A lot of jokes about happiness are mean. For example, an anonymous post on an Internet joke site says, “What ‘s the difference between a Dementor and marriage? One will suck out every good feeling, every happy memory and drain the remaining peace, hope, and happiness left inside you. The other is a dark creature from a children’s fantasy novel.”

And that’s one of the less cringe-inducing ones.

There’s irony in operation here because many of the subjects that get mocked most – male/female relations, marriage, child-rearing, social participation – are elements of life that have been proven to promote happiness and well-being.

Perhaps “happiness” is an obvious victim for this sort of thing because it sounds so kittens and rainbows. Plus, we might live in a self-help culture, but many of us still feel a little squeamish when it comes to talking about emotional topics. It’s awfully earnest. And, even if you get past that, it can still seem uncomfortably narcissistic. I’ve worried about that very thing in an earlier blog.

But there’s an interesting organization called Action for Happiness that’s trying to change this perspective. AFH is ambitious. Their goal is to create happier societies. Practically this means achieving a whole number of secondary goals: shifting the tone of public discourse, overturning our assumption that we should measure citizens’ progress and well-being by GDP, sifting through insights from fields as diverse as economics and psychology to put together broad patterns of understanding, disseminating information about happiness, and nudging public policy in directions that have been proven to promote happiness and well-being.

The people behind AFH are no self-styled prophets or happy-clappy, bead-wearing hippies. The movement was founded in 2010 by Richard Layard, a Labour peer and professor of economics at the LSE, Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of The Young Foundation, and Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, an independent boarding and day school in the UK.  Each is a leader in their field, well-poised to influence public debate. If you will, they are the Establishment, albeit a progressive side of it.

The ethos on the AFH website is that we can cultivate happiness through action. Indeed, at several points on the site, the quote the Dalai Lama saying, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” To that end, the website features resources designed to motivate people to do things to boost their happiness. For example, visitors can download a “Happiness Action Pack” created to put “the science of well-being into practice.” This action pack condenses insights from positive psychology into ten areas in our lives in which we can do things to boost our happiness. The first five relate to how we engage with our bodies and the world. It includes things like giving, connecting to other people and exercising. The second five relate more to managing our outlook and emotions, which includes setting goals, being positive and accepting oneself.

Perhaps because of the apparent simplicity of these messages, combined with the fact that one could imagine seeing this sort of thing in some of the fluffier women’s magazines, critics have suggested that AFH’s approach is facile. Writing in The Guardian last year, David Harper, a Reader in Clinical Psychology at the University of East London, said that AFH’s approach is “based on two flawed assumptions: that the source of unhappiness lies in people’s heads – in how they see the world, and that the solution lies in change at the level of the individual.”

To be sure, this line of thinking exists in AFH and in the wider world. It’s even got quite a pedigree. The Stoics said something along these lines. Buddhism does too. WB Yeats wrote that the soul is “self-delighting, self-appeasing and self-affrighting.”  And, thanks to YouTube, we’ve recently seen a surge in attention for David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech, “This is Water,” in which he urges graduates to take the opportunity to choose what they think about in order to transcend the boring, crushing or soulless moments of our lives.

This perspective probably has endured for some thousands of years because there’s some truth in it.

But it’s not the whole truth. For, while we do have remarkable abilities to school our minds, hearts and bodies to cultivate behaviors that help us cope with suffering and embrace happiness, of course the external world has an impact on us.

And this is where AFH’s critics aren’t quite being fair. In fact, AFH’s work is so interesting precisely because they acknowledge both sides of the coin. They seem a lot less interested in pushing all the responsibility either to society or the individual, and a lot more focused on simply seeing how the science of happiness tallies up and what we can actually do about it.

Some of the action does need to come from industry and government: no question. People are happier when they’re valued, so dehumanizing work processes are going to foment unhappiness. People feel happier when they live in clean and secure environments, so public policy that allows environmental degradation is going to spread misery. But even here we’re theoretically not entirely subject to the whims of state, at least, not in democracies. We can vote. We can create campaigns. We can create art. We can write stories. We can find ways to enter the public debate and try to influence happiness-promoting practices and policies.

