Archive for October, 2016

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: Play

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

No matter how old we become, I think we all love to play. It seems obvious that play is linked to happiness. But what’s interesting is that, in order for play to really make us happy, it must be purposeful.

The sense of meaning that comes from pursuing a good purpose is essential to happiness, many research studies have found. For instance, a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people experienced more happiness when they were engaged in activities that fulfilled a purpose that was important to them than they did from activities that were pleasurable but not particularly meaningful. Not only that, but pursuing happiness tied to purpose led to significant health benefits like lower disease-causing inflammation and higher immunity, while pursuing happiness through meaningless pleasure did not.

At the International Circus Festival in Montreal, Canada recently, I saw purposeful play at its best: performers who had meticulously designed and diligently practiced playful routines, all for the purpose of making people happy. The creativity involved was amazing: acrobats and dancers portraying emotions that go beyond words through their bodies’ lyrical movements; sets, costumes, and special effects that helped tell stories with dazzling technology; animals and actors that performed clever and sometimes mind-boggling tricks.

One of the most famous circus companies in the world — Cirque du Soleil — has its world headquarters in Montreal. Their mission “to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world” has led them to create many memorable circuses with unique themes. In the process, they’ve developed a reputation for inventiveness. Their newest show “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities” is all about optical illusions. So I went to see that show, as well, when it arrived in my area. It was wonderful (and by that I mean, not only was it great, it also sparked wonder in my soul).

But these shows — among the best, most playful circus shows in the world — didn’t actually make me happy. Sure, they gave me pleasure, which led to fleeting happy feelings. But true happiness — joy — didn’t come from just passively watching the shows.

The only true happiness I experienced from those circuses was when I applied their creative inspiration to my life in purposeful ways. Right now, for example, when I’m writing about them, I feel genuine joy because I’m not just watching creative play, I’m actually participating in it myself and working toward a good purpose (creating what I hope is a thought-provoking blog!). I’m not merely deriving pleasure from someone else’s creativity; I’m being creative myself in a purposeful way as I play with the words of this blog. The same principle has worked in other ways with the circus shows. When I joined my son to playfully dance along to circus music, that brought me joy. When my husband and I were inspired to make love playfully after going to the circus together, that was a joyful experience. I wasn’t just observing play; I was engaging in it actively, for a good purpose (to strengthen relationships).

I make no apologies for prioritizing play in my life. Playing is something I believe all of us adults should do on a regular basis, in order to experience more joy, creativity, and wonder in our lives. No matter what our age, we can all be like children when we’re playing — and that childlike state gives us the open minds and hearts we should maintain to keep growing closer to God. The more we play in ways that help us pursue God’s purposes for our lives, the more we’ll enjoy ourselves in the process.

As Helen Keller once said: “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Play can help us discover worthy purposes, and inspire us to pursue those purposes.

How have you played in a meaningful way lately? What playful activities bring you joy, and how can you incorporate them into your life more?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: TV and Movies

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

What is it that really makes us happy? A plethora of research studies have attempted to reveal the science behind happiness. One of the most popular ways of pursuing happiness is by watching a movie or television show. Upbeat movies and TV shows are often marketed to us with the promise of making us happy — at least for the time we spend watching them.

Hollywood is in the happiness business. Many entertainment productions are specifically designed to try to make us happy. But do they actually do so? I studied what research reveals and toured some Hollywood movie and TV studios to learn more.

Being truly happy means experiencing joy — not just a temporary sense of pleasure, but a lasting sense of fulfillment that runs deeper in the soul. Ultimately, joy comes from being in a relationship with God. That’s the source of it. But there are many different ways we can open the gifts God gives us in our daily lives to experience more of that joy (and feel more happy in the process). There are also many ways we try to pursue happiness that don’t deliver the results we’re seeking.

Watching TV and movies seems to be one of those ways we hope we’ll find more happiness, only to be disappointed.

