These Birds Get It! Friendships and Happiness

This morning after a walk at Dana Point Harbor, I stopped by the local feed store to pick up some grain for our horses just as it
Baby the Cockatoo
was opening. The clerk was busy rolling a white Cockatoo in its huge cage outside to be in the sun. He was squawking. It caught my interest. I followed the clerk. She went back into the dark store and from another area, rolled out a second big cage with an Amazonian Parrot in it. I asked if they were friends as she pushed the heavy cages side by side. Before she could answer, the cockatoo jumped on the side of his cage nearest the parrot, and said, "Hello" as clear as day. The parrot jumped as close as he could get and they began a very loud, animated conversation. I could see that they were thrilled to be in each other's company. Clearly they are friends.
Cody the Amazonian Parrot
     In fact they were so happy that I could not stop myself from pulling out my phone and taking a video clip of their lively and loud exchange. (see video in right side panel) I lingered for a while. The clerk secured the cages. She was not impressed with their zeal, nor with my enchantment over them. She said that they were not hers and they were a lot of work, that they belonged to the store owner. She did share that the parrot is 42 years-old, named Cody, and the cockatoo is 20 years-old, named Baby.

     I concluded my business and stood at the cages a while longer, admiring the birds and talking to them. "Hello" was exchanged many times between us.

     Grinning, I got in the car, and drove home. I began thinking about them in conjunction with a class I took a few weeks ago. It
was a part of USC's "Back to College Day" on the Los Angeles campus. My favorite class taught the newest brain research into human happiness. The professor said that as humans we are "wired" to be socially embedded within a group; that we need relationships to thrive. So here I was, witnessing the two birds reunited after a whole night apart, and they were beyond delighted to see one another. Clearly the importance of social relationships does not only apply to humans.

Back to College Day
     As I was driving, I basked in my own delight reminiscing about the morning's walk with a new friend. We had just enjoyed a vigorous hour-long walk around the harbor. I smiled to myself as I replayed the funny memory she shared during our walk. When we first met, a few months ago, we were strangers, standing next to one another for an all-volunteer photo shoot at Mission San Juan Capistrano. She had looked at my name tag and asked, "Are you Donna Friess?" I recall smiling yes. She jokes about it now because clearly my badge said I was Donna. She had followed up with, "I'm reading your book. We Gardening Angels are passing it around to each other."

     We had introduced ourselves. The photo was taken and we went our separate ways. Later that day, I thought about how nice and friendly she was. I obtained her phone number and called her. "Hi, this is Donna. I think we should be friends!" She agreed and we settled on walking as our get-acquainted activity. This morning as we parted, I grinned saying, "A friend is a gift you give to yourself." She laughed. The fact that we had enjoyed such a fun morning caused me to think more about that happiness class and the professor's research.

     He made the point that we humans are creatures of habit. I thought about the fact that for many people, as they age and their available pool of friends begins to shrink; they can fall into the habit of being relatively isolated. My work with the members of my loss support group reinforced that idea. Part of the goal of support groups is to encourage the participants to move out of their isolating comfort zones, and find new ways to become socially connected.

     Columnist Helen Dennis in a recent article wrote about her own 62 year-old friendships and how rewarding and comforting they are. She explained that friendships contribute not just to happiness and feelings of fulfillment, but also to longevity. Her
Orange County Register article dug into the research of social scientist, Dr. Lydia Densworth, who reported that health and longevity in primates were based primarily upon social bonds, and how well and regularly the animals interacted with other animals. Similarly, she wrote, it is the same with humans; friendships affect our physical and mental health.


Happiness Tank
     During my group work with Women in Transition, "women striving to reinvent themselves," I often bring in a big chart I created. It is a huge graphic of a "Happiness Tank." I use an exercise where the participants assess how "full" their own happiness tanks are. We look at our physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional selves. I have noticed across the classes, that early on the women tend to give themselves low scores. As the weeks progress, they come to rate their happiness tanks as more full. They also connect to one another, making friendships that often continue long after the class. I have thought to myself that it was not so much what I was teaching them, as the fact that they were in a supportive group of like-minded women, and they had a chance to bond with each other.

     We are responsible for our own happiness. We cannot expect others to provide it for us, nor can we put it off waiting until a future date such as retirement. One way to keep our own Happiness Tanks full is to find new ways to connect with others, and to treasure the friendships we do have. If the parrot and cockatoo can get such a great kick out of being in the other's company, it seems like we owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the gift of a few good friends, and to see them often. Perhaps it is a matter of importance to our own health and longevity. It is worth the risk to ask: "Could we be friends?"