But perhaps one of the most interesting spheres for action that AFH talks about is that which lies right at the meeting point of the individual and his or her community. It’s not policy, it’s not just positive thinking…it’s the stuff we do daily as we interact with the people around us. In an interview for the digital commons site openDemocracy, Geoff Mulgan alludes to the idea that engagement spurs well-being.* And the actions that AFH’s website encourage include examples of these small-scale but meaningful points of engagement: between parents and children, people and their workplaces and people and their communities. Just to take one example, they suggest volunteering. They cite the science that shows how volunteering boosts happiness and they provide a whole heap of resources to get people going. It’s not that sexy, but it’s right.

Mean humour, alas, might provoke a wry smile, but it doesn’t promote happiness. But connection and engagement do. And if Action for Happiness is as successful as they deserve to be, we’ll all be feeling the positive effects of their efforts.

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* I am taking a few liberties with Mulgan’s extremely interesting interview here, but I think this is very much in the spirit of what he says.

Dan Buettner is the New York Times best-selling author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (with a terrific second edition just out) and Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.

He is one of those rare people who is simultaneously a reflective thinker and a super-charged ball of positive energy. A National Geographic Fellow, he’s thought hard about, and traveled the world to explore, questions that matter to all of us. Are there genuine secrets to living longer, healthier lives? And can we foster happiness and well-being? He’s sought to answer these questions by examining the behaviors and lifeways of people in “Blue Zones”, that is, exceptional pockets of the world where, statistically, people live the longest or report greater life satisfaction than the average.

Recently, Dan was good enough to speak with me about his work, and the lessons we can extract from it to think about what really matters in creating a good life. While the whole conversation was fascinating, I thought I’d post one of the segments that I found most compelling, where Dan talks about the choices we can make to promote well-being in our own lives, and the importance of cultivating belonging.

LMR: What do you see as the fundamental relationship between health and happiness?

DB: Happiness is worth about 8 years of additional life expectancy. There are a few behaviors that contribute to both. For example, we know that the happiest Americans are socializing six hours a day. We also know that loneliness takes years off your life. Loneliness is as bad for you as a smoking habit. So by proactively going out and surrounding yourself with healthy friends, it’s not only going to make you healthier – because health is a positive contagion – it’s also likely to make you happier.

And also physical fitness. Going out and taking a walk. It triggers endorphins. It makes you feel good. But we also know that walking is associated with anywhere from 4-6 extra years of life expectancy.

I didn’t set out to find these things, but both books were kind of worldwide meta-analyses of populations who are the paragons of happiness and longevity. So I tried to get all the data in the world and find the best. And then distill down what they do. And if you boil down longevity, and you boil down happiness, and you overlay them, you see about an 80% overlap.

LMR: Do you feel, when you see that overlap, you’re seeing something about what it means to be human?

DB: I see the overlap of what it takes to have a rich life. What it means to be human is to procreate, from a strictly evolutionary point of view.

LMR:  So when I hear your stories, I wonder if they’re telling us something about the nature of our humanity. The kinds of things are so deeply or necessary to us they tell us something about our nature or being?

DB: One easy answer is socializing. We’ve succeeded as a species because somewhere along the evolutionary arc, we’ve figured out that collaborating increases our chance of survival. And, like so many things, when you satisfy that thing that increases our chances of survival, our bodies are hardwired to reward us. When you’re thirsty and we drink, it feels good. When you’re hungry and you eat, it feels good. When you’re horny and you have sex, it feels good. And these are all things that make it more likely that we’ll have kids. I think it’s this reward loop. Well, the same thing with socializing. We cooperate. When you look at the Blue Zones around the world, they typically are in pretty harsh environments. And the reason they survived is because they cooperate. You look at the Sardinian shepherds, for example. They don’t even all own their own parcel of land. But they live in tiny villages and they get together. So, when it comes to our humanity where…it’s realizing that there is a genetic satisfaction that comes from good social connections. And we should always favour that over consumption.

LMR: When you were in doing research…this is primarily directed at the longevity populations, did the people you were talking to ever have an articulation of the good life the way we would use it? Was there a sense of what life was all about that they collectively shared?

