The King’s Speech: beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

“The pursuit of happiness is a beautiful thing. But it shouldn’t become an obsession.”

That’s one of the key messages of the Christmas speech of Dutch king Willem Alexander gave a few weeks ago.

It puts the finger on an important issue around happiness: happiness is worthwhile to pursue, but only in moderation. It should not become an obsession, indeed. Happiness gurus and positive thinkers may emphasise optimism so much, that they forget that bad things are a natural part of life. Sometimes life sucks, sometimes we fail, sometimes we doubt ourselves. And negative emotions – anger, guilt, self-doubt, sadness – are just as important in regulating our emotional health as positive emotions are.

If we shouldn’t obsess about happiness, should we still pursue it? Indeed, as Willem Alexander said: “one cannot force happiness. It is elusive. It comes suddenly”. In that vein, should we still wish each other a happy New Year?

Here the King’s Speech (in Dutch). The part on happiness starts around 3:00.

Have a Flourishing New Year

I think it’s still worth wishing each other a Happy New Year – it is an easy term and everybody has an image of what ‘happiness’ means. But we can also do better: in a way, ‘happiness’ is a lazy term. It is easily used incorrectly, and we have better, more precise alternatives. Many of them have been mentioned on the blog: well-being, meaning, life satisfaction, and flow.

Maybe the best one, though, is ‘flourishing‘, as described by Martin Seligman. A person that ‘flourishes’ doesn’t merely experience happy moments (and certainly doesn’t obsess about them!). Instead, he or she is doing well in a broad sense: positive emotions  and meaning to live well, but also resilient in face of the dark days that inevitably will occur during the year.

Beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

Let’s cheer to a year of flourishing. But how do you pursue flourishing? A start point might be to pursue a healthy life style. The example below is taken from Arts en Leefstijl (Doctor and Life style) in the Netherlands. They recommend to pay attention to six factors to develop a healthy life style: nutrition, your social life, relaxation, physical activity, meaning, and sufficient sleep.

On some you will already perform well. My examples here: I get my eight hours of sleep, I am grateful for what is good, I try to be friendly and interested in others. Some will be more challenging: I can definitely reduce phone time and do more sports. Others will be in between: my eating pattern is overall fine, but I can sure do more to reduce sugar and get enough fruit and veg everybody. A healthy life style finds a right balance on all of them.

With that, let me wish you a Flourishing New Year, full of positive emotions, a healthy life style, and resilience. Go beyond happiness, and pursue flourishing.

 

The wheel of flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

The wheel of a healthy life style, contributing to flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

We’re vlogging! Check Happiness, a user guide

We proudly present: the very first ‘Happiness, a User Guide’ vlog!

In the first vlog, my wife and vlogger-in-chief Ania and I introduce you to our vlog. As you can imagine, the mission isn’t too different from the blog. We both believe that it is worth to better understand how happiness works and to pay attention to what makes us happy. As we say in the first edition, we will use the vlogs to explore the science of happiness, and introduce some exercises that can contribute to quality of life.

Like every vlogger tells you: if you like what you see, don’t forget to click the thumbs up & subscribe buttons. Enjoy the video!

“Happiness is a warm kitty”: the joy of pets

Three months ago, I found myself facing an important question: did I want a cat?

My sister-in-law found a poor kitty on the street, without a home and a wounded tail (aaah…). After a day of reflection and rushed research in the question how to take care of a kitty, we decided to take him in. Since that moment, we are proudly housing Rembrandt – I negotiated the right to name him and to pick a Dutch name. We hope to do so for the next fifteen odd years.

Rembrandt a few days after arriving, with still a wounded tail.

Rembrandt a few days after arriving, with still a wounded tail.

Rembrandt is a pretty social kitten. He likes to lay on the couch with us and enjoys to play. He has grown tremendously in the short time he has been with us. If only we figured out how to teach him to leave the plants alone…

As a happiness blogger, I am not just going to share cat pictures or cat memes, though I take it that’s one of the main functions of the internet. So let me face these questions: do cats, and other animals, make us happier? And a more complicated one: do animals themselves experience happiness?

