David Myers on Gratitude and Happiness

14334024732_9d360faf68_bIn this season of giving thanks, we’ll sit down for a day and express appreciation for all we have and for whom we love. Our sentiments of gratitude will be sincere. We are grateful, maybe even content, and we mean it. Then we’ll see the Black Friday bargain flyers in the Thanksgiving Day newspaper, weighing about five pounds more than average, and the contented feeling flees. “What is on sale? How much can we save? How much can we get?”

The real question we should ask though, posits Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology, is this: how much is enough? It’s a hard question to ask and even harder to answer in this age and country of plenty, yet everything he knows from his research and his personal life tells him the best things in life aren’t things.

Dr. Myers has been called Hope’s happiness guru, not only for his writings on the topic, but also for his ever optimistic, ever smiling, ever encouraging disposition. You would be hard-pressed to find someone happier.

Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology and an esteemed Fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science

And just this week, he is also Hope’s newly elected fellow of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Myers was chosen for this honor for distinguished contributions to the field of social psychology and communication of psychological science to students and the public. His highly successful textbooks and nine other books on topics ranging from intuition to hearing loss to happiness have educated millions in classrooms and for personal inquiry. His hundreds of presentations and articles on his expertise evidences a man who finds much of his happiness in what he does.

“Surprised and appreciative,” Dr. Myers says of his reaction to the revelation of this newest honor.

“And if there is one virtue I believe I am capable of, it is gratitude.  I’m overwhelmed by gratitude for so many wonderful people whom I love and admire because it is these brilliant people who bring passion and commitment to enable us to teach psychology to so many,” he says, referring to his editorial and local support team. “I am the quarterback of that team, and, yes, the books wouldn’t get written without me. But a team of world-class editors surrounds and guides me and enables people like me to seem better than we are.”

Add self-deprecating humility to Myers’ gratitude attitude, as well.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we find our happy place? If the secret to happiness is not found in the material world, how would Dr. Myers tell us to seek happiness and gratitude in this time of year when we especially seek to express both?

Here are the top 10 ways to be a happier, more grateful celebrator of the holidays (and life) ahead, digested below in Dr. Myers’ own words from his book, The Pursuit of Happiness:

  1. Realize that enduring happiness does not come from success. People adapt to changing circumstances—even to wealth or a disability. Thus, wealth is like health; its utter absence breeds misery but having it doesn’t guarantee happiness.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Those who pause everyday to reflect on some positive aspect of their lives (health, friends, family, freedom, education, natural surroundings) experience heightened well-being by counting their blessings.
  3. Act happy. We can sometimes act ourselves into a happier frame of mind. Manipulated into a smiling expression, people feel happier; when they scowl, the whole world scowls back. So put on a happy face. Going through the motions can trigger the emotions.
  4. Give priority to close relationships. Intimate friendships with those who care deeply about you can help you weather difficult times. Confiding is good for the soul and body. Resolve to nurture your closest relationships by not taking your loved ones for granted.
  5. Focus beyond yourself. Reach out to those in need. Happiness increases helpfulness (those who feel good do good). But doing good also makes one feel good and grateful.
  6. Nurture your spiritual self. For many people, faith provides a support community, a reason to focus beyond self, a sense of purpose and hope.
  7. Take control of your time. Happy people feel in control of their lives. To master your use of time, set goals and break them into daily aims. Although we often overestimate how much we will accomplish in any given day (leaving us frustrated), we generally underestimate how much can accomplish in a given year, given just a little progress every day.
  8. Seek work and leisure that engages your skills. Happy people are in a zone called “flow”—absorbed in tasks that challenge but don’t overwhelm them. The most expensive forms of leisure (sitting on a yacht) often provide less flow experience than gardening, socializing, or craft work.
  9. Join the “movement” movement.  An avalanche of research reveals that aerobic exercise can relieve mild depression and anxiety as it promotes health and energy. Sound minds reside in sound bodies. Off your duffs, couch potatoes.
  10. Give your body the rest it wants. Sleep deprivation, with its resulting fatigue, diminishes alertness and leads to gloomy moods. So, get some z’s.

A Lifetime of Dancing

DeBruynMaxineMention the Hope College Dance Department to a dancer, dance educator or dance enthusiast, and it’s not long before the conversation turns to Maxine DeBruyn. The two, it seems, are synonymous.

After all, Ms. DeBruyn — “Maxine” to the Hope community, and “Max” to those who know her well — has spent a 50-year career at Hope College, where she grew the dance program from a single course to an academic department to an academic major. Today, the program — accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance for three decades — is one of only 250 arts programs of all types nationwide highlighted in the book “Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers.”

