For the love of “lo sport” (or why sharing fun is good for you!)

Still popping antacids from the overload of fried dough, buffalo wings, chili dogs, and chips? I am referring, of course to America’s gatherings of friends, fun, and food for the love of lo sport—The Super Bowl. No doubt you engaged in some rowdy arguments during those close calls and then all-out celebration if the team you were rooting for won.  In the U.S. we use the term “football widow” to describe women who feel abandoned when married to avid sports fans, but in Italy, calcio is an obsession that crosses all boundaries of gender and generation. From bambini to nonni and everyone in-between—rarely will you find an Italian who can pass up a good game of soccer! Case in point: While in the U.S. the first thing one asks when making a new acquaintance is “What do you do?” in Italia, the more urgent question is  “di che squadra e’ (What team do you root for)?”

Soccer championships unite Italians into one big extended family that goes beyond small clusters of friends sitting before a big screen TV in someone’s home. During a championship match every bel paese restaurant, bar and café’ fills with newly formed famiglia revving up over Serie A teams that may claim one’s loyalty for an entire lifetime—like Roma, Juventus, Inter, Lazio, or Napoli. A normally bustling Italy can come to a complete standstill as moments of baited breath interlace with emotional bursts of every variety.  Following sports as a community is a phenomenon that goes beyond just which team makes a goal. In Italy the ritual of enjoying sports with others speaks to a phenomenon synonymous with life itself.  Cursing, expressions of love, suspenseful silence, colorful fireworks, screams of frustration, cheers of elation, hugs, kisses—all of these are behaviors that give testimony to the great celebration of living. While in Italy you might not find wings and fries, you will find that the good feeling of camaraderie, no matter whose team won or lost, lasts beyond the processions and banner-carrying crowds the day of the victory. Games will be talked about, argued about, cheered about for a long time afterwards. It is called sharing the fun.

As it turns out, sharing fun promotes well-being. One of the behavioral interventions to promote happiness in the field of psychology is called “pleasant events therapy”. Getting together just for the fun of watching a sports event, can actually have the power to put you in a lasting good mood. If sports isn’t your thing there are plenty of alternatives, and I urge you to make a list of them right now. Perhaps you’d like to create a group event around your favorite weekly TV show (one of mine is Boston Legal) or start an Italian conversation group at a nearby coffee house. Why not let the Italian love for lo sport serve as your model for a positive outlook in 2012?

———————-

Love these posts as much as I love writing them? Then please let your Facebook and Twitter contacts know about this site and be sure to “follow” me by clicking the icon to the right.  Mille grazie to all of my readers!

Lessons of “Il Limone” (the lemon)

Inherent in the Italian philosophy of life, is an unmistakable acceptance of human difficulties, along with a firm conviction that no matter what befalls us, we will always get by. L’arte d’arrangiarsi is about knowing that you already have what it takes to turn  your life’s “lemons into Limoncello”. The “art” of getting by is about changing perspective. It is about reframing our problems, so that they are no longer “problems”, but rather challenges, that make us more creative, more resourceful, and even more spiritual as human beings.

One summer day I trudged up the steep winding road connecting Vettica Maggiore (the section of Praiano that embraces the gulf of Salerno) with its medieval counterpart on the mountain above.  As I struggled to continue forward under the sweltering heat of a glaring Italian noon sun, a little yellow blimp abruptly severed from its tree branch by the weight of its juices, and plunked itself right down at my feet.  Like everything else Italian, this proud limone amalfitano refused to be passed by without due admiration.  As I knelt to take a closer look, an inquisitive elderly gentleman came walking, almost floating towards me, with a cane hooked over his arm, apparently more for decoration than necessity.

“This lemon is much too beautiful to go to waste, isn’t it?” I remarked in Italian, just to make small talk.

The stranger cocked his head curiously.

Il li-mo-ne,” I enunciated, thinking he hadn’t heard.

