Happiness in the USA–Just Walk in the Forest


(Trail to Columbine Lake, Continental Divide, Grand County, Colorado)

My efforts to simulate the things in Costa Rica that make them the happiest people on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index failed miserably in the U.S., specifically in Colorado.  Sunsets go down behind jagged purple foothills long before they’ve had a chance to change colors and create optical illusions of huge orbs sinking into perfectly horizontal planes.  And our families here are just different.  The nuclear family is the norm, not the extended family that includes aunts and uncles and even best friends.  Our relatives live in different states.  We cannot get together to celebrate birthdays and graduations very easily much less have huge family meals and outings together.

But Colorado does have other things that are actually proven to make people happy.  Even though the US is 27th on the Happy Planet Index, maybe Colorado judged alone would be higher.  I say this because, with the exception of Hawaii, Colorado is the only other state to rank in the top 10 healthiest states for eight years in a row since the 2015 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began measuring well-being.  Coloradans have a high sense of well-being according to the index.  And it’s no wonder.  Most of us are outside walking, biking, hiking and just taking advantage of our beautiful state.

As it turns out, some of the things we do here in Colorado are proven to make people happy.  I was resting with my Italian Greyhound in a hammock at 8,800 feet in my backyard, surrounded by about 200 lodgepole pine trees, some wildflowers, and listening to lots of black squirrels scurrying around in the trees, and hummingbirds whizzing by while a slice of sun cut across half my body, warming me.  I remember thinking, “This is heaven.”  It was not about the hammock. The air just smelled different–earthy, alive.  It turns out the air is different.  And it does make you happy.

The July 25, 2016, edition of Time magazine reported on a Japanese study begun in the 1980’s of “forest-bathing” or shinrin yoku to reduce stress.  One of the studies showed that people who walked in a forest for 40 minutes had greatly reduced cortisol compared to those who walked for 40 minutes in a lab. And cortisol is that substance we do not want building up because it increases our blood pressure and stress.

But the best part of the study found that the forests are magical just like in the faery tales!  Okay not really but almost.  The trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides.  When people breath them, they become healthier.  They provide protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure.  Best of all, they relieve depression and make people feel happy!  The trees are drugging us!

I googled “shinrin yoku” and found a whole U.S. website dedicated to providing guided tours through the woods of less than a mile.  I presume these tours are for those who are unable to appreciate the forests on their own or need some guide to say, “Behold, a beautiful tree.  Touch it.  Smell it.”  Bless capitalism.

Alas, I live in the city, not in the mountains.  While I can go on hikes on the weekends, I’d like to stay happy all week.  My husband suggested walking figure eights around all the trees in the park across the street every day.  It sounds silly, but don’t they emit phytoncides, too?  I could pretend I’m training my dog while I’m actually being drugged by trees.  I understand cannabis sounds easier and it is legal here but I’m looking for more natural highs, like in that corny John Denver song.

Interestingly, my tai chi chen pan ling teacher always teaches in the trees.  And he knows a lot of ancient Chinese stuff.  I think there is something to this forest bathing. Something that increases our sense of well-being.  A lot of Coloradans have found it and they probably do not know why.  I think the Happy Planet Index people should separate us from the other states.  Then they should compare us to Costa Rica!  I bet Colorado would at least make the top 10.  Think of all the trees we have.


The Overwhelming Stress Involved Searching for Tranquility in the USA

I’m obsessed with replicating the tranquility that makes Costa Ricans the happiest people on Earth. Since I arrived back in Denver, I have repurposed my 25 year old YETI FRO racing mountain bike into an around town bike. It now sports a purple basket on front and skinny tires. My idea was to ride it to Cheesman Park, which I have learned from the Internet is the best place in Denver from which to view sunsets. One problem is since I have returned home, it has either rained or snowed most afternoons, making that idea impractical. It is also migraine season for me, since I am a human barometer and storms moving in tend to make it feel as though someone is chopping wood with an axe on my head.  So one of the things that makes Costa Ricans happy, getting out in nature, is not as easy as I had hoped.

