A New Year Of Happy

coverwebAs the new year begins, we discover how happy Santa Cruz County is, what sources contribute to our happiness, and what we can do as individuals and a community to improve our happiness level in 2013.

Happy New Year. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? But what does the phrase mean, exactly? That which makes a new year “happy” is different to everyone. To some, it could mean being surrounded by family and friends, to others, it could mean having a roof over their head, and still to others, it could mean overcoming cancer.

The Declaration of Independence states that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Assuming that’s true, how will you pursue happiness in 2013?

As locals embark on their hunt for fulfillment, there seems like no better time to examine happiness and its many forms inside Santa Cruz County and beyond. How happy are we locally? What are the sources of our happiness? How can one increase his or her happiness level in the coming year? And, most importantly, sustain it?

The Beatles said happiness is a warm gun. But for Addi Somekh, it came in the form of a rubbery piece of latex.

“Most things in the world I don’t understand, but balloons I understand,” admits the UC Santa Cruz alumnus-turned-professional balloon artist.

What started out as a creative way to pay for his car insurance while attending UCSC in the early 1990s—he worked off tips at El Palomar—became a lucrative business for Somekh, who has worked in 40 countries, had his own reality TV show on TLC, and has worked for clients such as Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Streisand and Martha Stewart.

cover edit2“I was kind of a self-hating balloon twister,” Somekh recalls of the early days. “I never saw myself as an artist.”

But over time, Somekh came to realize that he wasn’t just making balloon hats, dogs, or flowers for people.

“Making people happy and giving joy is one of the most important skills you can have,” he says. “Balloons create a moment of joy for people, but balloon twisting can make you a happy person. You become happy by making others happy; it bounces back to you.”

It was because of a presentation Somekh made on that very topic, that UCSC’s Cowell College Provost, Faye Crosby, invited him to become an artist-in-residence at the university this fall. Over the course of the last three months, Somekh taught around 25 students how to master balloon art.

Functioning more like a club than a class, the students who made up the Balloon Art Brigade would volunteer their time to practice with Somekh, and then travel as a group to local homeless shelters, nursing homes and the stroke center to demonstrate their skills and spread joy. 

“I always tell the students, ‘A lot of people might not react the way you want or expect, but it may be the first time they’ve felt that good in five years; or it could be the last time they’ll feel that good,’” explains Somekh.

Though the self-trained balloon twister is naturally gifted when it comes to manipulating balloons—“If a balloon popped, I never let it pop again,” he says of his own learning process—Somekh understands that the trade does not come as easily to everyone. “But with balloon art, it’s the shortest time invested in learning, with the greatest reward,” he says. “It’s a great way to impress the family, ask a girl on a date, cheer up a friend in the hospital, or even make money in the summer.”

cover edit1Some of Somekh’s students at UCSC struggled to learn the skill at first, but over time, many of them became passionate about balloon twisting. “The students would tell me that they had an adrenaline rush while making balloons for people,” he says. “Many people think balloons are dumb, but when you have something like post-traumatic stress, they can do wonders for your happiness level.

“It’s ephemeral—which is the magic of it—and it’s colorful. It forces you to be in the moment,” he continues. “There’s no monetary value; it’s about making people happy.”

Of course, not everyone would list balloon twisting as a primary source for his or her happiness. Just like Somekh’s creations, happiness comes in many forms—especially in a diverse population like Santa Cruz County.

According to the results of the 2012 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project, two thirds (67 percent) of CAP Survey respondents reported being “very satisfied” with their overall quality of life in 2011. In addition, more than three-quarters (80 percent) of White respondents reported enjoying their life “to a great extent,” as compared to less than half of Latino respondents (48 percent). Lastly, the results of the telephone survey showed that the number one factor that contributed to quality of life in Santa Cruz County since 2000 is the scenery, geography and climate of the region.