DB: Yeah, I think it’s a profound sense of belonging to where they came from. And if you look at the Sardinians, life is about my kids. I work, not to get ahead in the world, not to buy a second vacation home, not to have a nicer car. I don’t…if I have free time, it’s never at the expense of my family. And we heard this over and over. I don’t have massive data, other than…I have an N of about 50 people. And you saw the emphasis of the family among those populations.

LMR: Interesting. The sense of…going back to what you said about having a profound sense of belonging to where they came from…do you mean from within a familial lineage, or also within a cultural or even an environmental, like a connection to place?

DB: The latter. In other words, they weren’t just rebels without a cause. They’re not the type of people who bounce through life, move around. They’re planted.

LMR: I also wondered if you think that not having an icki gai [a purpose in life] can cause people pain? And I ask that because clearly having one is the presence of a positive, so is not having one just the absence of that positive, or is it the presence of a negative? Do people wind up feeling…I mean, I guess this is just going into hypothesis-land, but more lost, or feeling like there’s something absent in their life that causes them pain?

DB: Yeah, I think there’s an existential pain in that unrootedness.

LMR: And, with the work that you’re doing with the Blue Zones communities [“a systems approach that brings together the citizens, businesses and institutions of a given community to foster well-being”], are you saying that we can self-consciously create some of these things?

DB: Yes. First of all, you can choose where you move and I think that’s…people dismiss that. “Oh…I’m not going to move.” Well, the average American, and probably the average Canadian, moves ten times in a lifetime. So you can choose to live out in some culturally barren suburb, or you can find a neighborhood where neighbors know each other and there are parks and playgrounds full of people. And a place where you’re going to be nudged into social…you can walk down to a café, or a store…. That’s going to have a bigger impact on your happiness, and I argue your longevity, than just about anything else you can do. So, OK, well, what else? All right, your husband lives in a suburb and he ain’t moving. The next line of proactivity you can pursue is finding…build your own social network. You don’t have to hang out with the toxic woman who bitches about her life, or the friend that sits and watches reruns of Gossip Girls all day long and drinks Diet Coke. We can all create our own social networks and support that give energy to the positive.

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After watching my four year old son attack his great-uncle the other day, then play tag on the lawn with his twenty-something cousin, I thought about writing a short blog on why connecting across different generations might be part of the new good life.

But then there was the episode with the flamingoes.

And I realized that I was observing something in the children that was equally true for all of us.

We were at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota. Jungle Gardens is a sort of glorified petting zoo for alligators and the like. They have this shtick going where you can buy food for the flock of flamingos that live by a pond on site. Up close, flamingoes are really rather wonderful creatures. They’re a gorgeous shade of pink, with black feathers underneath their wings like some sort of haute couture inspired fashion accent. They have long, bendy necks that they contort into improbable twists and loops when they tuck their heads into their wings to sleep. But they’re also kind of goofy: they have big beaks, beady eyes and they honk when they call.

We did a first pass round to feed the flamingoes (going past, I might add, the religiously-inspired “Garden of Christ”… “Well,” my daughter Mira said when we’d passed it, “that was unexpected”) but the flamingoes were arranged around their pond, fast asleep. Despite Jamie’s enthusiastic calling (he’s four), they just ignored us and snoozed on. We admired them for a while, including their ability to sleep whilst standing on one foot, then gave up and went to see the reptile show.

Half an hour later, we returned and found the flamingoes just waking up. At least their leader was, and his cross-sounding honks roused them all. Whether it was too early, or that they were simply overfed, they didn’t seem interested in our food. But Jamie was unwilling to give up and, quivering with excitement, he stood there with his hand outstretched. Finally, a haughty looking flamingo strutted (there’s no other word for it) over, turned his head, and peered at Jamie out of one eye. Jamie cooed at it, and it finally disdained to nibble some of the food from his hand. The bird, which easily bigger than he was, was surprisingly gentle as it picked at its little pellets. Jamie almost levitated with delight. I don’t know if the flamingo got much out of it, but for Jamie, it was clearly meant a lot to be touching (or rather touched by) something so wonderful and alien.

It would be reasonable to wonder what playing with extended family and feeding flamingoes have in common.

