The evening got off to a rocky start. But typical of down home Wisconsin no one was so unkind as to mention it. I was nervous and it showed. The Forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery was packed to capacity. Sadly we had to turn a few people away. The audience was eager for me for me to get on with it and introduce the show they came to see, a screening of Roko Belic’s wonderful film “Happy”.
The tunnel vision that strikes whenever I speak in front a large crowd collapsed its aperture to the size of a pinhole. Glancing down to read my carefully crafted notes it was virtually impossible to find my place. Adult onset dyslexia mangled my word order into an unintelligible mess.
But as I stumbled through my opening remarks a smiling gray-haired women in the front row caught my eye. Nodding her head behind dark-tented glasses she grinned and threw me a thumbs-up of encouragement. And just like that all my nervousness fell away. Smiling back to her I continued a bit more calm with fewer mistakes as I introduced Roko to the crowd. There in Madison surrounded by my friends, neighbors and supportive strangers I, like the movie, was “Happy”.
When I saw it premiere last summer at the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride I knew that I had to bring “Happy” to Madison. Confident our progressive community would be a receptive audience I made a few recommendations to make a screening and a panel discussion possible. Featuring professor Richard Davidson founder of the UW Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, “Happy” details the worldwide exploration to discover the nature of human happiness. Along with Dr. John Francis, a visiting professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and author of the book “The Ragged Edge of Silence” UW researchers like Davidson make a very compelling case for the proactive cultivation of happiness through the development of interpersonal skills, physical exercise and the preservation of nature. Following the film I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation about happiness and what each of us can do to insure our own well being as well as for those around us.
“The research tells us that happiness is like any other skill,” Davidson said in the discussion. “Just like learning to play a musical instrument people can learn and practice being happy.”
Acts of kindness are at the top of the list of things we can do in order to be happy. How we treat one another not only has a direct impact the well being of others, but those who are kind benefit as well. Dr. Francis believes that kindness is a natural part of being human.
“It’s like the Dali Lama says in the film,” Francis said. “It’s in our blood. Being kind toward others is who we are.”
To be aware of the needs and well being of others the panel agreed is the truest path toward finding happiness for ourselves. Once we put aside some of life’s distractions like wealth, status and the quest for power we start to discover those important things that matter most. Living in the Moment Davidson said helps us to prioritize the life skills and practices we most need to develop.
“According to recent data …the average American spends 47 percent of his or her waking time not paying attention to what they’re doing,” he said. “The invitation is simply to show up and pay attention and notice what’s going on.”
That awareness makes it possible for us to know what needs be done to help others or to find our own happiness. “The best way to be happy,” Roko said, “is to do things that make you happy.”
Physical exercise for many is a simple way to find happiness. Activities that require your focused attention and to live in the moment creates a state of flow that dramatically reduces stress and elevates your mode. Any activity that engages your mind and body in a meaningful way can have tremendous benefit in our lives. Part of discovering happiness Roko said is learning how to have fun.
“We’re taught that kids play and adults work,” he said. “Work and being adult were two things I wanted nothing to do with. So when I moved near the ocean I took up surfing so I could play and be a kid again.”
The combination of looking out for others while taking better care of ourselves seems to be the key to finding happiness. But as Davidson said happiness is a skill that needs to be practiced. And like anything in life our proficiency at being happy will improve over time. Just a stranger’s smile and encouragement could put me in a better frame of mind to make a public speech, acts of kindness you and I perform for others can simply bring a little more happiness to the world.