Magic. It seems to be an adjective that’s used a lot in our culture at the moment. Whether it's magical supplements like Moon Juice’s dusts that are supposed to give you supper powers, or unicorn food with rainbows and sprinkles, Americans are looking to bring some magic back into their lives. But perhaps that magic is something much more internal. I'm talking about happiness.
We've all had those magical moments where we’ve showed up 110% in life and been in "the zone," whether it's playing a sport, sharing a moment with a best friend or loved one, or accomplishing a big goal. But they seem to have disappeared in our highly connected, workaholic, sleep-deprived, over-scheduled lifestyle that is making America sick, stressed, and unhappy.
Consider the statistics: According to a 2017 World Happiness Report, Americans’ happiness is at its lowest point since 2006, despite economic growth since the financial crisis. In fact the U.S. doesn’t even rank in the top ten happiest countries. Measured on a ten-point scale by the Gallup International Cantril ladder, America ranks about 6.8. Out of 155 nations it ranks 14th and a full point lower than the happiest country, Norway at 7.6.
Even though the United States government seems to be fulfilling its goal of raising economic growth with the intent of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that supposedly goes along with it, many would say it’s not working. According to a 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, one in six American adults take some form of psychiatric drug, with antidepressants leading the way followed by anxiety relievers and antipsychotics. A 2011 government report found that one in ten adults took some form of prescription drug for issues with nerves, emotions, and mental health. As you can see America’s happiness is not getting any better, it’s getting worse.
Why is the U.S. more stressed out, anxiety ridden, overmedicated, more unhappy and rich in expensive health issues? Perhaps it’s the endless pursuit of the American Dream that’s become more elusive, expensive and exhausting. Or perhaps according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist and Director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, it’s our, “multi-faceted social crisis - rising inequality, corruption, isolation and distrust.” In today’s turbulent political crisis, one can conclude it’s probably a combination of all of the above.
Relying on outside sources like our government to be our source of happiness is the wrong approach, because it’s failing us. In today’s turbulent world you have to be willing to take 100 percent of the responsibility for your life, and that includes your happiness and health. You can not rely on outside forces or others to make you happy and healthy and there are tools that can help you do this, like The Art of Living’s Happiness Program.
Image via Art of Living Foundation
Founded by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 1981, The Art of Living Foundation is an international, nonprofit, humanitarian and educational non-governmental organization. Considered by many to be a living saint, Shankar’s vision is for all to live in a stress-free, violence-free society. Powered by educational and self development courses that utilize ancient practices like yoga, meditation and breathing techniques, students of the foundation uncover and rediscover who they really are, deep pools of energy and a renewed joy and passion to live the life they are meant to live.
The Art of Living Foundation’s flagship retreat center in Boone, North Carolina, is set atop Heavenly Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a range that’s over one billion years old. The property spans over 380 acres. Legend has it that these mountains house some of the oldest quartz in the world that carry a special spiritual energy.
This peaceful getaway is for the wellness warrior and spiritual seeker alike, seeking authentic personal transformation. Launched in June 2012, the property was initially developed by the Transcendental Meditation community in 1999 as a retreat center, but was abandoned several years later. In 2011, The Art of Living Foundation purchased and renovated it turning it into their flagship retreat center (they have more than 10,000 centers worldwide in 155 countries).
I had the opportunity to experience the retreat's signature Happiness Program in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I showed up I knew nothing about the program, the foundation, or it’s founder and mission. I arrived exhausted and overworked. In fact, at the time, I thought there was something wrong with me. My energy was off, I mean really off, so much so that all my tricks stopped working, my supplements, my exercise, my tea. The brain fog was high and energy depleted. But I was willing to give this program a chance because I knew something had to change. And truth be told, I needed to bring some happiness back into my life. I love what I do and I have a great life, but something wasn't right. I was willing to give this program 110 percent of my focus that weekend. After all, I had nothing to lose except stress, anxiety, and worry.