Ho sentito, ho sentito,” I heard you, he replied.  “Ma scusa, perche’ dovra’ andare spreccato?”  But excuse me, why would it go to waste?

“Well, because it fell, of course” I declared; as if it were a universal truth that you shouldn’t eat fruit that has fallen to the ground.

Then, with a smile that made the Italian octogenarian seem boyishly chivalrous, he looked me straight in the eye and replied, “Per favore, please hand me that lemon.  I bring these home to my wife, who turns them into Limoncello!”

And there it was—an effortless solution to the fallen fruit predicament, in a land where dilemma for its own sake enjoys full-acceptance status.  To Italians, the severity of any problem –large or small–is determined by how one views it. To me the fallen lemon was sour; to the signore it was sweet, sweeter still for the challenge to turn it into something even better than it was before.

Luigi Pirandello’s classic play “Cosi’ e’ (se vi pare),It Is So if You Think It Is” —affirms that the conflict between perception and reality is simply the product of individual perspective and its subjective illusions.  The Italian perspective is that life should be satisfying, joyful, and passionate. Thus, the tendency to resolve problems creatively, and without belaboring them.

Just for today, try re-framing the problems that arise, seeing the sweetness in the challenge, and welcoming the confidence that comes with striving for  the dolce vita–the sweet life– that you deserve.

—————-

Want more self-help with the sweetness of Italy? If so, let me know what your greatest challenges are, and I will address them in this blog. Love to read your comments to my posts!  Mille grazie.

Sciopero! Every Now and Then, Go on Strike!

In a way, Italy’s characteristic and commonplace scioperi, strikes, seem to serve as a built-in cultural reminder for Italians to take a pause now and then and just quiet down. Not that they need the reminder. On the other hand, we do. When was the last time you declared a strike from your daily hectic pace to simply observe?  First century Roman philosopher Epictectus once said, “Nature has given us one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”  His advice apparently spoke to great minds like Leonardo Da Vinci and Nicolo Machiavelli—the former who preferred to observe how birds fly and water falls; the latter who kept his lips sealed while reflecting on politics and human behavior. Important insight often comes not from action, but from inaction— and silencing the mind.  We all need to balance our lives with downtime, which is the first thing we cut out in the hustle and bustle of trying to make ends meet in a tough economy. Yet, il dolce fare niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, is the very remedy that can help us get clear on what is really important to us.

From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, it is easy to pollute our days with mindless tasks, and torment our minds with negative thoughts—so much so that we lose track of the passage of time. We frenetically over-schedule ourselves with to-do lists. We ruminate about things we should have said or done and can’t sleep at night as we mentally replay our transgressions.

Perhaps you were one of the many people, who at the start of the New Year, asked themselves,  “Where did 2011 go?” Still others look back and sadly ask, “I can’t believe all these years have passed, and I still haven’t done the things I really want to do.”  If you get so consumed with the daily mechanics of life that you forget to slow down and savor the good moments, as well as reflect on what can be done about the tough spots, you might try declaring a personal sciopero, and allowing yourself a daily practice of stillness. You’d be surprised what can come of it if you make it a habit.

Convincing people of the value of Il dolce fare niente is not easy in a society whose Puritanical roots promote guilt in response to “ idleness”. Yet it is only through this balance that we can really achieve lasting well-being. Don’t become so busy that you miss out on the insight that comes through the classic Italian practice of stillness and observation. From here on in declare a daily five-minute personal sciopero. Stop whatever you are doing, at a certain time each day,  go outside, let the sunshine warm your face, and take a slow deep breath.  The rest of the world will just have to wait.

————————

If you love this post and love this self-help blog, with my characteristic Italian flavor, please let those you care about know, so they can read it too. As always, I love hearing from you!  Tune in to the Faith Middleton show on WNPR This Friday March 30 at 3PM and/or 9PM to hear my interview with Faith. The show will also be archived online. Mille grazie.

