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Seven Ways To Be Happy in a Smoking Country

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I don't like it when people smoke around me. I don't like breathing cigarette smoke, I don't like getting it on my clothes, hair and skin, and perhaps more than anything else I don't like the inherent civic rudeness of public smoking - the idea that someone can contaminate the air of someone else without a second thought.

But sometimes my desire not to be around cigarette smoke runs up against other desires: for instance, my desire to have a good time on my trip to Spain this summer.

Spain has history, culture, cities, beaches, and really attractive people. Spain has a lot of smokers, too. Spaniards smoke in restaurants, they smoke in bars, they smoke while pushing strollers, they smoke on the beach. Spain has a toothless no-smoking ordinance, so in the majority of smaller restaurants and bars everyone can and does smoke.

I didn't fly to Spain to mainline other people's nicotine, but on the other hand I didn't fly to Spain to be crabby and obsessive. What to do?

One idea central to coaching and positive psychology is that how we choose to perceive things affects how we feel about them. As I walked around Barcelona trying to find a place where I could eat without getting cinders in my eyes, I came up with this list of tips for being happy in a smoking country.

  1. Create a goal, not an expectation. When I assumed that restaurants in Spain would be nonsmoking and discovered they were not, I gnashed my teeth. When I changed this expectation into the goal of finding one of the handful of clean-air dining places, I walked with a different attitude. It was like a treasure hunt: "I know there are some smoke-free restaurants here in Barcelona, and I am going to succeed in finding one! And it will be awesome!"
  2. Practice gratitude. As Martin Seligman points out in Authentic Happiness, when you articulate what you're grateful for, you see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. I recited some of the things I was grateful for. "I'm grateful that I live in a city that has smoke-free restaurants, and I never even half to think about these things." "I'm grateful that I have this chance to see another culture." "I'm happy that I have the choice to eat out in restaurants."
  3. Compare downward. Comparing ourselves to others makes us unhappy. However, as Sonia Lyubomirsky explains in The How of Happiness, comparing yourself to less fortunate people actually makes you feel happier. I thought, "People in Spain who want to avoid public smoking have a hard time, whereas where I live in New York it's pretty easy."
  4. Anticipate, Relish, Remember and Share. Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project taught me this. Any experience yields more happiness if you anticipate it ("dinner in whatever smoke-free restaurant we find will be great tonight!"); relish it ("are these the best patatas bravas you've ever had, or what?"); remember it ("my waitress was so nice last night") and share it ("check out this photo of my favorite restaurant in Madrid - it was awesome and smoke-free!")
  5. Assume positive intentions. If people are smoking two feet away from you, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are deliberately trying to bother you. It's possible they are unaware. It's possible that they have different cultural mores. Is it possible that they contribute to Greenpeace and visit their grandmothers every Sunday. When I assumed positive intentions, I realized that no one was deliberately trying to sabotage my trip. They were just doing their thing.
  6. Ask for what you want. Asking for what you want is the opposite of being powerless and a complainer. A couple of times I asked people not to smoke, usually when I was standing in the reception area of a larger restaurant that had some kind of no-smoking section, and someone obliviously wandered in from the street puffing on a cigarette. Saying, "Disculpe, no se permite fumar aquí," didn't result in anything bad. In each case, the person apologized and put out his or her cigarette immediately. They were just unaware.
  7. Notice what's right. This is another re-framing technique so that what is bugging you is not the entire focus of your thoughts. What was right: Spain was gorgeous. I could speak with people and be understood. It was not crowded. The food was delicious everywhere I went. People were friendly. I had a great time.

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