of her career thoughts and planning. She doesn’t know what she wants to do, but she’s seen as one of the employees with the most potential by her superiors in the company. Naturally it’s a complicated situation for her. I got a little worried because I knew that this was a conversation that had the potential to go all night and I’d really been looking forward to the beach, but during a moment where she’d left the room T assured me (in a quiet, subtle way) that once everything was ready, we’d go.

Eventually, we did go. We loaded up the car and drove down to the beach. We couldn’t decide where to park – did we want a nice walk, or the convenience of being close? There was also an issue of whether there would even be any parking spots near the beach. It’s a no-go on the weekends, but a Thursday evening might have been okay. We ended up taking a chance and voting for convenience – and we found a great spot just a couple of blocks away from the shoreline.
As we strolled down to the sand and started across, I thought about the maybe as I tried to stay above the dunes (I’m at my most clumsy on sand).

I thought that now would be a good time for him to propose, then as soon as the thought appeared in my mind I nipped it right in the bud.

“Charis, don’t think about that. How much of an ass will you feel like if he doesn’t do it? Then you will have spoiled an amazing night. And if he does, you’ll have ruined the surprise! So quit it.” And I did, sort of.

We sat on a deserted stretch that T decided upon and cracked open our wine. We sipped it out of red plastic cups while we watched the water and other beach-goers. There was a big group running in one direction, then back swimming in the other. Lifeguard training perhaps? Those guys have to be really strong, we agreed as we exchanged stories of lifeguards we’d known – me a friend in graduate school, him a college summer’s girlfriend. We saw a great big pelican torpedo into the water, and talked about the possible evolution of fish and amphibians.

It was windy and getting chillier by the moment. As a response to my nearly uncontrollable shivering (I didn’t mind, I’m used to it), T suggested that I sit with my back to him and we pull a blanket up over our laps. We had finished eating by then so I happily obliged, and as I cuddled back against  his chest, enjoying the gorgeous almost-sunset view and cozily protected from the winds, I thought that this was one of those “perfect moments.” I was simply and perfectly happy, and perfectly calm. Sadly, I don’t feel like that all too often these days, what with moving and planning and new-business-starting-stresses, so when I do feel that tranquility it’s all the more precious. I told T about it and he said he was glad. I felt his voice rumbling against my cheek.

The sun was still awhile from touching the surface of the water, but T suggested that we stay until sunset. “We might as well.” I agreed.

I again thought, maybe? and then shushed myself. Ok, maybe. It does seem like that (especially the second time he said, with a twinkle in his eye, that we should stay until sunset), but again, don’t spoil it either way. Just go with it.
So we chatted and I relaxed and he asked me if I wanted to go to a David Gray concert, which he texted B about a couple of times. A few minutes after a text from B came in, saying that the tickets go on sale Sunday, I was still relaxing against T’s chest, both of us gazing out over the water.

I heard music.

Was it Terry’s phone?

But it was coming from behind and to the left. I went to turn around, but found that T was holding me and keeping me from turning. I could barely see the top of our buddy James’ head behind T.


Then Terry started to sing, and everyone walked forward. Brian was playing the guitar, James was videotaping, and M was snapping pictures.


Terry was singing this to me:

What if I’d been born fifty years before you
In a house on a street where you lived?
Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike
Would I know?

And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it everyday
And I know

I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you

Next door there’s an old man who lived to his nineties
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife; she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away

I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong
That I know

That I am
I am
I am
The luckiest


The song is by Ben Folds, and I’d never heard it before. My mind was screaming. It was happening! Oh shit! Right now, it was actually happening! Focus! Quit thinking about it and experience it, you’ll miss it! What is he saying? Oh that’s so sweet. (starting to cry) (Terry starts to cry, misses a line, we both laugh) Is this real? It is real and I can’t believe it, but it’s happening. He’s asking me, right now.

During the last lines of the song he pushed me up onto my knees and he rested on one of his. He pulled a black box out of a pocket and opened it, whispering “will you marry me?”

I nodded. I always see people in movies and on TV speechless at this moment and think how silly it is, and how they should have something better to say, but all I came out with was a soft “of course,” and an ear-to-ear smile. I guess I’m one of those silly people now.


So he put it on my finger and we stood up and hugged and spun around in circles and I screamed and we popped champagne then all came back to the house and celebrated.


And this morning I couldn’t sleep so I was up for an hour before I got out of bed, which was still before I’m awake on other days. And the gleaming and twinkling from my finger keeps catching my eye, and I’m truly happy. This is somewhere I’ve never been before, and I like it. I love it. And I’m the luckiest.


