Conversation with Goldie Hawn
By Marianne Schnall
< back to Features
With her bubbly personality and sunny smile, Oscar-winning actress Goldie Hawn has always seemed to be the epitome of happiness. Yet as she reveals in this interview (and in her best-selling autobiography A Lotus Grows in the Mud) this was not always the case, and she went through some very dark times, especially in her early days of stardom, when she says she suffered from panic attacks and depression and "literally lost my smile." Hawn says it took nine years of intense inner work and therapy to fully recover from that crisis point in her life, and in doing so she became "dedicated to learning more about my psyche, about my brain." That personal journey, which she calls "the beginning of her discovery," laid the first seeds for what has now become a "life-changing" quest and mission for Hawn: using our growing understanding about the human brain to create innovative programs in schools to foster happier and more resilient children -- not only to promote better learning and well-being in the classroom but to "give them life tools that will go with them forever."
Motivated by events like 9/11 and the alarming jump in stress, depression, and violence in children, Goldie created The Hawn Foundation in 2005, an organization whose mission is to "equip children with the social and emotional skills they need to navigate the challenges of the contemporary world in order to lead smarter, healthier, and happier lives." Working with leading neuroscientists, educators and researchers, The Hawn Foundation has developed the MindUP program, a curriculum that has already been implemented in classrooms by over 1,000 educators throughout the United States, Canada and the U.K. -- and they are receiving requests to bring their program to many other regions around the world such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The cutting-edge curriculum features 15 carefully-thought out lessons designed to help children reduce stress and anxiety; improve concentration and academic performance; understand the brain science linking emotions, thoughts and behaviors; manage their emotions and behavior more effectively; develop greater empathy for others and the world; and learn to be optimistic and happy. It is a revolutionary undertaking that seeks to dramatically transform the way we view education, using methods that are backed up by the latest research about the brain -- and they are already achieving impressive results in children who are learning in the MindUp classroom. In this in-depth interview, Goldie shares her passionate vision for this project (which she says has "got her by the belly button"), her own personal experience and definition of happiness, and why she believes that nurturing optimism and resilience in our children can ultimately help build a better society and a more peaceful world.
INTERVIEW WITH GOLDIE HAWN (4/14/11)
Marianne Schnall: I just have to say that there are few projects that have gotten me so personally excited and engaged. It incorporates so many themes that I work on, and I would love to see a program like this in my daughters' school.
Goldie Hawn: Wonderful.
MS: What was the inspiration for this project?
GH: It's been a journey. I guess it was after 9/11. I realized at that point that our world was probably never going to be the same again. And I was really focused on the kids, because there was a lot of stress and a lot of uncertainty. And realizing that, I thought, "What can I do? What can I do to help these children?" And I was in Vancouver at the time -- I was actually there with Wyatt, because we had moved up there for his hockey and I had a lot of time to sit and ruminate and think and feel. And I thought, "Well, let me figure out a way to do something, maybe in the schools, to simply bring kids a little bit more resilience and a little bit more happiness. Simple mission." And what I did was I pulled together my ideas of sort of a cross-disciplinary -- which is teaching kids about their brain and how their brains work. Because we don't do that, and there's so much that we know about the brain and we're learning day by day -- it's clearly the new frontier -- but our kids don't really know what goes on in their heads; they have no idea.
So I thought that would be really an interesting thing to teach children and then give them the ability to regulate themselves. So regulating their emotions and recognizing stress, that's creating self-awareness, basically, of when they're feeling these feelings of fear and anger and frustration and uncertainty and all these things. So I thought, well, people in the world are trying to figure out how to get calm at 40 -- why don't we give kids these tools early? So in this program, three times a day we do "brain breaks." And that's what they're called, because every brain needs a break -- and throughout the day they're learning and they're struggling with things, and so forth, and it kind of brings them back to center. So we do a kind of brain break, which is sitting quietly, and they focus on their breathing and they listen to a sound. Because for young children it's kind of hard, so it's nice to give them something to focus on. And that's just for a couple of minutes, but what they understand is the neurological correlate to that, so it's contextual. It isn't necessarily, "Oh, I get to like to sit down and be quiet and this is cool." They learn what happens to the brain in that central emotional system when they do that. And so they learn about the amygdala and how that is fight-or-flight -- they learn that it can save us, and they learn that it can get in our way.
So they do that and then, of course, they know that when they do that, it opens up what they now call the PFC, or the prefrontal cortex, which is really the seed of learning. It's really when your brain is prepared and focused to receive information, to analyze information and to remember information. And that's part of the lesson.