I think it’s the sense of being fully in one’s body and connecting to other things through one’s body. Florida was beautiful, and it was fun to be on spring break. But it was also striking that we were all so physical. Not just active, but moving through the world in a way that connected us to other things, especially each other and the natural world. We walked at the shoreline, put our hands and feet in the same water in which we’d seen dolphins swimming, played with each other, fed the flamingoes and dug in the sand. By contrast, in our normal life, we spend an awful lot of time in cars and at desks and computers.

For sure there’s a “what I did on holiday” aspect to this observation. But the holiday was really just the opportunity to see the larger point. Our bodies are the fundamental vehicle through which we connect with the world. The people, animals and things we touch; the elements in which we immerse ourselves; the food we eat…these are the things that reveal the world to us. And through the plain and fundamental action of touch, we understand – in the truest way possible – that we’re connected to the world.

Jamie and the Flamingo

I’ve never really understood the compulsion to climb a mountain just because “it’s there”, but I’ve always had a soft spot for explorers. The drive to discover, sometimes at great risk, is a phenomenal human trait. We might now cringe at the colonial implications of early European exploration, but there’s no denying the awesome human spirit at work in someone like a Captain Cook, or a Burton and Speke.

Which is precisely why I love pianist Dotan Negrin’s work. Negrin is not just a musician, and a fine one at that. He’s an explorer in the truest sense of the word. His goal is to explore the power music has to connect people. And his means for doing so isn’t just a jam session in his basement or his local bar, or in the comparative safety of a conservatory classroom. Like so many great explorers before him, he’s taken his quest on the road.

His first project was Piano Across America, in 2011. Negrin emptied his savings account, bought a sturdy upright piano and a sturdier truck, and took off across America with his piano – and his dog, Brando, who has a habit of perching on top of the piano like a furry masthead, and is unfortunately occasionally prone to motion sickness. Negrin traveled over 15,000 miles and played on the streets of 32 cities and 8 National Parks. His website chronicles his adventures: the wild beauty of playing in the parks, impromptu dance parties on the streets of New Mexico, jamming with – and getting robbed by – an Oxycontin addict. But it wasn’t for the sheer wild ride of it all, or for some journey of self-discovery. It was to show that, in the words of famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, music “quickens” people. It brings them to life. And it can knit them together in a shared experience.

You can feel this power if you listen to some of the music he’s posted on his website. Go to his website and listen to him teasing out the blues from his piano, or creating impromptu jazz sessions with friends and strangers, or inspiring a bunch of Hasidic men to dance in circle around his piano in New York City. And listen to him absorbing the arrival of an entire marching band led by a bridal couple on the streets of New Orleans. If you can watch that clip without smiling, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Negrin’s latest project, which just got funding through Kickstarter earlier this week, is Language of the Universe. His plan is to drive from New York City to Panama with his piano and Brando in order to document the importance of music in peoples’ lives. I’m not quite sure what it would be like to drive a piano through Central America…in fact, I don’t think anyone could be. As far as anyone knows, it’s never been done before.

The project’s title sums up Negrin’s feeling about why music is such a great connector. As he put it to me, music connects because it’s in many ways a “universal language”. While he hastily added that he’s not the first person to say that, he’s actually seen what that means when he’s played on the streets of America:

“Everyone can feel a piece of music. You see how people react every time they walk by, even just for a second. Almost every person has a smile on their face. They brighten up a little, even if it’s just a little bit.

“I think when I play piano on the street, it becomes this ice breaker. Like there was this one time I was playing and I had this nice little crowd of seven or eight people surrounding me, and five or six of them were there for something like two hours. Just hanging out and talking and listening to music. And I would tell them how I practice and play.

“And what’s interesting is that I talk to people I’ve never met before. Total strangers. As if I’ve known them for years. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that I never have that opportunity unless I’m playing piano on the street. Like if I’m walking in New York on the street, I would never meet these people. I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t get that same opportunity without having the piano there. Without playing the piano.”

There are some fascinating studies (Negrin’s read them, I look forward to doing so) about how our brain processes music and why it affects us so strongly. And, as Negrin says, performing piano on the street (especially with a dog perched beside you) is a heck of a conversation starter. But I was lucky enough to have Negrin over for dinner last summer. We talked about music over gumbo and wine, and afterwards he played our piano and gave our daughter Mira a lesson in playing the blues scale.