Is happiness a warm kitty?

Amazingly, almost every single question about happiness I could come up with has been answered by a scientist. To answer whether animals make us happy, I looked at the result of a small study published by Bao et al. under the title “Is Happiness a Warm Puppy?: Examining the Association Between Pets and Well-Being”. Based on a survey under 263 people, among which 94% pet owners (of which 53% dogs and 41% cats), Bao et al. find a slightly higher level of life satisfaction for pet owners.

Although the survey numbers may be too small to draw strong conclusions, intuitively the findings make sense. Human beings need both social relations with other beings and a purpose to feel happiness. Having a pet could enrich human lives in both ways

Bao et al.’s study also looks into a trickier issue: cats or dogs? Dog owners were found to be happier than cat owners, and again, intuitively this makes sense. Cats are more isolated and independent animals, while dogs display a lot more affection. Also, dogs require to be walked, and people with more active lifestyles and time in nature are happier. The study – again, based on a small sample – even found higher levels of conscientiousness in dog owners and higher levels of neuroticism in cat owners. Scientists have found neuroticism to be a personality trait that is correlate with lower levels of happiness.

Do animals experience happiness?

And what about animals themselves: does Rembrandt love me? Does he experience happiness when he’s purring on my stomach and I am petting him? We are always warned not to project human emotions upon animals, but that does not mean animals do not have feelings. Even Darwin already asserted that animals have emotions.

To measure human happiness, scientists use surveys as well as brain research. In case of animals, surveys do not make sense – I cannot ask Rembrandt to fill out a questionnaire asking him to value his health, social relations, quality of food and shelter, and overall life satisfaction. Brain research in animals has confirmed that animals have broadly similar cerebral systems. Even the frontal cortex, said to be the determining factor in human progression over animals, may not be as sacred anymore.

Indeed, the more complex animals’ brains are, the less their behaviours are hard-wired in intuition, and the larger and more complex their brains are, the more space there is for emotional systems to influence animals’ behaviour. We can watch animals – including Rembrandt – and observe their behaviour, and infer something about how they feel.

As Carl Safina says in his TED talk “What animals are feeling and thinking“,

“attributing human thoughts and emotions to other species is the best first guess about what they’re feeling”

As such, I can be confident that Rembrandt feels positive emotions – be it calm, pleasure, or even happiness – in my presence.

 

And Rembrandt now, ready to join on a trip!

And Rembrandt now, ready to join on a trip!

Coming up: workshop “Happiness, A User’s Guide”, Google Campus Warsaw, 8 March 2019

Save the date and tell your friends!

This International Women’s Day, be inspired by workshops on happiness and love at Google Campus Warsaw.

Together with my better half, I will give a workshop on “Happiness, A User’s Guide”.  The workshop takes place 8 March 2019 at 9.30 at Google Campus (Plac Konesera 10 in Warsaw). Afterwards, there will also be a workshop (in Polish) on love in business.

See below for the quick intro to the workshop, and for the short bios of my wife and fellow speaker Ania. You can register via Google Campus’ page here.

Looking forward to see you on 8 March.

 

Workshop “Happiness: a user’s guide’

Happiness. We all know it when we feel happy. At the same time, the pursuit of happiness is one of the most complicated endeavours in our life. How does happiness work? In the workshop, Jasper Bergink and Anna Koziarska-Bergink will go into the following questions

-      what does happiness mean, and can we measure it?

-      why is Poland a lot happier country than many Poles think?

-      what are the ten golden rules of happiness?

After the workshop, you will better understand what happiness is. We hope it will inspire you to live your life in the way that makes you happy.

 

About us

Since 2013, Jasper Bergink edits the blog For A State of Happiness (www.forastateofhappiness.com), dedicated to research about happiness and wellbeing. He is also a speaker on happiness and has delivered workshops for organisations including TEDxLuxembourg, the region of Jalisco (Mexico), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Netherlands), and Credit Suisse Warsaw.

Anna Koziarska-Bergink is a psychologist by training. Since 2012, she has given hundreds of hours of workshops on topics including personal and business growth, teambuilding, and marketing and sales. She is specialising in positive psychology and psycho-social training in a Warsaw University postgraduate programme.

 

Image source unknown

Image source unknown

Proudly presented: the For A State of Happiness Blue Monday Quiz!

Blue Monday is definitely a thing now. Dreamt up by marketeers and bogus scientists in 2005, the term has entered the public discourse by now. Media are full of tips to prevent Monday blues, and marketeers take it as a change to drive holiday sales and shopping in an otherwise dull January month. One could call it fake news.

And actually, I’ve also jumped on the Blue Monday bandwagon myself. Even though Blue Monday itself is bogus, there is such a thing as a winter depression, and January is still well in the dark season. Just as we meet family around Christmas, it’s sensible to meet up with friends around Blue Monday for celebration.

Since a few years, my wife and I tend to organise Blue Monday Eve drinks, inviting some friends to ensure we enter Blue Monday with a jolly feeling instead. We try to make it feel different from an ordinary house party; inviting friends on a Sunday instead and playing games (we still procured some wine though).

This year, we also played a happiness quiz with our guests, and on special request I post the questions and answers of the For A State of Happiness Blue Monday Quiz here – maybe you want to use them next year, or at a last minute Blue January event? You still have a week, and if not, February can be pretty blue too.

 

The For A State of Happiness Blue Monday Quiz 2019

What is the happiest country of the world?

According to the 2018 edition of the World Happiness Report: Finland.

What is hygge?

Hygge is a Danish concept that roughly translates to ‘cosiness’, typically felt sitting in front of the fire place with a hot chocolate during a storm. It stands for comfort, togetherness and wellbeing, according to Meik Wiking, author of a book on Hygge and director of the Copenhagen-based Happiness Research Institute.

What are the four elements making people happy at work, according to Pracuję bo lubię?

Energy, flow, purpose, and positive emotions. For more detail (but slightly different naming), see my post after sitting down with Aleksandra Grabska from Pracuję bo lubię (‘I work because I like it’).

Who are happier: people with cats or with dogs?

My post on this is not online yet, but the (unsurprising to most) answer is: dog owners tend to be happier.

Does the weather influence our quality of life?

This is the one many people get wrong: no, it doesn’t. Why not? Two psychological process explain why: ‘focus illusion’ and adaptation.

Which country invented Gross National Happiness?

Readers of my blog will know: Bhutan!

What ranking does Poland have in the World Happiness Report for 2018, out of 156 countries?

The answer is: 42, a bit higher than Poles would suspect. Compared globally, quality of life in Poland is pretty strong, and it has seen major improvements in the last 25 years. Still, Poland is a country where one has to find happiness in unhappiness.

When is the International Day of Happiness?

In 2012, on Bhutan’s initiative, the United Nations decided to institute an International Day of Happiness. It is celebrated each year on 20 March.

Name six positive emotions.

Naming six positive emotions may sound like a lot, but researchers identified even more of them. At Warsaw University, they listed ten: enchantment, love, inspiration, pride, amusement, hope, interest, calm, gratitude, and joy.

What motivates our behaviour more: positive or negative emotions?

Again, a question based on lectures at Warsaw University. While negative emotions can trigger strong responses to difficult events, ultimately positive emotions have a stronger impact on our actions than negative ones.

Character 'Sadness' from Inside Out - she is blue for a reason.

Character ‘Sadness’ from Inside Out – she is blue for a reason.

My new year resolution: a year of happy birthdays

When I was a boy, my grandparents had a birthday calendar in their toilet, just as many Dutch families do. On twelve pages – one for each month of the year – the calendar listed when their (grand)children and friends had their birthdays. As the calendar didn’t mention the days of the week, my grandparents could use it year after year.

Next to it, they had a print of a rhyme by Toon Hermans, a Dutch comedian and poet. It went as follows:

Vandaag is de dag

Hij komt maar één keer

Morgen dan is het

Vandaag al niet meer

Niet zeuren, geniet

van het leven, het mag

Maar doe het vandaag,

want vandaag is de dag.

 

Today is the day

It comes only once

Tomorrow it won’t

Be today anymore

Do not complain,

enjoy life, you may

But do it today

cause today is the day.

 

Birthdays and happiness

While I do care about my friendships, I am terrible in remembering birthdays. Even Facebook’s notifications – where every birthday becomes a number in a red box next to a bell, asking for your attention – do not help me. I am not as intimated by red numbers anymore as I was when I first got Facebook and a smartphone.

I think birthdays are important: it’s worth celebrating life, and it’s worth celebrating others that are important to you. Humans are social animals, and we need others to be happy. A birthday offers the occasion to have a small celebration, to appreciate the year that has past, to spend time together in pleasant company, or just send our good wishes. I’d imagine there to be a positive correlation between sending and receiving birthday wishes and happiness (though I didn’t come across any research on birthdays and happiness – I suggest this to be subject of further research).

I thus believe it’s a worthy goal to change myself, and get better at birthdays. Therefore, one of my New Year Resolutions this year is to remember my friends’ birthdays. Reminiscing about my grandparents’ birthday calendar, I set out to get the best tool I could think of to support me in meeting this resolution: an old-fashioned birthday calendar. I even managed to get one with the very poem lighting up my grandparents’ bathroom.

So I hope that 2019 will be the year of remembering and celebrating birthdays. Because many days this year, it will be “today is the day” for one of my friends. And I hope these birthdays will be happy ones.

IMG-4943

Daily tips to do good in December

It’s the first of December again. Tomorrow I’ll light my first advent candle, and Christmas parties with friends and at work are less than two weeks away.

December is a month we spend with others. Focusing on what happens around us, is not only good for others, but also for ourselves. Positive relations are a key element in happiness, and there’s research indicating that performing regular acts of kindness strengthens happiness.

Like last year, I’d like to share the Kindness Calendar developed by Action for Happiness.

Dubbing the months ‘Do Good December’, the calendar provides inspiration on how to help others and feel better yourself. Some of my favourites:

  • 4 December: listen wholeheartedly to someone without judging them. This is a difficult one: when hearing about problems friends are facing, we are quick to offer advice, and in doing so, sometimes try to impose our views.
  • 7 December: be generous. Feed someone with food, love or kindness today. And feeling happier is a great collateral benefit.
  • 10 December: count your blessings: list the kind things others have done for you. I’ve written it often before: gratitude is an important factor in happiness.
  • 17 December: thank people who do things for you but you may take for granted. It’s very easy to take things done for you for granted – by spouses, parents or friends. A friendly good morning or thank you in a shop or store or to the bus driver doesn’t hurt.

Have a great and good December!

Action for Happiness’ Do Good December Calendar (click to enlarge). Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/do-good-december

Action for Happiness’ Do Good December Calendar (click to enlarge). Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/do-good-december

The art and happiness of travel

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Varanasi, India.

A depiction of Vishnu, the sustainer, one of the main gods

A depiction of Vishnu, the presever, one of the main Hindu gods

It wasn’t the easiest place I have visited. I was confronted with a sweltering heat, pollution affecting my breathing, occasional smells of cow dung and rotting garbage, and a cacophonous concert of auto-riksha horns that resounded in my head long after I returned to the calm of my hotel.

At the same time, it was the most mind-blowing of all the places I had the fortune to visit. Varanasi is so different from any other place I have visited. I enjoyed visiting the temples, and learning how Hindu Gods are portrayed. Did you know that Hindus have 330 million Gods? They are not only above us, but everywhere around us.

I was fascinated to walk past the Ganges, the holy river, and witness how pilgrims came here to bath in the river, wash their clothes, and drink a few sips of holy water. On the riverbank of the Ganges, a few sets of stairs are used for the cremation of those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi. According to Hindu mythology, if someone dies in Varanasi, their soul escapes the cycle of death and rebirth. Hence the streets are lined by pilgrims, among them many long-bearded men dressed in orange, waiting for the moment to liberate their soul.

The unique spirituality of the place, in my opinions, far outweighs the discomfort. And it perfectly illustrates why we travel in general, and why our travels can generate such moments of happiness.

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Why we travel

The question ‘why we travel’ seem simple, but is not that easy to answer. For me, travel is a complex art of relaxation and adventure. Overall, I think there are five important reasons:

- to relax: to gain new mental and physical energy, or enjoy lazy days with sea and sunshine

- to learn about the world around us: experience different ways of living in other nations (people already have been doing this since the Roman times! A geographer named Pausanias even wrote a travel guide to Greece in the 2nd century AD).

- to admire beauty: to experience the beauty of nature, art and culture

- to meet new people: to gain fresh perspectives and ideas by meeting people from different cultures or in different settings than home

- to escape our comfort zone: while we need stability, we quickly adapt to our daily reality and bored. Travel helps us to break routines (and boy, did I do so in India!)

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

Travel, for a 2% happier life

Travel creates many moments that could experience happiness: relaxation, learning, beauty, and social encounters. At the same time, travel can also lead to difficult and stressful situations.

Altogether, there is only a small net positive effect of travel of happiness. Compared to people who do not go on vacation, people who travel have a slightly higher level of subjective well-being. According to this PhD study on leisure travel and happiness, holiday trips account for about 2% of the variance in life satisfaction. Probably, the effects are limited due to the simple fact that a vacation ends pretty soon. A few weeks after, sweet memories disappear to the back of the mind and daily routines take over again.

Nonetheless, there’s a clear stream in research suggesting spending money on experiences – which would include travel – rather than material goods is the way to go. While the novelty of a purchase wears off, triggering memories of the holidays through souvenirs, pictures or reading journals helps to keep the experience.

I think I’ve those boxes ticked: I write this on the couch next to pillowcases with elephants bought in India and lighted up this post a few pictures. And describing my experience in Varanasi at the start of the post almost made me hear the chaos of riksha traffic and admire the sunrise from a Ganges boat again. It is as if I haven’t left India yet.

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays - for a sunrise on the Ganges

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays – for a sunrise on the Ganges

 

Why the weather doesn’t make you happy

“If only I lived in a warmer place, I would be so much happier”

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about happiness that I encounter is that weather and climate strongly influence happiness. It is a persistent beliefs, and even in the view of evidence, I typically fail to persuade people of the opposite. Let me put it out there, loud and clear: no, moving to a place with better weather will not make you happier.

Why is this – admittedly, counterintuitive – statement true?

Two phenomena explain why. The first one: focus illusion.

Focus illusion

‘Focus illusion’ is the phenomenon that when people evaluate two alternative scenarios – say, living in Northern and in Southern Europe – they only focus on one element. Amsterdam is grey and rainy, while Barcelona is sunny and warm, hence life in Barcelona must be better.

But life is made up from a lot more than the weather. A day in Amsterdam doesn’t only involve a rainy bike ride to the office. It may also include a long meeting with clients, a backlog of work emails to clear, catching some friends for a few drinks, and watching an episode of your favourite series before falling asleep. A day in Barcelona may start with a commute by bus through morning traffic, and then elapse in exactly the same way as one in Amsterdam. That massively reduces the impact of weather!

A famous study by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and co-author David Schkade backs up the ‘focus illusion’. For their study – nicely titled ‘Does living in California make people happy’ – they asked students in the US Midwest (Michigan and Ohio) and in Southern California to evaluate either their own life satisfaction, or the life satisfaction of a student in the other region.

Both Californians and Midwesterners predicted Californians to be happier, and students’ ratings suggested that the better climate would contribute to higher happiness levels. However, there were no discernable difference in both the happiness levels found and the contribution of climate to those happiness levels.

