DARE TO THRIVE
by Liz Carter
The Montague Reporter, January 13, 2011
If you had to measure it, what parts of your life would you weigh to determine your quality of life? What makes you happy?
The measures of quality of life used in international development rely heavily on GDP—the idea being that money creates health, education, and opportunity. But recent research suggests that after reaching a certain income (around $75,000 annually), additional wealth does nothing to increase peoples’ day-to-day feelings of emotional well-being. Sometimes, due to a phenomena described as the “hedonic treadmill” (where, essentially, the more money you have the more you want, leading to increased dissatisfaction), wealth can detract from a person’s quality of life by robbing them of the ability to live in the moment.
This is good news to those of us living in Turners Falls. With 42% of our households earning less than $30,000 per year, most of us won’t be blinded by money as we look out for that good life. We don’t have to fear being battered in the struggle to chase down that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, most of us are too busy struggling to get by.
But maybe you’ve got a good job that wears you out, so your talents are left sit simmering on the back burner and your social networks in the freezer. Maybe you’re out of work and losing your values as you pass your time underutilized and worrying about the numbers adding up. Maybe things just feel out of control, and it’s safer to float downstream then risk it all fighting currents when you’ve got no clue what lies ahead. You don’t need to be rich to be happy, but you do need something.
“For some, it’s a career, or owning a business,” said Jamie Berger, executive director of The Thrive Project, a new non-profit designed to help area young adults tackle this question. “For others it’s a happy family life, for others it’s a pastime (music, art, knitting, writing, building ships in a bottle, gardening, travelling, playing a game or sport, practicing yoga, even, well as much as I don’t like to admit it, practicing religion, cooking, community activity, political activism…) that offers satisfaction. I’d say that while none of us thrives completely, too many people—if they haven’t gotten a jump on it by age 18—aren’t given much of a chance to Thrive in any aspect of life that they feel is important, and that’s all I’d like to help change—to give people more chances to thrive in one way or another. I feel as if I’ve been given so many of those chances it’s ridiculous”
The Thrive Project is ostensibly a community center. It’s on 3rd Street, in the neighborhood of Catholic Social Ministries, the Women’s Center and the Brick House. In its mission statement, it offers “tutoring, coaching, apprenticeship, artistic engagement, and community participation,” with the goal of helping “young adults go beyond merely surviving to build lives that they find meaningful.” Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s some innocent leg-up center, because what Thrive’s dishing out is more like a revolution. The open-endedness of its mission was built to be ambiguous. Its Thrive’s secret weapon—structural adaptability—and it’s like a machete. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it allows Thrive to tackle all the overgrowth obstructing the ambitions of young adults.
What Thrive seeks to do is cultivate the individual, creating—if nothing else—social support and validation for who they are and what they’re about.
Josh Warren found out about Thrive through his co-worker at the Lady Killigrew Cafe, Thrive’s Media Director Anja Schultz. A recent UMass graduate, Josh was struggling to translate his theoretical background to something meaningful to his community (Wendell). “I discovered that in order for things to happen for me, I have to do things with other people,” said Josh. “That’s why I pursued Thrive.”
As a student, Josh wanted to be a singer, but in the big world his dream changed. ” I didn’t have the ego for it. I didn’t have that diva personality. I just want to be happy and live simply and let other people do the same. I don’t want to have to push people away to get to the top.”
“I thought about teaching, but I don’t have any training or certification,” said Josh. “Talking to Liz (Elizabeth Gardner, Program Director at Thrive) I started really thinking about how—cause she kept asking me ‘what do you want to do, how would you go about that’ and I kept throwing ideas and she said ‘that’s a really good idea—I know this person and this person.’ I had the opportunity to give a singing workshop at the Wendell library. That was the first singing thing I really did. At first it was really difficult, it was terrible. But as it progressed, it got better. I realized that this is what I really wanted to do.“
Teaching felt like a good fit, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be teaching music. “As soon as I came to that conclusion, that was when Liz said ‘I have this girl coming in from Nepal, her name is Sonam, she just needs some English tutoring,’” said Josh. “For the past few months, we’ve had five or six sessions when we’ve just sat down and she’s showed me her writing. Even though I don’t have the training in it, it just sort of came natural to me. I have a talent for explaining the language I use. It’s a confidence boost for me, it’s just another step in realizing that that’s what I want to do. I want to teach.”
Josh is also leading a book club at Thrive in collaboration with a few other people, which started this Wednesday.
”There’s so much going on there, even if its hypothetical, even if it’s in its beginning stages, there’s so much opportunity that I’m really getting excited about. It’s keeping me excited about what I’m going to do with my life,” said Josh.
Three months since its grand opening (a four day, three venue food, music, and comedy extravaganza, complete with the talents of Rusty Belle, Winterpills, Michael Showalter, and Eugene Mirman), Thrive has offered everything from workshops on financial strategies and resume writing to film screenings, knitting nights, and inspirational speakers on stand-up comedy. This upcoming month there’s going to be open invite jam sessions, and workshops on “Becoming a Mobile Worker,” among other things.
There are computers and free internet in the space, and a creative, motivated group of fellow “Thrivers” to greet you at the door, take you seriously, and talk to you about reaching out and grabbing what you want in life. Dozens of people have already gotten a break from Thrive.
“We can help them overcome a barrier or two in terms of finding something—some aspect of their life that could be slightly more fulfilling,” said Janel Nockleby, of Thrive’s start-up team. “Maybe you want guitar lessons...Maybe it’s realizing that if you utilize resources available the bureaucracy of getting through GCC might actually be navigable...Whatever obstacles they perceive. We’re not going to solve everything, but we can chip away a thing or two.”
