Climate of Change

When faced with changes in our environment, our internal climate can be shaped by grief or gratitude.

Over the past week I got the opportunity to witness man-made climate change up close.

The Eagle Creek forest fire spread to 33,000 acres and counting, the smoke was so thick that it transformed the sun into a weak red orb so weak that I had to remind myself not to stare at it, the temperature fell far short of forecast highs, and the area was covered with more ash than it’s seen since Mt. St. Helen’s blew its top in 1980.

The fire affected many people’s internal climate, too. It was allegedly started by a teenage boy from Vancouver, Washington carelessly tossing firecrackers around on the popular trail. Those who have hiked that beautiful waterfall-lined trail faced the challenge of coming to grips with the destruction and the insult that it didn’t have to happen.

Maybe it did have to happen.

The young man who sparked the destruction was simply combining two things that he loved. I can’t blame him for loving Eagle Creek. I love Eagle Creek. I can’t blame him for loving fireworks. I was disappointed by the cancellation of the Oregon Symphony’s annual Waterfront Concert, which usually culminates in a performance of the 1812 Overture and a big, bombastic fireworks display. I know that fireworks are bad for the environment. I always keep my asthma inhaler handy in case wheezing is triggered by the air pollution the fireworks create.

What’s more fun than setting off firecrackers? How about setting off firecrackers and listening to them echo through Eagle Creek?

It’s not something I would do. But, I’m glad that I didn’t have the opportunity to do it when I was a teenager, before the judgment center in my frontal lobe developed.

When it comes to facing change in our environment, we can choose grief or gratitude. We grieve when we think of the good things we’ll miss. We’re grateful when we think of the good things we’ve had. I’m grateful that I knew Eagle Creek as it was before the fire, and I hope I’ll have a chance to return.

I’m also grateful for the ongoing efforts of the firefighters to preserve what remains. I’m grateful that folks will still be able to visit the Multnomah Falls Lodge. I know many homeowners are grateful that their houses were saved.

And, when the fire finally burns out, as it will, I’m grateful that the fire scar will be there as a reminder that we mustn’t take such precious gifts as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for granted. Maybe the lasting impression of one moment of carelessness will cause others to think twice before accidentally sparking fires of their own.

This weekend I hiked the Heart of the Park loop of Forest Park and added a little extra gratitude to my forest bathing. I try never to take Forest Park for granted. But I’m grateful for what destruction has taught me.

The first time I took an awe walk by Mt. St. Helen’s, sixteen years after the blast, my jaw dropped at the scope of the blast zone. Yet the ranger on the tour by Johnston Ridge kept pointing out signs of how new life was taking hold where the old had been obliterated.

On the drive back home, I marveled as I walked along the Hummocks Trail at the miniature forest taking root in the wake of the one that had been decimated. On a subsequent visit, ten years later, I marveled again at how fast the trees had grown.

Work and Well-Being

Labor Day seems like the perfect time to look at the connection between work and well-being.

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

I got that from the US Department of Labor website.

I’m not sure how to measure “strength” and “prosperity,” but I’m familiar with the World Health Organization’s metrics for mental health.

A state of well-being in which one:

  • Can realize one’s potential.
  • Can cope with the normal stresses of life.
  • Can work productively and fruitfully.
  • Is able to make a contribution to one’s community.

Realizing Potential

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans addresses and reframes some dysfunctional beliefs around business success and potential.

Dysfunctional Belief: If you are successful, you will be happy.

Reframe: True happiness comes from designing a life that works for you.

One of the ways they suggest doing this is to consider how you balance health, work, love, and play. They don’t suggest that all four have to be in balance all the time, but it’s difficult to realize our potential if we are depleted in one or more categories for prolonged periods.

Coping with Stress

One of the reasons that one cannot realize one’s potential simply through work alone is that the metric for success in the corporate world is economic growth. It is the nature of business cycles to alternate between periods of expansion and contraction.

If one’s only metric for well-being is one’s professional status, life will be a roller coaster of stressful ups and downs.

For knowledge workers, the sedentary nature of the job and the culture of working long hours can leave insufficient time for stress-relieving exercise, relationships, or simple unstructured recreation.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction originated as a tool to help cancer patients cope with the stress of their physical illness. Now, companies are increasingly recognizing its benefits as a way to encourage productivity and innovation in the workplace.

Working Productively and Fruitfully

In Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional strategies for achieving personal mastery in business and life, Srikumar S. Rao writes: “As long as material accumulation remains the index of success, we will have excess. We will have things galore, but happiness will remain a stranger.”