Then we do mindful attention of our senses, which gives the children a lot of fun, and it enables them to focus even greater amounts, because a lot of this is having kids become more attentive, which they are not. So to get a kid's attention and prolong their attention capabilities, then we do these little exercises -- they don't take long. And the teachers wrap curriculum around it. So if you're doing mindful tasting exercises, they can bring in an egg roll and learn about China. Or they can focus in on the Hershey Kiss and talk about what's good for you to eat and what's not good for you to eat. There are ways of creating adjectives and so forth around that, and it's also built into the curriculum. So it's not an add-on, it's not an after-school thing; it really is how you embed this in the classroom.
Then you focus on our place in the world, so you build empathy, because empathy is something that our children are not experiencing. Empathy for others, how you share time together, how you work in community. So we do random acts of kindness, and the children do projects that reach out to others, to show their kindness to others. They also learn the neural correlate to that, because they learn about dopamine, and how when you give someone something and you smile and they're happy, it actually has a direct correlate to your own brain of emitting something that actually creates the same feeling in you. And then we do gratitude journals, because with each child we hope that they can remember each day what it is that they are grateful for -- anything, it could be anything. It could be a flower, it could be their mother, it could be their sister -- whatever. Then we do perspective taking, because that builds empathy, putting yourself in someone else's shoes.
So it's a 15-lesson thing. So when we did this, to boost happiness, what I learned along the way were these incredible statistics. Because at that point in time, I was just looking for how we could raise children's sense of optimism and make them feel more hopeful. But as I learned and sort of went into the rabbit hole, I realized that we had a bigger problem. I mean, we had a real problem. I was looking at suicide rates, I was looking at violence, I started looking at drop-outs. I started researching and learning through the various different psychologists and neuroscientists that we had brought on board, positive psychologists, a lot of stuff about what's really going on out there, including teachers. And then I looked at a UNICEF study that was done in 2007 that put the United States of America's children number-two least happy children in the world, the developed world. Which, of course, at that point, I realized, "Goldie, you're looking to help children to manage and regulate and become more resilient," but I had no idea that our children actually didn't fare so well on the scale of happiness.
What our research showed us is that not only did our children rise in optimism -- I mean, it was almost 80 percent, it just changed the whole feeling of the classroom. They worked together better in community, they came into school, they didn't skip school, there was no truancy. Their reading went up, their ability to read went up, their focus capabilities became greater -- we did a small test on executive function -- we did this with a control group. We did a cortisol study, and that's where the kids -- obviously parents had to give permission -- but they spit into a test tube, every hour. And we sent it to Germany and it came back that the kids that were doing MindUp were more able to manage their cortisol level, their stress levels, than the control group. Aggression went down on the playground about 30 percent. And the children were, in a sense, much more focused and attentive in school, but they were also much happier. So that was thrilling.
And I haven't really come out to talk about this, because I wanted the research and I wanted to make sure that this was actually a program that I could talk about with confidence. Now we're in 17 schools in Newark; we've got probably 1,000 schools altogether between the U.K. -- we are Hawn Foundation U.K., Canada, as well as the U.S. So between all of these, I think we must be in close to 1,000 schools -- which, of course, you multiply that by the amount of kids and then teachers and it's pretty great.
So that's what we're doing now, this is my big launch fundraiser, because I really haven't come out. This is sort of the first time to come out and speak to the importance of creating well-being for our children in the classroom. Because actually, a happy child can learn -- they're prepared to learn, they're focused on learning. And a stressed child, a frightened child, or a disturbed child -- whatever, they really are in what they call "fight-or-flight" defense mode. It really shuts down the real potential and capabilities of our executive function. So we want to be able to relax our children in the classroom, give them something optimistic, engage them in the classroom, give them a voice and really be able to be there for each other. And that's what this program does.
MS: The current educational system is much more academically based and focused on external performance, so it is a big shift to include the inner world of the brain, which not only do most kids not know about, but most adults don't necessarily know too much about it, either.
GH: Exactly. I wrote a book which is coming out in September, and it's called "Ten Mindful Minutes." It's for parents and caregivers. And it really is to help them also understand the things that we're talking about, so they can help their kids and sort of embody the philosophy and these tactics for themselves, because a reactive parent actually does as much damage. It's a form of -- I don't want to go so far to say abuse -- but it goes right under that area of how it affects our children. So reactive parenting is very dangerous. On the other hand, when you are a reactive child or a reactive teacher, all these things don't add up to excelling in school, so that's part of the issue. And the teachers are beginning to actually say thank you, because it has changed their lives. They have said, "I was going to leave, but I am finally able to get the attention of my kids. I'm able to teach more, longer, better. " Even with these three-times-a-day brain breaks -- that's the thing that quiets them down; that's what gets their attention. It was a wonderful unfolding of what we've learned about all of this, just with a simple wish for children to be more resilient and happier.
