Author Archives: Jasper Bergink

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/

We have to talk about suicide

800,000 people. That’s the number of people who die through suicide each year. And 25 times more, 20,000,000 people, make an attempt to end their life. To put the number in perspective: it is as if all of Amsterdam disappeared, or as if all of Mexico City made an attempt in a year.

Contrary to the belief of some, suicide is not only a problem in developed Western countries. It is a global problem: World Health Organization data for 2016 shows that four fifths of suicides occurred in low or middle income countries. We have to talk about suicide, and 10 September – world suicide prevention day – is a good moment to start.

Happiness thus affects many people, and is the second cause of death for 15-29 year olds. But what can we do to prevent suicide?

I am not a psychologist, and to anybody who truly does not see a purpose to be alive I would above all recommend to seek immediate professional help (and to be clear, this blog does not offer professional help). In many countries, there are suicide prevention hotlines you can call when in crisis. Wikipedia lists them here.

What to do when you have thoughts about suicide

For less acute cases, there are a few things that can be done (partially based on the tips of the Dutch suicide prevention hotline 113:

  • Seek professional help. Get help from a professional therapist to tackle the problems you are facing.
  • Talk to friends or family, or write down your worries. If you express some of the thoughts that are bothering you, their weight is already smaller.
  • Get a daily routine. Make sure you sleep enough and eat in right amounts. Go outside for a walk, or exercise: fresh air and movement already give a boost to the hormones regulating how you feel.
  • See life in perspective. Moments of happiness pass by, but the same is true for moments of unhappiness. The dark side is a part of life.
  • Show gratitude for the good things. Pay attention to and appreciate the small and beautiful things that happen: rays of sunlight on your skin, a nice coffee, a smiling person on the street. You can even consider the ‘three good things‘ practice and start writing down positive events during your day for at least a few weeks.
Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

What to do to help someone who is down

Suicide and suicidal thoughts are a social issue. What can we do – as individuals – to reduce this source of suffering around us?

  • Speak up and offer help. When you suspect that someone feels lonely and a burden to people, and is not afraid to die, reach out. Talk about the problems they are facing. And not only in autmn, winter or Christmas time: summer can also be a time of darkness.
  • Talk about suicide. According to the Dutch suicide prevention hotline, there is no need to shun the subject. In their experience, talking about suicide does not result in a suicide attempt. Youth could be an exception though: if they talk about suicide openly, this could influence behaviour.
  • Encourage the person to get professional help. Support them in reaching out to professionals.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t make yourself responsible for all the suffering you see. Use your own support network to express your own feelings.

Equip people to face the ups and downs in life 

As a society, there is still a lot what we can do to improve suicide prevention: continue breaking the taboo, train doctors and other health care professionals in recognising and treating suicidal thoughts and depression, and reduce access to tools used for suicide.

There is more that can be done to strengthen mental health and build resilience. Depression and schizophrenia are said to account for 60% of all suicides. Schizophrenia is a complex disorder, and there is no easy cure for depression. Many cases are inappropriately treated or not treated at all.

As societies grow richer and people live longer, more investment needs to be made to better understand how depression can be prevented and treated. It can start with changes in education: increase emphasis on life skills and happiness at schools, to help people face the ups and downs in life. Happiness education may be a factor that helps to prevent suicide.

 

Do you have suicidal thoughts? Please, please, please, reach to a suicide crisis line. Find an overview here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines 

What happiness looks like in our brain

One of the coolest gifs on the internet might answer one of the coolest questions: what does happiness look like?

Yes, you might imagine happiness could look like a smile on the face of a calm and relaxed person enjoying rays of sunlight in a beautiful park, or be expressed by excited cheers when their sport team wins. Ultimately, however, happiness is a biochemical experience, triggered by neurotransmitters. If we want to see what happiness really looks like, we’d have to observe the release of chemicals like serotonine, endorphine, dopamine, and oxytocins in the body.