Pockets of Paradise

August 21, 2009

Last week this blog’s charge to was to pay attention to the thoughts that we are having. At least in my case, every moment of the day is taken up by some sort of mental ramblings. Plans are contemplated and decided upon about the future, both far (“I should start Christmas shopping soon…”) and near (“What will I have for dinner tonight?”). I think about what I encounter in each moment, for instance, by noting the temperature of the air (only if it is uncomfortably too warm or cool, of course), and thinking about interactions with others that I have just had, am now having, or will have. There is always something turning and churning up there, and my favorite thoughts have to do with noticing beauty when I pass by a flower garden or a happy child. Sometimes I think about how I would photograph the beauty that I am observing, and sometimes it serves as a catalyst for more expansive and creative thoughts.

As for the hall-monitoring goal of last week, the first thing I noticed was that many of my current thoughts are tinged with worry. This can easily be explained by the fact that I am about to make a cross-country move. Be that as it may, I was not happy to discover that, rather than the peaceful and smooth way of thinking that I have been used to in the past, the landscape of my mind is now more jagged and anxious.

I think that, judging by the current economic crisis and political strife in our nation, my sub-par mental mood is probably common among others.

This begs the question of how to change it. If an optimally functioning mind is calm and happy, as many believe it is, what is a method to get a frazzled, anxious mind closer to the calm and happy camp?

Gratitude might seem like a cheesy or insubstantial way to alter our mind-moods, but it doesn’t have to be. It has been discovered that what people actually define the term “gratitude” to mean is as varied as the individuals describing it**. However, there is a common thread that runs through these diverse definitions, and perhaps it is that thread that has been shown to stick around, once it has been fortified by the conscious practice of repetitive gratitude, in one particular study’s case, by writing a letter to a loved one, with a goal of only writing about things in one’s life that he or she was grateful for*.

One of the keys to changing our mental moods by using gratitude may be to encourage the feeling. This can be done by taking our joyful moments – more specifically, the mundane and everyday joyful moments that we usually forget about within two minutes – and really focusing on them. They can be thought of as “Pockets of Paradise,” as Ardath Rodale*** describes in this article:

FOR MANY OF US, our days seem to be filled with e-mails, meetings, and planning, but do you ever stop to think of the daily joys that we might take for granted? I like to think of them as pocket gifts. Haven’t we all felt the delightful “Aha!” of reaching into our pockets and unexpectedly discovering money, a lost piece of jewelry, a feather, or a long misplaced note? With each new surprise comes reminiscence. I think of all these surprises that in our rush through life we often overlook, and I collect them in my thoughts under the label Paradise, which the dictionary defines as “exhilarated joy, a state of bliss or delight.”

Pocket experiences are special discoveries waiting to be revealed. On an early morning walk as the sun is beginning to rise, you can feel the exhilaration of life as you hear the singing birds. You may smell freshly cut grass or stop to look deep inside an open flower to discover the multitude of colors and textures that make up a single flower petal. You may witness a beautiful dragonfly, with its transparent wings, gracefully flitting from one perch to another. Also, the sky is the most fantastic show on Earth and is given freely to each of us.

What bits of paradise have you collected in your remembrance pocket to carry with you today? As you empty its contents at day’s end, realize all the special treasures that you have discovered and are yours to keep. Transfer those discoveries with love into the pocket of your heart.

Appreciate all the good things that have happened, and take the time to let your imagination and wonder soar with the joy of each discovery. And please take time to look around at all the beauty and peace nature can offer. I love life!


In closing, for this week, the goal is to focus on gratitude. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that while it begins as a difficult practice, the ease of finding things to be grateful for snowballs quite quickly. Try it, and leave a comment saying how it goes!

(this article has been a weekly pick-me-up, courtesy of A Luminous Life)

*Froh, J., Kashdan, T., Ozimkowski, K., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 408-422.

**Lambert, N. (2009). A Prototype Analysis of Gratitude: Varieties of Gratitude Experiences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(9), 1193-1207.

***Rodale, A. (2009). Pockets of Paradise. Prevention, 61(7), 144.

Stuck on Roller Coasters

August 11, 2009

This Monday, 24 people were stuck on a roller coaster at the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, California. The ride malfunctioned at about 1:00pm, leaving the passengers sitting on an incline, 80 feet up in the air. It was a sunny and warm day, and the riders waited, the children on the ride kicking their feet, until authorities came from the surrounding cities and rescued them all, one by one, using an aerial ladder. The last passenger touched down at 6:00pm.