“Tola su Dolsa” (Take the Sweetness of Life)

Once, on the train from Naples to Rome, I was flipping through La Repubblica, and noticed a review for a self-help book on happiness by Italian psychologist Giulio Cesare Giacobbe, of Genoa. I couldn’t wait to get to the bookstore at Rome’s Termini station to buy the book, and when I finally held it in my hands, I was surprised to see that it was a scant 100 pages. Could one actually teach people how to live happier lives in such a short treatise? The Professor’s message was clear and simple; his advice sound: Focus on happy thoughts, and you will feel happy.

As it turns out, the research on the psychology of happiness confirms that changing what you think about really does change your mood. The most common cultural mantras repeated throughout Italy today, give testimony to an instinctual wisdom that preceded any formal psychological laws of happiness: Tola su dolsa. Arrangiarsi. Tira a compare. Different dialects, similar concept.  All of them reflecting a conviction that we can overcome life’s hardships if we stay focused on its gifts,

Mauro, for example, lives on the outskirts of Italy’s “food valley”, the extraordinary city of Parma. Parma is known best for its exquisite cheeses, hams, famous musicians, artists, and its bountiful, velvety violets from which the Violetta di Parma fragrance was first created for nineteenth century duchess Maria Luigia, who cultivated the purple flowers herself.

“There is nothing more destructive than thinking sad thoughts,” Mauro mused one day as we enjoyed a leisurely espresso on Piazza Garibaldi, in Parma’s favorite people-watching district. The Parmigiani are renowned for their characteristic cheerful, upbeat demeanor. While they might raise their voices occasionally for argument’s sake–after all, a good argument is always stimulating—they are acutely aware of the difference between the type of argument that stimulates the intellect, and the type that diminishes the quality of Italian life.

What is Mauro’s solution when life disappoints him? As he will say in his dialect:“Tola su dolsa”, which, loosely translated, means “take the sweetness from life (and leave the rest)”. This philosophy is woven into all aspects of Parmigiano life. Even going to the store to buy a cartridge pen (yes, they still use them) is a social event in this eloquent corner of the world. The storekeeper makes customers feel like royalty. She will show various models, offer a gold-embossed foglio, paper to try them out, and exchange pleasantries with a tazza di caffe’.

Tola su dolsa is the gentle flow of simple, uplifting moments that make you feel happy to be alive at the end of the day.  It is a philosophy of cushioning life’s sharper edges—for yourself and for others— with the softness of positivity. This week, your assignment is to stay focused on life’s gifts, and help others who might be hurting, to do the same.

—-

(Adapted form an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). For more self-help with a “dolce vita” approach, please visit this blog daily, and help me spread the word. Letting others know about my work is like giving them the gift of positivity!

Tune in or stream in to my show “The Art of Living Well” on wnhu.net  or 88.7FM. Tomorrow–a discussion about the joy of ballroom dance!    Also,  I will be interviewed in NPR’s “Faith Middleton Show” this week. On Friday, 3/30, you can hear the show on your local NPR station at 3PM and 9PM, or download a podcast. As always, I love to hear from my readers! mille grazie.

The Italian Antidote to “solitudine” (loneliness)

Our American lifestyle can sometimes be a precursor to loneliness, if we are not careful, especially among those in the terza eta’. Midlife often brings with it the threat of isolating illness; the care of aging parents (which leaves little time for socializing); empty nest syndrome, job layoffs or retirement; and maybe even the devastating loss of a spouse through death or divorce. When I recently asked a group of American baby boomers what their biggest challenge in this stage in life is, “loneliness” was the resounding response.

The traditional Italian lifestyle has a built-in loneliness immunization booster:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             becoming Becoming a “regular”, or frequenting the same places in your quotidianita’ , your daily or weekly rhythm.  In more collectivistic cultures like Italy, social interaction is a priority, and serves as an antidote to isolation. Whether the famiglia is in close physical proximity or not, Italians enmesh their lives with the community in which they live, and this supports them as they roll with life’s punches.