I saw what the philosopher Albert Borgmann has written come to life in front of me. A skilled musician playing his instrument commands attention. A musical instrument is a wonderful thing in and of itself, something beautiful and redolent of human tradition. But in the hands of a good musician it reveals itself. Negrin made the playing look effortless, though I know from Mira’s own hours of beginner’s practice, it’s anything but. When Negrin played, the piano became something. Mira, playing alongside him, blossomed. And the rest of us were caught up too…we laughed, taped our feet any my three year old son jumped up and danced.

And one can see how Negrin’s power really would come to the fore in the public sphere. Borgmann writes about the power of street music – especially jazz – to create communities of celebration. His words might have been written directly for Negrin. While Borgmann notes that a “community” in this context as often as not is anonymous, and tends to form and dissolve quickly, it doesn’t need to be anything more than that to create something meaningful. “The bodily presence, the skill, the engagement, and the goodwill of the musicians radiate into the listeners and transform them to some degree.” And Borgmann adds that “Music as a celebration that is real all the way down will also sink its roots into the reality of the public space where it takes place. Celebration and place will inform one another.”

Piano Across America and The Language of the Universe are fantastic projects. It’s important for psychologists and neuroscientists to continue to study our relationship to music. But it’s equally important to have old fashioned explorers who hit the road in pursuit of a quest. Negrin’s mission, to explore the role of music in our lives and how it can connect one, is as emblematic of the new good life as anything I’ve seen. And by playing in the streets of North and South America, he’s not just studying the good life – he’s creating it.

Dotan Negrin and Brando: Piano Across AmericaImage courtesy of Dotan Negrin

Dotan Negrin and Brando: Piano Across America
Image courtesy of Dotan Negrin

Last week, Shena Hardin, a woman in Cleveland, Ohio, was convicted for dangerous driving after she was caught zooming up on to the sidewalk to avoid having to wait behind a school bus that was dropping off small children. Each aspect of this case, at least as it’s been reported on the news, is more astonishing than the last. First, the school bus driver caught the whole thing on video – you can actually see Hardin jump the curb and race along the sidewalk right where the children would get out. Second, Hardin apparently did this routinely – so routinely, the police were able to set up a sting operation to catch her in the act. Third, upon sentencing her, the municipal judge, apparently exasperated with conventional slap-on-the-wrist punishments of a short license suspension and $250 fine, also demanded that Hardin spend two mornings standing on the road wearing a sign on her that read, “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

Less than a week after reading about this case, I found myself in a surreal Harden-esque scenario. Yes, Virginia, these things can happen right on one’s own doorstep.

November 11th was not only Remembrance Day, it was also St. Martin’s Day. In many countries in Europe, St. Martin is honored for his kindness to the poor. According to Wikipedia, “the most famous legend of St. Martin’s life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying of the cold.” Celebrations in his honor share a lot in common with other autumnal festivals: St. Martin’s Day also marks the end of the harvest, Thanksgiving and readiness for the long, dark, cold winter ahead.

To celebrate St. Martin’s Day, children traditionally bundle up in warm clothes and take to the streets with pretty paper lanterns, which, like the Samhain bonfires or light as a symbol of Christ, represent the triumph of the human spirit over the powers of darkness. In a little parade, the children sing about the beauty of their lanterns and the beliefs they encapsulate.

My children’s school traditionally celebrates St. Martin’s Day. It’s a bit unusual given that we’re in Canada, but there’s a lot to like in this simple and spirit-affirming ritual, so I’m all for it. This past Sunday, pupils, parents and teachers collected on the street outside the school. The children were excited because they’d all made their own lanterns and there were sweets to look forward to after their walk. Plus – and best of all – we had a magnificent escort: two mounted police with big, glossy horses that the children could take turns patting.

The route we were taking was short, off the main roads, and all the neighbors on the street had been told about the walk in advance. Indeed, many of them came to their doors to watch us go by and wave and smile at us on our way.

Except for one woman. About 10 minutes into the walk, I became aware that a large Lincoln SUV was trying to nudge its way through the children. At first I thought nothing of it. I thought that perhaps the driver didn’t understand what was going on, had perhaps turned on to the street and was confused by all the people on the street. I waited for a moment to see if she would pull over, but she didn’t. In fact, she seemed to be trying to scatter the children out of her way, and she’d lunge forward whenever there was a little break in the collection of small figures in front of her.