These numbers may seem insignificant to some—and with the California sunshine, the Monterey Bay, and our breathtaking state parks, they’re probably not much of a surprise—but that data is one thing that sets Santa Cruz County apart from the rest of the world. For the last 32 years, Applied Survey Research, a Watsonville-based nonprofit, has been measuring quality of life in the county via the CAP report. “It’s the second longest-standing community assessment project in basically the world,” says Susan Brutschy, president of ASR.

“We were leaders in the field to look at quality of life and then leaders in the field to look at it from a really local level,” she adds.

The state of Vermont and the country of Bhutan in South Asia are also considered by many to be leaders in the field of happiness tracking; the former has been tracking happiness trends and even established a happiness day, while the latter is leading the effort to measure gross national happiness, as opposed to simply using GDP or a country’s economy as an indicator of its health. In addition, The Happiness Initiative in Seattle, Wash. has established a Happy Counts survey, which gives people the opportunity to find out where they sit on the happiness scale in comparison to people around the country.

It is because of Santa Cruz County’s history of tracking quality of life that Brutschy was invited to attend the United Nations Conference on Happiness on April 2, 2012. There, she met with world leaders to discuss the meaning of moving beyond GDP, the idea of happiness as a potential opposition indicator, and the effort to move beyond the economic paradigm.

cover 3Though there are plenty of critics that oppose the idea of measuring happiness and using it as an indicator of a nation’s health, not to mention belittle the study of happiness altogether, Brutschy and her team at ASR take the well-being of Santa Cruz County residents very seriously.

“We think well-being is the way and that happiness is an element of that,” she says. “There’s no better way to measure how people are doing than to ask them.”

After years of studying CAP report data, Brutschy is convinced that interpersonal relationships are paramount to a person’s and a community’s well-being. “Part of the work we’ve been doing to foster, look at, and measure at a local level is this concept of connectedness,” she explains. “You can measure your connections and the qualities of those connections, and those are really the best ways to measure how you’re doing.”

ASR has found that interconnectedness is the result of people forming small, self-led groups, or what Brutschy calls “Community Transformation Units”—whether it’s a Zumba class, a drum circle, or a club—bonding with others in the community, and working toward a common goal. Once people get involved with these groups, they often find happiness and gain skills that will lead to economic activity.

Aside from interconnectedness, Brutschy and her team have found that health, economics, safety and the environment each play an important role in an individual’s quality of life, as reflected in the CAP report. 

“We live in a beautiful place, and yes, there are disparities, but even when you look at that, there is a lot of satisfaction living here,” says Brutschy.

Since happiness doesn’t always come easily, and stress-related illnesses have become increasingly rampant, individuals like Grace Karen Sweet are taking matters into their own hands. 

After moving to Santa Cruz nearly three years ago, the certified Laughter Yoga Teacher made it her mission to bring humor, playfulness and peace to the local community via a Sunday afternoon Laughter Yoga class, called “Live Life Laughing,” at the Communi-Qi Acupuncture Community Room.

cover 4For the uninitiated, Laughter Yoga is a highly interactive group exercise that combines unconditional laughter with yogic breathing (Pranayama). “It often starts out with fake laughter as people go through the exercises, then once people get over their ego hump, it leads to genuine laughter,” explains Sweet. “People are really funny when they forget who they think they are.”

Scientifically proven to lower the level of stress hormones in the blood, laughter fosters a positive attitude and helps to reduce stress and depression. “We get all out of whack when we’re stressed, and it impacts everything from our lymphatic system to our nervous system, which can lead to sickness,” says Sweet, who has been teaching therapeutic laughter in the mental health system for five years. “Laughter Yoga normalizes the body’s systems and is the quickest way to relieve stress.”

While many people are attracted to Laughter Yoga for its health benefits, Sweet admits that it “just felt good” to her. Not dependent on jokes or comedy, the foundation of Laughter Yoga is childlike, playful laughter.

“When you laugh for no reason, the brain doesn’t know the difference,” says Sweet. “It’s contagious—like a fever that catches you.”