As the theme song to the television show Cheers, reminded us: “Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.”  Italians build healthy social habits around taking their afternoon coffee break at the same coffee bar each day, shopping for their evening supper supplies at the same grocery store, bringing their shoes to the same shoe repair shop, and building a lifelong relationship with the barber who has cut their hair for years. People build familiarity and mutual caring though this kind of repeated contact. A sense if community can get lost in more individualistic societies, where the spirit of independence can be both a blessing and a curse. We often dedicate disproportionate amounts of time to individual work tasks, and lone responsibilities, while putting little energy into our social network, which ultimately may even help us to live longer.

To an Italian, that monthly trip to Pasquale’s barber shop where Pasquale’s wife greets you by name while pouring you an espresso, is more important than checking off the next item on a to-do list.  Going to the same places over a long period of time is a comforting ritual that assures you are never alone.

When was the last time you opted to frequent the small mom- and- pop shops in your neighborhood, or the independent coffee houses where people actually still smile (like in the photo above of Roberto Begnini)  and make eye contact? What about going to the neighborhood market instead of the large supermarket once in awhile? While everyone is trying to cut costs, the cost of loneliness can be steep on your physical and emotional health. Your assignment this week is to become a regular at a new place in your neighborhood. Gradually, get to know people’s names. Smile at the person next to you. Make positive small talk. We all need a little cheer in these hard times. Introduce yourself and start a conversation. Staving off loneliness takes some effort but the reward of feeling like you belong somewhere pays off big when it comes to your well-being.

————-

(adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune) Your Dolce Vita Assignment: Write down a few places that have possibilites for YOU to become a regular this week. It starts with only one visit!  And so share this post with friends, so they can enjoy this self-help tip with my characteristic Italian perspective. Mille grazie and do come back for more great posts! Also, please tune  in to the Faith Middleton Show on NPR March 30th at 3 and 9 PM. We will be talking about my dolce vita approach to self-help and a happier life!

 

Yes, Let us Party Like an Etruscan!

This suggestion may seem counterintuitive amidst a zeitgeist of hard times, but instead, it is all the more urgent to declare an impromptu festa –at least once a month–as a way to boost your morale.  It doesn’t have to be fancy or costly but it does have to be filled with love, laughter, and lasting good feelings.

Italy’s tendency to festeggiare goes back to some of its oldest inhabitants, the Etruscans, whose tombs from around the 8th and 9th centuries B.C. contain the remains of detailed murals, which frequently depict banquet scenes as a commonplace part of their daily lives. The images of these celebrations depict tantalizing dishes of succulent meats, ripe colorful fruits, and an abundance of flowing wine. Guests are dancing, musicians playing, and everyone adorned in their best garb is gilded with metal jewelry.

In contemporary Italia any day is fair game to throw a festa. These celebrations come in all shapes and sizes and are not stressful events, but rather, joyful get-togethers that serve as a reminder that we share life’s journey in company. An Italian festa might be declared for name days, saint days, holidays, birthdays— or for occasions no one even pretends to have a reason for.  One woman hosts regular feste to give her son a chance to practice his opera performance with a “live audience.”  Another throws dance parties to teach her friends the new steps she learned in dance class. Entire communities throw celebratory sagre, fairs, to showcase their native produce.  Una  festa all’italiana might take the form of a sit-down dinner party, or an impromptu picnic with just a cloth thrown over the hood of the car in the middle of an olive grove.  It can be an intimate gathering with a few friends, or a community event that welcomes anyone who catches the spirit.   The size and theme of the party take a back seat to the real reason Italian life is party-driven: light hearted get-togethers create a network of human calore, warmth.