The gif claims to show a molecule of a protein dragging a bag of endorphins inside the parietal cortex. The release of these endorphines results in… happiness!

"This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain's parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness."

“This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness.”

It’s a great gif, although the caption might cut a few a corners. In reality, it might be a slightly different molecule, it wouldn’t necessarily be in the brain, and the ‘bag’ at the back could also carry other chemicals than endorphines. At least, that’s the diagnose of the science communication blog Eastern blot. Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, it is an animation drawn up by an animator called John Liebler, and not a recording of what is going on below our skull.

So, what are the main chemicals associated with happiness?

  • Serotonine: a mood-booster, emitted when you feel valued or important
  • Dopamine: a chemical with many functions, among others released when you experience
  • Oxytocin: also duped the trust hormone, and emitted when feeling close contact. (Scholar Paul Zak recommends eight hugs per day to get your dose).
  • Endorphines: the star of the gif is emitted in response to pain and helps you persevere when facing a difficult task.

Would you take a pill of happiness?

One of the great things about the gif is that helps to give insight in the many ways you can look at happiness.

Usually I tend to write about the way that humans think about their own happiness, or even how governments or companies evaluate the happiness or quality of life of their citizens/staff. But to a biochemist, those views of happiness would likely be beyond the point. A biochemist might contribute to developing pills treating mental disorders. And indeed, if you were to be given pills that would help the release of the ‘right’ chemicals, our body would feel ‘happy’ – but would we, as individuals, be genuinely happy? Most likely not.

Either way, it is not easy to determine what our brain and our body experience as happiness. We can ask people, but the way we evaluate our happiness does not necessarily give the same result as measuring it. Barring a new innovation that would let us walk around with electrodes on our head measuring all kind of brain activity, it’s hard to know what happiness is really looking like. In the main time, we can fantasise, and enjoy the gif.

Netherlands: wellbeing is more than wealth, new indicator shows

One of the Dutch traditions in May is ‘Woensdag Gehaktdag’ (a term so nice I won’t translate it). Every year, on the third Wednesday of May, the government justifies how it has implemented the budget in the last year, and the day the opposition fiercely criticises any misallocated cents.

Last week, however, Woensdag Gehaktdag saw an innovation: it saw the presentation of the first annual Monitor Broad Wellbeing. As I wrote before, this new indicator has been instigated by a parliamentary committee requesting a better toolset to evaluate how the Netherlands is doing in a broader sense than only economic indicators. Prepared by the statistics agency in cooperation with the planning agencies (for which my home country has a passion), the Monitor evaluates quality of life in three ways:

  • wellbeing here and now (how are we doing in the Netherlands, today)
  • wellbeing later (how do our choices today affect the future population of the Netherlands)
  • wellbeing elsewhere (how do our choices affect wellbeing elsewhere)

Throw in a mix of economic, social, environmental, trade and a few extra indicators, and you get a detailed picture of what wellbeing looks like. Where data is available, the Dutch performance is also compared with other EU countries.

A high quality of life, but…

So, how is our broad wellbeing? The conclusions of the report are as follows:

  • Overall, the Netherlands has a high level of quality of life. Many indicators show a positive trend over the last eight years, or a positive change with the year before. Only three out of 21 indicators were markedly negative: the number of people with obesity, satisfaction with free time, and size of nature areas.
  • Nonetheless, the figures aren’t equal. Some groups report lower scores: women, some ago groups (below 25 and 55-65), those with low education levels, and migrants.
  • Here’s the crux: wellbeing scores are clearly higher in the here and now then they are in the future and for the impact on elsewhere. Indicators concerning the future that post lower scores are primarily the environmental ones: CO2 and nitrogen emissions, fossil energy reserves, and biodiversity. Possibly, policy changes may see improvement here in the future, as energy is becoming cleaner and the Netherlands is due to stop all domestic gas production. However, the Netherlands large agro-food business has a massive and unsustainable footprint. You don’t directly see these negative externalities in simple indicators like GDP – a clear example of the value of the Monitor.
  • Another tricky piece is that current wellbeing is also connected with a negative impact in third countries. The Netherlands has a large carbon footprint and imports resources and biomass from elsewhere, including from least developed countries (LDCs). That means that natural capital is moved from those countries.
Broad Wellbeing Monitor, 'Later'. Source: Dutch Statistics Agency