The good news is that once a certain income level is met (this varies by cost of living in the United States) additional income may well feed your ego, but not your sense of well-being.

When considering work-life balance, instead of putting in more hours to pay for that prestige car or address, consider this finding from the National Academy of Sciences. “Despite rising incomes, people around the world are feeling increasingly pressed for time, undermining well-being. We show that the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time. Surveys of large, diverse samples from four countries reveal that spending money on time-saving services is linked to greater life satisfaction.”

Making a Contribution to Your Community

Bill Gates, the wealthiest American, was once a very successful businessman. What does his organization do today? “We work with partner organizations worldwide to tackle critical problems in four program areas. Our Global Development Division works to help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty. Our Global Health Division aims to harness advances in science and technology to save lives in developing countries. Our United States Division works to improve U.S. high school and postsecondary education and support vulnerable children and families in Washington State. And our Global Policy & Advocacy Division seeks to build strategic relationships and promote policies that will help advance our work. Our approach to grantmaking in all four areas emphasizes collaboration, innovation, risk-taking, and, most importantly, results.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to be as wealthy as Bill Gates to experience the well-being of making a contribution to your community. In many cases, all you need to do is find an area where you’d like to make a difference and volunteer.

Awe Walks Made Easy

Awe can be a powerful antidote to the apathy that arises from depression. But, since it sometimes takes effort to chase it, here are some ideas for finding it right outside your door.

According to The Greater Good Science Center’s recommendations for an awe walk, places of great physical vastness and novelty increase the likelihood of awe.

Though I can check off most of the recommended natural, urban, and indoor settings for awe walks within a two hour’s drive of Portland, I wanted to see what I could do simply by adjusting the route of my daily walk.

I usually head for a lovely tree-lined park, which always fills me gratitude and awe. It also lets me relax because I don’t have to cross so many streets. Today, I decided to change up and go with novelty.

To begin with, I separated myself from my phone. I didn’t want my awe to be interrupted.

I did a couple rounds of breathing with longer exhales than inhales. This helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest vs. the sympathetic’s fight or flight. Since an awe walk asks us to tune into our senses and let them guide us, I wanted to start from a place of calm instead of anxiety. If low energy keeps you from getting out the door, you can try a few long inhales and short exhales for starters.

Crater Lake

The sight of a U-Haul truck prompted some interesting thoughts about the awe-inspiring Crater Lake, reminding me that it’s the deepest in the United States. I wonder whether the deepwater discoveries inspired this section of the mural that I encountered later on the walk.

Mural Fish

The first sound that caught my attention was unexpected running water. It reminded me of my connection to the vast array of pipes that run just beneath the city’s surface, and the path that water takes, down from the melting snows on Mt. Hood to get there.

Flush

My sense of sight was first to notice this flower that I didn’t recognize as being in bloom yet this year. I leaned in to let it engage my sense of smell, too.

Flowers

I passed a couple restaurants on my return trip, but didn’t stop in to explore my sense of taste. I came across the official vehicle of Pip’s Original Oregon Dept. of Doughnuts, which I occasionally pass on other walks. The smell of the fresh doughnuts has, on occasion, drawn me in to inspire my taste buds.

Pip's Original

When it comes to touch, I was aware of the summer sun on my skin. I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing a dense fur coat like my canine friend here, but the pooch seemed happy to have found a shady spot.

I certainly found last week’s eclipse experience to be awe inspiring, but finding awe in everyday life is often just a matter of having the right mindset and leading where your sensory experience takes you.

Sure, it’s fun when the sun eclipses the moon, but under the right circumstances, it can be pretty awe inspiring when we eclipse part of the moon, too.

Bat Night

Ten Minute Exercise

Check out the interview between Academy Award Winning Pixar Director Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner about the benefits of a savoring walk on this episode of The Science of Happiness Podcast.  The entire episode takes twenty-three minutes, but you can start at the three minute mark to catch the discussion of the walking experience in ten minutes.

 

 

 

Chasing Awe

Eclipse GlassesEvery eighteen months or so, the heavens align to give us a lesson in awe, desire, and addiction.

In February 1998 on the island of Aruba, science writer David Baron experienced a religious epiphany.

He gathered with others behind his hotel to stare at the sky with cheap dark glasses. When the lights went out, a cheer erupted from the beach. He had never seen a sky like it. Up above was a deep purple gray like twilight. Bright stars and planets came out. On the horizon it was orange like sunset in all directions. This glorious, bewildering thing looked like a wreath woven from silvery thread. He could see the sun and the planets and how the planets revolve around the sun. For the first time in his life he felt viscerally connected to the universe. Time was nonexistent. It felt like a vision. It was all over in 173 seconds. The world had returned to normal, but he had changed.