The program started on a late Friday afternoon with some education, meditation, and breathing exercises. After dragging myself out of bed that morning, recovering from the jet lag of traveling east, I thought it would be an early night for me after our session. When I returned to my room I unexpectedly stayed up an hour-and-a-half past my usual bedtime because of an unusual surge of energy that emerged through me. I thought for sure I would have a hard time waking up the next day and getting to the early morning yoga class (when it comes to sleep, I’m an an eight hour minimum type of gal, many times nine, and when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m cranky). Surprisingly, the next morning, I easily awoke before my alarm went off, on seven hours sleep. I was stunned.
Image via Art of Living Foundation
Day two and three consisted of yoga, more education, meditation, and breathing exercises. In between sessions we dined on delicious Ayurvedic vegetarian fare made by the retreat’s onsite chefs; much of the food is grown in their organic garden on the premises. With floor to ceiling windows and breathtaking panoramic views of the Blue Ridge mountains, the dining hall is a place to sit in silence while resting your eyes on the gorgeous view. If you're lucky, you’ll get to see an ocean of clouds delicately winding their way through the soft rolling mountains. When you sit down, don’t be surprised if you don’t want to touch your cell phone for fear it will rudely disrupt the breathtaking views and peaceful energy that exudes from this magical place.
Image via Art of Living Foundation
Afternoon breaks can be filled with spa treatments from the center's award-winning Shankara Ayurveda Spa that offers traditional Ayurvedic treatments to help you further unwind, rest, and relax (they are not required by the program, they are optional and but highly recommended).
Evenings can be capped off laughing wildly by a bonfire with newfound friends from the program or enjoying some kirtan music to help distract you from your chatty mind. Mornings and breaks can also be spent walking through the gentle woods of the surrounding forests to help ground and reconnect you with mother nature. If you're seeking answers to life’s questions, take a walk through the labyrinth. And if you really want to go deep, step into one of their meditation halls built according to the ancient architectural principals of Vastu Shastra, the Indian version of feng shui, designed to focus the mind and lift the spirit. For instance, the entrance to the meditation halls face east for sunrise, while natural light floods through the rising pyramid of skylights creating a vibe of intense positive energy.
By the end of the program you may be laughing and skipping back (literally) to your room feeling high on life with a reservoir of energy you may not have felt in years (yes, I experienced this). If this happens to you, consider yourself lucky; it doesn’t happen for everyone (some even leave the program before it's over). Only those that choose to show up and give 100 percent get 100 percent in return. When you leave you may not want to jump into those old habits that create anxiety, zap your energy, and leave you feeling lifeless - and unhappy.
When you return to your life, your music may dance a little more. The flavors in your food might taste more alive. The sunrise might twinkle a little brighter and the sunset glow a little longer. Your day-to-day life and work might feel - a little more effortless.
You might laugh a little harder, smile a little more, breathe a little easier, and even experience a calm mind and deep sleep. You also might be grateful for a few more things in your life. And even thankful for your first world life. Your problems might feel just a tinny bit smaller.
That's not to say you won't have challenges in your life, or downs with the new highs. You'll have them, you'll just have a new set of tools to deal with them - to bring you back to your natural state. Back to your authentic, natural self with a relaxed nervous system and calm mind that will allow you to live a little lighter and happier in your everyday life.
When you depart the program you'll leave with new skills to take home and practice daily to help keep you centered and calm. The center will even connect you with an Art of Living organization in your city so you can continue to practice your new skills with people who live it. But you must practice and implement your new tools, ideally daily. They say it takes 40 days of practice to create a new habit. After all it took you years to create your habits of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness. I'm told that even if you miss a day in the first 40 days you must start over. Have I achieved the 40 days straight? No. But I’ve gotten pretty darn close, and my new meditations and breathing practices are a part of my weekly life, and I’ve even connected with my local Art of Living center and go their weekly for longer sessions.
When I look back, I had no idea how much stress and anxiety I was carrying. It was too much. So much so that my energy tanks were depleted and headed for burn out. This retreat had a huge impact on my life. Quite simply: it changed it. It brought happiness and joy back into my life. It also reconnected me with my authentic self. It restored my energy and surprisingly uncovered a renewed sense of self confidence, optimism, and reignited my passion for life and who I am.
Yes, magic does exist. It’s found in happiness.