Category Archives: happiness

How about Thanks AND Giving?

I was scanning the aisles at Trader Joe’s when I noticed one of its 99-cent greeting cards.

The message caught my eye:  “Let our lives be full of BOTH Thanks & Giving.”

It struck me as the perfect card for the Thanksgiving holiday.  I grabbed it and carried it off with the rest of my purchases, planning to bestow it on a loved one at our annual feast.

But while the card patiently awaits its presentation on the holiday, the message has stayed with me.  What better sentiment to express at this time of year?

Just when Thanksgiving is on our minds, we’re inundated by pleas for money from a variety of causes.  At the same time, we want to give holiday presents to loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.

My proposal:  Let’s focus on both giving thanks and just plain giving.

So, as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this week, I’m keeping both in mind.

First, let’s give thanks for all of the good things in our lives.  If you have any of the following, you’re lucky indeed and should feel grateful:  Loving family, good health, caring friends, cheerful acquaintances, some degree of success in your profession or work of any kind, and achievement of (or progress toward) whatever goals you may have.

Next, if you’re financially able to assist a good cause (or many), this is a splendid time of year to send them gifts.  For most charitable and other good causes, a monetary gift in almost any amount is welcome.  So please think about opening your wallet, your checkbook, or your online ability to send funds, and make a gift to show that you support these groups.

You can also scour your home and donate usable items you no longer need to worthy groups that will pass them on to others.

Finally, giving presents to those you love and care about may also be important to you.  But try to keep the health of our planet in mind when you choose those gifts.

Good karma will come to you.  Or so I like to think.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Return to Xanadu, or Have you found your “Rosebud”?

“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth.  He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.

I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.”  But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle?  It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”

Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old.  When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.

It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.”  Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919.  Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.

Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film.  In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.

I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back.  Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March.  Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.

When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history.  I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.

When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves.  My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.”  Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.

Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe.  This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur.  The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.

The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco.  Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.

But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.

Fast forward about 35 years.  I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008.  This visit was very different.  First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip.  In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.

This new approach struck me as far too regimented.  Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.

With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene.  For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes.  Even better:  Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip.  Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish.  So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.

 

In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane.  That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.

Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus.  Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.

One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.

Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane.  I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.

Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.”  That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film.  It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.

I was totally caught up in the storyline.  Then came the surprise.  A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.

My birth name is not Susan Alexander.  But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married.  Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so.  Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.

I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen.  But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.

During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane.  I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.

I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name).  And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.

 

Do you have a “Rosebud”?  I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.

But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet

I was lying in bed, actually.  It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking.  I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.

The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.

I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.

Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.  I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before.  I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.

I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus.  Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar.  He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked.  One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.

There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot.  This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace.  (Another story for another day.)  It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA.  Interesting!

I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October.  (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.)  I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me.  “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby.  She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there.  When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school.  I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.

Marv called me the next day, and we began dating.  It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.

By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.

As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door.  It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.

I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.  As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.

Marv tried to reassure me.  He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely.  He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged.  (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)

We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else.  It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9.  It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.

The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself.  The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.

But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless.  Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself.  Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.

I felt the earth move under my feet.  It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea.  For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.

When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan.  (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)

Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving.  I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice.  Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.

Events during the next few months helped to persuade me.  Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy.  So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA.  If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse.  If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.

These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past.  I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan.  But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening.  I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.

We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor.  Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.

Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it. 

Marv agreed.  We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us.  In California, if that was possible.  Another college town if need be.  Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.

Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco.  So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.

I could live through another Sylmar Quake.  Or not live through it at all.

In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.

 

 

 

Giving Thanks

As our country celebrates Thanksgiving, this is the perfect time for each of us to give thanks for the many wonderful people in our lives.

I’m an ardent fan of a quote by Marcel Proust that sums up my thinking:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

I’ve always been a fan of giving thanks.  I raised my children to give thanks to others for whatever gifts or help they received, bolstering my words by reading and re-reading to them Richard Scarry’s “The Please and Thank You Book.”

But guess what.  Not everyone agrees with that sentiment.  These nay-sayers prefer to ignore the concept of gratitude.  They reject the idea of thanking others for anything, including any and all attempts to make them happy.

What dolts!

Recent research confirms my point of view.

According to a story in The New York Times earlier this year, new research revealed that people really like getting thank-you notes.  Two psychologists wanted to find out why so few people actually send these notes.  The 100 or so participants in their study were asked to write a short “gratitude letter” to someone who had helped them in some way.  It took most subjects less than five minutes to write these notes.

Although the notes’ senders typically guessed that their notes would evoke nothing more than 3 out of 5 on a happiness rating, the result was very different.  After receiving the thank-you notes, the recipients told them how happy they were to get them:  many said they were “ecstatic,” scoring 4 out of 5 on the happiness rating.

Conclusion?  People tend to undervalue the positive effect they can have on others, even with a tiny investment of time. The study was published in June 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.

A vast amount of psychological research affirms the value of gratitude.

I’ll begin with its positive effect on physical health.  According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.

Gratitude also improves psychological health, reducing a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.  A leading gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons, has conducted a number of studies on the link between gratitude and well-being, confirming that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression.

Other positive benefits:  gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression (a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky), it improves sleep (a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being), and it improves self-esteem (a 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology).  The list goes on and on.

So, during this Thanksgiving week, let’s keep in mind the host of studies that have demonstrated the enormously positive role gratitude plays in our daily lives.

It’s true that some of us are luckier than others, leading lives that are filled with what might be called “blessings” while others have less to be grateful for.

