Keys to Happiness

Sunlight streams through the living room window, falling on a multi-colored rug and neatly organized toddler toys. It’s a winter morning at the McCormicks’ house in Virginia Beach. A children’s CD plays softly in the background, and two friendly dogs bark in another room. Mylie and Alayna, 2-year-old twins, chatter with each other. Their mom, 37-year-old Michele, offers her daughters a snack. Her eyes shine with a quiet, but palpable sense of joy.

What makes Michele happy? How do we define happiness? New research in social psychology, examined recently on the PBS series “This Emotional Life,” offers clues. The keys to happiness aren’t the same for everyone, yet similar elements appear in happy people’s lives. Three Tidewater area women of different backgrounds share their perspectives on one of the most elusive and longed-for human emotions of all.

BEING TRULY PRESENT

One aspect of happiness that research supports is being content with life as it is.

“You know how you’re always thinking about what you’re going to do or what you just did?” asks Michele, a yoga practitioner and teacher. “Yoga teaches you to bring yourself right here, right now.” The teachings of yoga, she explains, resonate in many other areas of her life. “I take the time to celebrate things,” she continues. “Watching my girls as they experience something new, some new animal, or even a new food, makes me very happy.”

Michele, who’s in her fourth month of a pregnancy, is currently on hiatus from teaching yoga. At the moment, she’s taking online classes to become a certified pre-natal yoga instructor. After being introduced to yoga in college, Michele began practicing off and on. Her formal training got underway in Illinois, starting the day after the in-vitro procedure that brought her twins to life.

Maintaining an organized schedule also contributes to Michele’s well being. Several mornings a week, her daughters attend a home-based preschool, while she completes assignments as a freelance science writer.

As a Navy wife who moves around a lot, Michele says being organized can be challenging. Like many military families, she and her husband, Kevin, a Navy diesel engine mechanic, have changed addresses frequently. “We’ve lived places like Hawaii and Guam and Illinois, where there’s a different lifestyle every time, so we try to appreciate where we’re at, knowing it will be different in a couple of years,” she explains.

As a result, Michele has learned not to get too attached to a house or a neighborhood. “So much of my happiness comes from approaching life with gratitude, being blessed that I have healthy babies,” she says with a serene smile. Researchers say this kind of positive outlook helps reinforce happiness.

Another key is having close personal bonds with friends and family. Michele says she’s lucky to have enduring friendships with six women from her childhood in Minnesota. Though their lives are different, Michele says they keep in touch regularly.

But long distance friends are not the only bond that sustains Michele. Her nine-year-marriage to Kevin is a central part of her happy life.

“He’s really my best friend, no matter what,” she says. “Regardless of stressful periods, I always know that Kevin has my back.”

There’s a boost in Michele’s happiness during family yoga time with Kevin and the twins at home. “When I see him with them, it makes me love him more,” she adds.

Alayna asks her mother if she can let the dogs come out and Michele agrees. Shoyu and Shaggy pad into the kitchen. Alayna wraps her arms around Shoyu, laying her face on his brown, furry neck. A Charles M. Shultz quote comes to mind: “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

For Michele, happiness is a world where dogs, toddlers, marriage, yoga, and part-time work all mix and blend, like a pastel painting, echoing the peaceful way she lives.

SHARING A VISION

For some women, happiness grows when we share what we love with others.

When Jennifer Fish was a girl in Ohio, Grandma lived across the field and her aunt was a few houses down. Summer included a trip to the family’s lake house in Michigan. But Jennifer dreamed of the world beyond and longed to connect with the colors, people, and beauty of other countries and cultures.

Today, Dr. Jennifer Fish, 42, is the head of Old Dominion University’s Women’s Studies Department, where she inspires her students to be open to new possibilities. Beyond the courses she teaches at ODU, Jennifer takes students on service learning journeys to South Africa every summer, where they encounter lush beauty and stark poverty as they learn to hone their own skills.

“There is an honor in taking them to a place full of contrasts, and hopefully there is a way for them to embrace it,” she says.

“It’s the greatest gift to experience this with them,” Jennifer reflects. “There is the joy of opening their world—and it’s so affirming for me, a widening and expansion of what my own life has been about.”

Jennifer’s own happiness grew from the inner nudge to travel. Fifteen years ago, she was working as an international student advisor at a small college in southern Indiana. Somewhere inside her, South Africa was calling. She responded.

“And so I said, the time is now, and I dropped my job, I packed my duffel bags,” she recalls. “I wrote to every university and said I want to come and help.”

Nelson Mandela had just been elected. The country was filled with hope and enthusiasm. Jennifer found open doors and gained a new vision: the desire to become a professor.

Once Jennifer returned to the U.S., she met a “heartfelt, Lefty, Canadian man,” through a very good friend. Once more, she followed her heart and flew to Seattle to see him.

“Daniel was the first person to look at every one of my photos of South Africa!” she says with delight. They have been married since 1998.
“Yes, it [marriage] is a source of happiness.” Jennifer says. “Like no one else, Daniel has taught me about finding joy in being, in this, in moments; it doesn’t have to come from a grand scheme or plan.”

