Category Archives: Personal

What would a once-per-50-years newspaper say on happiness?

I recently came across a brief podcast by the US National Public Radio (NPR) with an intriguing question.

Some of us have quit reading the news, as the endless updates about conflicts, natural disasters, political in-fighting, and abuse scandals make us depressed. (Sports news could balance it down a bit though, depending whether your team wins or loses).

The news is about what is uncommon – hence it is news – and often these are bad developments. In a time of online news and push notifications, we can get ‘new’ news in the time it takes to load a few tweets. As a result, we are a lot better informed about conflicts and disasters in many places we otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. But it might also make us lose the big picture on what is going well in the world.

That’s why the NPR jumped on an idea of Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie. The two are affiliated with Oxford University, and run a number-lovers’ paradise: Our World In Data. They came up with the idea: what would a newspaper consider as headline news if it appeared only once per fifty years?

 

The 50-year newspaper

The newspaper the NPR and Our World In Data made appeared on 1 January 2018, exactly fifty years after the previous edition of 1968.

It contains some bad news…

  • Is It Just Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? (on climate change, as human-induced greenhouse gas emissions rocket)
  • Humans to Animals: Drop Dead! (on biodiversity loss; the number of terrestrial animals declined by 60%)

… but also shows some of the great progress made in the last fifty years:

  • Poor No More (on poverty, which feel from 60% to 10% of the world population)
  • Child Mortality Plummets (in 1968, 1 out of 6 children died before their fifth birthday. With healthcare improving, it now is 1 out of 22)
  • Blame It On The Grain (on undernourishment; the population share with hunger fell from about one third to 12%)

 

What about happiness?

But what would the headline on happiness be in the paper of January 2018?

Fifty years after 1968, these are the headlines the newspaper should run:

  • Have You Jumped Out The Rat Race Yet? (on the growing awareness of people that they are in charge of their own well-being, but that they need to make important and difficult life style choices to achieve it)
  • Emerging Economies Show Massive Happiness Gains (the progress in fighting poverty, child mortality, and undernourishment across developing countries comes with a happiness dividend)
  • Free At Last! (on the transition towards democracy and self-determination in many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and former colonies)
  • Politicians and Bosses Say: Your Happiness Is My Command (on the growing attention for happiness and well-being as a policy issue for the state, and corporations increasing attention to happiness at work)
  • Materialism Out, Experiences In! (on the gradually changing habit of people to value and spend money on experiences such as trips or time with friends, and a lesser emphasis on consumer goods)

 

Bonus: what the 1968 papers actually said about happiness, referring to a creepily titled Beatles song.

american-rifleman-happiness-is-a-warm-gun_01-1

 

Set your Big Goal for 2018 and beyond

Just a few days to go, and 2018 is starting.

The last few days of the year are useful to look back in gratitude at what you achieved and experienced this year. At the same time, you can also look forward and determine if there are any Big Goals you would like to work on next year. New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?

Do you need some inspiration? We often can find it in people who do truly big things. That’s why I would like to share Jaco Ottink‘s inspiring story today. I met him a few weeks ago, and his talk prompted me to write about his Big Goal.

Seven Summits

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco Ottink climbing Mount Everest. Source: Beyond Summits, www.beyondsummits.nl

Jaco dedicated twenty years of his life to his dream: climb the highest mountains of each continent. By 2015, he was almost there: he had the highest peaks of the North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australasia, and Antarctica covered. Only one summit was keeping him from realising his dream: the 8,848 meters of Sagarmatha in the borderlands between Nepal and Tibet – better known as Mount Everest. Getting there would make him the ninth Dutchman to climb these Seven Summits.

In Jaco’s story, there are three key lessons: preparation, perseverance, and setting the right goal.

Preparation

Step one of achieving your Big Goal is preparation. If you want to climb the Mount Everest, you need to be top fit. In Jaco’s case, it required months and months of training: running, weight-lifting, and lots more, for 25 hours per week.

And every single detail matters, so the gear had to be top notch too. You want to make sure that your sleeping bag and layers of clothes actually keep you warm when spending a lot of time below zero degrees. (Keep clothes in your sleeping bag, to prevent them from freezing in the tent). And between an ice hammer of 400 or 800 grammes, the best choice is obvious – every gramme of weight needs to make it to 8848 meters.

Perseverance

Without perseverance, you cannot achieve a Big Goal. When trying something as demanding as the Mount Everest, you inevitably will have setbacks. So, if he couldn’t train one day for some reason, he gathered the courage to do it double next day.

Support will be needed to persevere. Jaco told us his eyes almost froze one hour away from the top, and he felt he might not be able to reach the summit safely. It was the support of his sherpa that convinced him to go on – without him, he’d fail to meet his Big Goal.

Set the right goal

The notion of perseverance is also visible in Jaco’s definition of success: achieving something beyond your current means. But there’s more in it: to achieve a Big Goal, you must be sure you set the right one.

What is the goal of a mountain climber? Achieve the summit, you might say. But think again, it isn’t. The real goal is to return back safely, as unfortunately doesn’t happen to all who set off to climb Mount Everest. Hence, sometimes the right call might be to return to safety and abandon the expedition.

And what is your goal?

I gather most of you have more mundane ambitions than climbing Mount Everest. As Jaco tells his audience, your Big Goal could also be something to make you happy and proud in your daily life, such as spending enough quality time with your family (he is now a part-time inspirational speaker running a firm called Beyond Summits, part time stay at home dad). His next Big Goals might be a bit far off for most of us: he aims to travel to the North Pole, and to inspire 1,000,000 people with his story and workshops.

My own Big Goal is already a bit closer to the type of things you might have in mind: my objective is to learn Polish fluently. Not an easy one, given the complicated pronunciation, grammar and vocab of this Slavic language. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be a Big Goal. I have a few more years to go, but with preparation, perseverance, and maybe a little tweaking with the right goal, I should get there.

These are our goals – what is yours?

December, a month of kindness and happiness

It’s December again. Isn’t there a better time of the year to inspire happiness and kindness?

Random acts of kindness (and even those are more planned than random) greatly contribute to happiness. A thank you or a smile never hurt, and don’t even cost a thing!

As scientists have found, being kind or giving to others can result in moments of happiness. You could say that giving to others is both an altruistic and an egoistic act. As a giver, you benefit from it as well: giving simply makes you feel good!

The grass-roots movement Action for Happiness strongly believes in the power of, well, actions for happiness. We can’t always control how we feel, but taking positive actions can help us to feel happier.

In the season of advent candles and calendars counting down to Christmas, they came up with this amazing kindness calendar. Click the calendar to enlarge it and have a look at their tips. Feel inspired to have a kind December, and spread feelings of happiness around you!

Action for Happiness' Kindness Calendar. Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

Action for Happiness’ Kindness Calendar (click to enlarge). Found on http://www.actionforhappiness.org/kindness-calendar

The Pursuit of Happiness, A User’s Guide

We hold these truths to be self-evident,

That all men are created equal

That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights

That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

 

This is how the United States Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on 4 July 1776 starts.

It’s great line. But how does one pursue happiness? What can one do to be happier? The US declaration of independence doesn’t answer that question, so I have resolved to do so myself. And while there are many, many, ways to pursue happiness, I think they ultimately boil down to three strategies.

Dedication

The first strategy to be happier is dedication. If you want, you can dedicate your life to pursuing happiness. The best example is the book under the name ‘The Happiness Project’, by  author Gretchen Rubin. It’s quite a thing: one day she decided that she wasn’t happy, and that she wanted to be happier. So, she made a plan.

Her plan was to dedicate one year of life to being happier. In doing so, she identified twelve topics to work on, for instance Marriage, Work, Family Relations, Reading, Spirituality, and so on.

Every month she undertook different projects. In January, she worked on her energy, and started by… cleaning and keeping the house in order. In June, she worked on friendship, and made sure to remember her friends’ birthdays. In July, she worked on money, firstly reducing her dependence on happiness, but also going on a major spending spree. I’ve been told it can be great to buy a new dress.

The dedication strategy is great if you’re a programmatic person. But if you’re not, or if you don’t believe you can plan and organise your way to happiness, you may prefer the awareness strategy.

the-pursuit-of-happiness-quote

The idea of Dedication also comes forward in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, a 2006 movie with Will and Jaden Smith

Awareness

A simpler strategy in the pursuit of happiness is awareness. This strategy I based on the simple assumption that all of us have happy moments. But sometimes we’re just simply too busy to realise our moments of happiness. Life is great, but sometimes we need to slow down to be aware of that.

That’s what the awareness strategy to the pursuit of happiness is based on: registering moments of happiness we all experience. That can be done by journaling, or by a tool called ‘Three Good Things’.

The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley and the grass roots organisation Action for Happiness both promote ‘Three Good Things’ as, in the term positive psychology puts it, an ‘intervention’. The idea is that if you write down three things during the day that made you happy. It’s the best to do it every day ebfore you go sleep. Maybe you sat down for a coffee with a friend. You enjoyed a walk in the sun. And you favourite football team won. It can be very banal. But that’s happiness.

Either way, it will help you to remember and be aware. And it will also focus your spirit the next day. You’ll register moments during the day and think: this will go in my three good things today!

Curiosity

Again, the awareness strategy requires you to put aside some time every day. The third strategy is less time bound. I call it Curiosity. This strategy is based on the idea that we are curious people. Even when we don’t dedicate ourselves to happiness all day, or ensure we’re aware every day, we can develop happiness by being curious.

The idea that by learning about happiness, you can also absorb some of these lessons, and be happier, is one of the ideas behind my blog For A State of Happiness. There are plenty of places where you can learn about happiness.

For instance, there is a great course in the Science of Happiness on the online courses site EDx (enrollment is open!)

Or, there are dozens of TED talks about all aspects of happiness. On how to spend money on gratitude, on irrationality, or compassion. You name and you can find a talk!

Another place to be curious is to read blogs. Of course you can try For A State of Happiness! But there are many. Gretchen Rubin, from the Happiness Project under the Dedication strategy, has a blog. There is a blog of the Minimalists, blogging how a life with less stuff makes them happier. And Action for Happiness shares all kind of happiness facts and tools on their site.

Which strategy works for you?

The US Founding Father’s put it nicely when they stated that the Pursuit of Happiness is our unalienable right. But happiness is so personal. We all pursue happiness in our very own ways. Whether your pursuit resembles the Dedication, Awareness or Curiosity strategy is irrelevant. In either case, I’ll wish you luck on the way to a state of happiness.

Too many Chiefs, and no Indians: the case for a Junior Happiness Officer

The hype has been around for around ten years or so. And if you’re working for an American firm, there’s a decent chance it has hit your company too. I am talking about assigning the title of ‘Chief Happiness Officer’.

It’s more and more common, especially for US-based companies, to rename their leading HR person’s title to Chief Happiness Officer or CHO.

By itself, it’s not a bad thing. If it truly leads to lasting attention for employees’ happiness at work, I do believe it has added value. However, I have a small hunch that in most cases it’s either window-dressing or goofing around.

Google’s former Chief Happiness Officer, is my impression, is a case of goofing around. Their former CHO Chade-Meng Tan formally had a job title ‘Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)’. While he’s not the only one in tech with a ridiculous job title, his one seems to be one of the most extreme ones. As far as his blog is indicative, his job consisted more of taking pictures with visiting celebrities than of working on staff well-being.

Why are there no Junior Happiness Officers?

Many others seems window-dressing. As the phrase goes, maybe the happiness officer area is a paramount example of ‘too many chiefs, and no Indians’. A quick online search shows there are around 380,000 references to Chief Happiness Officer. For Junior Happiness Officer, there are around 250,000, and many of them are Junior Customer Happiness Officers. So it seems where Chiefs are playing around with employees, the Juniors are taking care of clients while (ab)using happiness as part of corporate branding.

I’ve asked Alex Kjerulf – a happiness at work consultant who goes by the title CHO – why this is the case. The question sparked the following exchange:


 

 

His answers stem me more mildly. Indeed, if there is an HR team with a  consistent focus on employees’ well-being, it is not the title that matters. What is really important is the creation of a culture where employees get feedback, have a path to development, and are given a healthy dose of freedom in organising their work. All these things are fairly obvious, but still important, and they could be forgotten in the day to day reality of getting work done.

For the time being, I’ll consider asking my boss if I can get a Junior Happiness Officer title. I might be the only one around.

Less is more: a minimalist life

I’ve spent some time the last month in packing, storing, and reordering, as I moved recently. It made me realise how much stuff I own: books I’ve read a long time ago, clothes I don’t wear, postcards and pictures reminding me of ancient times in my own life, scientific articles to prepare my thesis while in university, all kind of random small objects… so much stuff!

When I was in this reflective mood, I met a guy who has a lot more minimalist approach to life than I did. I’ll call him Alex, because that is his name. Alex lived in various countries throughout his life, and ended up in Brussels around a year ago. He rents a room here, and all his own possessions fit in two suitcases. (Funnily, he admitted he owns seven pairs of underwear, so he needs to do laundry at leat once per week, but is thinking of buying more of them).

Alex doesn’t necessarily define himself a minimalist, but there any people who do. For some, it means picking a certain lifestyle which is less about stuff and more about experiences. For others, there clearly is a sport in it to count and reduce the number of items they own, to 288 items only, to 100, or even 50 or below. Some go by with less than seven pieces of underwear. To be honest, most of cheat a little: they may count three pieces of underwear as one item!

Does less stuff equal more happiness?

Have the minimalists found a pathway to happiness in a time when storage centers are booming business? The science on stuff and happiness is not that clear. According to this post, minimalism is a tool that can help people reassess their priorities. For instance, when the focus shifts away from owning stuff and towards spending money on experiences or social relations, that is something that contributes to happiness.

From research on the relation between consumption, money, and happiness, we know for a long time time that there are ‘hedonic adaptation’ and a ‘hedonic treadmill’ effects. Once we acquire something new, we quickly get used to it, and need to buy other things again to retain this feeling. Hence, material goods do not create lasting happiness, and we up storing boxes and boxes of stuff outside our house.

To the contrary, spending money on special experiences works, says professor Michael Norton. You might not remember anything anymore about the experience of buying a piece of clothing five years ago. But I bet you remember a special outing you did, like going skydiving or a hike with friends.

Storage centers, a booming business.

Storage centers, a booming business.

It’s decluttering and ordering, not minimising, that matters

One of the great benefits of minimalism, wrote one of the bloggers I read, is the following: you never have to look search for anything, and cleaning your apartment takes only a couple of minutes. But all good virtues come in moderation. A couple of more extreme people like Alex aside, probably most of us are better off with just a bit less and better organised stuff, not a minimal amount of stuff.

Looking at blogs and book titles, there is an enormous hype around ‘decluttering’. This term simply means clearing ‘clutter’ out of our houses and our lives, by throwing (or giving) away clothes, books, and household items you don’t need. When all your stuff is in your life and your house for a reason – be it because of a practical use, or sentimental value – you’re in a situation where less is more.

Am I tempted to throw away all my books and become a minimalist? Absolutely not. I have selected and re-selected my collection, and I cherish those books I’ve kept. I like to believe that everything I own is there for a reason.

These chaps may disagree. But to me, it’s not the number of items in your life that counts, but the life in your items.

 

Bruxelles ma belle

Brussels. You have kindly hosted me for over five years now.

Over time, I’ve gotten to know the multicultural areas of Anderlecht, the studentesque St Gillis, the upbeat Ixelles and the cosmopolitan Etterbeek – and above all the Eurocrat heaven of the European district.

Like many, I’ve complained about your many faults. Your built-in complexity that convinced some Belgium is a failed state, your ability in providing bad public service in either French or in bad Dutch, the poor infrastructure that makes me battle cars on my bike on a daily basis, the saddening climate where any day can be grey. Still, all this is wrapped in a layer of joie de vivre, exciting European multiculturalism and top class gastronomy (the best beers and fries of the world – and restaurants, too).

Despite her faults, Brussels is a place where I am happy. And even when you don’t love Brussels, you’ll love to hate it.

Bloody terrorists, do not touch Bruxelles ma belle. Do not take my happiness away.

Tintin

 

 

Be Simply Happy in 2016

Happy start of 2016! I wish all my readers a year of achievement, inspiration and of course, happiness.

In early 2016, this blog will turn 2,5 years old. Since I entered the road to the discovery, I’ve now written just over one hundred post. I’m now in a much better position to answer the question what happiness is about. If I’d have to summarise what I learned in one phrase, it’d probably be the realisation how complex and simply happiness is at the same time.

Happiness is complex. It’s difficult to define and it’s difficult to pursue – the pursuit of happiness, this  is even futile.

At the same time, happiness is very simple. We all know it when we are happy and are able to feel happiness. Intuitively, we very well understand that friends, family, and fun experiences are more likely to generate moments of happiness than material things or status.

And maybe we don’t need long lists of New Year Resolutions, but just some simple ideas to take steps towards  (mine is to explore new recipes to cook!). Simplicity, humility and sometimes downright minimalism might be a worthwhile path to pursue.

Or, as the card I picked up when 2016 was only a few hours old put it: Be simply happy.

beSimplyHappy

Looking back at my experiences and achievements in 2015

In the beginning of this year, I formulated no less than ten New Year’s Resolutions. For me, the end of the year is the natural moment to look back and review what I experienced and achieved throughout the year.

This is how I did:

  • Live together with the girl I feel in love with last year

Yes! And it is a very special experience. Moving in together comes with some challenges. But these challenges are insignificant in comparison to the wonderful pleasure of being together every day.

  • Track and improve my sleep

Fairly well. Especially in the beginning of the year, I used sleep-tracking apps. They helped me somewhat improve my discipline in going to sleep and getting out to bed on time. But I haven’t systematically used them all year round. And my sleeping habits still can improve.

  • Expand my blog

Not bad. Especially after summer, I’ve opted for a somewhat slower frequency. I’ve taken the chance to take on some speaking occasions presenting my work in this field. But maybe most importantly, I’ve visited two ‘happy countries’ this year: Denmark and Bhutan.

  • Work on my health by running or by yoga

Could be better. I regularly do yoga, but not every week. And while I ran a personal best at the 5k (22 min 20 seconds!), I have only ran in training for that race, not all year round.

  • Celebrate my 30th birthday

Yes! And I celebrated it well, spending a weekend in the Belgian Ardennes with a group of friends.

  • Continue to do well at work

I think so. My role within our team has grown this year. And in the last week before the holidays, I won a new promotion (yeah!)

  • Travel to two new countries: Portugal and Bhutan (finally!)

Yes! I spent two weeks in both of them, discovering different towns and landscapes and learning a lot about their culture. And apart from these two, I also visited Denmark for the first time and made stopovers in Nepal and Qatar en route to Bhutan.

  • Watch at least one new TED talk per week

Almost. I’ve had a good amount of inspiration in watching TED talks this year, with topics ranging from basic income to indoor plants to improve air quality in house and from the strength of Muslim women in peace processes to cold-water surfing. While I saw many, I don’t think I got to one per week. And unfortunately I did’t attend any TEDx events this year.