Five hours, sitting on a roller coaster. My first impression when I heard a snippet of what was going on was worry. “Passengers stuck on roller coaster!” the headlines said. “On an incline, 80 feet up!” I think I even heard that they were upside-down. That was the kicker for me, as I thought about the uncomfortable pressure that built when I used to hang upside down, for even a moment, on the jungle gym at my elementary school playground.

However, it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad, now that everyone is officially safe and sound. There were no injuries, and judging by the pictures I’ve seen here and there across the internet, the passengers stuck on the roller coaster (the “Invertigo”, to be precise) did not even seem very irritated at their five hour delay. Water bottles had been passed up to them because of the warm sun’s threat to cause dehydration, and all appropriate safety measures were taken when getting them down.

Actually, I can’t help but wonder if the people stuck on the Invertigo went home happier and healthier than other park goers that day. I can’t help think of the dehydration, sun sickness, and sore bellies from too much funnel cake that accompanied me home whenever I went to any amusement parks as a child, and I wonder who got the better end of the deal. The fact that all of those customers must have gotten significant “we’re sorry” perks from the park’s powers-that-be after the incident also helps to weight the cost-benefit scale towards the good in my reckoning, but since no real report has come out about this part, I can only offer up conjecture.

Being stuck on a roller coaster strikes me as a funny metaphor for life. You stand in line, wait, get excited, and then, once you’re up there, not everything goes according to plan. When there are big hiccups, like Invertigo’s malfunction, it often looks worse to those peering in from the outside than it is in reality.

All my life I’ve been struck with the anti-climactic nature of the peaks and valleys of life. Time and again I’ve worked tirelessly for a goal, building it  up as this huge accomplishment that will transform my world so that my life is wonderful, bad moods or bad days don’t exist, everyone is always sweet and flowers fall from the sky. Obviously this isn’t the way that things happen, and in my late teens I started to notice the pattern. You work hard and build something up, and you achieve what you set out to do. It’s nice, but you look around and see that you’re still here, things still happen, maybe someone hands you a bottle of water, and you go home and to bed.

It seems that perhaps life can always be mundane, no matter what happens.

But if that is the fact of it, can’t life always be wonderful too, no matter what happens?

Studies have been shown that mood affects your view of the future – that the better your mood, the more positive options you see available to you, and vice versa.* If you see positive options and choose one, then that positive future leads to more, and on and on, the future can, theoretically, be a bright and surprisingly happy place. But the same is true for the other side of the coin too. It seems that we are all always standing on the slope of a mountain, with an option to climb or descend, depending on our internal state.

Choosing to put a positive spin on things as they stand may affect more than our facial muscles.

So, with this in mind, perhaps a good practice for this week will be to put on the badge of “hall monitor” for the corridors of your mind. Take one day, and pay attention to your thoughts. Are they mostly excited? Glum? Pessimistic? Hopeful? Don’t try to change them yet (that’s for next week), just notice. Eventually perhaps we’ll all be sipping our cool water and admiring the birdsong 80 feet up while we’re stuck on our roller coasters, rather than bemoaning the lost funnel cake bellyaches that we’d be getting on the ground. Can’t hurt to try!

(this article has been a weekly pick-me-up, courtesy of A Luminous Life.)

*Winkelmann, R. (2009). Unemployment, Social Capital, and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies. 10 (4), 421-430.

And so the Luminous Blog Begins

July 30, 2009

Welcome to the blog for A Luminous Life!

Because the goal of A Luminous Life is to help provide both inspiration and instruction for making each life a joy to live, this blog will be a place to come if you are looking for a little pick-me-up.

The subjects may vary, but the mission is always the same: to appreciate the sweetness in life, even when (and especially when) it may be hard to see.

So again, welcome! And today’s short reminder is to live in the moment. Notice the surfaces beneath your fingertips, feel your feet firmly on the ground, look around with fresh eyes and know what it’s like to be where you are, right now. In one, ten, twenty years from now, what will you remember from right now? What will you want to remember?

Focus on those things and you will notice that, inch by inch, you’ll start to be aware of a sweetness all the time that you only have glimpses of now.

The Dalai Llama says that in order to know happiness, you must practice happiness. Practice. That means to try to feel it even when you don’t have an external influence, telling you that you should be happy.

So try it, just for today. What are the important things, the things beneath the surface, that you feel grateful for every now and then, but are always around? If you were to lose everything tomorrow, what would you miss the most? Value it today.

Today’s quote:

“Love the moment, and the energy of that moment will spread beyond all boundaries.”

~Corita Kent