Broad Wellbeing Monitor, ‘Later’. Source: Dutch Statistics Agency. Key: the graph evaluates the impact on wellbeing later across four categories: economic, human, natural, and social capital. Green/red represents positive/negative 8-year trends or 1-year net changes. The lower part of the graph shows how the Netherlands stand compared to fellow EU countries.

Back to politics

The report is a new annual feature, and should become a high-profile publication with an impact on policy formulation. For that, we go back from the statistics agency to politics, to the MPs and the cabinet we have mandated to make choices for us. This Wednesday will see the Parliament evaluate the government’s performance in a plenary debate, and MPs can use findings of the report to encourage the government to reshape their priorities. In this way, they can make the Netherlands a happier place, not only now, but also later and elsewhere.

 

Today’s Labour Day. What do good jobs and happy companies look like?

Happiness at work. For some workers it is a contradiction in terms or a mirage, for other an aspiration or even reality. As today is Labour Day, it’s a good moment to answer a few questions how happiness at work can be pursued.

Happiness at work has been a powerful trend in recent years. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon, rethinking how personnel find purpose in their work or recruiting happiness officers to organise fun activities and provide entertainment.

But what makes a happy company?

Characteristics of good jobs

As happiness at work is studied more seriously, there are more and more ideas and knowledge about what is needed to make us thrive in the work-place. The UK Business, Industry and Skills Department surveyed how employee wellbeing affects workplace performance. The survey’s 11 main takeaways on what makes a good job were summarised in the visual below by the What Works Wellbeing Center.

A lot of these elements are common sense: ownership and responsibility, variety in tasks, open communication, positive relations, learning, and a good balance between life and work. Implementation is step two, though. It requires a good company structure and the right culture to make sure they’re adequately implemented and not mere window-dressing.

Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/
Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/

 

The business of happiness at work

Some firms endow their HR department or another function, or even a dedicated Chief Happiness Officer, to bring happiness to the work place. Others work with external consultants specialising in the science of happiness at work and implementing changes at a project basis.

One such organisation in my current base of Warsaw, is the Employer Branding Institute (EBI). Apart from assisting firms is creating happier work places, it also runs a project called Pracuję bo lubię (I work because I like it). The project aims to raise the number of employees that are happy at work. There certainly is work to do: one Gallup study found that about 87% are unhappy or unengaged at work.

Health, atmosphere, purpose and flow

I sat down with Aleksandra Grabska of EBI, who rans the project and co-wrote the report, to ask her how they evaluate happiness at work. She explained me that they broke down happiness in four dimensions:

  • Health: a working culture that helps employees to live healthily. A job should not lead to too much stress, and employees should have the possibility to eat healthily. Even having a few good lunch options close to the office can contribute to happiness.
  • Atmosphere: humans are social animals, and the interaction with our colleagues – with whom we spend more time than with our partners! – is important. Thus, good employers invest in team dynamics. Hence all the Chief Happiness Officers organising champaign parties – and good managers focusing on open communication in their teams.
  • Purpose: ultimately, apart from basic needs and fun we also want to feel we are achieving something worthwhile. According to Aleksandra, this especially requires a bit of effort for bigger firms whose purpose is more abstract. These should make sure that employees with more technical or administrative tasks see how their support helps the firm achieves its mission. For instance, admin staff in an accountancy firm facilitate the work that accountants do in reviewing clients performance, and thus also support that those clients are well run and stable.
  • Flow: a final part of the picture is how we feel those 8 hours at work. Good jobs are those that create flow, or activities that can absorb employee who are  passionate about what they do.