“I am not a spiritual person,” Baron said in his TedX talk. “I don’t believe in God. I wish I did. But when I think of my own mortality – and I do, a lot – when I think of everyone I have lost, my mother in particular, what soothes me is that moment of awe I had in Aruba. I picture myself on that beach, looking at that sky, and I remember how I felt. My existence may be temporary, but that’s OK because, my gosh, look at what I’m a part of.”

I won’t dispute Baron’s claim that, for him, a total solar eclipse is the most awe inspiring spectacle in all of nature. I won’t dispute the research on the psychological benefits of awe mentioned in The Greater Good Science Center’s The Science of Happiness course.

Awe has a way of lifting us out of self-preoccupation. It makes us feel more connected, more generous, gives us a sense that we have more time. Awe is especially helpful when we feel bogged down by everyday minutiae.

But, one aspect of the eclipse talk that made me uneasy was the advice to chase the path of totality. In eclipse lingo, that’s the trajectory that the moon’s shadow follows. While awe may unite us, the opportunity cost of the path of totality can be divisive.

In Oregon, access to the path for the April 21, 2017 eclipse led to hotels dropping reservations to re-book rooms at higher rates. One organic farm on the path offered four-night double occupancy accommodations with meals for $1200. Bring your own tent.

On an ordinary day, it would take me no longer than an hour to drive from Portland to the path of totality. But, with projections that the population of Oregon will increase by 25 percent, all vying to occupy the same moon shadow at the same time, I wouldn’t dream of getting in my car.

A few years ago, I did my best to chase awe by planning hikes in Glacier National Park. I booked a room at the lodge eleven months in advance. It is indeed an awe inspiring park as viewed from the car window through the rain. The trailhead to every hike I’d planned to take was full.

While awe may have its limited social benefits, awe in limited supply has its social costs. I don’t doubt that Baron’s Aruba eclipse had a profound impact on his perception of his role in the cosmos. But, the fact that it transformed him into an umbraphile, into arranging his work and finances to chase total eclipses around the globe simultaneously transformed that healthy sense of wonder into an addiction.

Dr. Kate Russo in her books Total Addiction and Being in the Shadow has classified human interaction with total eclipses under the acronym SPACED.
S: Sense of wrongness.
P: Primal fear.
A: Awe.
C: Connection to something greater than ourselves.
E: Euphoria.
D: Desire to repeat the experience.

The D in the acronym, desire, must always be accompanied by dissatisfaction. If there were something genuinely satisfying about the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse, it wouldn’t leave us wanting more. We don’t usually think of desire as dissatisfaction, but if a desire is not satisfied, we feel disappointment. And, if a desire is satisfied, a new desire soon takes its place.

Author Robert Wright discussed an experiment that illustrates this endless cycle in his interview with Terry Gross.

Researchers put fruit juice on the tongues of monkeys and measured them for dopamine, a neurotransmitter that corresponds with the experience of pleasure. At first, the fruit juice led to a burst of dopamine. The researchers then linked the dispensing of the fruit juice to a flashing light. Soon the monkeys received their dopamine boost when the light flashed. But, the dopamine level associated with the actual contact with the fruit juice diminished.

While it would have been redundant for Baron to detail his experience of each total eclipse he has witnessed, the one he draws comfort from is his first. There’s no way to gauge whether he’s driven back to the path of totality again and again by anticipation or by the experience itself.
I don’t think that awe is a bad thing. I live in Portland, Oregon where I’m surrounded by every day awe. On a clear day, I can see Mt. Hood on my way to buy groceries. I can see Mt. St. Helens from a vantage point a couple blocks from my house. Every summer I try to get out to the Pacific Ocean. Living in the shadow of these giants gives me a sense of perspective. In “Forest Therapy-A Natural Antidepressant,” I wrote about a kind of awe I try to practice on a regular basis.

I have never in my life felt a sense of deprivation or resentment that no eclipse has ever crossed my path. But, to show I’m not anti-eclipse, this time I went to the library, got my free pair of eclipse glasses, and looked both ways before crossing the street to view the event with my neighbors in the field behind the school. It’s healthy to share in the delight of others, as I wrote in “Making Community Happen.”

Eclipse Neighbors

I chose to see my glass as 99.2% awe, and topped it off with gratitude. Seeing it as 0.8% empty would only have sent me chasing shadows.