Here at Hope, we know what a tremendous difference Maxine has made to generations of dancers. So, you can imagine how excited we were to learn that the National Dance Education Organization will be presenting Maxine with its most prestigious honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, for her contributions to dance education locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

As a professor, Maxine served the campus community as department chair, teacher, choreographer, cheerleading coach and student group adviser. She retired in 2006, but slowing down wasn’t her style. Even in retirement, she has continued to inspire us by teaching dance classes at Hope.

Maxine DeBruyn in 1968, early in a career dedicated to preparing generations of dancers
Maxine DeBruyn in 1968, early in her decades-long tenure at Hope College, where she has educated generations of dancers

You can learn more about Maxine’s career and her Lifetime Achievement Award by reading the recent news release from Hope College.

Congratulations on this honor, Maxine! It makes us want to — what else? — dance with joy.

Maxine DeBruyn is the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Professor Emerita of Dance in the Dance Department at Hope College.

Carbon Molecules and Pink Flamingos

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an award-winning Hope College chemist with a complex sounding research focus — carbon-carbon single bond activation and the development of transition metal catalyzed methodologies.

Dr. Jeff Johnson, Associate Professor of Chemistry and 2015 Dreyfus Scholar-Teacher Award Winner

Yet, here is the simplest fact of the matter: Dr. Johnson’s research and teaching agenda— for which he is a winner of the prestigious 2015 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award — is creative, ambitious and elementally fun too.

You see, in Dr. Johnson’s laboratory, carbon-containing molecules AND an inflatable pink flamingo can effortlessly cohabitate without pretense or hesitation. Both are indicators of a researcher and teacher serious about organic molecular demolition and Hope student education.

“Oh, the flamingo is a holdover from Aloha Day a couple years ago,” Dr. Johnson confides, standing next to his lab’s experimental mascot. “Each summer I encourage the students to have a theme week, and they can decorate their desk area and dress up for the themes as well. There is still serious chemistry going on, of course, but this gives them a chance to have some fun, too.”

Welcome to Dr. Johnson's office.
Welcome to Dr. Johnson’s office.

Mind you, it’s not that an intensive, 10-week, 50-hour-per-week summer research program isn’t fun in and of itself. Sometimes you just need a pink flamingo around to lighten the mood.

The hard, fun work in Dr. Johnson’s lab centers around the development of new methods of taking a variety of larger, organic molecules and chopping them down. This is done with the potential of testing those lopped-off parts for biological activity. It’s a very difficult and intricate process that could eventually have application in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical worlds, for instance.

“Stable bonds are why you and I exist, right? That’s why we don’t turn into blobs. So what we are trying to do is find ways that we can break these stable bonds. That’s the carbon-carbon activation part… What our method has the promise of doing is taking a complex structure and chopping off little parts of it that then can be tested (for future application).”

More than 50 students have come alongside Dr. Johnson in his lab since he arrived at Hope in 2007, with (another) celebrated Dreyfus award in tow (for faculty start-up). Since then he’s accumulated more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the American Chemical Society, and of course, the Dreyfus Foundation. A number of those 50 students have advanced onto present their findings at national conferences or co-authored articles in professional journals as well.

“We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” — Dr. Jeff Johnson

And in a show of both fondness and pride, Dr. Johnson displays eight years’ worth of Hope student-researchers’ group photos in his office, very near those of his three young children, a remembrance of the bonds made in relationships if not in carbon.

“It can be a madhouse in here with 12 students working together,” he says. “But it’s great because I have an open-door policy. We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” (But they do at least have to have taken General Chemistry, though most have completed Organic Chemistry as well.)

Dr. Johnson’s “Propose a Project” board

While Dr. Johnson guides his students’ researching process, he gives them room to lead, too. His student-researchers can “propose a project” and hash it out on a dedicated whiteboard. Like his use of theme week, Dr. Johnson puts an emphasis on student creativity and engagement to enhance excitement and dedication. The former musician in him (he played the trumpet and tuba through college) can’t help but give students the chance to appreciate the sound of carbon molecules falling to pieces.

“I want my students to get an appreciation of the process (of research),” says Dr. Johnson, who also regularly teaches courses in organic and inorganic chemistry. “In classroom labs, our experiments are designed to work. But as soon as you get into research, it doesn’t work. Well, most of the time it doesn’t work. And it’s the not working that teaches students just as much as the things that do work. Learning how to take ‘failure’ and turn around and design a new experiment and gain from that — that is my overarching priority and philosophy in research education.”

That and it’s okay to have a pink flamingo, too.

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at Hope College.