Could quest for happiness boost mental health?

April 8, 2017 GMT

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — You don’t have to be giddy to be up, but Sandy Brekke, Heather Quackenboss and Jen Rombalski combine the two as they plan to put lessons from the World Happiness Summit to good use in the Coulee Region.

The trio also are taking a serious approach in setting goals to enhance mental health as part of the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium’s Behavioral Health Project, under a state Changemaker grant and in collaboration with the Great Rivers United Way.

Rombalski confesses she wasn’t quite sold on the concept of a “World Happiness Summit” until the final day of the March 16-19 meeting they attended in Miami, the La Crosse Tribune reported ( ).


The entrance to the meeting site was so different from any she had encountered at such a conclave — with its gauntlet of booths featuring meditation, essential oils, yoga, massage and other relaxation methods, surrounded by trees fashioned from balloons, under clouds created with clumps of white balloons, and swings suspended from the ceiling — that it was overwhelming, said Rombalski, La Crosse County’s health director.

“It took me until Sunday to latch onto,” she said. “It was different — so unlike anything I had experienced, with people in swings and knitting. My experience shifted.”

Rombalski now happily advocates the movement, in which she substitutes the common sign-off of “have a happy day” for emails with “make it a happy day.”

The fact that the summit site didn’t have a place to buy soda contributed to Rombalski’s decision to abandon Diet Dr Pepper.

“It’s been two weeks,” she said recently. “For me, it’s about controlling my own decisions. I know it causes cravings for not-so-good foods.”

What’s more, Rombalski also now begins her day with a welcoming salutation to herself.

“I started by saying, ‘Good morning, Jen,’” she said. “Then I went to, ‘Good morning, Jen. I love you.’ If you don’t love yourself, how can you love other people?”

Rombalski’s family also has expanded its prayers before dinner to include further expressions of gratitude, she said. It sometimes takes a couple of trips around the table, and examples can be as simple as gratitude that the sun is shining, she said.

Rombalski also used the technique the other day when her three children were squabbling on the way to school. She interrupted a melee and had the kids replace it with gratitude statements that restored order — to some extent, she said.

One behavioral theory has it that children must be taught to express gratitude by the age of 3, said Quackenboss, coordinator of the Behavioral Health Project, which is being retitled Better Together.

Being more present with people is one of the goals Quackenboss packed in her luggage before returning from the summit. For example, she noted that she had avoided getting a smartphone until recently when it became necessary for the job.


“It’s so easy to be sucked in” through the device to the rabbit hole of apps, Google, social media and other distractions, with the risk that technological connections push human relationships to the side, she lamented.

The other night, though, she purposefully put down the phone to spend time with 10-year-old daughter Lily — to be present with her, an action that both found rewarding, she said.

“People are always reaching for happiness,” Quackenboss said. “We think when we get the new job, we’ll find happiness. Then, we think when we get that promotion, we’ll find happiness.”

The happiness goal remains elusive, though, partly because people often define happiness differently, Rombalski, Quackenboss and Brekke said. That is especially true because of the variety of people’s statuses in life, such as poverty, homelessness, mental illness or other disadvantages, while wealth, beauty, athletic prowess and other seeming advantages don’t guarantee happiness.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it — to be positive in the response,” Rombalski said.

The ideal is to choose to be happy, she said, at the same time acknowledging that not everybody can do that.

But that’s OK, Quackenboss said, adding, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.”

Attitudes also shift, depending on time and circumstances, said Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission in La Crosse.

To the question of whether a person can choose to be happy, Brekke responded, “My general answer is (that) yes, we all choose how we respond to situations. We also have the ability to choose to share happiness with others, helping to lift them.

“But there is a big ‘but.’ There are times in life when your ‘chooser’ is turned off — times of trauma, grief, depression, etc. These are the times that other people carry you through, until the ‘chooser’ can turn back on,” Brekke said.

“To be honest, when I saw T-shirts (at the summit) that said, ‘Choose Happiness,’ I thought, ‘Two years ago, I would have been all over that,’” she said.

That was before her husband of 25 years —Gundersen Health System surgeon Eric Brekke — died in the summer of 2015, several days after suffering a cardiac event at the age of 54 while bicycling.

“I realized how many people helped me. People around me realized I needed to be carried at that time,” she said. “And that allowed me to move on.”

With tools and techniques learned at the summit, she said, “Maybe, if we can reach people to show them how to carry people and allow themselves to be carried, it will help spread happiness.”

Rombalski said, “It’s not simply having a choice, but also the ability to connect.”

Opinions on what constitutes happiness are drastically different, especially with the frequent misconception that happiness and pleasure are synonymous.

Perhaps the most striking example of polar opposite viewpoints is the contrast between most Americans’ view that money is the answer, while residents of Bhutan, a landlocked kingdom in the Himalaya Mountains in Asia, put value on each other, Brekke said.

One of the summit speakers is from Bhutan, where “the instinct of the government is not to look at the GDP (gross domestic product) but at the GNH — the gross national happiness,” she said.

“The (Bhutanese) government tries to increase opportunities for you and other citizens to be happy, and it makes decisions based on what will make people happy. It takes care of people first,” said Brekke, whose bag of happiness tricks includes her little-known ability to replicate Michael Jackson’s moves — step for step — in the classic “Thriller” video.

Her three children love it — or so she says, under duress, when confronted with evidence of that hidden talent.

The Bhutanese are very tied to nature and spend little time indoors, instead appreciating nature, said Brekke, whose knowledge of that comes in part from the fact that the Brekkes’ daughter Hannah is studying public administration in college there.

“It took her awhile to get accustomed to the fact that money is not the driver there,” Brekke said. “They don’t value things. They value people and experience.”

Brekke said she was particularly impressed with points that Luke Mckend, CEO of Google South Africa, made at the summit about people’s finding joy in work.

“He said the upcoming generation has different values. It’s not about how much money,” but rather, about promoting values that enhance lives, she said.

“I thought, ‘He’s talking about servant leadership,’” she said. “Just like the Master of Servant Leadership Program at Viterbo University. Tom Thibodeau and Rick Kyte have been doing that for years.

“La Crosse has the only program like that in the world,” she said.

The three Miami conference-goers now will focus on using the tools and techniques they learned in Miami to craft the Better Together project to improve the mental health climate in the Coulee Region.

“It’s how to infuse it into daily lives,” Quackenboss said, adding that one of the starting points will be “how to improve resilience for youths” and expanding to other sectors of the community.

Similar to the national Campaign to Change Direction that was launched in La Crosse in March 2015, Better Together aims to “change the culture of mental wellness,” she said.

Part of that is helping people realize that “it’s OK not to be OK” if they are feeling down or stressed and that resources are available to help, she said, as well as conveying the need for people to look out for each other.

“It will help people trust,” Quackenboss said.

“It will go upstream to help people before they need therapy,” Brekke said.

“People and kids don’t have to be stressed if they lean toward depression,” Quackenboss said. “We have to give them tools and skills to lean toward happiness.”

The added bonus is that helping people before they need professional help will ease the load on overwhelmed mental health workers to assist people with more severe problems, she said.

Increasing satisfaction also will be a boon to businesses, Rombalski said, because “it will make people more productive and last longer.”

Citing her own tendency to work too hard, Rombalski said, “I believe in what I do, so I’m very passionate and work hard. But I know that carries the risk of burning out. It helps me that I drive an hour to get home. That drive allows me to check out of work and into home.”


Information from: La Crosse Tribune,