I also went out and bought sneakers.  Yes, sneakers.  As an aside, I just learned after living in Colorado for 37 years that people from here do not call that type of footwear sneakers.  They are called tennis shoes.  I find that odd since most people do not play tennis in sneakers.  No one has ever corrected me.  The closest someone got was at the airport last week while I was waiting for my mother-in-law.  I had struck up a conversation with the woman next to me who was also waiting for her mother-in-law when I suggested to her that everyone on my mother-in-law’s flight from South Dakota would be wearing sneakers.  She smiled and said, “You are from New York, aren’t you?”.  I asked how she knew and she said no one in Colorado or the whole midwest called that form of footwear sneakers–they are tennis shoes.  So all this time I’ve been giving myself away.  That and I wouldn’t be caught dead traveling in sneakers.  Going to a foreign city whether in this country or in Spain or France or anywhere in sneakers just, to me, screams, “Rob me!” aside from being terribly unoriginal.  But I digress.

I bought sneakers so I could walk around Washington Park and look at the mountains and smell the fresh air.  Well my dog and I have done that exactly one time in one month.  It was not fun.  There were hundreds of people.  There were people speeding by on bicycles at 20 m.p.h., the speed limit. My dog was freaked out.  It was not relaxing.  I did not feel like I was in nature with all the pavement and concrete sidewalks.  So I started walking around my neighborhood.  That is nice.  However, I miss the monkeys and coatis and trees.

So, I have looked up hikes that are within a 30 minute drive from Denver.  I’m thinking that may do the trick.  Now I just have to find my hiking boots.  While I’m not thrilled about being in the car for an hour a few times a week, I am determined to get my nature fix.  It’s too early for mosquitoes so it should be very pleasant, if it would ever stop raining.

I am lucky enough to own a house up in the mountains near Winter Park ski resort.  But I was also smart enough to put it on VRBO where it has stayed rented pretty much all year.  There were a few days open during mud season (now) so I’m headed up tomorrow.  Maybe walking around in the muck will drop at least 1/2 load of endorphins into my brain so I feel joyful being in nature.

I’m truly stressing myself out trying to replicate the feeling of the real jungle and pristine nearly empty beach of Samara, Costa Rica, population 4,000, in the City of Denver’s concrete jungle of carefully manicured neighborhoods and perfectly-placed well-tended parks, population 650,000.  I think it’s time to take Denver as it is and realize Samara was super special.  I need to just calm down.  I’m missing something big–Gratitude.  I got to spend 31 days in that beautiful place.  If I have to drive for an hour once a week or twice a week to get out in nature, so what?  The rest of the time I can spend with my family and recognizing what is important in my life every day.  Denver is an awesome place to live.  I just have to figure out the best way to do it.

Love At First Sight-An Anniversary Insight

I believe in love at first sight.  I know it’s true.  It happened to me.

When I met Joel 14 years ago (with whom I just celebrated our 14th anniversary), I was very surprised.  I had spoken to him on the telephone about a lawsuit that he was handling.  I was working at the Attorney General’s Office in Colorado at the time.  He was trying to enlist my assistance, and it so happened that my client, the Division of Insurance, was on the same side as him.  So I had occasion to talk to him on the phone several times and liked his voice.  I had been divorced for five years and I was certain that as charming, witty, intelligent, sarcastic and funny he was on the phone, he was equally short, chubby, married or otherwise unavailable.

I attended his hearing at the Federal Court House one cold snowy day in the winter and was very excited to see an extremely tall good looking young guy giving his oral arguments to a judge who had already said he was inclined to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, not Joel who represented the defendants.  He had no one with him at the table and brought nothing but a notebook.  Meanwhile, plaintiffs had a whole gaggle of attorneys and paralegals and documents at their table.  I watched as Joel gently swayed the judge completely around until the ultimate decision was in favor of the defendants.  It was quite the mesmerizing performance.

I was so enthralled, I devised a plan to exit with the court crowd and then head back in as though I had forgotten something, and just bump into Joel.  So that’s what I did.  When we bumped, I could not get over how tall he was at 6’8″.  He pierced his way right into my soul (okay that’s overly dramatic), he gave me a piercing gaze (that’s overused), his light green eyes knowingly gazed into mine and I was gone.  Someone introduced us.  I felt a strange feeling in my stomach.  I know, I know.  You’re supposed to feel it in your heart.  When I got home that night, I remember looking out my window and saying to myself, “I’m going to marry that man.”  And that’s after five years on the singles scene and having no intention of ever settling down again.  I was happy on my own.

He began sending me huge bouquets of exotic flowers that would say, “Enjoy your Tuesday.”  It took us quite a while to finally hook up.  We danced around each other for awhile and then finally met up for a bike ride followed by sushi.  We were basically never apart again.  We went to his office and looked at a map of the US to find a place where neither of us had been with any other date and booked tickets for three days later.  That place was South Beach Miami on Valentine’s weekend.  We had a fabulous time.