Perplexed, I walked over the passenger side of the car so I could speak to her without being right in her face. “Excuse me,” I said. “Can you see there are children here? Perhaps you could pull over until everyone is out of the way.”

Instead of the light going on in her eyes (“Ah, yes. Children! That’s what these small creatures are!), she said, with no small degree of venom, “I live on this street. I need to get home.”

“Yes,” I said. “But right now there are all these children on the road. They’ll be turning on to another street in a moment.”

“No one told me about this,” she spat, as if that were reason to go plowing through children. “I need to get home. My husband has to go out.”

“The neighborhood was informed,” I said, now getting testy myself. “You’re really being very dangerous. Please pull over.”

At which point, things degenerated a bit. She told me (language warning!) to fuck off, another parent got quite angry at her, etc. We were at an impasse. Our police escort was too far ahead of us to reach easily, we couldn’t get her to pull over, so each parent just tried to keep the children out of her way until we did turn the corner and she was free to speed home to her waiting husband.

We all calmed down pretty quickly…it’s hard to stay angry when you’re with a bunch of sweet, bundled children singing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”. But the image of that woman’s big SUV and angry face stayed with me, merging into the seemingly unrepentant features of Shena Hardin.

I think there’s a lesson about the relationship between entitlement and the good life in all of this.

It’s best articulated by a question that a reporter threw at Hardin when she was in court. I only caught it quickly in the news coverage, but it was something like, “Why is your time more important than other peoples’ safety?”

Indeed. There’s a sense in both Hardin and Lincoln-woman’s exploits that their needs and wants are somehow more important than other peoples’, even if that actually endangers other people. It’s a pretty stark example of entitlement. We squawk a lot about “entitled” children these days, but I’m not sure that our kids have much on us when it comes to entitlement. We live in a world that encourages us to satisfy virtually all of our desires. Indeed, the ability to do so is pretty much how we’ve come to view the good life.

But that doesn’t necessarily lead us to the good life, to say the least. Though there no doubt always will be people who put their own wants first, to do so hardly creates the communities in which most of us want to live. Kindness, courtesy, reciprocity, and, yes, even patience, surely this is more of an articulation of the good life than shoving a Lincoln through a group of children, or jumping a sidewalk to pass a school bus?

I recognize that there’s a danger in sounding preachy in all of this. So, full disclosure, I’m a grumpy and impatient driver myself. My children have learned all sorts of awful words from me on our regular commutes. But the point is not that we need to strive to be saints and angels, so much as it is the small daily choices we make can grow our communities – and our own lives – in one direction or another.

Me, I’d like to sign up for a good life where no one has to be told that children are more important than cars.

One day after school when I was seven, I snuck the largest umbrella I could find out of our house and walked down to the beach. It was very windy. The tide was out, exposing the long stretch of wet, unruffled sand so characteristic of Crescent Beach. Beyond the tidal flat though, whitecaps chopped up the ocean farther out. I leant into the wind. It was strong enough to stop me from toppling over. Excellent! It seemed perfect for my plans.

I climbed up onto one of the wooden pillars that stuck up out of the sand (at the time I didn’t question why they were there…they were just a normal part of the landscape. In hindsight, I suspect they were part of a groyne to prevent erosion). Strong gusts of wind threatened to topple me over while I wrestled with the umbrella. Finally, I got it open and immediately felt the wind tug at it. Another promising sign. Heart pounding, wind rushing in my ears, I closed my eyes, counted to three and jumped.

And landed in a heap on the sand, of course.

I’d really thought I might fly. I’d never seen Mary Poppins (no DVDs in those days) but I was familiar with her iconic flying umbrella. It’s not that I thought I’d conjure magic exactly (although I might have hoped). Rather that I thought a skinny kid, a wide umbrella and a big wind might add up to success.

This story came to mind as I was reading Madeline Levine’s fascinating new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. I’d picked it up on the strength of a New York Times book review. Judith Warner’s insightful review described it thus:

Levine’s latest book is a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love     and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences, all of which she sees played out, day after day, in her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.”