And what about me?

But what, you might wonder, can I do to pursue happiness at work? There are a few thinks you can do. First of all, it helps to have a job in a company where you feel comfortable in the work environment and the sector. In some cases, that means simply packing up your things and leaving elsewhere.

A tool Aleksandra told me about is ‘job crafting‘, or slightly reshaping your job to match your ambitions. In many corporations, not all the content of the job is fully fixed. There will always be tasks that you can will have to take on, but many bosses are flexible enough to allow some degree of pro-activity and creativity. Volunteer to take on new projects, and try to carve out some time within your working week to do what gives you flow.

Good luck with the pursuit of happiness at work back in the office tomorrow!

Ikigai: the happiness of always being busy in Japan

Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years

The proverb comes from Japan, the origin of the concept of ‘Ikigai‘. Ikigai is now the subject of a new book, and writers Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles claim the idea has a great promise. They say ikigai – meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘raison d’etre’ – is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life.

Japan is indeed a good place to look for longevity. At 74.9, it has the highest healthy life expectation at birth. A Japanese person that is 60 years old can be expected to still live 21.1 years in good health. And the share of centenarians is far above the global average. In the region of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost region with a subtropic climate, there are even about 50 in 100,000 people who are older than 100 years.

The happiness of always being busy

Ikigai, say Garcia and Miralles, is what makes people reach one hundred years. Putting it more poetically than purpose, they refer to Ikigai as ‘the happiness of always being busy’.

In Japanese, it is written as 生き甲斐. It can be broken down in 生き, life, and 甲斐, to be worthwhile.

Everybody has an ikigai. If we know what it is, it shapes our days. If we are unsure what our raison d’etre is, we still carry it in ourself. And it’s broader than our passion or desire. Instead, ikigai combines four elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

Long lives in Okinawa

All good so far. Now we know what ikigai is, let’s turn to Garcia and Miralles to find out how Okinawans live to a hundred years and more, and how we can find our personal purpose following their lead.

The authors map a few factors that explain the high age reached by Okinawans:

  • healthy diet, based on a lot of green tea, large amounts of vegetables and fruits, soy products such as tofu, and low sugar consumption. Also, people tend to eat from smaller plates, and until their stomach is 80% full. No all-you-can-eat buffets!
  • closely tied communities. Individuals are part of a moai, or a support group of people with similar interests who look out for each other.
  • a good dose of daily activity of low to moderate intensity: Lots of walking around, and people spend time to tend their gardens.
  • regularly sports activity. Again, these tend to be low to moderate in intensity, like yoga, tai chi or qigong.

Finding your purpose

One of the promises the book makes is that it helps find our purpose. To this end, they share a few stories of what made the life of the eldest residents of Ogimi, Okinawa worth living. A few stories they shared:

The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young – don’t let it grow old. Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.

I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.

Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbours. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.

Do smiles, vegetables and tea really provide purpose to a life?

While these stories are nice to read, they come from a different origin than ours. Of course we can feel inspired by Japanese 90- or 100-year-olds to do tai chi or qi gong, and to replace our third cup of coffee by a green or white tea (I am trying!), but helping me to find the purpose in my daily life here in Europe is a bigger feat.

Rather than spending a few dozen pages on explaining all tai chi postures, the book could have expanded to offer insights from, say, Japanese philosophy or global psychology on where people find purpose, to inspire the reader to apply these in daily life. Is it really as simple as smiling, growing vegetables, and drinking tea with neighbours. These are sure moments that provide happiness, but does this mundane enjoyment of life really provide purpose? Is it all we need to come to terms with the negative sides of busy lives in the West?

The book also doesn’t dispel another myth. While concrete data on Okinawa itself are hard to come by, as a country, Japan is not too happy. It has indeed the highest Healthy Life Expectancy worth wide, but isn’t scoring as high in the World Happiness Report. In the 2018 edition, it ranks 54th, just below Latvia and just ahead the happiest country of Africa. Asia’s happiest country – Taiwan, is far ahead at spot 26 in the ranking.