MS: I think our society has conditioned us to think that happiness is caused by external factors, so we often wait for things or events to make us happy, rather than thinking of happiness of something we can control ourselves or learn.
GH: That's right. And one of the other things in "our place in the world" section is about savoring happiness. So our children really do focus on a particular project we do throughout the year, recognizing happy faces, cutting them out, making collages, what makes you happy, what are the things that you think that are important to make other people happy, what's the difference between optimism and pessimism -- they learn how to turn stories around from a rainy day to having a day full of new flowers in the spring. We help them develop their prefrontal cognition to be able to turn things around at will and putting them in the driver's seat. So I think that we've got to put these kids in the driver's seat now and let them know that, just through intention, they can really make changes in the way that they act, they feel, they perform, managing their stress levels when they're taking tests. All of these things I think are giving them life tools that will go with them forever.
And I look at that, and I was thinking about this a couple of years ago, deeply, in terms of what are the social ramifications of this kind of development. And one of them is healthcare! If you think that somebody could actually recognize when their heart is beating too fast, or when they need to slow down, or whey they're not thinking straight -- giving them these tools to focus like that and sit for a minute and think -- so they can actually really, really think, I think is pretty amazing.
And I think that's eventually where we are going. This is a social emotional learning program, but it's cross-disciplinary. So it isn't just teaching children how not to bully each other, because this is the kind of program that is integrated and holistic in the classroom, so bullying, ultimately, stops. You don't have to tell a child not to bully. You know, you talk at kids, they don't hear you, but when you give them a visceral experience, then they have something to remember. Because the brain, interesting enough, has this wonderful little seahorse in there -- it's shaped like a seahorse, and it's called the hippocampus. And that holds all of our memory. But what's interesting is that our memory is connected to emotion. And they learn that, of course, when they do their mindful smelling. Because when you smell something, it reminds you of something. So when you have this connection to memory, then what you're doing is helping build a whole different capability and neurological firing or wiring -- they say the brain that fires together, wires together -- to be able to know that they have the capacity to attach positive emotions to certain things that they ultimately will be able to replicate as time goes on.
MS: I remember when I interviewed Jane Goodall she was talking about her concern about the growing disconnect that children have with nature, and how "frightening" she thought it was becoming how much time children spend glued to their computer screens. When you think about all the stimulation and inputs that come at kids these days, with the Internet, computer games, texting -- it has to impact their ability to focus their attention.
GH: I agree with her -- and I think most people really do in their right mind -- what's happening is that it's rewiring our brain. It just is. That's just the way it works, right? In our environment we adapt to everything that we need to adapt to, to survive. And the way that it is grabbing our attention, stealing away our attention -- I believe it's stealing a lot of other things. It's stealing the real circular human connection. It's stealing the times with your friends where you're outside and you're not communicating in cyberspace, where you really can't feel the energy of the other person. And it's stealing the intimacy of our family. Our mothers are on Blackberries too much; our children are vying for attention for that little black thing they've got in their hand.
Attention for children is so much about input, and the brain can only filter so much -- I don't know how many millions of messages that come through the brain, and we can only filter so much through it. So with all of this technology -- which, by the way, is not going away -- you're never going to change it. So my thought was, inside of all this, as it grew and developed, is that we have to be able to be the ones to manage that in ourselves. We have to be the ones to also understand the incredible health benefits, the joy that you feel being with someone, rather than texting them or being online with them. So the choice is, I'd rather speak to them, I'd rather see them, knowing not only the psychological benefit of it but also the physiological benefit of it. It's much more healing. We're social animals; we're meant to be together, but we were never necessarily meant to be together without being together. [Laughs.] That was never the plan, I don't think.
So we're not going to stop the train, but I think what we can do is to develop this incredible computer that we have on our heads, because it's endless. It's just the most brilliant thing we have to develop, and know that we have the power over all of it. Because we can complain about it, and I think it's important that the more people talk about this -- the more they realize that these parents need to put these things away -- they can't sit at tables anymore with people and each person is texting somebody else. I went to a concert once and they weren't even listening to the concert -- they were texting people. It kind of blew my mind, you know? The idea is to bring it to awareness, because that's the first step. But there's no boycott anymore of "don't go on Facebook" or "don't go on your instant messaging." That's not going to happen.