Jennifer’s happiness also comes through sharing simple moments, something the Dutch call gezelligheid: the coziness and natural joy of the everyday, like stopping on a bike ride to watch the sun set near a beautiful pond in Vietnam. Jennifer expresses her love of beauty through photography and painting, recalling memories of places she loves. The couple’s Colonial Place home is a living reminder of Jennifer’s love of color and harmonious order. Mementos of their travels populate shelves and their earth-toned walls. Their home is a welcoming place for colleagues, students, and friends.

The circle of intentionally positive women that surround Jennifer because of her work in Women’s Studies increases her happiness, she says. Still, there’s a balance.

“By nature, I’m more extroverted and I get more energy from people, but I also crave time alone. I love my own company!” she says, her brown eyes twinkling.

A rescued Brown lab named Sisi (which means “little sister” in the Xhosa language of South Africa) is another source of joy for Jennifer and Daniel. Once again, the presence of a pet adds a loving dimension.

The newest piece in Jennifer’s multi-faceted life is a passion for surfing, born of her love of swimming. On one of her last trips to South Africa, Jennifer took lessons from one of the country’s most accomplished female surfers, who sold Jennifer one of her boards. This winter, Jennifer does weekly conditioning workouts, preparing for warmer weather and the day she can get back into the ocean.

A happy life like Jennifer’s rises out of being in touch with the truth of her own self and having the courage to follow through with action. As she learns, she teaches other women how to celebrate their own gifts.

CREATING BEAUTY

At another stage of life, happiness is a digest of the experiences and choices we’ve made, according to Bonnie Primm, 66. Bonnie is one of Tidewater’s pre-eminent Feng Shui consultants, a teacher, a regional sales manager for Arbonne, and a former advertising professional. Most people who know Bonnie describe her as classy, beautiful, friendly, creative, and dressed for success.

“I will always be what you see, but underneath all that, I’m becoming more of me, more of Bonnie,” she says. We’re sipping apricot tea in her fourth-floor West Ghent apartment, which embodies Bonnie’s elegant sense of art, color, and beauty. Rusty red and warm gold walls display paintings. Even the floral patterned teacup and paper napkin on the coffee table seem to speak the word “lovely.”

After attending the funeral of a dear friend, Bonnie reflects on happiness and life.

“There’s an assumption that if someone’s life looks easy, it is easy. In fact, nobody has an easy life. But if you live long enough, you do find there is a soul purpose. That’s what we’re really here for,” she says.

Bonnie knows that women spend most of their lives invested in relationships. According to experts, having meaningful connections is one of the most significant factors in maintaining a happy life.

“Women are always searching for acceptance. That’s what we do as little girls,” Bonnie says. “And part of us is always there to serve. We are the keepers of culture, and we make things nice.”

For the past 22 years, as a single woman, Bonnie has had time to nourish her own artistic insights, her ability to inspire others to create beauty in their surroundings, and to discover herself.

So what makes Bonnie Primm happy these days? Grandchildren, for one thing. She has two.

“I love to drive up to Charlottesville and go to a doggone, silly, muddy soccer game, watch the parents and remember when I was doing that, and make the little boys pancakes in the morning,” she says gleefully.

She keeps each of her grandchildren for one week every summer and counts the weeks in between holidays and birthdays.

After raising two children, five step-children, and numerous pets, Bonnie has become comfortable living completely on her own. But five years ago, some friends decided Bonnie needed a roommate. Rose, a precious grey and white cat with a fluffy mane and a groomed body, is Bonnie’s feline companion in her Ghent apartment.

“And the longer I’m here, the more I know what ‘here’ is. I think happiness has got to be where you are at the time,” she says. Bonnie’s open heartedness and her sense of joy draw people to her who are happy and who support each other. “And that produces even more happiness,” she says, grinning.

During the downturn in the economy, Bonnie has experienced business challenges. Still, she graciously accepts that these changes offer opportunities.

“I am just coming back to me again. The world was shifting,” she says. “I agreed to be a part of this stuff, and then we just have to lay low sometimes, lay low and come back. Just like in nature. This is part of the teaching of Feng Shui.”

From Bonnie’s vantage point, happiness can’t be assured by living in a big house or having a fancy title. Many of her friends have material success, she says, yet experience deep losses and lack of self-worth.

“What’s that line? ‘Happiness can’t be found; happiness IS,’” she affirms.

Michele, Jennifer, and Bonnie never mentioned  money, job, or status as the ultimate keys to happiness. Yet, they offered a few secrets: caring for their bodies and spirits, creating a harmonious home, maintaining healthy relationships with people and animals, responding to life affirmatively, and choosing carefully what to value.

“In the end, it’s all about our choices,” Bonnie suggests. “Have I done the right thing for the right reason for the long term?” A question for all of us to ponder….

Kathleen Fogarty is a regular contributor  to Tidewater Women. She lives on a farm in Virginia Beach with her husband, John.

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