Happy habits

2 Jan

Susan Fassberg, who facilitates Strategic Partnerships for the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/), shared this great happy-making graphic with me.

I have to say, it makes me happy just looking at it. Much more so than the usual instructive but dauntingly long, fine-print wellness article. (Beyond blueberries, I can’t remember what I’m supposed to eat.)

As I read over these recommended habits, I can’t help thinking: of course! makes sense! yes! by all means!

Yet.

Yet, I don’t always do them. In fact, I have a few habits that I’ve cultivated instead of and frankly in conflict with them.

But when I think about it, it’s not so much a question of having or not having these habits. It’s about with whom I practice them… and why.

As a diversity educator, I’m interested in how differences in social identity facilitate and hinder our interactions with others. Research tells us, for instance, that obese people and people with visible physical disabilities commonly experience public invisibility: other people concertedly avoid eye contact and make every effort not to look at them, effectively erasing them out of a well-intended but ultimately selfish desire “not to be rude.” This is what I mean when I talk about social identity and its impact on our interactions. Folks who are considered to fall within an “acceptable” weight range and those who appear physically able are, as a group, exempt from the phenomenon of public invisibility. Sure, everyone gets bumped into or ignored sometimes, but that’s not what we’re talking about: we’re talking about being identified as someone who is embarrassing to look at.

I thought about this when I read the first habit of happiness: Pay attention. According to GGSC, “Studies show that mindful people have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be hostile or anxious.”

Great advice. And a particular challenge when we apply it specifically to our interactions with other people. If we’re really committed to cultivating this habit, we need to rethink some of the tacit rules of engaging a diverse world that make it hard for us to pay attention to—or even recognize—others, like, “Don’t stare.” And, of course, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Colorblind/sexualityblind/classblind and other -blind ideologies, encourage us to actively not pay attention. At least to parts of people. So even while we would like to be fully present with someone in a conversation, we’re fighting our own awareness of that person’s race, sexuality or class, desperately looking anywhere but directly at the whole person in front of us.

The effect of identity blindness isn’t just a person-shaped void in front of us. To the GGSC’s point, the sheer effort to see past, beyond or through someone taxes us. And it costs us connection and engagement, not only with them, but with ourselves. Because ultimately, the way we see the world—including whom we refuse to see in it—is more about us than it is about the world or anyone else.

If I were to pay attention to those occasions when my instinct is to look away, I might notice the stereotypes I believe, the issues I have with my own weight or skin color, the discomfort I feel about my own privileges… and the opportunity to be intentional about how I treat people.

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