“People make it in this world because they get breaks,” writes board member Michael Phillips, “True, you’ve got to work hard and do whatever it is you want to do—whatever makes you happy. But without a break here or there it’s easy to get stuck and stop exploring your options.”
It makes sense. People are happy when they do what makes them happy. But we’re social creatures, and if everybody always did what they wanted, we’d probably have pretty major shortages of food, sanitation, and healthcare. We’re wired to need validation before we can give ourselves permission to indulge our dreams. For most people, validation comes from financial compensation. Thrive offers an alternative—validation coming from other validated people. But it has to be financially sustainable for people to pursue their goals. This is an issue that the Thrive Project is struggling to address as an organization, with characteristic creativity.
“We started with just enough for three month’s rent, and to pay the three of us (Me, Janel, and Liz) for five hours per week,” said Jamie. “The goal is to get a year’s worth of utilities and rent in the bank and pay us half time for a year.” They’re pursuing grant funding, but “one of the pitfalls people talk about is that you spend a lot of time writing grants and you spend a lot of time documenting. Your focus starts to be on fulfilling what the grants are instead of what your mission is.” They’re also soliciting private donations, even from people outside the Valley: “As far as I know, there’s nothing like this around,” said Berger. On www.thethriveproject.org , the donations page gives a list of three reasons why you should donate to Thrive, “even if you’ve never been anywhere near Turners Falls.”
But they’re also trying to find ways for Thrive to generate income. “We’re hoping to find ways to make it self-sustaining, instead of having it be kind of top-down ‘hi, this is what we can do for you,’ more grassroots ‘here’s what we can do together,’ “ said Janel. In the works are several Thrive-based entrepreneurial ventures (among the ideas thrown around where a “geek squad” that refurbishes old computers to sell to the community for cheap, a copy center, a tee-shirt business), which would provide service to the community, provide income to Thrivers, and provide funds to keep Thrive going.
Nothing concrete has been installed yet, they want these ventures to be shaped by the wants, needs, and skills of people coming in to use the service. “I think it needs to be community driven, it needs to be a reflection of what the people here are interested in, about what they care about and they’re hopes and dreams. It needn’t be about what Jamie and Liz and I think is cool, we need to start to get community input also,” said Janel.
“And we’re going to continue doing great events—putting on concerts,” said Jamie. “That’s just an ongoing way that we’ll raise funds and attention.”
Helping people in the pursuit of happiness is a pretty daunting undertaking, because people are different and want different things. No one person staffing the desk at Thrive could possibly have all the resources to help everybody achieve their wildest (or most domesticated) dreams. No ten people could.
But what if Thrive builds a network, where people come in and get a leg up, and then, on their way to satisfaction, offer a hand to lift the next in line? This is a small area, people know and depend on each other. If getting ahead comes from breaks from people who are ahead, and a few of us get a leg up, the rest will inevitably follow. It’s trickle-down satisfaction: “In lieu of paying tuition and fees, Thrive clients will be required to volunteer for community organizations, both to aid the organizations in question and to involve clients in said community and community service in general.” Those friendly, motivated staff at the door are people who, by creating the project or tapping its services, have also used Thrive to thrive.
“I know I’m enriching Liz and Jamie’s lives, as well as my own, as well as the lives of the community that comes in. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m learning about life at Thrive. You don’t have to have this overarching career thing, instead it’s in these various steps that you’re taking. That’s the quality and richness that you’ve been waiting for. It’s right in that moment, in the conversations and the quality of your interactions, that make life really important,” said Thriver/volunteer Josh Warren.
“I think (a thriving community) is one where people are looking out for each other. It’s finding ways to thrive in everything, from the industries in town, the manufacturers, various crafts and arts...While people may have given up on Turners in the past, I don’t think people are anymore, and I want to be part of that—helping people make connections. It’s all about us, it’s our little mill town and it’s all up to us,” said Janel Knockleby.
The Thrive Team’s dream is big--really big. They want to build a climate around Turners Falls that incubates luck. But there is very compelling research showing that it can work. It turns out that the change they seek to create is contagious. It would seem that the group of artists who dreamt up Thrive have found themselves building with the cutting edge of science as collateral.
A new landmark study out of UC San Diego and Harvard has discovered that happiness spreads like the flu among people who are close to each other. And you don’t even have to know happy people to catch it, just being close is enough. According to the study, “A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25%.” A happy next door neighbor increases your chance of happiness by 34%. The study suggests that this relationship is not caused by happy people hanging around with happy people, but that “clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness” itself, and that the relationship they found decays with time and distance. If people in your town are happy, you will be happy, too. Especially if that town is little, and everybody lives close.
These researchers have documented evidence that happiness is contagious, and maybe Thrive has identified why: Happy people do what makes them happy. They can do this because they’ve gotten breaks from other happy, satisfied people. Getting breaks begets the giving of breaks. So by offering a few individuals the opportunity to have a high quality of life, the Thrive project could very well be creating a place where the quality of living is high.
The Thrive Project could pack a big punch in our 2.3 square mile community. This is the big question here, the big why-is-life-worth-living that they’re grappling with, and they’re turning lives around by challenging young adults in the community to grapple with it, too.
Stop by Thrive, volunteer, and tell them what you really want to be doing. What looks like a mountain to you could very well look like a wrinkle from where somebody else is standing. And for heaven’s sake, call your rich uncle and tell him to give them money. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for that bitter guy who lives in the apartment upstairs. As much as he’s making you miserable, there’s a chance you could make him happy.