Levine makes the case that we need to reframe success so that it’s less about impressive scores on standardized tests and more about developing character, integrity, problem-solving skills, empathy and kindness. Children equipped with these qualities, Levine argues, will have the real tools they need for engaged adult lives.

Levine’s perspective, developed (as Judith Warner points out) through her clinical and maternal experience, is an expression of our collective need to reinvent the good life. We’ll probably always strive for an ideal, but the character of that striving will be very different if we’re focusing on “connection and contentment” rather than material success.

But what’s so provocative about Levine’s book is the urgency of the task. Lest we think this is a purely philosophical quest, Levine provides case stories and statistics demonstrating the ways in which children’s lives have changed appreciably in the last couple of decades, and the impact this is having on them. For example, Levine reports that “…over the last twenty years, kids have lost close to two hours of play every day, most of that unstructured play.” That playtime has been replaced by extracurricular activities, tutoring, additional homework and screen time. Or it’s getting interfered with by anxious parents who fret about the harm children might come to if they’re not kept under constant supervision. And the impact, in Levine’s experience, is stressed out, exhausted, and perhaps worst of all, disenchanted kids.

Happily, Levine provides some practical strategies for creating alternatives. One of these (one dear to my own heart) is to ensure that children have more time to play and reflect. She suggests five simple things to foster play:

1)      Unplug their gazillions of devices

2)      Encourage them to play outside

3)      Avoid so-called “educational” toys

4)      Don’t over-program them

5)      Role-model the importance of play by playing ourselves (which has the added bonus of being good for us too)

Levine closes the book with the reminder that the “very things that promote your child’s well-being and happiness are the same things that will promote his or her success in the world.” It will take “courage” to change the status quo, she acknowledges, but not do so is “inexcusable”.

If I were eight-years-old now, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t make it out to the beach with that umbrella. I’d be at judo or playing Angry Birds or studying. Or perhaps an anxious caregiver would stop me from heading out the door, even if I’d been so inclined. What would the cost of that missed experience be? Perhaps nothing, or at least, only a girl’s memory of a beach, a windy day and a bit of folly. But maybe that day, and all the crazy adventures like it, taught me subtle things I’ll never be able to put my finger on. And maybe by not studying or earnestly developing myself or “killing” time, I also learned something about the value of time, enquiry and experience. Something about the good life. And something about, simply, being.

 

 

Over oysters on a Sunday morning in Manhattan, my friend “C” implores me to read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “you have to look at the idea of a calling and how it relates to the good life and there is no better meditation on having a calling than Kierkegaard’s work” he said. I downed my nice little dry sherry, trembled indeed at the thought of reading Kierkegaard, and agreed with “C” that he was on to something.

C’s and my conversation about having a calling put me in mind of an interview I did a few months ago with my friend, the English writer Sarah Moss. Sarah is a successful academic, travel writer and novelist. Her books are fantastic. They’re page turners that are rich with observations and ideas. Her characters are intensely relatable, no matter how far-flung and extreme their circumstances. She creates cauldrons of suspense and emotion, but manages the tension with humor and a deft touch. Which is all to say that if you haven’t yet read them, you should do so forthwith.

Sarah is in the enviable position of having found her calling and it was illuminating, and more than a little inspiring, to get a sense of the experience of having – and yielding to – a calling.

A number of aspects of her experience jumped out at me:

1. When you are driven by a sense of calling, there’s a degree of delight – if not downright wonderment – that you actually get to do the thing you want to do. For Sarah, this feeling started dawning when a friend of hers (“someone who lived in the same post code, who went to the same shops!”) became a successful novelist. Inspired by her friend’s success, Sarah herself made the leap to novelist. In doing so, she closed the gap between the kind of life she wanted and the kind of life she had. Now, research trips, hours in her study, editing galleys…they’re all a reflection that she’s made the mythic real.

2. When one’s doing what one’s called to do, there really is a sense of “rightness” about one’s work. Sarah expressed this as a feeling of engaging in “the real thing”. When I asked her to tell me what she meant by that she hesitated, then said, “The thing that I’m meant to be doing I suppose. The thing that justifies my being here.”