We were married six weeks later in the bar at Panzano’s in the Hotel Monaco in Denver, witnessed by our two gay bartender friends.  In the meantime, I had to kick out a guy who was living with me and he had to tell a woman who was moving here to live with him goodbye so there were so rough edges and I hope by now they have forgiven us.

Fourteen years later I can say there is love at first sight.  You feel it in your gut.  You know it in you body and it cannot be intellectualized.  A list of pros and cons will do no good.  Love wants what it wants.

Biceps Boy and Hitting the Tranquilo Button

FullSizeRender (1)My first full day back in the US, my husband stayed home from work so we could go to lunch together.  I drove my car since it had been a long time since I had been behind the wheel of my own vehicle.  I was feeling as though I had good parking karma as a car was pulling out right in front of me in a primo spot near the café.  As I moved to turn into it, a driver coming from the wrong direction (these were diagonal spots for those going in my direction) held up his heavily muscled arm and shot me the bird as he nearly hit me, zipping into the recently vacated parking spot with his oversized truck.  He actually gave me the finger and practically grazed my front end!

I suppose he presumed his muscle head t-shirt rolled up above his bulging biceps gave him the right to do that, as in he could beat me up.  Or maybe it was his oversized truck that has absolutely no practical purpose in the City of Denver and contributes to our reliance on foreign oil that made him feel entitled since his rig was bigger than my sedan and he could crush me.  (For places where an enormous pickup truck is necessary see photo above of cow walking down the street in Costa Rica.  They graze freely.  I’m sure a rancher would love a big truck to bring hay to his ranch, if any were to be had.  I doubt hay had been in back of said Biceps Boy’s pickup truck.)

But there may have been a problem with Biceps Boy and his astounding fitness level as gauged by his enormous upper body.  I wonder if he had frog legs and perhaps could not obey the law and drive halfway around the block to park and walk to the restaurant.  Maybe he really needed that spot.  Maybe he didn’t have time to work out his lower body so it had atrophied.  In that case, I feel sorry for him.  Maybe they have handicapped stickers for guys who overwork their beach muscles and neglect their walking muscles.

Whatever the reason, I assumed he had completed his shifty maneuver, but I had misjudged him.  Since he came from the wrong direction he needed to straighten out his truck.  As I was passing, he slammed his monster into reverse and attempted to ram into my car, the side my husband was sitting in.  Biceps Boy was actually going to smash my husband’s pelvis to prove that the parking space was his damn parking space.  I temporarily froze and honked, a sound I hadn’t heard for 32 days so it shocked me.  Regaining my senses, since he kept backing up and it appeared he was about to jump down from his now open driver’s side car door, I sped up and went halfway around the block myself where there were plenty of spots and a whopping 30 second walk to the café.

I did a quick body scan and realized I wasn’t angry.  The tranquilo button had worked.  You see, I had tried to figure out a way to maintain the feeling of tranquility that came over me after the first week in Samara, Costa Rica and rested in my bones by the end of the trip.  So I decided I would mentally install a tranquilo button in my brain and push it when I was about to lose my tranquility for whatever reason.  I was not about to let Biceps Boy’s problem and anger become my problem and anger.  Why should I care that he was a jackass?  I’m not married to him, in fact, I’m not married to a jackass at all.  I have a wonderful husband and family.  So I forgot about him until I decided to write about him today as a comparison to my more contemplative mode beginning March 1st.

I’m determined to keep the tranquilo button attached and active.  So far, so good.  In some ways, too good.  I was 20 minutes late picking my son up from school.  Meeting times in Costa Rica were mas o menos, more or less.   A little parking space rage had not made me into an angry person.  Pura vida I whispered as a blessing to Biceps Boy.

Culture Shock Upon Re-Entry To The USA


I have one day left in this beautiful country where howler monkeys swing from trees in front on me while I sip coffee at dusk, where the sunsets are red, where armadillos and porcupines root around on the ground at dawn, where parrots are not in cages and where the cacophony of insects, reptiles and birds lulls me to sleep at night.  I am nervous about going back to Colorado after 31 days here, and not just because it is cold and snowy there.

I’m afraid I will fail to incorporate the things I have learned here into my daily life and I will go right back into being a materialistic person, ensconced in a big house that keeps out nature.  Sure, it will be nice not to have to pick bugs out of my juice and shower without ants, and drip with sweat at 7:30 a.m. as I’m doing now, but I’m talking about the bigger stuff.  Will I make it a point to find out what time the sun sets and go watch it?  Will I continue to rise at dawn because after all of these days, my circadian rhythm is in tune with the sun?  Will I continue to be active, not because it is exercise but because I want to see things and it is a mode of transportation, such as hiking?

