Category Archives: Happiness Books



Last week I asked the wrong question in my blog: What is your definition of success? I wondered about happiness and about accomplishment and how the twain shall meet. But my real question was how do we have a basically fulfilling life. And I think the answer is that “meaning” is what leads to a sense of fulfillment and happiness. This is not exactly a news flash, so why do we spend so much of our time in the land of accomplishment, comparing ourselves with the competition, working toward a raise or promotion, and simply trying to just get shit done?

I started reading Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish. So far it answers the question of what leads to “well-being.” Interestingly, happiness is relegated to just one piece of the pie and this he calls Positive Emotion. Ya know: smiling a lot. The others pieces are Flow or Engagement, Relationship Building, Love, Meaning (which is something bigger than the self), Gratitude, and finally Success or Mastery for it’s own sake, which he calls Accomplishment. This is a much clearer picture of what it takes. It’s a nice check list. You can look at it and say, oh that’s why this month sucks: no relationship building. Or, what am I missing? No mastery. Got it.

Last week I was in a bit of a funk and for no apparent reason, it seemed. I was getting all kinds of accolades and juicy bits of success, which were meaningful because I love my work, and I was having terrific lunches with friends (relationship building), and my health was good and I appreciated it (gratitude). What was missing? Ah! No flow! Flow is a big part of my life when I’m writing – it’s about being so caught up in what you’re doing you don’t notice the time fly by. When mid-week I started writing 2 new comedy songs, things turned around.

One of the things Seligman talks about is how much energy many of us put into accomplishment, but it’s often pursued even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and no positive relationships. There is a piece of this that is important and that’s mastery. This looks like winning for the sake of winning. This is a part of well-being, but in our culture of winner-takes-all it can become our main focus, swallowing up all our time without our stopping to notice that it’s not doing much for us in a big-picture-am-I-happy sort of way.

But how do we stop? The addictive nature of achievement is supported by the culture. Yeah, there’s meditation, there’s vacation, there’s really good and surprisingly cheap Chardonnay, and of course sex. And sometimes all together. But the next morning, many of us just pick up where we left off, go to work and spend the day grasping for more “success.”

A check list like this might help. Separating the bits of one’s day, week, year, life with a look at the pieces of the pie is helping me step back and see if I’m giving enough time to each part of the Well-Being cocktail. Like a Long Island iced tea, mixed properly, you won’t wake up each day hung-over, wondering why you’re depressed.

But one other thing I noticed in this plan is that almost all of it involves other people. Gratitude is often about others: Better Relationships and Love are (duh), “Meaning” which is caring about something bigger than yourself can be about saving the planet which is in part about caring for people and our future, and Accomplishment has something to do with what others think of you, or at least offers an opportunity to gloat/share/wonder with others. So I’m taking a look at what each of these on this checklist has to offer my life in connection to other people and to give that some weight and attention.

It’s the people, stupid.

Right now I’m on a plane with my cute kid (Gratitude), on the way to a Memorial Day vacation (Positive Emotion), to see family (Relationship Building, Love), writing this piece and finishing a song (Flow), and tackling my new music software (Mastery), while trying to figure out the formula for well-being and writing this song that satirically criticizes the upcoming federal budget cuts (Meaning).

Check, check check, check, check, check, check. With a flourish.

No Whining-Part 2

I left the phone store yesterday and almost burst into tears. (Really, Katie? There are wars, famine, global warming and you almost cried from not being able to get your phone fixed?!) Perhaps you recognize the scene – it was the third time I’d gone in for a quickie little thing and there was a 30 minute wait and none of the phone-holster toting cowboys wanted to help me just take care of one problem that was keeping me from getting my work done. And it was like the 18th thing like it that day. But basically, I was upset because I was at the mercy of things outside my control.

Well, it appears that it all comes back to the Control Freak issue, I am sad to announce… Damn it. Got me again.

I spent the last 2 weeks trying to go cold-turkey on complaining, and I have surmised it’s all about wanting things to be different from they are – which leads to suffering, as any good Buddhist will tell you. Or, your spouse might tell you, if you’re lucky enough to have someone who recognizes your issues faster than you do. Lucky me. Actually, joking aside, I do mean that: lucky me. And, actually, a dose of “lucky me” gratitude is just what the self-help doctor usually orders to combat complaining. But affirmations and gratitude lists don’t always work, do they? So, when we need something more, what does work?

I am reading a wonderful book called The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, by Dr. Russ Harris, M.D., right now and the premise is that we don’t need to actually change anything or do endless positive reframe, but rather we need to learn to sit with the way things are and make enough space around them to see what’s really going on without immediately jumping to change them. Annoyed by the long line? Kids being disrespectful? World falling to pieces? It’s our STORY about how things are that needs to be examined and perhaps altered, not necessary the things themselves. (Change the stories: long line allows me to slow down. Disrespectful kids, come to think of it, might be fabulously self-confident kids who are going to grow up to change the status quo. World falling to pieces… Is it? What does that even mean?) That isn’t to say don’t try to change the world for the better, of course. Quite the contrary. And one way to do that is to become someone who calmly glides through the world with a nice big wide perspective while being mindful of your stories. Now no one has ever accused me of calmly gliding around. Big enthusiastic waves of passion and energy? Yes. But gliding? I could use more.

So, my son and I decided to do the no-complaining/no-whining practice together… for a day at least. But being 8 he needed an incentive. Why do something for free when you can weasel some x-box time out of it, we always say. Well, we really sucked at not complaining. I spent most of the last week with a heightened mindful awareness of how I can’t get him to do what I want him to do and he, of course, picking up on that, complained even more. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that once you start a mindfulness practice, things start to shift.

The main thing I discovered is that complaining is an expression of feeling powerless. When we feel powerful or know what to do to remedy a situation, we don’t complain, or not in the same way. Maybe we say, “Yes, I really need to step it up at work and get that damn grant written,” but when we feel powerless we say, “This grant application is too long and they didn’t give us enough time!” We complain and blame. So how do we take back power? First, we have to take responsibility for our situation, even if it truly isn’t our fault and by that I meant take responsibility for how we feel about it and how we handle the challenge. So that is what we’re going to work on this week in my little household.

I received some interesting emails about this. I’d love to respond to the one from “Kerrycharacters,” who by the way is a good writer and you can check out her blog here. Kerry wrote to me about using mindful behavior modification techniques like snapping a rubber band on your wrist each time you complain. Go ahead and try it to see how it feels and works for you – but snap lightly please! We don’t want to make this another self-hating activity where we get to beat ourselves up like the Ego wants us to do! I was too wimpy for the snap so instead I switch the wrist that the hair band is on, as suggested by Will Bowen in Complaint-Free Relationships. Switching wrists constantly is a pain in the butt and makes me pay more attention. So here is a summary of the bits and pieces I’m practicing this week and would love to hear what you all notice from these practices. Have fun!

o Notice what your story is about the way things are.
o Notice when you feel powerless to change things.
o Does complaining help or harm?
o When you do take action to bring about positive change in the world, are you effective? Could you be more effective coming at it a different way?
o Take a look also at Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, another good book on the subject, by a Zen Buddhist psychoanalyst, Barry Magrid.
o Try a practice that helps you mind fully and kindly notice when you are complaining, blaming, believing your stories – such as the wristband/watch/hair tie switching practice.
o Write in and tell us what you’ve noticed and learned!