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Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

A Beacon of Light in the Northwoods


Don't Worry....Be Happy - By Mary Beth O'Halloran


Audio Recording Of Service


Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice for the light of truth

We light this chalice for the warmth of love

We light this chalice for the energy of action.


Don't Worry....Be Happy

A sermon by Rev. Mary Beth O’Halloran October 11, 2020

Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Did you know:

‘Knowing is half the battle’ is a fallacy

Did you know:

knowing does not lead to changing

Did you know:

Getting what you want has diminishing returns

I learned about these myths of life by taking a MOOC. When covid-19 led to stay at home advice, I wondered what I would do to occupy my time. So I went to an old favorite. I signed up for MOOCs about Psalms, string quartets, and the science of happiness. I’ll leave you guessing about the first two and focus on the science of well being, a MOOC from Yale University, in fact the most popular course in the whole history of Yale.

MOOC stands for mass, open, online courses. These are university courses, with the full content they would have on campus, for free, for everyone who wants to learn. One can get a total university education – just without the diploma—from MOOCs. I have taken courses from Harvard, Penn State, Michigan, Scotland, Jerusalem, and at least two music conservatories. There are several MOOC sites, but my favorite, and the location for this course, is coursera.org. There are thousands of courses from multiple universities. Most of the courses I have taken have from 10,000 to 30,000 enrolled at any given time. It is possible to interact with the other students, though I rarely do. Now many classes offer certificates of completion for a minimal fee—in case your employer wants proof for your advancement.

The Science of Well Being is taught by psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos. She also runs a happiness lab and a podcast. The course is linked to several psychological assessments, mostly free. I particularly enjoyed the assessment of character strengths ,some of which I would not have considered as part of character, such as zest, humor, or love of learning. The course includes “requirements”—weekly quizzes, and also “rewirements”—activities for you to practice –physical exercise, gratitude, etc. The idea is that in order to have full well being and happiness we need to rewire our brains to eliminate the myths that might have served humans thousands of years ago but are now interfering with our wellbeing. Almost as a side note, I have often been leery of the validity of psychological research. It often has been self-selecting—would you take part in a study to see how many people like brussels sprouts? It often has been measured as likes or dislikes. But I am impressed with the reliability and validity of the research presented in this course. All the primary research papers are in the reference list for each chapter; Santos just summarizes the results. But she gives enough detail that I have been impressed with the improvement in psychological research since I last studied it. Most of the experiments are repeatable and observable. For example, videos are made of where subjects eyes move, or brain waves are measured. Brain wave research has really changed the field.

I’m going to focus on the information about savoring because it has close connections with spiritual practices. But let me say a bit about some of the other concepts. All of this information is supported by multiple studies into human behavior. For example, research shows that getting what we want has diminishing returns. Santos refers to this as hedonic adaptation. When we have the pleasure of something we want we gradually adapt to having it and it loses its enticing aspect. Think about a painting you just loved when you bought it ten years ago, it’s been on the wall ever since, and now you don’t even notice it. Your mind has adapted, and that lovely piece of art no longer satisfies.

One of the ways to undo hedonic adaptation is negative visualization – sounds awful, right? But imagine this is your last day of life. What would you most want to enjoy one last time while you still can? Art? A walk in the woods? Turkey dinner? It doesn’t matter what the content of your visualization is, just that you are aware of what you could lose. Another help for hedonic adaptation is gratitude. One of the rewirements for the course is to keep a gratitude journal for a week.. At the end of each day, write in a permanent location (like a journal) five things you are grateful for that day. And don’t just write them, but spend five or ten minutes before bed thinking about them, enjoying them again. Another technique is to share what you are grateful about. Telling friends, even if on zoom, reminds you, reinforces the great thing for you, and spreads joy to others. Another did you know—50% more work is done by volunteers who get occasional thank yous from the boss. And marriages in trouble are frequently helped by an extended gratitude program. ?

There is a difference between short-term gratitude and an attitude of gratitude which pervades one’s life. Research shows that grateful people are able to receive all that life offers---the bad along with the good. Grateful people tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives.. They also tend to do more, including social contacts and helpfulness. Ungrateful people tend to see the world as scarcity and deprivation, not a gift and pleasure. Which way would you rather live?