While in Hollywood, I toured two major studios: Paramount and Warner Brothers. Together, these industry behemoths produce lots of popular content that people watch for a quick fix of happy feelings. Both companies have long histories of producing popular comedies (from Paramount’s classic “Road to…” movies with comedian Bob Hope to Warner Brothers’ popular Looney Tunes cartoons) as well as other popular, upbeat productions like musicals and adventures. Both studios also continue to produce entertainment designed for happy escapism today — from Paramount’s Star Trek science fiction franchise to Warner Brothers’ superhero shows.

So how does Hollywood aim to make us happy? By immersing us in stories that touch our emotions. From the writers and designers to the directors and actors, everyone who works on a movie or TV show tries to create a world that seems real to us when we watch it. They want us to connect emotionally to the plot and characters in ways that make us feel good. If they succeed, they make good art — and often, lots of money as well.

Good entertainment is a good way to lift our moods temporarily. And if our entertainment is inspiring, it can influence us to think in positive ways, which leads us in the direction of other choices that actually do promote lasting happiness. My young adult novel Dream Factory describes how people in Hollywood’s golden age tried to do exactly that. They often succeeded, I think, and so do those who work on today’s inspirational shows.

But overall, we don’t get happier from simply watching a movie or a TV show.

Entertainment on a screen — even in productions with the most feel-good elements — doesn’t appear to increase lasting happiness much, despite the fact that so many people turn to Hollywood entertainment to for a dose of happiness. In fact, if we watch too much TV or too many movies, we can actually become less happy.

A University of Milan research study of whether or not watching TV led to more happiness concluded in 2009 that “high levels of television consumption are negatively related to individual life satisfaction.” Not only did TV watching fail to increase people’s happiness, but the more they watched TV, the less happy they became. Those who watched 2 1/2 hours or more of television per day reported the lowest levels of happiness.

Still, we often do experience happy feelings while enjoying a good TV show or movie. Just reflect on how you felt when you watched the latest fun, creative dances on “Dancing with the Stars” or saw a film with an inspiring story, like The King’s Speech. Hollywood entertainment can make us temporarily happy.

So the key seems to be figuring out how to use these experiences we love of watching TV and movies (in moderation) well — to translate the fleeting happy feelings they give us into mindfulness that can lead to greater lasting happiness. Rather than just experiencing positive emotions in front of a screen and then ignoring the experience afterward, we could reflect on the works of art we’ve just seen on TV or on the movie theater. We could discuss what we’ve seen with others. We could think and pray about the show or film’s message. We could respond to it in practical ways by changing something in our lives for the better.

If we let our entertainment lead us to think and act in positive ways, then it can bring more than just temporary happy feelings our way.

Well-Being with Whitney: Lessons from the “Father of National Parks”

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Wholeheartedly pursuing creative ideas fans a flame of positive transformation. When famous naturalist John Muir — who is considered the father of national parks — passionately worked on his creative conservation ideas, great joy resulted from his efforts.

I visited the John Muir National Historic Site in California to learn more about Muir, who devoted himself to the conservationist cause that he said God had called him to pursue passionately. Muir urged people to explore creation often and care for it well.

The passionate words that Muir wrote about the natural world inspired others to discover joy in it and choose to protect it. “The battle for conservation … is the universal warfare between right and wrong,” Muir wrote, with his zeal for the cause evident. He also wrote that, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

It was Muir’s message of joy waiting to be discovered in nature’s wonders that captured people’s attention. Ultimately, Muir’s contagious joy and hard work putting his ideas into action (such as by founding the Sierra Club) led to the establishment of the world’s first system of national parks.

Muir’s enthusiasm bolstered his strength many times when his ideas caused controversy. He had to battle those whose economic interests were threatened by Muir’s urging to save natural resources rather than deplete them. Lumberjacks who wanted to cut down ancient Redwood and Giant Sequoia trees, for instance, were often at odds with Muir. However, Muir kept working wholeheartedly, and eventually his ideas came to fruition.

