On Wednesday afternoon, in a well-lit classroom on Forest Lane, the Dallas Happiness Club held its first meeting. I know -- it sounds like something advertised in the back pages of the paper version of Unfair Park. But the club's actually a monthly gathering rooted in the belief that happiness is not a result but an attitude that one generates regardless of circumstance.
I'd gotten wind of the group from my mother, who, as a psychologist attending a recent conference, met the couple who founded the some 50 Happiness Clubs around the world and found a local home for their project at Unity Church in North Dallas. Around a dozen people attended the inaugural meeting, listening as a woman named Judy Marie discussed Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements (as in: Be impeccable with your word, don't take anything personally, don't make assumptions and always do your best) and chronicled her transformation from a woman constantly looking to the next job, relationship or move to one who simply chooses to be happy for no reason.
Among those listening to her advice, from becoming immune to others' negativity to being quick to offer compliments and praise, was Marshal Peterson, a newcomer to the world of positive psychology and Unity Church's progressive, open-to-all-religions brand of spiritual practice. He set out on the path that led him to the Happiness Club after getting laid off in January by a local Fortune 500 company he declined to name.
"I was an achievement addict for years -- it was all about the esteem, the cars, all of that," said the fortyish former program manager, his dark tan an indication of his new, cubicle-free life. "I was given the gift of being laid off. I thought, how would I live at what Maslow called the actualization or transcendence level?"
Never much of a churchgoer, Peterson began volunteering with a local hospice group and attending classes on meditation and spirituality. He noticed that those facing death weren't focused on their success or their wealth, but the quality of their relationships and the meaning of life.
Hearing Peterson talk in the calm, lilting voice you'd associate with a surfer or ski bum, it's hard to imagine him in his 20-year corporate career. He's considering changing his yellow labrador's name from Bugatti (as in the Italian luxury sports car) to Dharma and moving to Sedona, Arizona.
"It's truly been a delight," he said. "I'm just living as an unemployed Dharma bum pursuing the life of enlightenment."