Research shows that happiness is 50% genetics, 10% life circumstances, and 40% our thoughts and actions. Some people are naturally, genetically, more upbeat and optimistic – you can probably spot the difference in toddlers, if not babies. Life can weigh us down or lift us up. Traumatic experiences can make it more difficult to enjoy the future.. But a huge percentage of happiness comes from what we tell ourselves—the self-talk that keeps us elevated or pulls us down.. Routinely thinking this won’t be any fun probably means it won’t be fun. But joyful anticipation elevates our mood and therefore our happiness. “Our intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effects of our set points and the circumstances we find ourselves in.” (Sonja Lyubomivsky)

One other technique for well being is to stop investing in ‘stuff.’ Invest instead in experiences. Stuff goes quickly to that hedonic adaptation. It no longer means as much – diminishing returns. We also tend to think comparatively, not absolutely. So we constantly compare ourselves as well as our stuff – he has a bigger house, more salary, prettier wife. She went to a better college, married a richer husband, got a partnership. (Yes, that is a bit sexist, but that’s also how our brains tend to see the world.) So thinking concretely – I have a great job, happy family life, beautiful Northwoods. Is the northwoods less beautiful than Florida? If we start thinking comparatively we might lead ourselves to dissatisfaction, at least in January.

Thinking about investing in experiences rather than things leads us into the idea of savoring. When we have an experience, which is all day every day, we get to enjoy whatever the activity is. Recently I got a fu shot. It hurt a little, and I had spent nine days trying to call the pharmacy when they actually had some available. But I really enjoyed the experience for the good I knew it was doing me. And then I got an ice cream and sat by a lake—now we’re talking enjoyment.

Experiences rather than things don’t stick around and get boring. We don’t get tired of them. Instead we get to anticipate them, experience them, and then remember them – a three phase pleasure. Are you anticipating your next trip, or the first party you can throw after it is safe, or eating at your favorite restaurant? Have you enjoyed something today? Even something simple and mundane, like seeing a robin, or exotic like seeing a pileated woodpecker. Do you remember a great event you did last year, while you could safely be out and about? Maybe a birthday party or a fishing trip The content doesn’t matter; it’s the enjoyment of the experience that matters.

We can also share experiences in a way we can’t share stuff. Tell a friend about your trip to Paris. You get to remember and enjoy it again, they get to enjoy it and learn more about you, you now have a shared experience (the telling) with them to talk about again later, they are likely to think better of you. Bragging about your stuff tends to encourage others to judge us as selfish, but telling them about a great experience invites them to share in your world and shows you respect them.

One caution about experiences—just as with stuff, don’t think comparatively. It doesn’t help you to know someone else stayed in a four star hotel rather than camping (unless it is camping you love).

Experiences are events we can savor. One of the definitions of savoring is stepping outside an experience to review and appreciate it. It’s actually using our brains at two levels – taking in the immediate data of the experience while also reflecting on it. Both ways of thinking can be done simultaneously – aren’t our brains marvels? But the savoring can also take place later in time. We can savor an experience right now, in the present time, and also as memory. Remember the ad—is it live or is it Memorex? And then a glass shattered? The joy of savoring is that it is both live and memory. And again to research – savoring the past for eight minutes a day three times a week leads to a subjective sense of well being, even weeks later.

Years ago I presented a service about photography. I had taken a trip and noticed all the people who were looking at their cameras instead of at Old Faithful. Yes, they were experiencing the geyser, but only a slice of it. The totality to me was much greater than what I could capture in my camera lens. I did get pushback from professional photographers who insisted they experienced it more fully through their camera. I suspect they really did – because they were professionals at it. But I still think ordinary tourists miss a lot by not simultaneously seeing directly and appreciating, rather than only observing secondhand..

