Emotional Contagion

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, happiness is my word for 2014. I’m generally an upbeat, optimistic person, so much so that I occasionally get on people’s nerves. Case in point. Recently my husband was moaning and groaning about taxes, and I remarked, “I remember once feeling the sting of property taxes right after Christmas, and when I told Mama about it, she wasn’t at all sympathetic.”

He had known and admired my mother so I had his attention.

I continued with my mother’s words, “Just be thankful you have the money to pay them, Darlin’.”

His grouchy, grumpy expression didn’t change one iota.

“Am I getting on your nerves with this type of thinking and talking?”

“Sort of,” he admitted. “It doesn’t make me feel any better if that’s what you mean.”

Still, I am what I am. According to Gretchen Rubin and the psychologists that she studied while writing The Happiness Project, a person’s innate temperament accounts for about 50 percent of her emotional set point. While I already knew that temperament, the raw material from which the personality is fashioned, is important, I liked being reminded of that little factoid.

#1. I like thinking of getting this characteristic from my mother. #2. It helps me to understand when some people are perpetually down in the dumps, gloom and doom prognosticators or dismal days ahead. They are what they are.

All that to say that like Rubin, although I am generally a happy person, I could be happier. I could work on that other 50 percent of my temperament that can change according to personal choices, effort, and environment.  We all can. Some people just choose not to. Like Rubin, I realized that nothing was going to change unless I made it happen. It’s yet another way of saying, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.”

There are dozens and dozens of suggestions in The Happiness Project, but today I’m zeroing in on a neat concept, emotional contagion. If you’re around people who are negative, pessimistic, or complaining, guess what happens? Right. You become more like them. Years ago, I came across a phrase that I’ve practiced ever since I saw it: sidestep negative energy. I don’t want to be infected by negativity, and have consequently tried to surround myself with positive people (note above photo). I want to be uplifted, not brought down.

Here’s the flip side to this emotional contagion concept. We all  have the power to affect other people’s moods. I think this is especially true for women, for it seems that they set the emotional tone of the home. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s true that the dad, brother, husband can send out negative vibes too, of course, but when he does, often people just stay out of his way.

I’ve made the choice to act upbeat and happy in the belief that my mood will affect the people around me. Rubin says she began singing in the morning and that her children liked that. She also began acting silly with them and found that her children and husband “caught” her mood. I haven’t started singing yet, but I have started listening to more music and humming along. And I’m working on the silly part.

Regardless of inner feelings, I’m making a concerted effort to act happier today. I’m going to put the emotional contagion concept to work and smile more. What’s something you can do to affect your environment, the one inside of your head and the one you live in?

Attitude is Contagious

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I really relish the time I get to spend with these three gals, and I’ve just figured out why. They’re all so “outer-directed.” Sure, they care about themselves and their own growth, development, well-being, health, appearance, and finances, but they care about others too. In fact, now that I think about it, all of my friends are that way. That’s why they’re my friends: I need them to “rub off on me.” Attitude, good or bad, is contagious.

Just think about your circle of friends, acquaintances, and family members. Would you rather spend an hour with a down-in-the-mouth, complaining, grumpy person or with one with an upbeat attitude? Had you rather be around someone who has a positive yet realistic attitude nor who feels like the sky is going to fall in tomorrow? Do you prefer the company of someone who feels that things will work out or with someone who just knows that the worst possible of scenarios is going to befall her/him/us.

The women in the picture above, including me, have all had her share of woe, heartbreak, and anxiety. There are actually several other nouns I could add to the list, but why do that? Why add to the negativity??? We all focus on what we have and not what we don’t have. We know enough about relative deprivation to know that we are indeed fortunate, especially when compared to the deprived and downright horrid conditions in which many of the world’s people have to live.

None of us are wealthy, at least not in the ways of the world. We all, however, understand that there’s a relatedness between all life on Earth and that we have an obligation to make life better for others…including ourselves. I added that last phrase so you’ll know that we aren’t completely selfless. Ha ha. That’s a laugh. If we were totally selfless, we’d be at home cooking up a savory meal, scrubbing the bathtub, or volunteering at our local soup kitchens.

We do our share of cooking, scrubbing, and volunteering, but we also take time to feed the inner vessel. In fact, that’s what we were doing that day. We were sightseeing at beautiful Botany Bay, a feast for the eyes and soul that was introduced to me by another “sister” who understands the power of ocean, land, and sky.  Doing it together enhanced our experience and deepened our bonds as sisters.

Yes and No

I’m not sure what the secret is to a long and happy life. Some say it’s to stay engaged and productive while others declare that diet and exercise are vital. While those ideas have great merit, lately I’ve been reminded that knowing when to say yes and when to say no are also important.

