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In My Opinion

Everyone needs a ‘Happiness Walk’


Happiness passed just to our south last week.

Too bad we missed it but, thanks to John Hendler, the editor of our newspaper in Marshall, I got to feel a bit of the cool happiness breeze when he caught up with it blowing through town and sat down to talk with her.

Yes, her – in the person of Paula Francis, the 61-year-old woman who’s spent the past seven years crisscrossing the country with her backpack, her hiking boots, and her smile just looking for what makes people happy in America.  So far, Francis’s “Happiness Walks,” taken at various times over the seven years, have covered 27 states and 8,000 miles.  Her stop last week in Marshall was part of a trek to Boston which she hopes to reach by November, a hiking leg that will put her past the 10,000-total-mile mark.

Francis is part of a nationwide movement she co-founded and named the “Happiness Walk,” a quest to find out what makes people happy. It’s an outgrowth of Gross National Happiness USA ( an organization that is interested in knowing what makes Americans happy. Sounds a little silly, but with all the anger that seems to fuel the national news, Francis is bringing a smile to the faces of people she meets who are always pleasantly surprised to encounter someone walking across the country in an effort to find out what makes them happy.

 “It was kind of instantaneous,” Francis told Hendler.  “A friend of mine went to the country of Bhutan (in central Asia) where the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ began. They always measured their country’s success and progress by how happy their people were.  And I just thought that was amazing and it made a great deal of sense and we needed a shift of paradigm in the United States.”

So, along with a couple of friends, Francis co-founded Gross National Happiness USA in 2009. The group started holding conferences, bringing in special speakers until 2012 when it decided it needed to gather more information on people across the country.  That was the birth of the ‘Happiness Walk,’ going out and talking to people to get a sense of what truly matters in their lives.

As I read Hendler’s article, it reminded me of a somewhat similar movement that is getting underway here in Barry County called Blue Zones. The program is more about chronic disease and becoming more aware of personal health and eating habits, but it also focuses on a healthy lifestyle and living longer by taking better care of one’s self and promoting a positive attitude.

Francis said she is finding much the same in what Americans want.

“Basically, our social connections matter and having time for those, as well as caring for one another, is right at the top,” she said during her Marshall layover, pointing out that most people feel that money and material things aren’t as important as one might imagine.

“It’s difficult these days to feel hopeful – with our country’s politics, divisions, climate change, racism and questionable human rights trends,” said one Marshall citizen who went on to say that “it’s so easy to lose ourselves in discouraging spirals of negativity.  Social media, as a replacement for true connections, is a huge contributor to this negativity.”

Francis found that sitting down and visiting with people, asking questions and giving them the assurance that she was truly interested in what they had to say, gave her the assurance that we have more in common with people who want good things for others as well as themselves. She said that her talks give her hope that our country will once again steer itself toward the kindness and empathy we so desperately need.

Francis, who walks 20 to 24 miles each day, said that her arrival in Boston, “will end the research project and that is when the real work begins. We will begin to analyze the interviews – making sense of it and then creating the tools so policy can reflect the things people really care about.” She also indicated that a book might be in her future.

Today, scientists specializing in the positive psychology field are affirming the foundational importance of happiness to individual and societal success. So, even though the local Blue Zones project is a movement focusing on what we eat, it also emphasizes that being happy and content will play an important role if we expect to see dramatic results. Plus, the happiness movement is dedicated to becoming a platform for positive change by promoting and connecting movements and organizations that promote conditions of happiness, and inspiring action toward greater happiness and well-being for all.

The importance of happiness to good health is even reaching a global scale. The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed March 20 as the International Day of Happiness, “recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”

A recent Pew Research Center report titled “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life” confirms that link. Pew researchers found that “Americans are most likely to mention family and spending time together as important to their happiness.”  After taking into account the family response, career, finances, faith and friendships along with hobbies and activities came up most frequently. The report also indicated that Americans have a more positive feeling about life in general than what is reported in most national news networks where the focus seems to be on feelings of hate and division.

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today,” said comedian Groucho Marx.  “I can choose which it shall be.  Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”

Francis found that, in her journey across the country, one thing is sure: “It’s the simpler things in life that matter and, if you can just give a smile and make eye contact, that might make a huge difference in a person’s life.”

Things like health, love, family and friends. Enjoying moments like a sunset or a view from a mountain after a long hike. It’s about making a difference, faith in God, laughter and a sense of safety and security in the future.

I didn’t get a chance to meet or talk with Francis, but, as she moves across the country, she is confirming that most Americans are happier than what national polls and media commentators indicate. It’s about getting up, going to work every day and focusing on what we can control in our lives that makes us happy.

“The secret to being happy is accepting where you are in life and making the most out of every day,” someone once said. I tend to agree – and I don’t need to walk 10,000 miles to confirm that feeling, although I’m inspired that someone is doing so.




Fred Jacobs, CEO

J-Ad Graphics, Inc.


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