And then there are the biggest things.  One night last week I received real insight into Tico families. One of their biggest holidays is Semana Santa, or Easter Week.  Everyone from San Jose and all across the country rushes to the beaches (where I am) and sets up tarps and chairs and blares boom boxes and dines from their ice chests.  It is a tremendous party and traffic comes to a complete halt wherever you go if it is towards a beach.  It is quite the scene.

Well at the little hotel to which I had escaped to get some air-conditioning (okay, I’m soft, but it has been hard to sleep at the house I rented when the temperature is 98 degrees!), I met a Tico family.  The 28 year old marketing executive from San Jose was very patient with me and we spoke only in Spanish.  His 11 year old niece and mother only spoke Spanish.  They invited me to a different beach and I invited them to dinner.  I could tell the expense concerned them so I chose a place where we could split a pizza.    I learned that Daniela lived with her grandmother because her mother was beginning a new life with her new fiancé.  Dwight continued to live with his mother, even though he has a girlfriend and a job, because that is how it is done in Costa Rica.  A 21 year old brother  with a baby and the grandfather also live at their home in San Jose.

I did not do a good job hiding my shock to learn Daniela’s mother had “abandoned” her so she could run off with a new man.  When I asked why Daniela did not live with her mother, the grandmother seemed to thing I was estupido and answered that her daughter needed to start a new life.  All three of them looked at me like I was crazy.  Of course beautiful Daniela was going to live with with her grandmother and two cousins who loved her.  And there is my point.  There seems to be no distinction between immediate family and extended family in Costa Rica.  Cousins are as good as sisters and all are welcome to live in each other’s homes.  I have noticed this when I ask questions of other Ticos.  I ask who they live with and they initially say my brother but it turns out it is really a nephew.

So back to the biggest things–family.  There’s a saying in the US when family comes to stay with you that family is like fish:  After three days you throw them out.  (Notice I do not say American anymore.  I got chewed out by a Tico for saying that.  He said, “We are all Americans.”  He was correct.)  So personally, I would like to get rid of that idea of fish and family in my psyche.  The Ticos have it right.  I watch the way my son adores his cousins.  My son is basically an only child since my two older boys are 12 and 14 years older than him.  So when he sees his cousins, he’s in heaven.  Unfortunately, they moved from Denver to Minneapolis.  But we have airplanes.  I need to help strengthen those bonds.  I picked this family.  My husband’s family is awesome.  My son could see more of them.  I do not have to just talk about the importance of family but I need to show it, even when it is not convenient for me or it is not necessarily what I want to do.

And another biggest thing is materialism.  My Spanish teacher wore the same shorts to school three days out of four.  I am positive she knew how cute she looked in them. Ticos do not care as much about material things as US people do.  For us, it is always a rush to have the latest iPhone and the newest MacBook and the coolest car.  Ticos do not seem to have the sense of entitlement that we have grown up having.  Yet I have to repeat myself from previous posts, all polls show they are the happiest people on Earth.

For Ticos, a biggest thing is ecology.  I mention this last because in Colorado, most of us are very good at recycling, taking care of our forests, and conservation.  This comes pretty naturally to me from 37 years of living in Boulder, Denver and Fraser.

So I gave myself, and my husband said take it, unlimited freedom to explore myself while exploring Costa Rica and working on my Spanish.  I have shared what I have learned through these posts.  The real challenge begins when I hit US soil, hopefully on time, tomorrow night.

I want to plan a trip with my son to visit his cousins this summer when school is out.  I may make this break from work permanent since my son is entering those dangerous years–those teenage years that can be so crazy.  I want to be around for him.  I want to stop my addiction to Zappos.com (I’m a VIP member) and take a walk or look up the time for the sunset and go watch it.  I already have at least 100 pairs of shoes to walk around in!  Even though I am renting out our home in the mountains, I am going to  make it a point to get up there and hike and kiss a tree, seriously.

I am so grateful for all of the things I have in my life, whether I need them or not.  At this moment, after being here in Costa Rica on my solo adventure, I am most grateful for having a loving family, and a loving extended family.  I am grateful we have a second home in the mountains to use as a base for mountain biking, although now slower hikes to appreciate the beauty of the trees and trail and streams are what I am after.

