The Star-thrower (and the gift of giving)

This fourth post on happiness is about giving it away. A story…

A man was walking on a beach one morning. Over in the distance, he saw a figure repeatedly bending down, picking something up, and throwing it into the ocean. He wondered what was going on and walked towards the figure to investigate. When he came closer he saw that the beach was covered with thousands of starfish that the tide had brought in. The figure was a girl and she was picking up the starfish and throwing them into the water. What are you doing? he asked her.

Well, she said, the tide has brought in all these starfish. Soon the sun will get hotter and the starfish are going to die. I am trying to save them. 

The man glanced around at the thousands of starfish on the shore and said, There are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference! 

The girl bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it into the water, and said, Well, it made a difference for that one. 

The man paused and then bent down and picked up a starfish and cast it into the ocean. And then another…

Mont Choisy Beach, Mauritius

The thing is that even small actions change the world. Mother Teresa said (what is perhaps my favorite saying), We can do no great things, only small things with great love.  What she offered is that small things done consistently add up, but these must come from the place of love. Actions that flow from love are their own reward. We don’t have to fixate on outcomes that we don’t control. 

It is also clear that what we give is what we receive. The research indicates that we grow happier with generosity. Older people who are generous tend to have better health, and spending money on others can be as effective at lowering blood pressure as medication or exercise. Helping others increases life expectancy because it reduces stress (

To follow the clues in Mother Teresa’s statement, we can begin by focusing on what we love and who we love — family, friends, people in need, community, animals, nature. When we give as an expression of love, we are not diminished but renewed. And what often happens is that the circle of compassion expands.

The Healing Garden, Greensboro, NC

This idea of expansive and inclusive compassion was expressed by Einstein who looked at the great, big universe filled with stars and saw a web of connection:

A human being is a part of the whole that is called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

If we look, the world is filled with starfish stranded on many shores — so many people in need of kindness and help. It may be beyond our means to help everyone, but helping even one makes a difference to that one. And as we explored in the prior post about the monks (, and the words of Mother Teresa, what we give in small actions of love can cascade into big things. For we are all connected and love is the flow of compassion through the arteries of connection.

Happiness, then, is ours to claim, ours to generate, and ours to give. The opportunities for this are as abundant as the stars in the sky.

One Love!

Calodyne, Mauritius

One of Us is the Messiah (And All of Us Can Be)

A fourth post on happiness

In the prior three posts on happiness, we focused on how we focus on our inner selves. Happiness is also relational; it flows from how we engage with those around us. Consider this story.

There was a renowned monastery on a hill that had fallen on hard times. People had stopped coming to visit, very few young men were joining the order, and the monks had grown sullen and despondent. It appeared that they would soon have to shut down the monastery and disband. The sadness multiplied.

The abbot had a friend, a rabbi, in the village below who he used to visit occasionally for a cup of tea and a chat. He shared with the rabbi his concerns that the monastery would soon be no more. I don’t know what to do. Do you have any ideas for me, he asked.

Well, said the rabbi, I had a revelation in a dream last night that one of you is the messiah. 

What does that mean, asked the abbot? Who? 

I don’t know, said the rabbi. That’s all I recall but it was very clear.

As they wrapped up and he headed back to the monastery he pondered this revelation and shared it with the brothers after dinner. What does it mean, they asked. Who? 

He didn’t know, said the abbot, but he was very sure. It is a mystery.

As they went off to bed, the monks each reflected on what they heard. I wonder if Brother John is the messiah? Could it be Thomas? Or Michael? I haven’t been treating them really well. Could it be me? Am I behaving like I am the one who is chosen?

In the morning, they awoke and greeted each other with smiles and greater kindness. They helped one another with chores and offered encouragement, and things seemed brighter. The visitors who came up noticed the radiant joy flowing through the place and were inspired. They came back repeatedly, bought the wine and cheese that the monks sold, and told others about this wonderful place. Before long, the monastery was back as a popular destination with its reputation growing. A number of novices signed up eagerly to join the order. Things were better than they had ever been. 

Happiness is linked to the relationships we have. Happy relationships multiply, just as unhappy ones subtract from collective wellbeing (see the story of the two dogs in the house of mirrors – Tolstoy began his work Anna Karenina with: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ What makes happy families alike is that they are happy together. Happiness is contagious and there are places that are more happy because of how people relate to each other.

In the research on Blue Zones about where people live the longest, activity and diet are factors, but so too is purpose ( and social support from friends and family. 

Creating happy relationships is about expressing empathy, appreciation, and kindness — seeking to understand others and making an effort to treat them compassionately. We often get stuck with the need for reciprocity, finding it hard to be kind to those who don’t treat us well. But the happy ones do it not just because of others, but because of themselves. In the Paradoxical Commandments by Kent Keith that were echoed by Mother Teresa offer this insight:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. 

Because in the end, it is about our own happiness as well. This is what made the shift that occurred in the monastery. Can we create our own zones of wellbeing and happiness? Is this a shift we can make in our families, organizations, and networks? Can we be the messiah?

Flic en Flac Beach, Mauritius

The Two Wolves (and the 700 Nuns)

Part 3 of an exploration of happiness

In the previous two posts, we explored how happiness is an intentional choice. How might we manifest this intention in our lives? Here’s a story…

A Native American elder was sitting around a campfire with a child. She said to the child, you know there are two wolves that are fighting a great battle within you. One wolf is filled with anger, hate, greed, envy, and impatience. It snarls and howls all day long. The other wolf is filled with love, kindness, generosity, and patience. It smiles at everyone. These wolves are locked in a battle for your spirit. 