It's a big deal. It really is. We want to move toward a balanced society. And it's wonderful to move forward technologically, but we cannot forget that we are human beings who thrive on relationships, who thrive on interconnectivity, who thrive on sharing your feelings and emotions. And empathy for someone else is a way we reach out and help others -- when, in fact, children aren't feeling empathy, because of these video games and because of these very violent games, we're afraid that it creates violence, it doesn't. What it does is that it desensitizes the brain and creates distance and desensitization. It's very sad.
MS: And because of all these inputs, it feels more important than ever to teach our kids the importance of cultivating silence and stillness and this awareness of our inner world. We're all so busy getting through the day sometimes that we can just be on auto-pilot -- sometimes I myself have to remember to just take three centered breaths now and then.
GS: Exactly. You know they found the research, and as I say we're a brain-based curriculum, but we've crossed all our disciplines, so we can weave it in -- it isn't just one thing, we can intertwine them. However, the sacred sauce, I think, of all of this, is quieting the mind three times a day. Because it has a tremendous effect on a lot of areas in terms of your executive prefrontal cortex -- besides quieting down your emotional brain, which usually leads you into trouble sometimes [laughs], this is actually focusing on your attention level and on your level actually of well-being, which really does take place in these two sides of your brain -- these lobes. And it strengthens your brain. So it's very, very vitally important.
And the research on this is that 20 minutes a day in the morning, as some of us would do to sit, or 20 minutes in the evening -- actually, a more frequent, shorter period is just as valuable, if not more. Which means if you spend -- and now I'm talking to you -- that if you spend three minutes in the morning and then you go to lunch and then you do another three minutes and then before you get into your house, you do another three minutes, and then before you go to sleep, you can lie on your bed and do another three minutes -- it's that kind of habituated training, the brain loves that. And that's exactly what starts you shifting your way of thinking and your way of feeling.
MS: I have two daughters, so I'm glad to hear that you have a book coming out for parents, because if these type of skills are going to be taught to children at school, the parents have to also be modeling these behaviors at home. It's a stressful time for many people in the world, and people are very overwhelmed, so it does take awareness and effort. So I think it's great that you are doing that book, and that support for parents is part of your curriculum, too.
GH: Yes, definitely. It's simple and easy, and I do give them brain lessons a little bit and some ideas on how to manage their own emotions with their husbands and their wives and so forth. It's very, very important, like you said, to mirror some of these qualities to support the kids. These are very trying times. We look at where we are today and the kids that are in single-family homes or those in the affluent section -- the children of affluence are actually looked at now as the lost generation, because they are actually less resilient. They get more and it's easier to give them stuff than time -- they really don't value it, and what they really want is parent time. So they're acting out in ways that are showing up as depression. Seventeen percent of all the kids in the United States contemplate suicide. One in five are medicated. When you look at the amount of medication that has been administered to children today, it stands the hair up on your arms. Because this is the way that they are helping children manage their emotions. And what they're not looking at is societal demands and stresses that are being put on them through various different modes of information and delivery systems. So, I'm not saying that a child doesn't need medication when they do -- or anybody else; I'm not against it. But these numbers are too high.
We've got a very challenging world out there. When 9/11 happened, the world, certainly in the United States of America, there was a unity. There was this sense of unity. And I have to say just from a personal level, it really felt good. We all felt the same way. And then, I realized that I really wanted to be with my family. Everything mattered. Of course, I'm always with my family. But there was something about being tucked away in Vancouver with Kurt and Wyatt and everyone, that I just felt deeply connected to the world I was living in, to the people. And I was very happy not to run around like a chicken with my head cut off, which I have a tendency to do. I am always trying to fix something. And it was, in my memory, some of the most pleasant, beautiful times I've had.
So, similarly, if people can look at how much they are running on the hamster wheel, and wondering why, then maybe it's time to stop. Focus. Breathe. Look at your kids, be with them, spend time with them, get the joy, because they are going to grow up one day and you'll never, ever, ever get it back. This has been my life for what, 10 years now, more -- and I haven't worked in eight -- because nothing came along in my world -- and also, I'm of a certain age now, but the stuff that came out was not nearly as interesting as this. This is life-changing for me. And I also went into my wheelhouse, because I have studied the brain and I have studied psychology, and actually went through my own analysis at 21, which was a perfect age, and really studied emotion in relation to myself and others. Another thing that we do is we talk about forgiveness in the class. You talk about is this like stepping into my math or this is stepping into -- it doesn't. It's something that you do at the top of the day and then you move on with your day and you wind stuff around it.
Anyway, it's really got me by the belly button. We are on the precipice of realizing that these are the kind of disciplines that have to be integrated now into our school system.
