A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Burlington, Vermont. It was one of those perfect long weekends. We were there in November, and winter was running late, so the weather was ideal. It was cold and clear, but not unbearable, and we would watch the sun set over Lake Champlain, bundled in our scarves and sipping hot chocolate.
We went to a market where we met a woman who made hand-knit wool caps from yarn that came from sheep that grazed in a pasture just three and a half miles from the market itself, and in fact, she was the third generation of women in her family to make these caps.
At that same market, we met a guy who made honey that came from a local breed of bees that harvested pollen from some native flower that I now forget the name of, but this honey was the color of amber and tasted like butterscotch.
We came back from that trip and told everyone about Burlington … people got bored hearing our incessant stories about “perfect Burlington.”
Our stories – that’s what we brought back from our trip to Burlington. Not wool caps and honey, but stories.
When we hear stories and create stories and tell stories, we are crafting and sharing the brand of a place, spreading awareness and interest far and wide.
There was nothing we experienced in Burlington that we don’t have in my own home town of Winter Park, Florida. Literally. Incredible farmers market? Check. Spectacular weather? Check. Local history? Check. Sunset over the lake? Oh yeah!
But something happens when we travel away from home. We open our eyes and turn off the cynicism that normally shades our view, and we welcome into our minds and our souls all those things that make a place special.
When I ask people to tell me their stories of how they wound up living where they live, they are almost always intensely personal and positive.
However, unless I prompt them to tell that story, what I hear mostly are … complaints.
We complain about traffic. We complain about parking. In Winter Park, we complain about our brick streets … and we LOVE our brick streets. We complain about the restaurants that are here and those that aren’t. We complain about how the Christmas parade isn’t what it used to be. We complain about the weather. And there is a very real reason that we complain even about things we love … we’re actually hard wired to do so.
We are genetically predisposed to find and focus on danger and threats, which today translates into noticing and complaining about just about everything. But we also complain because we know that negativity makes for better storytelling. If I were still talking about how wonderful Burlington, Vermont is, you would have stopped reading three paragraphs ago. But let me engage neighbors in a debate about how annoying it is that I can’t turn left out of the grocery store parking lot, and we will trade stories for an hour at least.
Today, though, I want to invite you to think differently about what you see and what you say when you talk about your community.
Now, please don’t misunderstand, I think it is absolutely critical that we work together to evaluate the problems and address the important issues of our communities.
But when we spend so much time focusing on what’s wrong, we fail to spread stories about what’s right.
To get us thinking differently about the stories we tell about our communities, I invite you to start thinking about how you want people to feel there.
Using what they call a Positive Experience Index, the Gallup organization seeks to find the happiest places to live in the world. This Positive Experience Index distills it down to just a few extraordinarily simple questions, and maybe these are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves, as we assess and seek to improve the communities we live in.
So, here they are.
- Did you smile or laugh today?
- Were you treated with respect today?
- Did you feel well-rested today?
- Did you do or learn something interesting today?
That’s it. Those are the main questions in Gallup’s Positive Experience Index.
And these are a lot different than the questions we normally ask, like: “How in the world did the mayor give “them” permission to build “that” house on “that” street?”
Or, “Do you know how long it took me to find a parking space in front of Starbucks this morning?”
You see, maybe the questions we should be asking when it comes to the quality of life that we’re cultivating, or the kind of town we want to build a life in should actually be about … our life.
And just so you know, America ranks 24th in the world in this poll, tied with Taiwan, the Dominican Republic and Iceland. To put it further into perspective, we are three points behind Venezuela, el Salvador and the Philippines. And Paraguay is first!
What this tells us is simply that it’s more about the relationships we form, the way we treat one another and the way we approach life that makes a great community. By no means am I saying that our beautiful oak trees, lakes and historic homes, or the walkability of our community and our brick streets are unimportant. I’m simply saying that we need to pay equal attention to the way we interact, and we need to spend more time appreciating what we have.
So, did you smile or laugh today? Did you do or learn something new today?