Grandmother, asked the girl, which wolf wins? 

The answer, the elder responded gently, is very simple. It is the wolf you feed. 

If you feed yourself love and compassion that’s who you become. If you feed yourself compassion and gratitude, that’s who you become. 

Happiness is a practice. It is our ability to practice positive behaviors that make us happy.

In the last post (, I wrote about how our existence is like a wheel with an outer rim that interacts with the world — the friction of stones, ruts, and mud — and a central hub that is our inner state. We can absorb and internalize the friction of what is coming at us from the outside and become the snarling wolf. Or we can use our internal intention to transform how we engage the world with kindness. The rim and hub are joined by spokes that connect the two elements. 

The wheel is a symbol in Eastern traditions — a symbol of Buddhism and at the center of the Indian flag. The spokes on the wheels are practices. These allow us to engage the world from a place of intention. One of these practices is gratitude. 

‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein

A practice of gratitude enables us to count the good we have in our lives. In doing so, we remind ourselves of the many good things we have that we can gloss over and counter-balance the things that aren’t good. A longitudinal study of 700 nuns who were asked to keep autobiographies over a period of 50 years found that the ones who expressed positive emotions such as contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope stayed healthier and lived longer — 90% of the happiest nuns lived past 85 years compared to only a third of those who were the least happy. Gratitude not only helps us be happier, it improves our immunity against disease. It can also shield us from life’s wounds. 

The Dalai Lama who is credited for being happy was once asked how he could be happy given what had become of Tibet. He said, it is true that we have lost so much, but yet must I also lose my happiness? Happiness is not just for the good times. Its greater power is in shielding us from the bad times.  

You can find a set of gratitude practices in this post ( 

The Now of Happiness (Vs. the Pursuit of Happiness)

Part 2 of an Exploration on Happiness

Calodyne, Mauritius

If you ask many of us what is the purpose of life, we might answer: it is to be happy. The American Declaration of Independence called for the pursuit of happiness as a founding principle. What does it mean to pursue happiness and is it possible that happiness actually flees when we pursue it? Take this story. 

A busy New York businessman was persuaded by his wife to take a vacation in Mexico. Strolling on a beach late morning he encountered a fisherman leaning back against his boat on the beach, gazing lazily out at the ocean. 

St. Francois dock, Calodyne, Mauritius

“It’s a beautiful day,” said the businessman to the fisherman, who nodded back. “Shouldn’t you be out fishing”? he asked. “Well,” said the fisherman, “I have already made my catch and I am done for the day.” The businessman grimaced and responded, “Yes but couldn’t you catch more if you stayed out longer?” 

“I could but why?” asked the fisherman. “Well!” declared the businessman, “you’d make more money.” “What would I do with more money?” asked the fisherman. “Well,” gushed the businessman, “you could buy another boat and hire someone else to fish for you. With the profits, you could even get more boats and employees, perhaps even open up a canning plant and grow quite rich!” 

“And then what,” asked the fisherman, amused. “Well, then you could retire happily,” proclaimed the businessman. “Okay,” said the fisherman, “and what would I do then?” “Well then,” said the businessman, “you could sit out on the beach and relax by the ocean.” 

“Ah!” smiled the fisherman bringing his hat down over his eyes, “that’s exactly what I am doing now!”

The two characters in this story had two very contrasting views of happiness. The businessman saw it as the final reward of a long life of effort and achievement. For the fisherman, happiness was something to be enjoyed as a daily practice. The businessman may indeed get to retire with a lot of money to enjoy a bit of luxury and leisure, but there is no guarantee that he’d live that long or enjoy good health, or even make the money in the end despite a lifetime of effort and risk.  

So, is happiness something to be pursued into the future or enjoyed now in the moment where we can find it? There is a lot to enjoy if we look and notice — the blue sky, being alive, the next breath.  In looking for big things, we lose the small things that we already have and take for granted in the daily flow of our lives.

Grand Gaube, Mauritius

The research about flow sees that contentment is about finding yourself in the zone where you forget yourself. You just are present, fully absorbed in what you are doing, not stuck in the past or thinking about the future. Picture a musician playing, a painter painting, a sportsperson in a game, a pair of lovers. They are focused, absorbed in the joy of what they are doing. Time stops. Thought stops, Even the question of happiness vanishes. There is only being in the present. 

At the end of his time, John Lennon sang of ths awareness in his song Watching the Wheels:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round

I really love to watch them roll

No longer riding on the merry-go-round

I just had to let it go

The thing is that the wheel of life is always turning. The rim and hub both turn but the pace is not quite the same. We can latch our sense of being to the rim and spin around dizzily as we work to do more, or we can center ourselves at the hub of the wheel, staying calm and present in the midst of motion. If our being is centered at the hub, we can radiate a sense of calm to the activity at the rim — much like the athletes playing in a state of flow. If our sense of being is anchored to the activity at the rim, we transfer this busyness to our core, feeling frenetic and harried. I often find myself in both places and have to remind myself to return to the center. Finding a way to intentionally claim calmness in motion, and peacefulness in activity, is key to being happy. Here contentment becomes a practice, a habit, much as it did for the Mexican fisherman reclining on the beach. 

The fisherman fished to live, but he made a habit of being happy, every day. So, perhaps the challenge is not to pursue happiness to the end of our days, but to claim it now, while we can, wherever we can, and in whatever we do. 

Galle, Sri Lanka