MS: I am working with psychologist Carol Gilligan on an online project we are developing called "Young Voices." Carol wrote the pioneering book "In a Different Voice," which documents her research about how gender impacts the psychological development of boys and girls. Do you factor in gender when creating some of these tools and curriculum? Are there any differences that you have observed?
GH: I think that the boys have a tendency to be less receptive than the girls. However, over a longer period of time, when we're doing it, they don't. They're more defensive. But I think that's probably the only part of it. Because we've done a lot of testimonials and talked to the kids, it's gone from where I've just been in tears about one child who wanted to commit suicide, who realized that he didn't want to do that anymore -- and it's a boy. And these are troubled children, by the way; these are kids that were medicated and have seen genocide and I mean, you name it; it was a really troubled school. And the other one couldn't sleep for two years; his mother came back into the classroom and said, "I cannot believe this, my son had his first good night's sleep." And these are the ones when I get emotional. But the other little boy said, he used his MindUp, "because my best friend pushed me on the playground" -- he gave a story -- "and it really made me mad. It hurt my feelings. It made me really angry." But instead of hitting him back, he said, "I just did my breathing; I had a brain break, and I thought about it, and I realized that if I hit him back, he wouldn't be my best friend anymore." And these are boys.
So it gets through to them, after they might stop feeling silly or that sort of thing. And when they're little -- because we start when they are in kindergarten, they don't have that problem. It would just seem that if you integrated it right away to a fifth grade class or something, then they would have their little squirmy stuff and silly stuff. But the teachers just go through it, they say OK, just sit there quietly, you don't have to do this -- and eventually, they want to do it.
MS: As a mother to two daughters, I worry a lot about the pressures impacting girls and young women these days, who often fixate on their external appearances and can suffer from such low self-esteem and insecurities.
GH: Depression in the girls is awful, when they get to that age. After a child reaches, I think, around sixth grade, their happiness level dips, when they get into seventh, eighth or ninth grade. These are the areas that when you realize their endocrine system is moving, when they get into those grades. That's when we're developing -- we're not developing it yet, I'm still focused on the little ones -- but we need to start writing for the older ones to understand what's really go on. Because when they hit, I guess after a certain age, I think it's like 10, 11 or 12, their brains start pruning. And they prune all of the things that the brain doesn't think it needs anymore. And on top of it they have their endocrine system getting all these hormones going on. So it's like, oh my God, they're being blasted. Well, if you just help these kids understand it as a part of their science, not just let's all go talk about kumbaya in a room and now we're going to do life skills -- but you really make that part of the science, then they really understand that they're going to be doing crazy things. They're going to take risks that they never thought they could take before, but it doesn't mean they're going to be safe; it means that that's why some of their friends get killed in cars. It's not because they're bad people; it's just because the way your brain is working, you kind of think that you're never going to die. You think that you're never going to have an accident. You don't think, and that's not because of you, it's because of what's going on upstairs. So that's where you've got to be extremely mindful. I just believe information is power.
MS: I love that part of the MindUp program is about promoting giving and doing acts of kindness. I've spent so much time interviewing celebrities about their activist and charitable work, and I think it's so interesting that in our society we are taught to aspire to fame and fortune, but when when we look at people that have achieved all that, it is often in the giving back that they derive the most meaning and fulfillment in their lives. We never hear about that, about givers themselves getting any rewards.
GH: Exactly, and it's a part of it because it's part of the happiness quotient. I have a little pillow in my living room that says "The smile you give is the one you get back," and it really is, because that's the way we're made. I hate to keep going back to the brain and making it sound so clinical, but mirror neurons, which is what we have -- and we've found mirror neurons in dolphins and primates and a few of the animals -- but we have a very developed brain. And mirror neurons is that if somebody is smiling, you actually feel like smiling. If somebody laughs so hard, you start laughing. If somebody starts crying, you actually can cry, and the mirror neurons are there, because by nature we're extremely empathetic. So when you give somebody something, you learn that you get the same feeling back. And that is also a win-win for everybody.
MS: It is all connected to generating compassion. I recently listened to your inspiring TED speech, and you referred to the recent horrific news story in Texas in which an 11-year-old girl was gang-raped by about 20 teenage boys and young men for an hour and nobody did anything -- and you talk about how that group could have grown so disconnected, so out of touch with the suffering of this young girl, that they weren't born this way, it happened because of our culture and that lack of empathy - but you believe that empathy is something that is teachable.
GH: It's teachable! It's absolutely teachable. Did you read "The How of Happiness"?
MS: No, but I've heard of it.
GH: It's by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It's great. She's a researcher, and I think she was at Claremont University. But anyway, she wrote this book and she talks about some studies that were fascinating, but one of them was about people that were depressed. And gratitude -- gratitude has an amazing stream of research behind it. And what this was, is that they took very, very depressed people, I don't know if it was 100 or more, something like that. And they were in-bed depressed. They couldn't go out. And they had to list, five times a day, five things that they were grateful for -- five good things that happened that day, no matter what. And in so many months -- it was a short, short period, I don't remember exactly how many -- but 80 percent or more of these people actually got out of bed and started functioning. So the aspect of gratitude is probably one of the greatest elixirs for alleviating depression and creating a more optimistic look at your life. You could call it happiness, you could call it joy, but when you start reaching out after that, you see it just changes the brain; it changes everything. It's so simple, and yet we don't know enough about it, you know what I mean? We're starting to, though. I really do believe it's changing.
Kurt called me today to say there was a wonderful article on the brain in the L.A. Times, and it says something about your brain, if your heart aches, it really does feel like that. And they're doing this new research on pain, and how the brain processes pain, and sometimes it cannot delineate between physical pain and emotional pain. So what we do is we put on "Oh my god, I feel like I've been hit in the stomach, or my heart aches, or he just knocked me off at my knees." And the kind of pain they feel when they actually stubbed their toe or are hurting, goes into the same part of the brain -- not for everybody, but for a lot people they walk around constantly being assaulted and holding on to this feeling of anguish and pain and hurt, that actually hurts them physically. When somebody yells at them, it hurts them physically.
And they're looking at the health ramifications of walking around with that kind of boulder on your shoulder, or a heavy heart. I believe you can start shifting focus on becoming aware of that and realizing that there is a much more cognitive way of getting around understanding what that person said to you, your boss or your husband or whatever, to be able to turn it around to say, "Okay, I'm the recipient of this, but they're tired or they're in that place" -- which, of course, is empathy. And in that comes forgiveness and in that, changes the way that you carry your memory of what happened, because that's part of the trigger, when you say, "Well, that's my hot button, or they pushed my button, or whatever it is" -- unfortunately the brain hooks onto that and doesn't forget it.
MS: There will always be things to trigger you, but to have enough awareness in that moment to know that you do have a choice in how you respond to things.
GH: Exactly. And what it is is habituating the thought. So in other words, if you find yourself looking at it negatively, or if you are taking it personally -- and by the way, you can learn from it, too. In carrying it, you realize that you're assaulting yourself physically. This is something that you're carrying. You actually can, by over and over and over, because we like habituation, we create habits and the brain connects to habits, it fires in habitual forms -- so when you start shifting that, then it starts firing differently. So you get used to it; it's like learning to dance on your toes. It's just practice. How do I strengthen my ankles so I can get on point? Everything has a dancing analogy to me. [Laughs.] I get my brain breaks and I say, all right, this is the plié before the jump.
MS: You have been known for having this kind of sunny glow, just radiating happiness. Is that something that came naturally to you, or did you have to learn it yourself?
GH: Yes, I was always a sunny child; I was a happy child, meaning my nature was happy. I mean, I wasn't always happy, but that was sort of my gift. A lot of it is because I loved people, and so when I was little, it was just who I was. I would kiss everybody hello, goodnight, I didn't know them and my mother used to say to me, "Do you have to kiss everybody?" [Laughs.] But that's kind of who I was.
However, when I was 21, and I was taken out of the chorus and I was put into a show, a three-camera show. I was acting, I literally was -- when you say pulled out of a chorus, that's where I was kind of discovered by an agent, and he took me into William Morris and said they wanted to sign me because he thought there was something unusual and different, and I was confused. Not that I hadn't participated in some acting, but I was a dancer, and the next thing I know, I'm out of the chorus and I'm in this show -- a three-camera television show. And I had anxiety, and I actually had panic attacks.
Never in my life had I had a panic attack, except when I remember when I was little I was afraid of the bomb. It was during the Cold War, and I saw a video when I was in the sixth grade, and I thought I was going to go down to see an agricultural film or something; it was really fun going down to the visual aids room. But we saw one of those propaganda films on "this is what will happen if there is an enemy attack," and panning devastation and mothers screaming and blood and babies -- that was my first panic attack, and that's when I realized that I could die any minute and that the Russians were going to bomb us. And I didn't have enough information, I didn't even know about it, I mean I was a little dancer, even at that time. To me , life was just great. And then the world fell on my head and I started shaking and I ran home -- I told the teacher I needed to go home for lunch and I ran home and I called my mom on the phone at the store and I said, "Mommy, can you come home because I think we're all going to die." And she ran home and she said, "Listen to me," and she explained everything to me -- she showed me where Russia was, she showed me where the United States was, she said everybody has the bomb; nobody is going to hurt each other, because it would not be good, they don't want to do this, blah, blah, blah. Then she called the school board and cussed them out for doing this to these kids.
That was my first kind of panic attack, and then I went through those every time I would hear a siren when I was 11 and 12 and 13. I wouldn't go to school -- I was scared that there would be an air raid siren and I couldn't hear it because I was too frightened. Maybe that's what 9/11 did to me, you know what I mean? Maybe that's what kicked me into gear for these kids, because it's a kind of silent distress, and children don't share their fears of uncertainty and so forth.
But then time goes on and then I was pulled out of a place I knew -- my dream was to be a dancer. I'm certainly not a star of any kind, and I started having these panic attacks again and I literally lost my smile. It scared me. Because I was a really happy-go-lucky kid. And I couldn't go into public, I would feel nauseous, I would get dizzy -- and I was really having emotional issues and I couldn't attach it to anything. That's when I went to see a doctor, to see what was going on with me. And I spent over a year learning a little bit more about what was going on with me.
And after I would say about eight months, I started to feel recovery and feel free again and see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I stayed in this discovery for about nine years, but I was very dedicated to learning more and more about my psyche, about my brain, about the people around me. And learning how to navigate and understand other people's adoration, because when you've got all the fans, it's kind of like yeah, but they don't really know me. They can say things, and at that time I was on "Laugh In" and it was a bigger stage and all that stuff -- but I was capable of handling it and letting them -- in a sense, knowing that they weren't really looking at me, but they were looking at what their image was of me. So it helped me distance from that overwhelm or that ego-feeding or any of those things that can walk you down a dangerous path. It was nine years very, very well spent, and I was extremely dedicated. So that's sort of the beginning of my discovery.
MS: Life is this ongoing journey of transformation, and even in those difficult times you sometimes have the most growth.
GH: You do. Yeah, you do.
MS: Lately, I've been pretty busy myself with a book out and everything else, and I realized last week that I was feeling tired and overwhelmed and realized that I better go back to the ways I take care of myself, taking breaks, meditating in the morning. We have to constantly check in with ourselves to see how we're doing.
GH:Yeah, it's vital.
MS: Speaking of life as a journey, in our society we often fear aging, but to me I have always felt that we come more into our true selves as we get older, which is a positive thing. It certainly seems that way for you. How do you feel about getting older?
GH: I don't think about it. Sometimes I look and I go, "Oh my God, I'm old; I'm older then I have ever been." [Laughs.] I don't relate to time very much, I think that's what it is -- I don't understand time, and that's kind of a philosophical thing, in terms of what is it, really? So I sort of live in terms of day-to-day. I dream long and far. I know what it is -- I'm not living in time constraints, where suddenly I feel, well I better do that, because I'm going to die soon -- because nobody knows when they're going to die, anyway. Obviously, I want the optimum experience, I want to stay energetic, I try to take care of myself, I understand what makes me feel good, so I make sure I get that in there. I'm conscious of my internal life. The external part of it, you do the best you can do. Some people age better than others, some people's skin is better than others, in terms of being a female, I try to keep my weight down. But other than that, I don't live on a sense of age. Do you know what I mean? I don't deal with those parameters. And when I say that, I mean, that's a very visceral experience. That's just the way I live, it's not what I even think about. You're asking me, so I'm telling you, but it's not how I leave the house in the morning.
MS: You were talking about the implications of this program, not just for kids and schools, but also for healthcare; to me this program also has exciting implications for the larger world. After all, this is the next generation of leaders we are grooming.
GH: Oh my God, I can't believe you said that. One of the issues that I have thought after 9/11 -- and this isn't necessarily a political commentary, OK -- but I felt that there was a lot of reactivity going on within our leaders. And it worried me. And the other part of this -- this is just inside of my own head -- my dream, my impetus, why, why, why did I do something like this, was also to nurture healthy-minded leaders, and you said it -- I couldn't believe it. It was creating a different kind of leadership and problem-solving and peace-making. Which is why, when I sat there in my quiet room in Vancouver, my dream, my vision was global. It wasn't just Canada; it was global, because I think these kinds of ways of educating children on the social and emotional level is really going to help change and grow our leadership in a different way globally. Now we're in the U.K., and we're getting requests from all over the world for this program. And because it's a foundation and obviously, you only have so much capacity because you have so much money, you can't facilitate all of it. But it looks like we're probably going to go down to Australia and New Zealand, and I know that areas in South Africa have asked, but you know, you can't grow too quick.