Sometimes you need to say a resounding yes while at other times, you need to say NO as loudly and as clearly as possible. Saying yes to new experiences and opportunities can be a good thing. A week or so ago, I saw that several people had posted a list of 100 things they wanted to eat before they died, and although I didn’t open the link and read the list, I must admit that I did start thinking about all of the tastes, textures, and appearances of food that I have yet to taste. Heck, until five years ago, I hadn’t tasted Panini bread, and now I love it. The same goes for Greek yogurt, especially the kind with the fruit on the bottom. Yum. Yesterday I tasted fruit salsa. Double yum.

Saying yes to opportunities is crucial to one’s growth as a developing, evolving human. Whether its traveling to different countries or accepting a personal challenge, stretching ourselves keeps us from getting in a rut. While the rut might be comfortable and safe, after a while it can become dull and stagnant. Who wants that?

Saying no to the right person at the right time is important too. Some of my biggest time drains have been doing something just because someone asked me to do it. It might be a supervisor, a family member, a friend, or even one of my children’s teachers who was making the request. Because of my inability to say, “No, find someone else,” I’d find myself agreeing to work overtime, bake the brownies, teach the extra class, or make yet another cash contribution. Once I succumbed to the not so gentle pressure to give blood and nearly passed out. Seriously.

These days, I follow Ann Lamott’s quote: “No is a complete sentence.” I don’t  have to explain or offer some kind of lame excuse about why I can’t or won’t give in to the request. No. No period. Don’t try using guilt with me or preaching to me about my moral responsibilites.

Here’s what I’m saying yes to: kisses from grandchildren, any and every opportunity to Skype or have Face Time with my children or grandchildren, healthy food, exercise, travel, meeting new people, walking in the rain (well, mist), drinking rich dark chocolate, being kinder, learning new things (including vocabulary words), and walking on the beach. The picture above was taken from a lighthouse in Hunting Island State Park. Saying no to the arduous climb would have been easier, but saying yes gave me that awesome view.

I’m saying no to fear, dream slayers, negative energy, gossip, and sloth. And a big NO to being around people who bring me down either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Yep, I plan to sidestep those folks and their negative energy field as much as possible.

So basically, I’m saying YES to life and love and to whatever helps me to develop as a person. And do you know why? It’s because if I take care of Jayne, then there’s more of her (me) to share with others.

Getting Over It

Today was such a marvelous day in South Carolina that I just have to share a few tidbits, especially since there were a few lessons thrown in for good measure.

I’m skipping the part about insomnia, something I’m always plagued with the night before a big event like the Cooper River Bridge Run. You’d think I was expected to be a front runner or something! So I got up at 4:30 a.m. and headed off to Charleston to “get over it.”  The race was to begin at 8:00, and since I was in the K-group, I figured it’d be 8:30 before I crossed the Start line. Boy, was I wrong.

Because of a problem with the bridge (never found out what), it was almost 10:00 before I finally headed towards the bridge and Charleston. While waiting, I entertained myself by watching some zany people. I also chatted with some cool ones. My favorite new stranger/walker/friend is a woman who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year ago. After six rounds of chemo, she was pronounced cancer-free. Today she was doing the Bridge to celebrate life and health. Before we parted company, she extracted a promise that I’d make an appointment for a physical next week

Walking and jogging, I crossed Shem Creek and headed toward the bridge. One advantage of being at the back of the pack is that the people there don’t take themselves so seriously. They laugh and tell funny stories and encourage one another. They also take time to stop and take pictures. My favorite family shot was of a couple cradling a baby between them. The baby was wearing super size sunglasses, and the father had some weird hair going on. I think it was a wig.  I smiled as I thought of how neat that picture would be to the family as the child grows.

I spied several men wearing red dresses, and two of them were walking near me. Feeling brave, I told them that they won the prize for originality, creativity, and pure guts. “Thanks,” they said. Then one of them told me that he had considered wearing his blue ensemble and then opted for the red. “Good choice,” I said. “It makes a bolder statement.”

As I passed other walkers and joggers, I overheard snippets of conversations, some of which were quite interesting. About three miles into the event and almost halfway over the bridge, I heard a man say, “Sometimes I think it’s just pure luck.” His walking buddy replied, “Yeah, but perseverance is important too. Just sticking to something and not quitting can make a big difference.” I wondered if they were psychologists, career counselors, professional employees, or regular guys who were trying to figure things out. Whatever their status, their philosophy applies to just about every area of life.

And the music! Oh my gosh, it was fantastic. That’s an understatement. The bands and the sounds they made were awesome beyond words. Some were so good that race participants took a break to dance along the way! At a street corner in downtown Charleston, we were greeted by an Elvis looking crooner with a great voice. The band performing at the park was ultra talented and entertaining. So were the men and women who danced on stage. Their costumes were original and “fun,” and their joie de vivre was contagious.

And the food. It was great too. I sampled an apple, some ice cream, and a bagel. Oranges, bananas, yogurt, and water were available too. The vanilla and chocolate ice cream tasted so cold and creamy as I stood listening to the band on stage and watching the dancers. I looked up at the clear blue Carolina sky,  glimpsed the American flag, and then caught sight of a father dancing with his daughter on his shoulders. What a morning!

