The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.
Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.
Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.
Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.
So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones. There are some things we just have to do.
On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.
Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.
But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.
Strike one: Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself. At. All. Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.
Strike two came at the playground: Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.
Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages. Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.
Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.
I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do? I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents??? Or even a mall employee?
Very sad. What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time? Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?
Strike three: Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.
Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.
As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.
This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.
Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation. More mall fall-out? Or just the way it is these days? Either way, something is wrong here.
Strike Four: $anta Claus Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).
So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”
But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.
Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.
Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap. It is about commerce, not magic.
Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.
Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.
I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience. Is nothing sacred?
Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”
Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire. As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.
Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up. Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!