In addition to its health benefits, Laughter Yoga encourages interconnectedness, in that it cultivates trust, safety and a bond between community members. Noncompetitive and requiring interaction with other people in the group, it tears down social boundaries.

“There will always be something to make you frown or grumpy,” says Sweet. “But laughter is one of the easiest ways to cultivate happiness. In order to have happiness, you really have to work to get it.”

Through the eyes of Dr. Aymee Coget, a San Francisco-based sustainable happiness expert and CEO of the American Happiness Association, “happiness is life or death.”

It may sound dramatic, but the statistics don’t lie. The World Health Organization has reported that 1 million people in America commit suicide each year, and the leading cause of suicide is depression. The WHO also states that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

cover 5For Coget, who has been a happiness expert for 17 years, that’s reason enough to get out of bed every morning. “I want to save lives,” she says.

When Coget decided to make happiness her profession in 1996, she was way ahead of the curve. Few people were studying happiness at the time, let alone taking the subject seriously as a discipline. Today, she gets flown around the country to teach people of all walks of life about positive psychology, and the idea that happiness is not only attainable, it’s sustainable.

According to Coget, there are three types of happiness: Hedonic Happiness, Eudaimonic Happiness and Chaironic Happiness.

“Hedonic Happiness is positive emotion that occurs in the brain; it’s a short burst of feeling. Most people are on a Hedonic treadmill, and seek external happiness, but it’s not sustainable,” she explains. “Eudaimonic Happiness is contentment or fulfillment in meaning, authenticity, purpose and strength. This is a feeling in our heart; it is peace of mind. You become the master of your emotional experience.” Lastly, “Chaironic Happiness is spiritual bliss, which can be found while at yoga or church. It happens through connection with something outside of oneself.”

While everyone has bursts of happiness, in order to sustain that feeling, people have to take responsibility for their own happiness and cannot take it for granted, says Coget.

cover 6In an effort to walk people through that process, she is releasing a new book this month, entitled “Sustainable Happiness in 5 Steps.”

“My five steps are 1. Empowerment: Choose happiness, 2. Positive Mood: Adopt a day-to-day happiness practice (like living in the moment, positive thinking, smile, laugh, exercise, etc.), 3. Resiliency, or using tools and strengths to overcome challenges, rather than becoming a victim, 4. Contentment: Follow your heart to create meaning and purpose, be true to your authentic self and use your strengths, and 5. Bliss, which includes spiritual practice, which could mean meditation, nature, yoga, etc.” says Coget. “When you use all five steps, you can sustain your happiness.”

Certainly, a person will not learn sustainable happiness overnight, but Coget assures that with regular smile practice, gratitude practice, laughter practice and positive thinking practice, he or she will kick start an upward spiral in their life. “It’s about learning how to be happy,” she says.

For more information about the Balloon Art Brigade, visit balloonartbrigade.tumblr.com. The Balloon Art Brigade will perform at Winterpalooza at the Museum of  Art & History from Noon-3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19. “Live Life Laughing,” The Santa Cruz Community Laughter Yoga Group, meets from 5-6 p.m. every Sunday at the Communi-Qi Acupuncture Community Room, 1729 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. Call 421-9840 for details. For more information about Dr. Aymee Coget, visit howtobehappyhappinessmakeover.com. To view the rest of the Community Assessment Project, visit appliedsurveyresearch.org.

Looking for a smile or a laugh? Here are some tips for finding happiness in Santa Cruz County:
1. Keep Santa Cruz weird at the Mystery Spot
2. Hop aboard a train at Roaring Camp Railroads
3. Go for a hike in Nisene Marks State Park
4. Ride the Giant Dipper at The Boardwalk
5. Stroll along Natural Bridges State Beach
6. Take a friend on the First Friday Art Tour
7. Go wine tasting at a local vineyard
8. Ride the waves at Steamer Lane
9. People-watch downtown
10. Pick apples in Watsonville

To Top