For those of us who have much to be thankful for, let’s be especially grateful for all of the “charming gardeners who make our souls blossom,” those who bring happiness to our remarkably fortunate lives.

And let’s work towards a day when the less fortunate in our world can join us in our much more gratitude-worthy place on this planet.

 

Happy Holidays! Well, maybe…

 

As the greeting “Happy Holidays” hits your ears over and over during the holiday season, doesn’t it raise a question or two?

At a time when greed and acquisitiveness appear to be boundless, at least among certain segments of the American population, the most relevant questions seem to be:

  • Does money buy happiness?
  • If not, what does?

These questions have been the subject of countless studies.  Let’s review a few of the answers they’ve come up with.

To begin, exactly what is it that makes us “happy”?

A couple of articles published in the past two years in The Wall Street Journal—a publication certainly focused on the acquisition of money—summarized some results.

Wealth alone doesn’t guarantee a good life.  According to the Journal, what matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it.  For instance, giving money away makes people much happier than spending it on themselves.  But when they do spend it on themselves, they’re a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel rather than material goods.

The Journal looked at a study by Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which found that people may at first think material purchases offer better value for their money because they’re tangible and they last longer, while experiences are fleeting.  But Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.  We even get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do from anticipating the acquisition of material things.

Another psychology professor, Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, reached similar conclusions.  He found that people make a rational calculation:  “I can either go there, or I can have this.  Going there may be great, but it’ll be over fast.  But if I buy something, I’ll always have it.”  According to Gilovich, that’s factually true, but not psychologically true, because we “adapt to our material goods.”

We “adapt” to our material goods?  How?  Psychologists like Gilovich talk about “hedonic adaptation.”  Buying a new coat or a new car may provide a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.  Experiences, on the other hand, meet more of our “underlying psychological needs.”

Why?  Because they’re often shared with others, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.  You also don’t feel that you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses quite so much.  While it may bother you when you compare your material things to others’ things, comparing your vacation to someone else’s won’t bug you as much because “you still have your own experiences and your own memories.”

Another article in the Journal, published in 2015, focused on the findings of economists rather than psychologists.  A group of economists like John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, concluded that happiness—overall well-being–should not be measured by how much money we have by using metrics like per-capita income and gross domestic product (GDP).  “GDP is not even a very good measure of economic well-being,” he said.

Instead, the World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored, ranked countries based on how people viewed the quality of their lives. It noted that six factors account for 75 percent of the differences between countries.  The six factors:  GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.  Although GDP and life expectancy relate directly to income, the other four factors reflect a sense of security, trust, and autonomy.  So although the U.S. ranked first in overall GDP, it ranked only 15th in happiness because it was weaker in the other five variables.

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia and co-author of the World Happiness Report, incomes in the U.S. have risen, but the country’s sense of “social cohesion” has declined.  The biggest factor contributing to this result is “distrust.”  Although the U.S. is very rich, we’re not getting the benefits of all this affluence.

If you ask people whether they can trust other people, Sachs said, “the American answer has been in significant decline.”   Forward to 2017.  Today, when many of our political leaders shamelessly lie to us, our trust in others has no doubt eroded even further.

Even life expectancy is going downhill in the U.S.  According to the AP, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing for decades, but 2016 marked the first time in more than a half-century that it fell in two consecutive years.

Let’s return to our original question:  whether money can buy happiness.  The most recent research I’ve come across is a study done at Harvard Business School, noted in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.  Led by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans, it found that, in developed countries, people who trade money for time—by choosing to live closer to work, or to hire a housecleaner, for example–are happier. This was true across the socioeconomic spectrum.

According to Whillans, extensive research elsewhere has confirmed the positive emotional effects of taking vacations and going to the movies.  But the Harvard researchers wanted to explore a new ideawhether buying ourselves out of negative experiences was another pathway to happiness.

Guess what:  it was.  One thing researchers focused on was “time stress” and how it affects happiness.  They knew that higher-earners feel that every hour of their time is financially valuable.  Like most things viewed as valuable, time is also perceived as scarce, and that scarcity translates into time stress, which can easily contribute to unhappiness.

The Harvard team surveyed U.S., Canadian, Danish, and Dutch residents, ranging from those who earned $30,000 a year to middle-class earners and millionaires. Canadian participants were given a sum of money—half to spend on a service that would save one to two hours, and half to spend on a material purchase like clothing or jewelry.  Participants who made a time-saving purchase (like buying take-out food) were more likely to report positive feelings, and less likely to report feelings of time stress, than they did after their shopping sprees.

Whillans noted that in both Canada and the U.S., where busyness is “often flaunted as a status symbol,” opting for outsourcing jobs like cooking and cleaning can be culturally challenging.  Why?  Because people like to pretend they can do it all.  Women in particular find themselves stuck in this situation.  They have more educational opportunities and are likely to be making more money and holding more high-powered jobs, but their happiness is not increasing commensurately.

The Harvard team wants to explore this in the future.  According to Whillans, the initial evidence shows that among couples who buy time, “both men and women feel less pulled between the demands of work and home life,” and that has a positive effect on their relationship.  She hopes that her research will ameliorate some of the guilt both women and men may feel about paying a housekeeper or hiring someone to mow the law—or ordering Chinese take-out on Thursday nights.

Gee, Ashley, I’ve never felt guilty about doing any of that.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a pretty happy person.

How about you?

Whatever your answer may be, I’ll join the throng and wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS!