Meditation, a way to deal with stress

On a Tuesday morning in December, I sat on my couch. I put my feet firmly on the ground, straightened my back, and opened the Insight Timer app on my phone. It greeted me with an insightful quote and asked me: how are you doing today? I answered ‘good’, the second-best in the range from ‘awful’ to ‘fantastic’. Among the adjectives to add detail on my mood, I picked ‘satisfied’ and ‘grateful’. Then, I started ten minutes of unguided meditation, as my teacher had asked me to do every day during the five week programme on resilience and stress management.

The exercise I did was an ‘SBR’ meditation. In this exercise, the S stands for ‘Sit’, the B for ‘Breath’ and the ‘R’ for ‘relax’ or ‘return to breath’. The point of this meditation is not to have no thoughts at all. That is impossible. Instead, you pay attention to your breath. Once thoughts emerge, you observe them, relax, and return focus to your breath.

The brain is a muscle that you can train; this concept is called ‘neuroplasticity’. Because of the ‘monkey’ in your brain that constantly distracts you, your thoughts go in all directions. You observe your thoughts going in all directions. Then you steer them back to your breath to teach your brain focus. That skill, my trainer said, is helping you to focus during your workday. In turn, that will help you to be resilient in face of stress.

There’s a ‘monkey’ in your brain, that distracts you from what you want to use your brain power for and sends you on a path of random associations.
Image is not mine and found on AB Tasty.

As I did the exercise, I found my thoughts were more restless: thinking about ‘to do’s’ during the workday, chores at home, smaller and bigger worries, and so on. I felt that those thoughts represented some tension in my head. At the end of the exercise, the app again asked me how I felt. I went for ‘okay’ now, one step below ‘good’ and two above ‘awful’. For the adjectives, I added ‘stressed’ to the ‘satisfied’ one I picked before.

This unexpected effect was one of the benefits I experienced in my five weeks of daily meditation. Some days, I thought I felt good. But when introspecting more deeply, I became aware of stressors I hadn’t noticed before. I got off auto-pilot. Realising how I felt, I could pay attention to what I needed – take a break, go for a walk – and then re-focus on what I wanted to do. This helped me to manage stress and strengthen resilience.

The benefits of meditation

Meditation is listed high as a method people can use to work on their happiness. Why is that? I think because it helps people realise how they are really doing and take care of themselves, instead of going about mindlessly. Meditation can help to train the restless brain to focus.

It can be a part of your emotional hygiene, a psychological counterpart to the two times a day that you brush your teeth. Take ten minutes to check in and experience how you feel, identify your need, and go on with your day. Especially when you feel tense, it can help you. In face of stress, it has a similar effect as counting to ten before erupting in anger. Meditation is not easy, but it can be useful. Try it for a few weeks for ten minutes per day. And if unguided meditation is tough, go for a guided one, like the one below.

Vlog 4: engagement & flow

Welcome to the next episode of our vlog series “Happiness, a User Guide”. In our series, we use the PERMA model by prof Seligman to conceptualise happiness and well-being. We’re at episode four and arrived at the E of the PERMA model, which stands for Engagement.

Engagement – or flow – is one of the first manifestations of happiness I came across in my research; see this blog post from over six years ago. And it remains one of my favourites: flow is about the feeling you have when you’re so engaged in an activity that it feels as if time has stopped. Whatever you’re doing – like ice skating, tennis, or writing – is going automatically. Only after it ends, you realise you had an ‘optimal experience’. (The term is from prof Csikszentmihalyi, who studied flow).

To find out more on engagement – and maybe discover some ideas that can help you notice your optimal experience – watch the vlog below.

What employee satisfaction looks like during the pandemic (guest post)

This is a guest post by Tina Johnson.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a paradigm shift in the world of work. In March, the Polish workforce – just to name on example – were in consensus that businesses in Poland must offer remote work this year in response to the global Covid-19 crisis. Six months later, employers in Poland and elsewhere have adapted. More and more organisations are pivoting away from traditional office-based setups and into work-from-home models. In some sectors, it’s nothing new, but its normalisation in the face of this pandemic is worth a deeper look. Its increasing prevalence might already be altering how the country’s employees perceive happiness and satisfaction in their jobs.

But to understand better the ramifications of working from home on employee satisfaction and happiness, it’s important to first take a closer at its pros and cons, as they can directly impact how employees view their current situation. It has affected mine, and I can honestly say that I’m happier now that I’m working from home.

The advantages of ‘WFH’

These are some notable pros of remote work that might explain why job satisfaction and happiness are higher among employees working from home. That’s what Wrike found in their survey of people working from home.

Improves happiness. In a poll among remote workers in four countries, Wrike found that people working from home are happier because they are doing meaningful work in an environment where they want to be in. Having some flexibility over their schedule helps too, and is a far better enticement than workplace perks.

A chance at good work-life balance. With scheduling flexibility, remote workers get a better shot at achieving a good work-life integration. They can re-allocate the time they spend commuting to other aspects of life, like family time, exercise, or socialisation.

Increases productivityAn Entrepreneur article on why remote work is the future notes how there’s mounting evidence that remote workers are more productive. It’s mainly because employees are often eager to accomplish their tasks, mostly in deference to the flexibility and convenience that they are getting in return.

The disadvantages of remote working
Despite the benefits remote working has, not everybody is able to adjust.

Blurring of professional and personal boundaries. Working from home often makes it difficult to shut off from work, because work will often be within reach and in part because there not a universal stop time due to flexible hours.

Possibility of burnout. Lack of boundaries can increase the likelihood of overworking, and can cause burnout. This is an occupational phenomenon described by the World Health Organization as stemming from chronic, unaddressed work stress. Burnout then leaves an employee feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and pessimistic.

Making work from home work

As discussed in an earlier post on the 4 spheres of happiness at work, the Employer Branding Institute’s Aleksandra Grabska sees health as a prime consideration in terms of job satisfaction, along with a good work environment, a sense of purpose, and flow (or how employees feel about what they do). Unfortunately, working from home can adversely impact employees’ overall health, which can be reason enough for them not to feel fully satisfied at work — more so during this pandemic. But that doesn’t have to be the case, as there are ways for remote workers to take full advantage of the work-from-home setup. Here are three of them:

Have a firm set of rules

Since overworking is one of the biggest problems when it comes to remote work, it is important to find ways to address it immediately. In his 30 tips for work-from-home professionals, lifestyle writer James Gonzales offers a solution: set ground rules — no social media, no working in the bedroom, etc. — and stick to them. Another solution is to set definite work hours and designate a work area, as doing so helps in delineating between the personal and professional.

To be honest, my first thought when I was offered this work-from-home arrangement was: Things will be so much easier! They are now, but back in March, when I first started, I struggled. I wasn’t just working 9 to 5, but often well over my usual set hours. And I was having a hard time focusing, as there was always a distraction: my kids running around, my dog wanting a walk, Netflix, and a power nap or two. Then, I read about the importance of establishing rules, and that’s when I put my foot down. I set up a workstation in a spot just adjacent to our kitchen, and resolved to strictly follow a 9 to 5 schedule. It was a sacrifice I had to make, and I’m better off now for doing so.

Find time for casual chats

Another thing that can adversely impact remote workers’ wellbeing and job satisfaction is feeling isolated and lonely. That’s why in their 23 tips for working remotely, Inc authors recommend taking time for water cooler chats, whether through texts or via the company’s communication platforms.

In my case, I never had a problem with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Having kids and a dog certainly helps. But I know of colleagues who struggled in this regard initially. That’s why I took it upon myself to check in on them as often as I could, or drop a message of encouragement in our group chat. Sometimes, I’d leave a funny meme or a link to a cool video just to prop up everyone’s spirits. Before long they were doing those things too, which increased our team’s morale across the board.

Take breaks small and big

Just as office-based workers need to take breaks, so do employees working from home. That said, it’s imperative for remote workers to take frequent breaks throughout the day to rejuvenate the body and the mind. These breaks can be spent moving about, meditating, or socialising with family, friends, and colleagues. Vacation days are important too, as it’s a way to step back from busy days and recharge oneself fully.

The conventional thinking here is: I’m already at home, why do I need long breaks? That’s the wrong mindset. Remember my early struggles I told you about? Part of it was because I was working long hours, largely because I was trying to make up for time lost whenever I got distracted. It got to a point when I couldn’t get enough sleep, and was feeling fatigued all the time. That’s when I asked my manager for three days off — and it was a godsend. I got to recharge, and was fresh when I restarted. With new energy, I set work rules. I got more productive, and thus put in fewer hours. All that meant: more time for myself, and I’m enjoying this work-from-home setup a lot more now.

With a bit of organisational skills, we employees working from home are more likely to be satisfied with our jobs and happier overall. That’s because we have some control over our schedule, are working at the comforts of home, and are striking the right balance between work and life. Of course, things won’t happen overnight. But give it time, just as I did, and stay the course. It’ll work for you too.

Written by: Tina Johnson

Read of the month: the miracle morning

What does your morning look like? Do you wake up rested, have enough time for a shower, enjoy eating your breakfast, and do some things around the house before starting work? Or do you wake up late, rush to wash, dress and eat, and get to work feeling you’re already behind with everything?

How you start your day matters. My latest read of the month had some ideas to make the best of it. “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod is very much a self-help book. It also is very, very American and full of repetitive sales language (pity there is no ad-blocker for a book…). Every page transmits messages like “this book is going to change your life”, “success is a choice”, and “become like me and your life will be great”. In short, it is intolerable and awful as a book. Don’t read it for the book.

Still, in between the “you can be 100% successful in everything claims”, the book shows you how it matters how you start your day. Elrod recommends a six-step routine, and while I don’t agree with his claims (and even think it is dangerous to say that everybody can “reach a 10 in happiness”), I think it’s worth giving it a try. Especially before writing a book review on it.

Ready to go? Let’s start our morning walk along SAVERS: Silence, Affirmation, Visualisation, Exercise, Reading, and Scribing (or simply put, Journalling). In practice, they are all about starting the day with focus on what you want to get out of it, and paying attention to your head start.

So here’s the morning routine I took for a few weeks:

The S of Silence

Elrod recommends to start the day with focused silence. Not just sitting still, but in focus, for instance through meditation, a breathing exercise (as I do), yoga, or prayer if you are religious. The silence then brings you in the right flow to do the routine.

Usually I am quite sleepy when I wake up, so if I just sit in silence, I tend to yawn a lot and risk falling asleep. Therefore I tend to do a few things in the house – feeding the cat, putting the clean dishes away, cutting off some dry leaves from a plant – before I start the breathing part. To get some help, I play the five minute guided meditation video below. It gives focus by trying to instill positive thoughts about what you already did that day and what you can plan for the rest of the day. Some days I manage to focus on breathing; other times I am carried away. It doesn’t matter, it is always a few careless minutes to start.

The A of Affirmations

Affirmations are a trick you can use to instill a certain attitude with yourself. If you tell yourself something, and start to believe it, it will become true. Or more simply: fake it till you make it! If you make yourself believe that you are confident, it is more likely that you will become confident then. An example in the book is about Muhammad Ali yelling “I am the greatest”.

I however propose more modest affirmations. You can write your own if you like, or use ready-used made. I simply picked a few I liked from the list here.

Rather than telling me I am the greatest (which I don’t think will lead to happiness…), the first two relate to shaping your own life and balance, which are important to me. The third one is about creativity. I don’t consider myself creative, but maybe if I tell myself it for some time… it shouldn’t do harm! And the final affirmation again is about this focus in the morning:

  • I am the architect of my life; I build its foundation and choose its contents.
  • My body is healthy; my mind is brilliant; my soul is serene.
  • Creative energy surges through me and leads me to new and brilliant ideas.
  • I wake up today with strength in my heart and clarity in my mind.

The V of Visualisations

Visualisation, it appears, is a technique used by many well-known people (if a self-help book doesn’t quote a bunch of famous people doing whatever they tell you will change your life, does it really exist)? Imagine, the more detail the better, achieving a result in part of your life. For instance, if you are a runner, can you imagine yourself passing fastest in front of all the competitors and then winning a 10k?

I try to visualise my own dream: writing a book about happiness. But to be honest, the V is the trickiest part of the routine for me. Maybe the dream is too big, so that I struggle to imagine the details of what this book would actually look like…

The E of Exercise

A bit of movement to get the heart rate a bit up! Although there is no fun in time, I opted for push-ups. It shouldn’t hurt to get a bit of power in my arms. Doing the and slowly improving condition matters more than the number. On a warm day, I do very few; on a better day, I do a bit more. But my heart rate goes up and I start panting, so Elrod – the writer of the morning miracle – should be happy!

The R of Reading

After exercise, Elrod thinks it’s time for reading (a fast way to learn new skills), but I think I deserve a coffee. My ‘old’ morning routine was simply sitting with a cup of coffee, often in silence, at the balcony, trying to prevent the cat from going to the neighbours and listening what happens around – children playing in the garden, or mostly, listening to birds. Now, I get my coffee, and start reading a few pages. At the moment I picked a book on writing, as I hope to improve my writing skills – On Writing Well by William Zinser. And of course, it matches my visualisation of a happiness book…

The old morning routine, coffee without a read.

The J of Journalling (or the S of Scribing)

The final part is journalling. Writing down your ideas can help shape your thoughts and actions, so this also matches the idea of having a focused start of the day.

I usually write down

  • three things I’d like to achieve during the day (usually two private and one work related; and they can be as simple as doing groceries). Sometimes I go through the list during the day and it acts as reminder what I wanted to do. Sometimes I don’t get it done, and list it again the next day.
  • three things I look forward to (usually related to time spent with my wife or cat – or to food!)
  • and three things I am grateful for or appreciate about the day before. This is probably my favourite part, as it really makes me reflect about the day I had and the positive things that happened. Happiness, to me, is simply aware that you have experienced pleasures great and small during your day.


It’s quite a feat Elrod has accomplished: he has written an absolutely cringe-worthy book (resulting in some hilarious bad reviews at Goodreads), but offers some nice ideas on how to structure your morning to achieve focus. Spend some time:

  • in Silence
  • doing Affirmations, and
  • Visualisations,
  • Exercising,
  • Reading to learn, and
  • Scribing (or Journalling)…

… and see if it works for you!

Read of the month: Stillness is the key

There are many ways to pursue happiness. You can go tick off a ‘bucket list’ of pleasant experiences. You could try to give meaning to your life by making the world a better place. Stoicism gives a different answer. It’s about inner balance, or as writer and blogger Ryan Holiday calls it: stillness.

You might ask how stoicism could be a method for the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t stoicism about being unmoved in the face of adversity? The definition Google dictionary gives doesn’t look like happy little trees:

Stoic: a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.

According to Holiday, blogger at the Daily Stoic and author of among others Stillness is the Key, stoicism is about the pursuit of ‘stillness’, the ability to be steady, focused and calm. It is about knowing yourself and the ability to ‘be still’ contributes to responding in the right way – being resolved where needed and accepting what is not in your control as needed.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism, historically, was professed by philosophers like Zeno and Seneca. The biggest example for modern-day Stoicists, however, is Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He ruled from 161 to 180 AD and was one of the so-called ‘five good emperors’ of the second century. In between running one of the greatest empires earth has ever seen and battling invading tribes, Marcus wrote his Meditations. This personal journal was not intended for publication, but showed how he attempted to live according to his ideals.

The following example opens the Meditations. It is simply about ‘not being an jerk despite the abundance of jerks’, and hence gives an indication of his pursuit of stillness:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Not too much has changed in over 1800 years! But well, this is stillness. Being aware of the good and evil around us, and having the force to control your behaviour as a step towards inner peace. The reflection the philosopher-emperor makes helps him to stand above what he sees.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Source: Wikipedia.

Mind, body and spirit

Indeed, reflecting through journaling is one of the tips Holiday shares to further discover yourself, be still, and (implicitly) pursue happiness. But it is just one of many things he sees as tactics to pursue stillness. The book is a collecting of loosely connected tips across three categories: mind, body, and soul. Journalling, of course, is something that supports the mind.

Taking care of the body, then, might come easier. A lot of this is about obvious things: being active, sleeping enough, and making time for the activities you enjoy (and saying no to those that don’t fit your plans). Another tip is to build a routine. Routines can build habits and rituals, and create the discipline to achieve what you want – whether that’s maintaining your calm or, say, writing blogs about happiness. (It’s one I do struggle with from time to time; the book acts as a good reminder!)

Finally, Holiday recommends the pursuit of virtue as a method to take care of a still soul (or spirit). I’d argue ‘virtue’ is not a prominent value in current day culture. Freedom, justice and individual expression are dominant in our political philosophy today, but probably that is only the case since the 18th century enlightenment.

For most of history, a life of virtue – defined in moral terms by the ancient Greeks, and in religious terms since Christianity came around – was the ideal. And also today, there is something to it. There is value in living a life of virtue, being good for its own sake, and asking how a good person would act. Inspired by the book, it’s a question I ask myself more and more: what good do I do in my daily life?

Inspiration to be still

Holiday’s book brings a lot of nice small ideas about stillness together, primarily from Stoicism but also other traditions like Buddhism and theist religions. He offers inspiration through role models – from Seneca to Churchill – that use these tools to be still or achieve success. None of the ideas are revolutionary per se, and fortunately they are not portrayed as a checklist you need to tick off to leave the good, happy, or still life. Instead, they can offer some inspiration. Just like the meditations from Marcus do, as he noted them down to himself in his tent on expedition against rebelling tribes in Central Europe.

Therefore, let’s close with another quote from Marcus:

Nature did not blend things so inextricably that you can’t draw your own boundaries—place your own well-being in your own hands. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.

The look of happiness

Last week, I took part in a two-day program on foundations of happiness from what I’ll simply call the Department of Happiness of Erasmus University Rotterdam – the official name is Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation (EHERO).

The very first lecture was by a philosopher on the question ‘what is happiness’? As could be expected, prof. Jack Vromen’s review of thousands of years of philosophy raised more questions than answers. From Aristotle’s emphasis of the ‘life of virtue’ to Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”, ideas differ what happiness is. And it gets more complicated when we try to set happiness apart from the similar concepts life satisfaction and well-being. My takeaway simply was that we don’t need to have a solid all-weather-proof answer what happiness is. We ‘only’ need to decide what happiness is to us.

But what triggered me most is the picture to illustrate happiness in the deck that Vromen used. While I haven’t been able to find the actual one he used, conceptually it looked a bit like this:

What do you see here? Two people, seen from the back, in nature, jumping out of excitation in the air. It’s a very common theme in stock photos of happiness. Start paying attention to the imagery for online news stories about happiness or search for images of happiness on Google. This is what you’ll usually find, alongside a bunch of smileys of course. I’ve copied a few more examples in the gallery.

On my blog, you’ll also find a few posts illustrated by views of the beach or a tulip field, based on the implicit assumption that being in nature can create moments of happiness (it certainly can, in my experience, and evidenced by an emerging scientific literature).

Still, my favourite image of what happiness looks like is different. It is a picture that went viral in 2015. The picture was taken at the movie premiere in Boston of Black Mass – a crime drama starring names such as Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The picture shows how a group of spectators all get their phones out to depict, I imagine, the celebrities arriving from their fancy cars. Apart from one person: the older lady in the centre of the picture seems to be truly taking in the moment, a small smile on her face. I might be projecting something, but it looks like a moment of happiness for her. And if you see how the image went viral and people praise her for being aware in person rather through their cameras, I think I am not the only person to ascribe this meaning to the picture.

For me, this is what happiness is about: paying attention to the small moments of pleasure in our life. Happiness doesn’t need to always be about majestic landscapes and great excitement. It can be as simple as enjoying the view of the moon in the sky, calm waves on the beach, a glance at a field of tulips, a coffee on the balcony or indeed – seeing a few celebrities at a movie premiere.

Source: the picture now can be found all over the internet, but was originally taken by John Blanding of the Boston Globe

Read of the month: a trip around the world through ‘The Atlas of Happiness’

2020 is not a year to travel wide and far around the world. Instead, I took a trip through my last happiness read of the month. ‘Atlas of Happiness’ by Helen Russell discusses ideas about happiness from 30 countries. Although I consider myself somewhat of a connaisseur of happiness around the world, to my surprise only two of the concepts figured on the blog before: Pura Vida (Costa Rica) and the obvious one – Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

The ideas in the book look at happiness in a broad sense, ranging from the melancholic Saudade in Brazil/Portugal to the Danish happiness at work, arbejdsglaede. A few cultures emphasis the good life – joie de vivre in Canada/France, even by simply doing nothing – dolce far niente in Italy. Others are about dedication to an activity, like the Greek meraki, or about life in a community – ubuntu in South Africa and aloha in Hawaii. Oh, and some are just outright crazy – like kalsarikannit in Finland. Apparently, some Finns experience happiness in getting way too drunk, home alone, dressed in nothing but underwear…

The book should not be seen as a serious or academic exploration of what makes country happy. Do not expect deeper analysis of cultural features that explain why these ideas of happiness arise in certain contexts. Instead, it should be seen as an anecdotal exploration of stories people tell themselves about happiness, through the coffee chats Helen Russell has with individuals from the 30 countries she discusses. Let me share my three favourite stories…

Smultronställe: Sweden

‘Smultronställe’ literally means ‘wild strawberry place’. The term originates in a children book in the early 20th century, and further gained prominence by a Ingmar Bergman movie from 1957. In that movie, an old grumpy man opened a door to get back to the world he knew from his youth: indeed, the figurative meaning of the term is a pleasant place with sentimental and personal value.

According to Russell, a smultronställe combines two things: a sense of nostalgia, and an escape from the world. It bring back memories from earlier in life, to a simpler time. But it can also simply relate to a place where we can flee our daily concerns, often in nature.

Of course I asked myself whay my smultronställe is. I have to admit that I can’t really pick a place that meets all the requirements of the Swedish concept. Rather than going for a place from my youth that combines nostalgia and refuge, I’d pick the beach in The Hague, where I live since only one year. But we always go to the same spot; in the summer, we spent great moments with family and friends at the beach club; in the winter, we simply went for walks. Walking near the sea always helps to forget worries, and I think that helps to qualify as a smultronställe.

Wabi-sabi (侘寂): Japan

We all strive for perfection. The idea of Wabi-sabi (Japan) counters this dominant philosophy of what constitutes a good life: it is about appreciating the imperfections that we inevitably face. Wabi-sabi can be about appreciating that with age come both wrinkles and wisdom.

The concept even notes how imperfection adds an additional layer of meaning: apparently, in Japan it is a thing to repair broken ceramics with through kintsugi: ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’. Instead of throwing away the shards of a broken plate, joining them together with gold where the shards broke creates a beautiful ‘new’ object.

A great idea – we often believe something has to be new, and beautiful, to be worthwhile. But sometimes imperfections are just as pretty, and what is old and imperfect carries a lot more value than something new and spotless.

Kintsugi (golden joinery), the Japanese art to make items prettier through repair with gold or other precious material. Image found here.

Tarab (طرب): Syria

Given its troubled recent history, Syria is not the first place I’d think to find new thinking about happiness. But according to Russell’s research, the Arabic concept of ‘tarab’ can be found there.

Tarab relates to the feeling you can achieve when deeply engaging in music – be it as a player, as a listener, or through the interaction between a musician and their audience. It is the trance you can achieve when there is a strong connection. (Traditional) Arabic music is different than Western music, with a prominent role for the oud, an Arabic type of lute). Songs also can last for minutes and minutes, depending on how the performer feels and how the audience responds.

Say Arabic music and the first name that comes up – in the Arabic world itself and by those initiated to it in the West – is Umm Kulthum, a singer from Egypt from the 1960s and 1970s who’s still incredibly popular today. If you’re open to it, I am sure that listening for half an hour will drag you into it as well – that is experiencing tarab!

Three new ideas about happiness! If you want to let me know which one resonates most with you, write me @ jasper [at]

Read of the month: “the art of being unhappy” requires the pursuit of meaning

Another month, another happiness book. My third read of the month was The Art of Being Unhappy (De kunst van het ongelukkig zijn), by Dirk De Wachter. After books focusing on what well-being is and on happy memories, it was time to look at happiness from another angle: is it sensible to pursue happiness, or should we strive for something else? And when we inevitably do face moments of unhappiness, how can we deal with them?

De Wachter is a psychiatrist. His perspective on happiness is different than most of the people I usually read, many of them positive psychologists. As a psychiatrist, De Wachter sees human sadness and depression in his practice every day. His diagnosis is that the idea picture of individual happiness leads many people to selfishness; or where they fail, to loneliness.

Finding inspiration in philosophy and poetry, De Wachter criticisises how people need bigger and bigger successes to experience happiness. We shouldn’t be contend to cycle up the Mont Ventoux; no, we ride up from the most complex side, twice. Running a marathon is not enough, we need to run three. To be special as individuals, we need to have ever more special experiences. And of course, they only matter when they are showcased on social media.

As a consequence, we are never special enough. Inevitably, unhappiness strikes. Is there any escape of the unhappiness we suffer due to our unsuccessful pursuit of happiness?

Don’t pursue happiness. Strive for meaning.

De Wachter claims that it is a mistake to have the pursuit of happiness as a major goal in life. When we strive for happiness for its own sake, it will never be enough.

Instead, we should become aware of the unhappiness in ourself and around us, and take that as a basis for social engagement: being aware of our own moments of unhappiness and the unhappiness around us can be a force for good, to motivate us to care about others or about social problems. According to De Wachter, real happiness is not found in individual experiences, but in doing meaningful things for others. That is what we live our life for. The ‘Art of Being Unhappy’ is the art of finding meaning in acting for others.

Hedonic and eudaimonic happiness

De Wachter is of course right that a life of happiness requires more than pleasure – the hedonic type of happiness. We feel more fulfillment when dedicating time to something bigger than ourselves. Often, this is understood as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness, which is based on a less fleeting and more permanent form of happiness. Feeling there is a purpose to our life is an important factor to our wellbeing. Indeed, theories of happiness and well-being – such as the PERMA model of prof. Seligman I discussed before and that we use as the foundation of our happiness vlog – see meaning as a key component of a happy life.

From all components of well-being, I feel, meaning is the most complicated one. Spending time in activities you enjoy or with people you like is easier than to find your source of meaning. But maybe the struggle to give a meaning to our lives is simply a part of life.

For many people, our purpose is in the others around to: taking care of children or family, dedicating ourself to protecting the environment or animals. Having a bigger reason to live, thus, is just as important as being able to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Thus, forget the ride up the mountain and profiling yourself online; dedicate yourself to a bigger cause instead.

Happiness read of the month: the art of making memories, by Meik Wiking

What do you remember about the day you got married, or the day you got your first kiss? Once you really start thinking about, you probably can replay a lot of details.

How about your first day of high school or university? Maybe a little harder, but you sure can bring back some sensations. And then: how about a random Tuesday in March five years ago, or even last year? Unless any of them was a special day, you may not even remember anything. Many days in our life turn into blanks without vivid memories.

But when we are prompted to tell stories about our happy memories, beautiful stories come out. These are the moments that define our life. Eight years ago – when I already started to be intrigued by the puzzle of happiness, but before my TEDx talk or the launch of the blog – I surveyed some friends and strangers (anonymously) about their happy memories*. After a quick search, I found the answer sheet back in my files. Here are some of the stories:

  • Re-discovering a long forgotten postcard from a close friend
  • The feeling of an adrenaline high after riding a horse at a very fast pace for a long time!
  • Being on XTC on an amazing technoparty
  • Laughing together with my love at a good joke – no matter if we are laughing at ourselves
  • Going to a secluded clean beach (preferably either from my favourite ones near home) on my own or with a few close friends. The sea makes me happy:)

