hammers and happiness

by Alice Dommert

“If I had a Hammer” by Peter, Paul and Mary was the first song that I can remember hearing as a young child. My parents played the song over and over again. I loved it. It was simple and soulful. As that song played, I was learning to be a thinker, to “figure things out.” Quickly I understood my brain was my very best tool.

I was a diligent student, and I stretched and built that brain power. I could solve problems and I had cultivated a powerful and creative imagination. Not long after “If I had a Hammer” became my internal theme song, I declared at the ripe age of ten that I was going to be an architect. I worked hard. Really hard. I became a licensed architect and then got a Master’s Degree in exhibition design. I got married, launched a design firm and had two children. I could figure it out. I was a professional.

Just a few months after my daughter was born 911 happened. With little sleep and trying to keep our business growing, things felt pretty shaky. But I could figure it out. I had a hammer. The months of fatigue and fear accumulated and my brain, or rather my mind, could no longer explain why I was working so hard. For what?

I shuffled through the days, head down on autopilot trying to manage the thoughts that more planes might fall from the sky. Somewhere in that haze I picked up a book and read that I was not my thoughts. I was not the stories that my brain fed to me. My brain was just one tool.

It may have been one of my weekend trips away to Kripalu where I had a little more time to ponder this. Yes, my brain certainly was an important tool. The song swam up again in my mind. My brain was a hammer. Then I remembered the saying, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Hmmm. How had I been using my hammer?

When you pause and take a look behind you sometimes it’s not pretty. I had used my hammer on some things I was proud to remember. There were also places where I had used my hammer on things that were not nails. Even on the nails sometimes I’d missed and smashed my fingers. That was hard to see and feel in this new light. It was even more difficult to admit how many times I’d smashed the fingers of others.

I did not feel good. I had to follow this loop of thought over and over again and somehow miraculously, at those points, a new teacher in just the right costume to draw me near would appear, as if on cue in a play. What if there were more tools than just a hammer? Peter, Paul and Mary had a bell AND a song. I knew I wanted to be a more well-rounded, discerning craftsman, sensitive to the nail and not nail situations in life. But how was I to get there?

Those teachers that appeared along the way were not like my previous teachers. My teachers in college and graduate school and my other managers and mentors had taught me valuable skills and passed on information and knowledge. These teachings were different. There were no text books, only offerings for my exploration, wisdom from their own life experiences. Most importantly, practices.

Sit and be still, be here now. No more ruminating about the past or masterful planning of every aspect of the future. It seemed like crazy bad advice. But sometimes you are just too exhausted to resist. Eventually, you surrender.

The details of the path from that place to here are a string of amusing tales. Remember the show with Jerry Lewis on the slippery floor? I was fortunate to be determined enough to keep trying what my teachers suggested, over and over again. I learned to be a better observer, put the hammer down and try new tools. I became a better craftsman and bit by bit my sense of humor returned.

Life shifted and began to blossom in unexpected ways. Every day was not glitter and unicorns and rainbows, but I could ride the waves. The ups were simpler and more soulful. The down also held valuable riches and places of deep healing. I got curious as different practices began to push into every cell of my life. I wanted to know why.

When I signed up for the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology program with the Wholebeing Institute almost a dozen years later, I wanted to understand the science, the real how it happened details, of these practices. Through the rigors of research, advanced technology and some amazing leaders in this emerging field of work, Positive Psychology is a map for how to work with the mind, and body, to be a flourishing, whole being.

Often Positive Psychology is misunderstood to focus only on being happy. It’s so much more. Most humans have an innate desire to be happy. Not the paste-a-smile-on-your-face faker kind of happy. The underneath kind of happy that runs deep to your core. The underneath happy that ripples from you when you are all by yourself and feel perfectly content. A happy when you know you are in service to something that matters to you, that brings meaning to your life and the lives of others. A happy that has been aged, like a fine wine, into a rich inner joy that you share with the world.

There are many practices that pave that path. Here I want to share three; gratitude, mindfulness and what I call another window.

Gratitude is about seeing what is abundant and working and making a choice to focus on that. I could walk 30 blocks from one end of Center City in Philadelphia to the other with a story in my mind about how people are unkind and it’s a horrible, dirty, ugly city. Or I could believe that people here are filled with brotherly love and sisterly compassion and that Philadelphia is a great, thriving and beautiful city. I’d find both to be true. My focus would determine what I see, and ultimately how I feel.

What are you grateful for today? Have you said it out loud? Can you notice every joyous moment of your day and shower gratitude on the people who made it possible and with whom you share those moments? Confirmation bias makes us see and confirm what we focus on. As my teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar says, “when you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”

Mindfulness seems mysterious but actually, it’s quite simple. Be here now. It’s not so easy to not get trapped in the past, or zoom ahead to the future, but be right here in this place paying attention to this experience, without judging or trying to figure it out. Giving my full awareness to what is happening, and seeing it all, the beauty and ease and sadness and all the feelings, being with it all.

This is a practice of surrendering to innocent simplicity and yet it can be profoundly difficult. Until you run out of options. It’s not using a hammer or any tool to try and figure it out because there is no out to figure. There is just now. No past, no future. All you get is now. The breath is the anchor to now. Inhale, exhale. No judgments, or labels. Inhale, exhale, be here now. Repeat and repeat and repeat.

The last practice is about windows. Not the PC kind. In positive psychology it is about shifting from a focus on the failures and faults, yours and others, which keep you in a victim mindset to also seeing the benefits. Being able to see into and out of more than one window of your life. A lost job seems not-so-good at the time, but several months later a plum position appears that is a much better fit. It’s easier to see that after it happens but what if you held the belief that everything that happens just was? Not good, or bad, right or wrong?

What if you could give your mind a break not demanding to know what is next or exactly how everything will work out? What if you could see life’s experiences through another window or frame? Could life be more simple if you stayed curious and trusted life to unfold with ease?

Each of these three practices is linked, connecting to the others. Three strings woven into the tapestry of life. They are not another thing to do but a brilliant compass. Life can be a beautiful, exciting sail, with changing weather reflecting the seasons and cycles that make us know we are alive. Practices are our most trusted guides, day by day, moment by moment, on the miraculous journey of life.

All the best.

Alice Dommert

Alice Dommert

Founder, Wholebeing Architect

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Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash