Happiness in a Gingerbread House

How To Be Happy

How to be happy yields approximately 450,000,000 results in a Google search.  At that number, they don't bother to be precise.  Amazon.com gets you 2914 hits in the book department.

Nevertheless, I betcha I get my own share, as I explore the specific application of gingerbread houses to research reported in The New Science of Happiness by Claudia Wallis.

Research On Happiness

Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, started off a flurry of happiness research when he picked happiness and oddly enough, mental health as the theme of his tenure, a decade ago.  His own contribution is Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.  More on Seligman below.

Moment-Based Happiness

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happiness research focuses on the immediate.  What are you doing right now?  And how much are you enjoying it?  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no kidding) spent money on this one.  He had to develop a hand held computer device to prompt the questions at random intervals.  It would have cost less if he had waited for an IPod app.  Maybe this was the forerunner?

Taking care of my children ranks very low on this What are you doing right now; and how much are you enjoying it survey.  However, it is often cited as the most rewarding experience in a parent's life.

As it happens, raising this young man was the very most rewarding experience of my life.  That night when he was fifteen and hanging out with a friend at the mall, however...  not so much.  Not if you had asked me right then.

Happiness And Outcomes

So the outcome colors ones experience of happiness.  Daniel Kahneman studied colonoscopies, of all things.  What are colonoscopies are doing in an article and blogpost on happiness?  It's a backward approach (so to speak).  But the point is that how people feel about their experience of a colonoscopy depends on the result more than the level of discomfort or even pain.

But let's get back to the topic, happiness in a gingerbread house.  Gingerbread is a more suitable example, or at least one more pleasant to contemplate.  The roof in this photo did not break.  I had learned from that other one.

And I did NOT use a $50 bottle of single malt scotch as a wall brace, even though my brother-in-law was so moved by my story of woe that he bought me another.

">Theology Alert! text-align: center;"> So liturgical preachers who have to do Good Friday every year now have new material -- research to support why we call the day that Jesus died Good Friday.  It is because we remember how it turned out -- presented here on the left side of the triptych -- the Resurrection.
And The Lottery -- Circumstances "> David Lykken "> Nor does knocking over a nearly full bottle of double aged single malt scotch, inappropriately used as a wall brace.  Okay, so I remember it.  It's just not very important to my happiness, not now.
Memory-Based Happiness
Seligman focuses more on remembered experience than on the moment-to moment.  He says that remembered happiness comes from pleasure, engagement (depth of involvement with family, work, romance and hobbies), and meaningfulness (using personal strengths to serve some larger ends).

My gingerbread adventure had all three in spades.


Way back last winter, when I first committed to this project, I knew there would be mule deer running through the trees.  There are 2000 inhabitants in Sisters, Oregon, the site of the finished project.  280 of these inhabitants are mule deer.  More move in during winter, when feed gets scarce in the mountains.  But you can tell the locals, because they look both ways before crossing the street.  I never found a mule deer cookie cutter.  These are reindeer with the antlers cut off.  I got a kick out of them, especially their little red noses and white butts.  They are to scale, by the way.

I figured the trees out early.  These are waffle cones, broken in pieces and glued back together in layers, using dark brown royal icing.  Next I frosted with tan icing mixed with coconut for texture, with not quite complete coverage, so the dark showed through in places.  Then came the green, again with the coconut.  The powdered sugar was my finishing touch.  I felt like a kid, doing a craft project with library paste.

Oh, and then there was that chimney.  The prototype used ribbon candy, nice rectangular shapes.  But I couldn't find ribbon candy at Fred Meyer in Redmond.  So I used Christmas Mix.  Think marbles in place of Legos, transforming myself from a brick layer to a builder of stone walls.  So I am insanely proud that it stands.  I am not sure, but I think it may be tall enough to meet code.

This made me happy.


A couple weeks ago, I reported a study on happiness and mind wandering.  Short version: they don't mix.  Engagement is the converse.  The more you are absorbed in what you are doing in the immediate moment, the happier you are.

Sex rates the highest on the engagement scale.  People pay attention to what they are doing during sex 80% of the time.  If it were higher, you know the responders would be lying.  80% seems realistic and yet still really healthy.

Okay, so this wasn't sex.  But I did hold my breath.

Sometimes my tongue even stuck out.

Building a gingerbread house is like building a house of cards.  everything has to balance while it is going up.  Except the pieces break when they fall.  This is an exercise that requires engagement.  Your mind cannot wander.

Though I worked mostly by myself, the gingerbread houses did draw me into relationships.  My sister-in-law created Pierre here.

After the installation, I traveled the Gingerbread Trail to see the twenty-four other houses in Sisters.  I met other artists.  (No, I don't have their pictures.  I don't do pictures.)  We shared the bond of insane pride in our silly little creations.  Not to mention a thinly veiled competition.

This made me happy. 


Pleasure brings happiness.  But of the three, pleasure, engagement and meaningfulness, pleasure is the weakest.  It is fleeting, after all.  The outcome may change the emotional interpretation.  Relationships and meaning endure.

This was a labor of love.  The Gingerbread Trail is a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity, the Sisters, Oregon chapter.  People tour the trail and vote for their favorites by putting donations into a box.  They can vote for as many and as much as they like.  Go to Sisters, Oregon before January 6th and you can vote, too.  Vote for me.  But vote for the others, as well, if you like.  The money all goes to Habitat.  It's just that mine is located at home base.

Or go here, if your travel plans to not include Oregon this month.

Habitat operates worldwide, making home ownership possible for people of limited means.  A person or family applies to a local chapter for a house.  A team of volunteers builds it.  The receiving family contributes labor.  Then they pay for it with a no-interest loan.  Then they help with the next build (or do other volunteer work, if not physically able.)

Home ownership creates financial stability and pulls people out of poverty.  Duh.  When we were in Sisters, my sister-in-law drove us past the first Habitat build in town.  She said the son has just graduated from medical school.

Go to this website to learn more about how Habitat was formed, where it works, what innovative construction technologies they use, what Jimmy Carter has to do with it, how you can give and how you can get involved.

My little gingerbread house with the snowman with attitude is helping to raise funds for another house, one for people.

This makes me happy.

So here is another piece of meaningfulness.  Most of the fund-raising for the Sisters Habitat comes from what is called a ReStore.  When you have leftover paint or wood from a home improvement project, when you upgrade your refrigerator, or replace your front door, you can donate the unwanted materials to a ReStore.  It will do three things.

  • It will recycle.
  • It will build houses with money from the resale of your donated items.
  • It will keep tons of stuff out of landfills.

The Gingerbread Trail is sponsored by Sisters' ReStore.  In keeping with the spirit, I included in my house a reindeer Pez dispenser that somebody gave me and that I intended to toss.  I donated materials I bought and decided not to use to a food bank.  I gave leftover candy to the ReStore for their snack bowl.

This also made me happy.

Now, this project did not cure me of bipolar 2.  The wheel turned again.  I expect it to continue.

But it made the good time better, while I was totally absorbed in molding a cat out of gingerbread dough and then painting it to resemble Miss Jennie, the ReStore cat.  I am not crazy about cats.  And she had to be a calico.  But she totally absorbed my attention.

I have developed a basis for future relationships.

When there are so many things I am no longer able to do, and when I am acutely aware of how difficult this project was when once it would have been easy, I will remember that I managed to do it anyway.

And I have made a difference.

It made and makes and will continue to make me happy.

flair from facebook
photo of Jacob and Jenny by Nancy German
photos of gingerbread by Helen Keefe
forest photo by Maylene Thyssen,
La crucifixión con la oración en el huerto y la resurrección, 1520
by Lucas Cranach and in the public domain

1 comment:

  1. Great post Willa!

    This was a point that connected with me; "The more you are absorbed in what you are doing in the immediate moment, the happier you are."

    I keep hearing how distracted and fragmented people, especially in the work world, are feeling.

    Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation about happiness...and the making of a Gingerbread House!

    Keep creating...a compelling story,


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