* The stories are beautiful, so I am repeating the exercise now. If you want to share your happy memories, please fill out the form at the end

The art of making memories

I felt inspired to looking back at these stories by ‘The Art of Making Memories’, by Meik Wiking (the director of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen). His book touches upon a lot of fascinating research: tricks to remember long strains of data; the manipulation of memories; and nostalgia. But most importantly, he tells us how we can create happy memories and hold on to them. This is what he found:

  • The power of firsts: many memories are about things done for the first time. So how can you make days in your life memorable? By doing something new. Visit a park in a side of town where you usually don’t come, or – once they’re open again – a museum you haven’t been to. And even when you stay at home, there are plenty of opportunities to cook a new dish. Behold the first apple pie my wife and I baked together:
  • Storytelling: why do people buy souvenirs from their trips? Because they tell stories that will remind them of the experience. I have a small showcase with some memory-triggering objects: there is a decorated skull from Mexico that brings me back to the happiness conference where I met Meik. There are my espresso cups from Lviv and Porto, each carrying streams of memories. Another great example is the long forgotten postcard from a close friend the first respondent to my survey told me about.

  • Emotional reactions: events with strong emotions are memorable. Meik gives the example of a vacation day he planned to spend reading a book, when his friends proposed to go jet-skiing. In those situations, ask yourself: what will I remember in ten years? Not the book. I applied the same logic a few weeks ago when we missed the last skilift and couldn’t ski back to our parking. Instead of ordering a cab (boring, no emotional memory), we walked back through the snowy forest. It was a small struggle, but ultimately fun and memorable.

  • Meaningful moments: meaning is another factor that makes an event memorable. Those can be the big days – weddings or giving birth. Or they can be meaningful because of the time spent with an important person, like the person quoted above who was happy laughing with (and of) her boyfriend.

  • Invest attention: obviously, no attention = no memory. But it is important: in our daily routine, we often behave according to our usual patterns and fail to notice our surroundings. A ‘digital detox’ helps: phones are the most devilish distracting devices ever invented. Shape habits to prevent this; for instance, when I am outside in the dark I always consciously look out for the moon. Investing attention is also what the people that shared their memories did: they were aware of their feeling of adrenaline during a horse ride, the effect of XTC at a technoparty, or the simple beauty of the sea.
This is not the beach of the memory the person shared, but it’s one of my happy memories. Last week, after working from home, I released my tension through a bike ride and a short walk on my favourite beach.

Happy memories are beautiful to share and to read. If you want to share yours, please fill out the form:

Extra edition vlog: physical distancing, social connecting!

Wellbeing in times of corona is not obvious.

So many things have changed in the last few days: almost three weeks ago, we went to the theater to celebrate my birthday. Only two weeks ago, the Dutch government told us not to shake hands. Two days later (1,5 weeks ago), all events with 100 or more people where cancelled, and people were recommended to work from home.

Three days fast forward (just over a week ago), all cafes and restaurants closed, and trains ran only twice per hour. And today – after a sunny weekend with way too many people at the beach and DIY shops – the government announced that all events are cancelled until 1 June. #Covidiots will be fined €400 if they don’t keep a healthy 1.5 meter distance from others people. It’s such a different world than three weeks ago.

However the situation, Ania and I are lucky. We don’t suffer from corona or any symptoms (and don’t even know anybody who does). We don’t work in a place where we risk to be exposed to someone with symptoms. What we experience is a mild discomfort, working from home during the day only to exit to do groceries or get some movement. Now I still can, I still cycle, walk or run everyday – getting outside is important for mental and physical health. Though I can imagine that in a few weeks I’ll say: what was I thinking…

‘Social distancing’ is the term of the month. And as happiness vloggers, we don’t really feel good about that: social connections with other people are one of the key ingredients to maintain wellbeing. Therefore, in this extra episode of Happiness: A User Guide we propose an alternative: physical distancing, social connecting.

Stay safe and stay at home (no exceptions if you have even mild symptoms!). But also practice social connecting and pay attention to your wellbeing. Check our tips how to do this in the vlog!

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