What’s interesting is that Sarah knows that it’s the real thing because she’s willing to give the creative writing whatever it asks. She’s listening to the signals from her own engagement with her work. She puts it this way, “That’s how I know this kind of writing is the real thing for me, where academic writing isn’t. Because with academic writing I just do it and then I want it to go away.  And I can just about drag myself to revisit and redraft if that’s a condition of publication, but I don’t want to. I would much rather write a first draft and then just sort of it despatch it into the ether and never have to look at it again. Where, with what for me is the real writing, the fiction and the travel writing, I’ll go back to it as often as it takes. And I will rewrite it as often as it needs rewriting. There’s a real joy for me in erasing 3,000 words because actually it’s not very good. And being able to recognize that it’s not very good and writing it again better.”

3. The third thing that struck me is that having a calling gives one a sense of having a unique role and voice in the world. For Sarah, this emerges through the experience of pulling together disparate topics and themes into a coherent whole: she the connections others might not. In her experience, it’s a process of discovery. Subjects call to her, and it’s up to her to dwell on them long enough to see the pattern that is, in essence, already there. This is how she describes the experience:

“I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum, kind of vaguely prowling because I was thinking about a late-19th Century setting for another novel. And I ended up spending the entire afternoon in the Japanese room, which isn’t very big. But I really wanting to read every word about everything in there and look at things properly. And remember them. And then I went off to the library and read about them. And I don’t know why. But they really spoke to me…

“So, last summer, I had a pile of books about nineteenth century Japanese history, more about post-war British psychoanalysis, and quite a lot about Victorian prostitution – and a couple of my colleagues came and looked at these and said to me, “What on earth are you doing?” And I thought, “I don’t really know, but when I’ve done it, I will know.” And I’m beginning to see now why I was reading those three strands of things. And I’m still reading them, still with absolute certainty that something’s going to come together out of them.

“It’s very odd. I mean, honestly, I have no more doubt that something coherent will emerge from this than I doubt the alarm clock will go off at 6:00 o’clock tomorrow morning, or that I’ll have to get breakfast. I’m quite sure it will happen, but I have no idea why, or how, or even really quite when

“It’s seeing a new road in front of you that you didn’t know was there. And not being able to see where it goes, but knowing that you’re going to go along it and find out. “Ah, there it is!  That’s the thing!” The thing you didn’t know you were looking for, but you’ve recognized it now.”

4. Following one’s calling requires defiance. This doesn’t necessarily look flamboyant (Virginia Woolf’s retreat to a room of one’s own, Picasso’s many mistresses), but it requires considered negotiation about what the world expects of you based on your identity (“wife”, “mother”, “feminist”) and what you need to do to fulfil your calling. Sarah didn’t make a production of this defiance, but I heard it loud and clear in our conversation.

Just to take one example, she defies the implicit norms of the intellectual feminist because she bakes, knits and even crochets. She acknowledges that sometimes this “feels that a betrayal of feminism. It’s expending energy on my own immediate domestic surroundings, and therefore not on any kind of wider political/intellectual world.” But she does it because it helps with her more “abstract” work, like her writing. It’s also a lesson for her writing, “Even if it’s going wrong, and that’s always a good object lesson as well, at least half of what I make I undo and remake several times along the way because it’s not coming out as planned.”

This is a subtle example of defiance to be sure, but the point is that Sarah reflects on what she needs to do to foster the time, energy and creativity to write.

5. Finally, to live with one’s calling is to live a life of emotional intensity. Throughout our interview, Sarah used words like “scary”, “exhilarating”, “fully alive”, “fun”, and “pleasure” (including the “transgressive pleasure” of creating characters who misbehave, which sounded particularly fun). This isn’t to say it’s easy: Sarah also made multiple references to the sheer labor involved in her work – the research, multiple drafts, dwelling with an idea, integrating different spheres of work and late nights. But, if a key part of the good life is feeling alive, following one’s calling is a good way to get there.

The rise in coaching suggests that many of us are longing to find and live our true passions. We yearn for purpose and to feel that our lives have meaning. Sarah’s experience illustrates that having a calling can be a sure path to this. It also suggests that “callings” themselves emerge from engagement with the world, not from fashionable introspection. In other words, while a lucky few might hear their calling, the rest of us can seek it. We can, to borrow my friend C’s term, take a stance on our being. It’s to be in the world and to understand how you see, hear and feel differently. And to dwell on this and think what it asks you to do.