Having an ikigai helps, but might be more of an ideal picture than a story representing society at large.

A practical study of happiness in Turkey

What does happiness look like in Turkey?

That’s the main question I dived in during a few days in Istanbul two weeks ago, as I spoke at a conference on Determining the Happiness Map.

At the conference, hosted by Tüses and Kadıköy municipality, I spoke alongside professor Erhan Dogan (Marmara University Istanbul), Ragnhild Bang Nes (Norwegian Public Health Institute and Oslo University), and Jochen Dallmer (University of Kassel).

Happiness in Turkey

It’s a funny idea to have researchers from cold Northern countries like Norway, Germany and Netherlands come to Turkey to speak about happiness. Many of our chats on happiness focused on the relevance of good weather, tasty food and the street life culture for happiness. While all of those are present in Mediterranean Istanbul, they’re not factors that North-West Europe is known for.

That factor highlighted one of the interesting elements we came to discuss: happiness and quality of life are not the same. While Turkey may have a warmer temperature and a Mediterranean cuisine on offer, some of the key features that contribute to quality of life are less prominent. Norwegians may or may not enjoy themselves more than Turks, but perform well on loads of factors that matter: high incomes, a strong collective social support mechanism, and personal freedom.

How much work do we need to do in life?

A few takeaways from the conference:

  • Turkey’s level has increased over the years. In the 2017 World Happiness Report, Turkey scored about 0.3 points higher (for 2014-2016, compared to 2005-2007). According to prof. Dogan, the factors of GDP and social support are most prominent in explaining the level of quality of life. In that matter, Turkey is quite similar to many other countries. To the contrary, only a relatively small part of the happiness level is explained by generosity. Correlation of course does not equal causation, and there is no direct causal relation, but nonetheless there might be a case to promote generosity!
  • In Norway, the qualify of life is high, resulting in a 1st spot in the World Happiness Report for 2017 (though it was overtaken by Finland in the 2018 edition). But that doesn’t mean all is well. According to Bang Nes, suicide rates in Norway stand at around 11 per 100,000, almost triple the 4 per 100,000 in Turkey. At the Public Health Institute where she works, efforts are made to better understand how people live longer and healthier lives. Better data on happiness and mental health are collected, in order to guide public policy.
  • My third fellow speaker, Jochen Dallmer, looked at the German public debate on quality of life, and especially the role of sustainability. His PhD research is about a complicated question. We know that we should change our lifestyles to get back in the boundaries of the single planet we have. Happiness now is often associated with hedonic pleasures. Could an ascetic lifestyle provide happiness? He also posed another very un-German question: how much work do we need to do in life? And finally, he spoke about the German quality of life data collection, which he felt mainly conveyed high quality/standards.

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My own 20 minutes of fame: happiness in the Netherlands and Poland

  • Finally, my own 20 minutes of fame were dedicated to the development of happiness levels in Poland and the Netherlands over the last 25 years. Dutch happiness level stayed broadly stable, and slowly a more active public debate on well-being policies is emerging. Until the elections of this month, the municipality of Schagen had a Councillor for Happiness (with Finance as his primary portfolio). And similar to the Norwegian and German efforts, a new Broad Wellbeing Monitor mapping happiness is being shaped after a hesitant start.
  • Poland has seen massive transformations since the 1990s, and also the domain of happiness has not been left untouched. Even with social ineqaulity rising, happiness levels icnreased, likely in connection with tremendous economic growth. But also Poland shows awareness that there’s more than work and GDP. The Pracuję bo lubię (‘I work because I like it) project is one example taking happiness as inspiration.

And my own happiest moment in Turkey? A lost Sunday afternoon hour in company of old and new friends, spent basking in the sunlight with a view on the sea of Marmara.

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