As Kahneman and Schkade phrase the focus illusion they found: “Easily observed and distinctive differences between locations are given more weight in such judgments than they will have in reality.” Overall, academic research indicates that other factors – primarily,  social relations, work and financial situation, and health, have a lot larger influence on happiness.

Adaptation

But now say you’re a person who is a lot more sensitive to the weather than the average person. Say that you are meteopathic, sensitive to temperatures, or suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD, also known as winter depression). Even in those cases, moving to a place with a more suitable climate may result in a bit more comfort, it may not meaningfully affect your longer-term quality of life.

‘Adaptation’ is the reason why. When something changes in our life – say, we get a new car – it is amazing in the beginning. The first few rides are wonderful. But over time, the novelty wears off. And after a few months, a great new car is not a source of satisfaction anymore.

This adaptation affect is very strong, and it is one of the reasons why we always ‘need’ more material goods and experiences, running the ‘hedonic treadmill’. A seminal study by Brickman et al., a classic in social psychology, shows how strong the effect can be. The scholars study small groups of paralyzed accident victims, lottery winners, as well as a control group. As time passed, both lottery winners and people getting paralyzed in an accident adapted to their changing situation and returned to their previous level of happiness.

By extension: if you move from Amsterdam to Barcelona or from the Midwest to California, you’ll benefit in the first three months or so, but afterwards it won’t make a difference anymore. No, warmer weather really won’t make you any happier.

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

Five years on the road

This Sunday – 30 September 2018 – marks the fifth anniversary of For A State of Happiness.

On 30 September 2013, I quietly set my first step  outside my door, into the wide world of blogging about happiness. As I then wrote, the blog is a travel journal, recording impressions and findings about what makes people, countries, and workplaces happier.

My journey so far

My journey has brought me to wonderful places. It has brought me to conferences in Bhutan, Mexico and Turkey and to visit the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. It allowed me to do book reviews, give  workshops, and talk on radio shows. I’ve had the chance to speak to researchers, journalists and inspirational speakers. I got to research pizza robots and the benefits of high taxes, to ponder about money and art. I even (after a few drinks) spoke to women about happiness during my very own bachelor party (no, there is no blog post about that…).

Happiness is easy, and it is not

My perspective on happiness hasn’t changed massively since my explorations began. Like I did then, I believe happiness often arises from small things in life: pleasant interactions with close friends or family, enjoying a home-made curry or a shared cup of coffee, being astounded by the beauty of a new landscape, or made to think by a piece of art. The art of life is to take notice of the happy moments we experience. Happiness is surprisingly easy.

I still believe we often act against our happiness, even wittingly doing so. We fail to step back in the face of stress. We allow modern technology to encroach on our use of time and attention. We stick to habits that bring about neither ephemeral happiness today nor strengthen our quality of life tomorrow. Happiness is surprisingly difficult.

Why I do what I do

When asked why I am writing this blog, there are generally two types of answers I give, depending on the occasion. Sometimes I say that I write about happiness because I learnt everything that is important in school, with the exception of how to be happy (fortunately, nowadays there are more and more educators that ‘teach’ happiness). And as happiness remains mysterious enough, I’ve reason enough to keep going.

The other answer is that I wanted to write a book about happiness, but figured a blog would be simpler. If you regularly write blog posts for a few years, all you basically have to do is bundle and print them, and you kind of have a book. Evidently it isn’t as easy as that, but there’s a lot of material here and in my head that would make a fine book. Sometimes an unfulfilled dream pushes you forward.

Both answers still apply as much today as they have over the last years. Today, they give an answer to the question “why do you do what you do?”, and hence the journey will go on. I am enjoying every step in the pursuit of happiness.

And I hope, dear reader, that you are enjoying the journey with me. Happy anniversary to you, too!

Image found here: https://www.amindonfire.com/road-trip-movies/

Image found here: https://www.amindonfire.com/road-trip-movies/

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