MS: Well, hopefully, it will grow quickly, because I do think the world needs it, and I do think this is sort of where human evolution is going -- or I would like to think that's where it's going.
GH: I would like to think so too. [Laughs.] Whatever little drop we can put in that water, that does the ripples out there, it's all we can do.
MS: What are your ultimate hopes and dreams for this project?
GH: That it is in every school -- right now we're focusing on America. I guess if I was in the U.K., I would say the same thing, with our foundation there, but right now we're here in the United States. I would like to see it in every school. I would like to see a mandate for social and emotional learning absolutely mandated in every state. And that these teachers embrace and embody these programs and implement them in their classrooms.
I think that's where we're going; that's what we're doing; that's our mission. We're also working with the Boys and Girls Clubs, so we have after-school programs of MindUp. And Scholastic, of course, has published everything now. It's all published by Scholastic. And I tell you, when you talk about mainstream -- there is nothing more mainstream than that. And they are giving these kids in this book published by Scholastic, three times a day "brain breaks." That's revolutionary.
But the biggest, biggest issue for me is that we get this, and these principles and these tactics and these ways and means of practices, in pre-service, which is in colleges. That we get our teachers versed, experienced, understanding what a mindful practice looks like, and how to understand the brain. I spoke to Susan Fuhrman at Columbia University, she's the President of the Teacher's College, and we met the other day and she said to me, "This is exciting. Brain-based learning is starting to really take hold here." So that's the idea, develop our teachers differently, so they come into the force or into the field with these capabilities. I think that's probably the big, big, big dream, because then you don't have to worry about scaling anything. Right now scaling is hard -- we're developing with Columbia an online training program, so it will be easily accessible and wonderful to be able to go online now and get accreditation for that, which we're going to do. That's the beginning.
MS: What is the one message you would most want to instill in a child?
GH:That they have the choice to be the best they can be. That they have the power. And that they themselves matter, because children, I believe, don't feel that they have much of an imprint -- and they are our imprint. They are our future; they are going to inherit this world. And I want them to feel that they can do it, and be able to access some of these tools throughout their life.
MS: Since we've been talking so much about happiness, what is the meaning of happiness for you personally, and based on that, do you feel happy?
GH: Yeah, I do. Like I say, not all the time, but I certainly have the tools to be able to reach down deep and shift my thinking, to bring a more optimum experience for the day. What is happiness? Happiness, I think, has to come in the beginning, truly, from feeling a sense of well-being within yourself. If you don't, then you're grasping outside for all things that you think are going to make you happy -- whether they're material, or if it's a job, or it's money, or status, or recognition -- all of these aspects of ego that are being fed. To me it's that incredible sense of belonging and peace within your own self and heart that really is joy.
MS: And something that can be cultivated and spread.
GH: Well you said it, because you own it. That part of it is all yours, nobody else's. You know when you say, "This person really made me mad, unhappy" -- that person "made" me. And you look and you say, "You know, nobody really can make you feel a certain way."
MS: Right, only you control that.
GH: You really do. I don't want to sound like you never feel anything -- we've all loved and lost, all had a lot of pain, and we're supposed to, we're humans, it's the way it works. But it's how you manage it, how you manage those tears and that pain. How you are able to get yourself out of it.
MS: I was talking the other day with somebody who was looking out at the chaos in the world -- Japan, all the wars and violence -- and was posing it as a sort of an end-of-the-world scenario. And I was like, "Well, that's one way to look at it," but I think that out of this darkness, it's going to force new ways of thinking, force the light more brilliantly to come in. And when I hear about projects like this one, I feel that that's part of that whole surge.
GH: I agree with your wholeheartedly, because you and I both know -- we look around and we go, "Holy bajeebies, what is happening?" Between the weather and the radioactive and poor Japan and then, "Oh my God, what about L.A.?" we've got this shaking, and the fire and the hatred -- and then on the other side, people want to be liberated, they want to look to the light, they want to have more self-governance -- it's all a fight between the light and dark. And there's a lot of light out there, and I think that ultimately, you're right, and we just have to keep putting it back in. I'm an optimist -- I mean, I'm realistically optimistic, so I'm on your side, and I think that we're going to come out of this much better.
* * * * *
This interview originally appeared at The Huffington Post.
For more information about The Hawn Foundation and MindUp, visit www.thehawnfoundation.org.
Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Her new book based on her
interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women
Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010.