So stepping outside an experience to appreciate it, even during it, intensifies and lengthens the feelings of well being. Savoring can be enhanced by sharing it – just as with telling a friend about the experience, tell them about your feelings about it. That stirs up all those same feelings. Think about how lucky you are to have this experience. Not everyone gets to do this, and not everyone pays attention and really savors the activity even when they do it. How often have you seen someone just going through the motions, not the emotions? Stay in the present moment during the experience. There will be time to remember some other experience later. And – contrary to what I said earlier – take a photo to jig your memory. With cameras in phones it is so easy to snap a photo to enjoy anytime later.

Another example of savoring – we live in a fast food nation. Drive thru, grab food, eat it in the car. It’s difficult even to notice the food while we are trying to avoid accidents and get somewhere as fast as possible. This is where the slow food movement comes in. Slow food says take your time, cook really good food, enjoy it with friends, spend the whole evening enjoying five or more courses (they don’t have to be large, just tasty), discuss the food and the world. Deliberately slowing down lets us savor an event more.

When I was planning this service I was lying in bed one morning, awake but not wanting to get up yet, and thinking about what examples I could use about savoring. I wasn’t doing any savoring, on purpose anyway. But when I stopped, I realized I was smiling – just from thinking about things that could be savored. And the use of the smile muscles automatically increases the hormones of happiness regardless of whether we were thinking happy thoughts—again, what amazing mechanisms our brains and bodies are.

So in a moment I am going to pause so you don’t lose any of the audio. Instead I ask you to spend just 5—10 minutes savoring something. It could be real time savoring—that Sunday morning cup of coffee, the forgotten painting on your wall, the amazing color in the maple tree. Or it could be savoring a memory – your grandchild’s birthday party, the trip to the Boundary Waters, night at the Acropolis. It doesn’t matter the content—just take as long as you want to savor something.


I hope you are smiling, and your endorphins are swimming through you.

How does all this science of well being relate to spirituality? Think back to the 70s, to hippies and the beginning of the New Age movement. Remember the book and saying Be Here Now? The book was square and purple; it was on the top left of my bookshelf then. Being Here Now is the first step of savoring, and that mantra was the theme of a spiritual movement, outside religion for the most part but definitely spiritual. Science tells us to pay attention in the moment, because that gives us the material for happiness. Being Here Now changes our body chemistry to allow us greater happiness.

I’ve often mentioned the Benedictine saying ora et labora, pray and work. It usually means those two activities are what make up the monastic life for Benedictines. But it also implies a Be Here Now quality. If you are washing dishes, then be here washing dishes. That is the prayer for this moment. If you are praying, then pay attention to praying; don’t worry about the dishes now. Here the happiness project is within Christianity, and a very specific type of Catholicism, so it is religious as well as spiritual. But the results are the same –an increase of the attitudes and therefore chemicals that lead us to happiness and well being.

One of my favorite Buddhist stories is about the young monks who found their teacher reading a book while eating breakfast. They questioned him, saying he had taught them just to read or just to eat – to stay focused on the experience of the moment. How could he be doing both. The master replied he was in fact “just reading-and-eating.”

And this leads us to Buddhist Mindfulness, one of the most intense Be Here Now practices. Mindfulness sometimes means silent meditation, but can also be applied to activities. Doing any activity mindfully – paying attention, savoring if you will –is a spiritual practice. Try washing dishes by hand – mindfully. Pay attention to the temperature of the water, play with the soap bubbles, enjoy the squeak of rubbing a clean dish.. So what if it takes twice as long. (Actually it will probably take a little longer, but I’ve never had any task take twice as long.) The reward in personal calmness and enjoyment –and well being -- is worth the extra time.

And for a more intense experience of mindfulness –which will take longer – try eating an orange mindfully. Rub the skin to enjoy the texture, sniff the skin, peel back a tiny bit of the peel----that’s where that intense spray of scent comes, peel it open slowly and eat it slowly. Let every aspect of eating an orange be a full experience and full of pleasure. I’ve done this, in silence, with ten people, and it took us an hour. Totally worth the “waste” of time.

Don’t worry---be happy. Science now tells us how we can do that. Science tells us how our bodies and body chemistry interact with our mind and awareness. Science tells us techniques to lead us to greater well being. And well being is a spiritual a well as physical and emotional ideal. So…go savor something. In fact, try savoring something each day for a week. Savor and be well.

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