I had a fascinating experience while visiting Muir’s home. After saying a silent prayer asking God to thank Muir for the work he did and let him know how much I enjoy the national parks he helped create, I stepped into the living room of his house to discuss his life with a ranger. The front door (which had been firmly closed) suddenly opened wide, but no one walked inside. As the door stood open with no one there, the ranger and I remarked at how surprising that was, and continued our conversation while she walked over to shut the door. A brief flash of light in the living room caught my attention, so I snapped a photo of the area with my digital camera to study it later. (In the past, I had seen orbs show up on digital photos after I saw momentary flashes of light with my natural eyes and had just been praying about something. So now I try to take photos in similar situations, since digital images reveal parts of the light spectrum that go beyond what human eyes usually see.) As I had suspected, a brilliant white orb appeared in the photo, floating over a sofa.

Was the orb Muir’s way of sending me a “thank you” message from heaven for my prayer? I can’t say for sure. But it sure was a thrilling experience!

The joy that comes from passionately pursuing creative ideas keeps renewing its energy over time. When we work on something creative that will bring joy to others, it builds a lasting legacy. And the momentum of that legacy has the power to cross the boundaries of space and time. That’s true whether or not others can communicate with us in the afterlife. The results of our creative work remain right here, bringing joy to new generations of people.

What creative idea is stirring in your soul right now? How can you make time to pursue it, so you can bring joy to others through your work?

Well-Being with Whitney: Lessons from Mountains

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Mountains challenge us to consider our perspectives on every situation in our lives. Visiting a mountain inspires us to seek a higher perspective on whatever we’re thinking about at the time, which promotes our well-being. During this U.S. national park service centennial year, I visited two mountain parks — one American (Shenandoah National Park) and one Canadian (Mont-Tremblant). Both offered valuable insights into well-being.

Shenandoah National Park is famous for its stunning mountain vistas. Its main road — Skyline Drive — winds 105 miles through the entire park, rolling over the Blue Ridge Mountains like a long gray ribbon. Driving any part of that wondrous road leads to such inspirational views that Skyline Drive has 75 overlooks for drivers to pull off the road to safely enjoy the scenery. Hiking the park’s mountain trails leads to even better perspectives on the Shenandoah valley and Piedmont land below. Every time I hiked, I experienced a new view, since the weather changed the appearance of the surroundings. A foggy morning left the trees on the heavily forested mountains shrouded in white mist. By midday, their vivid green colors emerged in the bright sun. As late afternoon turned into early evening, the Blue Ridge mountains around me appeared in their namesake blue haze. Nighttime featured silhouettes of mountains against the sky.  In short, Shenandoah shows how a mountain environment offers constantly changing views, reminding us that what we see is just a part of the whole picture — a small snapshot of reality at just one given place and time.

Mont-Tremblant in Canada is renowned for its pristine wilderness, complete with packs of wolves that roam the mountains in remote parts of the park. The rangers and scientists there work hard to keep the wolves wild by dissuading wolves from coming into contact with humans (such as setting up barriers around campgrounds) and ecologically restoring indigenous forest in wolf territories. Mont-Tremblant, which is divided between recreational areas for people and wild areas for wolves, shows how different perspectives can be among the species who share the mountains.

When we visit mountains, we remember that we only see a small part of the full picture of any situation in our lives. There’s a greater perspective to be gained if we’re willing to climb higher in our quest for knowledge and understanding.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?” the Bible asks in Psalm 121:1. Ultimately, the only one who has a fully accurate perspective on our lives is God. Many people have had “mountain top” spiritual experiences in which they’ve gained true wisdom because they’ve climbed higher in their relationships with God.

It’s easy to forget in the rush of our daily lives that our personal perspectives are limited. That’s especially true if neglect our well-being in some way that interferes with our ability to focus: when we’re hungry or tired, when we’re distracted by difficult emotions we haven’t processed, or when we’ve neglected prayer and meditation.

Just like mountains have grown upward from a foundation of solid rock, we need to solidify our foundation of well-being in order to grow to fulfill our highest potential.