Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
Dave's articles are here.
A few weeks ago, my wife, Teresa, my younger son, Patrick, and I had the opportunity to go salmon fishing with Captain Wayne Michie on the Mickey Finn out of Horseshoe Bay, Vancouver, Canada. It was an overcast day, sprinkling rain now and then, and we didn’t get so much as a nibble. It was great fun, and I got a lesson in happiness from Wayne.
Our first stop on the way out was Wayne’s crab pot where he had caught three large Dungeness crabs. They went into a cooler with some ice and we began the 10-minute run to our first fishing spot. Along the way, we slowed down to ease alongside a huge raft of logs two tugs were towing to a mill. On the logs were probably 30 seals sunning and lazing. It was fun to see these opportunistic hitch-hikers in that context. Then it was on to our first spot.
As we waited for the first strike, which never came, we talked and laughed with Captain Wayne. He said he had been taking charter fishing groups out for over 20 years, over 200 days a year. That’s a lot of people and he had a lot of stories to tell!
There were the three men from New York City, a father, an elderly and frail grandfather, and a son. When they showed up, the father announced, “We’re on a mission from God!” He went on to explain that the grandfather had cancer and was dying and that when asked what he might want to do before he died, the grandfather, who had never been out of New York City said, “I’d like to go to British Columbia and catch a salmon.” Wayne had one of those, “Oh, no!” moments. He began to really wish this group had done a little more checking with them before they came. Fishing was SLOW — maybe even as slow as on our day — and Wayne was pretty sure they were not going to catch a fish. But, it was too late to do much expectation management then, success had been defined as catching a salmon, so off they went. Within five minutes of putting out their line, they had their first salmon! And, they caught seven more that day when no other boat even got a strike. Wayne got a speculative look and a bemused grin and said, “I don’t know, maybe we were on a mission from God!”
He also told of the group of international businessmen who showed up with the guy who had arranged the trip announcing, “It is of paramount importance that we catch a salmon today!” Luckily, the pink salmon were in that year (they show up only every other year), and the group caught several. Once again, however, success was defined as an event outside the control of anyone involved.
We moved to our second spot, close to the coast near Horshoe Bay, and trolled up and down a stretch of beautiful lake-front homes. We’d already seen the Princess of Thailand’s house on the way out, and here we saw one owned by “a Microsoft guy” with its own heliport. Wayne told about seeing him land one day and how they folded up the rotors and pushed the helicopter into a hangar in the middle of the house. We enjoyed the view of the cloud-filtered light on the rocks, the clouds hanging in valleys on the steep sides of the land as it sloped so sharply down that only a few hundred yards off shore it might be over 500 yards deep.
Wayne asked if we’d like to try some really fresh crab and we assured him we would. He took out a crab and we watched him clean and prepare it for cooking. Eight minutes later, we were sitting around the tiny table in his cabin getting tips on how to get the tender morsels out of the shell and tasting some of the freshest sea food any of us had ever thought about having while dipping it in cocktail sauce on a napkin.
How People Enjoy Experiences
All the while, I had kept an eye on my younger son. He’s a fisherman, enjoying it more than does his older brother. We were on the Mickey Finn because of him. Though I knew him to be an easy-going kid who virtually never has a bad word to say about anyone and usually has a good time regardless, I was a little worried that not catching fish might ruin his day. But, no, he listened to the stories, laughed, ate crab, and had a good time.
All of this got me to thinking about how folks approach experiences in their lives (read Kathryn Britton describing motivations), and I asked Wayne about folks who might not have enjoyed the experience (read Bridget Grenville-Cleave describing regrets). After saying that generally they were individuals on corporate-paid trips who didn’t really want to be there — think about who sets those goals! — he went on. “The man who taught me this business,” he said, “retired a few years ago, but we still talk nearly every day. He says, ‘Every person I ever had on my boat made me happy — some when they got on, some when they got off!”
On the Boat or Off the Boat?
We get to set our goals. We get to take out of each experience that which is good and fulfilling. Or we can focus on those things over which we have no control, some of which may not be that important after all. Ocassionally, we’ll get lucky, but sometimes the fish aren’t biting. Either way, our approach affects not only our individual selves, but those around us. One of the things I emphasize about positive psychology when I speak is that it is not magic. I can’t say a few phrases over folks and make them happier. It takes choice on their part, and it takes a certain amount of effort. Positive psychology does help point out the important choices, the best path toward the goal, and affirms that the effort is worthwhile and likely to be successful. But it still takes choice and effort, and along the way, we’re going to affect many other people. So, are people happy when you get on the boat, or when you get off?
Images courtesy of Dave Shearon