To no avail, I tried to get together with Lauren and Kelly. I didn’t see Ben, Lisa, or Lynn either. Still, it had been a fun morning, and reluctantly I left to walk towards the busses that took race participants back to Mt. Pleasant. On the bus, I sat next to someone who had completed the Chicago Marathon, and I enjoyed listening to her story.

Tonight as I remember all of the upbeat sights and sounds, there’s only one downer. Not only after we got into the city, a man missed his footing somehow and fell to the sidewalk. I heard a couple of people scream, and startled, I turned just as he hit the pavement, blood gushing from his forehead. I hope he’s okay tonight.

And I hope the 44,000 folks who “got over it” had a swell time. And I hope you’ll join us in 2013.

Places and Things

Was it last week’s book club meeting that resurrected my thoughts about connections? Or was it the books I’ve been reading lately? Or maybe it was seeing a picture of my great grandmother and imagining that her eyes were looking right at me, right towards the future. Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking/feeling the connections, though sometimes fragile, of the ties that bind.

A few months ago, one of my sisters-in-law purchased a beautiful new dining room table and chairs and was in a quandary about what to do with the old one. She loved it and had enjoyed many fun times around it, and yet her needs had changed. No longer needing a table for basic family needs of the everyday variety, she now needed a more spacious table to accommodate her growing family of in-laws and grandchildren.

“Would any of your children be interested?” she asked.

After checking with the three of them, it was determined that Carrie and Rich would most benefit from the gift. The tiny table they were using had been perfect several years ago when there was were only two youngsters in their household, a toddler and an infant. Now they have four children who can sit in chairs and one who will soon be sitting in a high chair. A round oak table with a pedestal base and six chairs (two more to be added as needed) would be perfect.

My sweet, talented husband spent two or three hours a day for several days sanding and refinishing the table. I gave Carrie status reports every other day or so, and she seemed to be especially eager to see it. I send her a picture over my phone, and then she really got excited! While I could well understand the anticipation of such a nice piece of furniture, I sensed a little something else in her excitement, sort of an anxious thrill. I had to ask her about it.

Here’s what she said. “It’s because it makes me think of Granny.”

“But it was Lisa’s table, not Granny’s,” I reminded her.

“Yes, but Granny and Granddaddy were there a lot. I know because I have pictures of them sitting at the table,” she replied. “Plus, we went there for a lot of holiday get-togethers, especially at Christmas, and I think it’s going to be just so neat to have the table we sat around in my house. It’s going to be like having my family with me.”

Interestingly, that same week I read Great House by Nicole Krauss, a novel that spans generations and continents as it describes four “constellations” of people and their connections. Right smack in the center of all but one of the stories is a huge desk that somehow found its way to America and was in the possession of young Daniel Varsky until he left New York City. At that time, he left the magnificent desk with a young novelist for safe keeping, and over the next couple of decades, she (Nadia) became quite attached to the piece of furniture, so attached that she actually went to Israel to reclaim it.

When the book ends, the huge desk is sitting in a warehouse in New York, and a man named Weisz has paid someone $1,000 just to sit in front of it for an hour. The desk had once belonged to his father, a Jew who was forced to leave Budapest decades earlier. I haven’t done justice to this marvelous book. My purpose was to bring up the desk itself and show how things can become so meaningful to us. Possessions belonging to people of our past can help give meaning and comfort to our present.

In last week’s book club meeting, we discussed Sarah’s Key, a novel about some of the people who were among the 13,000 rounded up by the French police force and detained in Vélodrome d’Hiver to await transportation to Auschwitz. The time was July, 1942, and the historical events are true. The novel goes back and forth from 1942 to 2002 as the author tells Sarah’s story and then Julia’s. Julia’s little family is renovating her husband’s family home, and because of a journalistic assignment, she stumbles upon some intriguing information about the history of the house. Did I say intriguing? I meant unsettling, almost horrifying.

When interviewed, the author of the book, Titiana de Rosnay, said that she’d always been fascinated by houses and the secrets they hold. When we discussed the novel, my friend Tilara mentioned that she can still feel the presence of some little children who used to live in her house. She and her family moved in about three months ago, and sometimes she imagines the children scampering up and down the stairs.

This is kind of a lengthy post for me, and it might seem a little jumbled up. It’s just that I know how Tilara feels…and how Julia of the novel felt. Some places seem to have energy and light while others seem to emit negativity and a sense of foreboding. Why? Is it because of the people who lived there?

And back to the furniture, it can link us to the past and the people we loved. At the same time, I’ve been in antique stores and felt some negative “stuff” emanating from some beautiful pieces. Was there friction, contention, heartache, or pain attached to its owner?

So tell me what you think. Are there places that make your heart sing and others that make you feel sad or disturbed in some way? Are there pieces of furniture or other possessions that can also evoke feelings from you?  I’m glad to report that Carrie and her family are loving the table and chairs, and it makes me happy to think of how much this would please her grandparents.