The happy side of shadows


Shades of Shadows on BeachLike millions shoveling out again, I’m ranting that the rodent saw his shadow. It’s not just about the six extra weeks of winter. No, I’m disturbed that Punxsutawney Phil continues to give shadows a bad name.

You’d think if he didn’t see his shadow – if clouds and bluster stole it away, like Wendy’s dog with Peter Pan – then we’d be in for the whopping weather. But nope. Shadows are our metaphor for gloom.

Only, this is just plain wrong, and now science is finally able to prove it. For decades, psychologists studied our dysfunction – why we’re depressed, what causes divorce, what motivates misbehavior. Then a new crop of researchers infused a Positive Psychology movement, which exploded over the last decade into an exciting Science of Happiness field – sort of the “glass-half-full” of the research set.

They’re using high def scans and state-of-the-art tests that offer windows into the brain and body like we’ve never seen before. And you know what they’re finding? That happiness actually changes our neurons, strengthens our immune system, and helps us to live longer.

So what does this have to do with shadows? Everything. Because, according to dozens of studies, one of the keys to happiness is compassion.

We all have dark sides, those dreadful-selves that we hide, feed, anesthetize or ignore; the ugly parts that we condemn in others. But, like upright posture, opposable thumbs and blushing, these shadows help make us uniquely human. And when we embrace them, comfort them, show compassion to the ghosts in ourselves and those around us, we all are truly happier.

In fact, when we add that “e” to make us humane, we’re biologically igniting the feel-good shimmy that we can’t help whenever we hear Pharrell Williams’ Happy

The happiness research is fascinating. It has pinpointed practical techniques that bolster our own compassion and inner peace, and has tremendous implications for our communities and world as well.  (I’ll be sharing some in future blogs, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend University of California/Berkeley’s self-paced, online Science of Happiness course.)Shadows of hikers

In the meantime, when you encounter a shadow in yourself or others, try to be kind. It is the surest way to weather the winter still to come – which, by the way, isn’t really poor Punxy Phil’s fault:  when Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers wanted to celebrate their German holiday of Candlemas (“For as the sun shines on Candlemas day, so far will the snow swirl in May…”), they grabbed a hibernating groundhog. And that’s how a sunny Feb. 2 continues to give shadows a bum rap.