November 30, 2022

POV: Happy and Healthy Holidays

By Jill Bennett

The holidays are upon us, along with heart-felt wishes of health and happiness to our friends, neighbors, and community. Join me in unpacking what it takes to convert holiday hopes into real gifts—and in hoping this exercise doesn’t suck all the goodwill from the season.

I’m a sucker for articles, books, blogs, and podcasts on happiness. This infatuation, perhaps launched when Charles Schulz declared that “Happiness is a warm puppy,” sent me on a decades-long quest of trying to understand happiness. I should have been focusing instead on what I need to actually be happy. I’ve always been a happy-ish person, but found myself wanting more. I fell victim to the absurd belief that consumerism—having the right car, cologne, or name brand can of creamed corn—would make me happier (not to mention the number of McDonalds Happy Meals I purchased for my kids). Ultimately, I saw that consumerism, comparison, and a deficit mindset were the path to un-happiness.

Happiness, like so many fixations, always seemed to be just out of reach. Implicit in my pursuit was the idea that happiness was not only achievable, but a noble goal unto itself. What I know today is that happiness is a by-product—produced only when living right.

As to health, the second part of my holiday wish, well, it has become my newest obsession. Fueled by a messy amalgam of diet science (did you know you can have your gut biome analyzed?!) and mindfulness practices for mental health, I've come to learn that while the mishmash of genetics, environment, diet, and exercise influences our wellness, it’s complicated. As with happiness, there’s no one thing you can do to make sure you live a long and healthy life. Health, like happiness, is a by-product.

Further complicating my journey is the fact that health and happiness are inter-dependent. Our health influences our mood and our mood influences our health. Happy people are less sick and live longer. A healthy gut biome triggers intense feelings of happiness. And happiness and health are profoundly connected to friendship and community. We do get by with a little help from our friends. Touch, gossip (!), and moving in sync are good for us—and loneliness is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Yet Americans are spending less time than ever with friends. According to the American Time Use Survey,  the average American spent 37% less time with friends in 2019 that they did in 2014, a trend only exacerbated by the pandemic.

We nonprofit professionals are in the happiness business—both for ourselves and our communities. Our work promotes mental health, transforms victims into survivors, cleans our air, inspires us to think bigger and to create greater art. Volunteering makes people happier than money. Through our work, we strive to create healthy, happy communities. And our work itself can bring about restorative and even transformative powers to our own well-being. A 27-year-old Health and Retirement Study concluded that working and living with a sense of purpose—working for an ideal rather than just for a paycheck—meant living longer.

But when you gather a group of nonprofit professionals for a vent session, you’ll get more than an earful. Our peers are exhausted from being asked to do more and more on wages that force them to choose between their financial stability and their passion. These folks truly love their work and the impact it has on their community, but their connection to the mission is being interrupted by policies and organizational cultures that do little to reward them—financially or emotionally.

We’ve got to do better. Our missions—and therefore the health and happiness of our communities—hang in the balance. For every awful headline I see—the degradation of our natural resources and climate, mass shootings so frequent and so traumatizing that we’ve become numb, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, assaults on our democracy, and assaults on the bodies of people with brown skin—there is a dedicated and awe-inspiring nonprofit working to address the issue. But to protect our world, we must first protect our teams, board, and volunteers.

None of this is a quick fix. The good news, though, is that you get credit for trying. Our first response is often, “well we don’t have funds to pay people more.” True, paying people what they're worth means finding new sources of income (we’ll share some ways to make that happen in the new year). But when you look at the determinants of job satisfaction, there are many things you can do to take care of your team that are expense neutral (more on that later).

The best way to find out what your team needs is to ask them. They might tell you that some of their work is irrelevant. If so, get rid of it. If they want flexibility in where and when they complete their responsibilities, create a hybrid work environment and add flex time to your benefits. If you hear that your culture is stifling, create systems that reinforce respect and care for the individual. Own up to your mistakes as a sign of strength and character. The power of kindness can’t be overstated. Seeing people for who they are and what they bring confirms their sense of worth and begets more kindness. Recognize your privilege. (And yes, mine is visible in every paragraph of this post. More on that in a later post.)

UNA is practicing what I am preaching. We are moving to a 32-hour work week in January. Our amazing, committed, and thoughtful board approved this change in a heartbeat (It’s a 100-80-100 calculation: 100% of the pay, 80% of the time, and 100% of the results). We roll it out in January, and I can’t wait to see how many balls we drop—and leave on the ground. Important stuff? We’ll pick it up. The busy work? Let it go! We’ve also adopted a flex-time policy, added sick days to our benefits package, and traded our SIMPLE retirement plan for a 401(k) with our newest benefit partner Elevate 401(k). And we are not done adding new membership benefits to help you care for your team. We welcome your thoughts on how we can better serve you in the years to come.

I am honored to work on your behalf and hope that you, your team, your staff, volunteers, board, friends, families, and puppies (warm or otherwise) have a happy and healthy holiday!