An updated version of the Etruscan-style banquet can serve as a mini mood-elevating vacation, providing you don’t let it become too costly or labor intensive.  Instead of having to purchase and prepare all of the food and drink yourself, why not embrace a monthly potluck mentality? You can even add a theme, such as “Extended Family Celebration” where you round up relatives you normally see only at wakes and weddings; or “Co-Workers Fun Festival”, where you spend some time unwinding with those you normally collaborate with on formal tasks. Assign each person (or couple) to bring an appetizer, salad or soup, beverage, meat or fish, pasta, and dessert. For music—in lieu of a virtuoso with lyre—you can turn on the stereo and choose selections that blend with your theme, or invite your more musical guests to bring their instruments along.  Participants can be reminded to dress up or down for the occasion, and after dinner everyone gets up from their chairs and dances as the mood strikes them.

Getting into a monthly festa habit can be easy, fun, and provide you with memories that will make you smile for a lifetime.

—————–

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). Why not send this post to five people you would like to gather together for your next party, and have them send it to five of their friends, too?  The gift of good feelings is the goal of this blog. If you love my brand of self-help with an Italian flare, do let me know it, by posting your comments, or subscribing to this beautiful blog–designed to give you and yours a daily uplift–Italian style.  mille grazie!

Un Bel Giardino–Time For Your Beautiful Little Garden!

The arrival of primavera gives us another opportunity to get “grounded” in the therapeutic benefits of un bel giardino. You don’t have to have a degree in botany to experience the joy of tending a garden, Italian style. As you read this, the Bel Paese is already preparing every fertile nook and cranny of its soil for an eventual abundance of succulent lemons, blood oranges, grapes, olives, tomatoes, capers, and golden durum wheat, as well as flowers.  In addition to working the body and calming the mind, growing  your own produce will also benefit your wallet.  Statistics show that a small family can save up to  2,000 dollars by eating the fruits of their own labor!

Each year as winter melts away I, too, begin to envision how my own Italian garden plot will look when in bloom. I close my eyes and imagine myself strolling down a  lavish Renaissance monastary garden toward summer’s end. There is a shady place to sit and reflect, while enjoying the fragrance of herbs, fruits, and flowers, all sculpted into beautiful architectural designs that give the spirit an esthetic vacation from the heat and bustle of city life. These gardens were often complex geometric extensions of the villas to which they belonged. Most had long aisles that extended through intermittent patches of lush green forrest and fragrant fruit trees. They were designed by artists, architects, sculptors and hydraulic engineers, whose elaborate fountains cooled the weary in the sweltering heat of summer. When I snap myself back to reality I recall the beauty and simplicity of my grandparents’ garden—-more practical than esthetic, but just as therapeutic as the high brow gardens of an era past.

A relatively new school of thought called “ecopsychology” studies the synergistic relationship between nature and human beings. Researchers have found that a close connection with nature –as in gardening—is directly connected to our personal well-being. Gardening allows us to clear our minds, get exercise, sunshine, fresh air, and soothe ourselves with the senses. The  turn- of- the -century imigrants knew nothing about ecopsychology–or any psychology for that matter. They just knew that when they worked in their orto (vegetable patch) they were happy. And at the end of the day they nourished themselves with pesticide-free fruits and vegetables like jucy red tomatoes, sweet peas right from the pods, chewy grapes picked fresh from the vine. What simpler joy could exist?

Television and sedentary living are not effective antidotes for restlessness, boredom, and stress. Creating your own Italian garden, which engages your whole being—body, mind , and spirit—can, on the other hand, lift your mood, bring friends and family together, and revive you from the winter blahs better than any television show or video game can.

Amici,  facciamo giardinaggio. Let’s get out the rake, the hoe, the shovel, and the garden gloves, and carry on the healthy tradition that would make our ancestors proud.

—————————

(Adapted from an article I wrote for “The Italian Tribune”). If you love these self-help articles with my characteristic Italian perspective, please let me know it, and also share with five of your best amici today. You will be giving them the gift of positivity and joy!