My husband said he needed to purge some of his junk.  After this trip, I think a purge of things I do not need is a great idea.  It will be a big pile.  After all, we really do not need much in the way of material items.  I have learned that here.

I continue to feel nervous.  As soon as I arrive in Houston I imagine myself freaking out when I see a Starbucks.  I have not seen one for 30 days.  I do not care for Starbucks at all.  I prefer independent coffee shops.  I imagine Texans will be very loud and that will make me anxious.  People here are very tranquil.  I imagine the person sitting next to me on the plane asking me why I have such a nice tan, and I will say, “Because I was in Costa Rica at the beach,” as I put my headphones on.

Freedom Is Not Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose

Monteverde-130Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  I’ve thought a lot about those lyrics over the years.  I’ve come to disagree with her.  I am writing about it because the nature of this trip is having unlimited freedom to do whatever I want to do for a month.  I decided to come to Costa Rica and I picked Sámara, a beautiful beach town in southwest Costa Rica in Guanacaste as my home base.  I rented, through VRBO, the bottom level of a house about a mile from the beach with no air-conditioning and two bedrooms.  I have my own courtyard and outdoor kitchen, Costa Rican style.  I wanted to keep costs down so I could travel other places and not worry about double paying.  It has worked out well, although I admit, I came to a hotel a few nights just for the air-conditioning.

I have had three weeks to think about what total freedom means, and it is not what you think it means.  (Isn’t that a line from Princess Bride?)  Freedom, to me, is taking 100% responsibility for my actions.  I cannot think of a time when I would have “nothing left to lose” as Joplin sang.  I always have my trustworthiness, caring for myself and others, respect for myself and others, my strong sense of justice, responsibility for my actions and my sense of community.  I do not see how those could be taken away without becoming unscrupulous.  For me, being unscrupulous, breaking my moral code, would bring guilt and make me feel bad.  That is not freedom.  I cannot think of a time when I would have nothing left to lose because I would always have my honor even if I lost my material possessions.

As an example, take the person who smokes cigarettes.  She is free to smoke even though she knows it is not good for her health.  But shouldn’t her freedom end at the beginning of my nose?  Second-hand smoke is bad for one’s health.  Should her unlimited freedom include the right to harm someone else?  In my opinion, it should not.  If it were me, and I smoked, I would not smoke around others because it would hurt me to hurt others.  So, would I lose my freedom because I would feel like I had done a bad thing to someone else and that feeling would not provide unlimited freedom?  No, I think I would feel greater freedom.  I would respect others’ freedom to breathe clean air so my unlimited freedom to smoke is unlimited in the sense that it’s contained by my sense of responsibility to others.

I recently took a trip out to central Costa Rica to explore a cloud forest called Monteverde.  There, the Ticos are rapid environmentalists.  In the hotel, a sign proclaimed sarcastically that the tap water was fine, but if the guest wanted to support the plastics industry by insisting on buying bottled water, it was available at the grocery store.  Each room had three bins for recycling.  The trip to the Visitors’ Center was accompanied by a lecture about staying on the paths and packing out what you packed in.  I was used to this from hiking in Colorado but they were particularly adamant in Monteverde, perhaps because of the number of foreign tourists.

So, if no one was looking, didn’t I have unlimited freedom to dump my protein bar rapper in the woods?  I don’t think so.  My freedom extends to the point where someone else’s enjoyment ends due to my actions.  That wrapper would ruin the feeling that one was all alone in a magnificent forest, the feeling I had while treading lightly on the meandering footpaths through the tropical jungle filled with toucans, quetzals, monkeys and  all kinds of exotic animals.  The way the clouds rushed into the valley creating multiple rainbows is a whole other story.  Was I really free to destroy that enjoyment for someone else by leaving evidence of a human?  I do not think so.  My unlimited freedom again was contained my own character.

I have friends who have lied to me.  They have unlimited freedom to lie to me.  But there are consequences.  I do not trust them anymore.  I am not friends with some of them any longer.  It’s difficult to tell the truth all the time.  But I’ve come to believe it is more difficult to lie.  No, I’m not Catholic.  I’m not wracked with guilt when I lie.  I just feel the consequences to me are worse.  I have defeated my own moral code and sense of justice that I expect of others.

So while I have unlimited freedom here in Costa Rica, that does not mean I will suddenly change my character.  Freedom in not another word for nothing left to lose.  Freedom is taking 100% responsibility for your actions.  Only then can you feel totally free to enjoy your life and do whatever you want.  At least, that is my experience.