  • Read novels and books about happiness

A little bit! A quick glance at my current happiness bookshelf suggests there aren’t too many additions: books on the November GNH conference in Bhutan and The Power of Negative Emotions being the exceptions. Still, (un)happiness was also a theme in other books that I read, such as Haruki Murakami’s title Norwegian Wood. And reading A History of the World in Twelve Maps also made me happy!

  • Become a better public speaker

Yes! Two and half years after joining, I finished Toastmasters International‘s Competent Communication programme. And I undertook some public speaking opportunities to talk about my discoveries on happiness.

 

Especially in the beginning of the year, I occasionally took a glance at the list to remind me what I wanted to achieve. But as the year progress, I took more and more distance. And now, I don’t even understand why I needed ten goals.

Goals are helpful to meet objectives and develop yourself. But if there is one goal I have for 2016, it is to have less goals…

Realising the Bhutanese dream

A couple of years ago I heard about an idea that eventually changed my life. That idea was Gross National Happiness (GNH).

It sounds dramatic, but it is true. I must have heard about it before, but I was first truly captivated by the idea of GNH through a TED talk by Chip Conley with the title ‘Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile’. At the time, I wrote a blog post for TEDxAmsterdam making the case to measure happiness and change the state.

No, the rest was not history. But everything that followed brought me to the creation of this blog, my coming of age as a happiness researcher and speaker, and ultimately to my trip to Bhutan to explore GNH.

Explore Gross National Happiness

Because indeed, four years after this first blog post, I finally have the chance to travel to Bhutan. I’ll be in the fortunate position to attend a conference on Gross National Happiness “From GNH Philosophy to Practice and Policy” at the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The CBS is a research institute on Bhutan and GNH, based in the capital Thimphu. While GNH as an idea dates back to the 1970s, it has been developed more thoroughly in the 2000s and 2010s. The 2012 GNH survey found that 8% of Bhutanese is ‘deeply happy’ and 32% ‘extensively’ happy. 48% of the 700,000-odd Bhutanese citizens scores ‘narrowly happy’, which means achieving a sufficient level in 50% of the 33 indicators. Only 10% of Bhutanese is unhappy.

GNH is not only something that is being researched and benchmarked. Importantly, the policy requires that new government proposal need to be assessed for their impact on GNH. For instance, Bhutan has decided not to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after a finding that it would not contribute to GNH.

A country full of paradoxes like any other

Making a dream come true is risky.

It can be dangerous to make a trip I’ve so long looked forward to. Due to GNH, Bhutan has long been a darling of Western travelers looking for philosophy, spirituality, and ultimately, happiness. Some Western observers have idealised or ‘Shangrilised’ Bhutan as a country.

Others, on the other extreme, have criticised the country as hypocrite for its low level of development, the use of GNH as an excuse for a failure to meaningfully increase the quality of life, or for ethnic violence in the 1990s.

Only when I am there I’ll know whether I am falling in either of these traps.

I’ve had several years the time to do my research and hopefully I have a balanced image of the place. Recently in my preparations of the trip, I read the book ‘A splendid isolation‘ by journalist Madeline Drexler. She aims to offer a balanced approach, highlighting that Bhutan like any other country on the world is full of paradoxes:

  • Tobacco advertising and smoking are forbidden – but in 2011, there was an outcry when a monk was sentenced for three years for smuggling in chewing tobacco for a value of $2.50.
  • There is a target of 100% organic crops – but many food products are imported from India.
  • Economic development is a policy objective – but self-owned business are seen as ungenerous to the collective.
  • Anti-litter laws are strict – but citizens ignore them.

Well, all I can do is promise to share my experience upon my return.

And for the mean time, I’ll leave you with a documentary that made a great impression on me. In a few words, it shows how Bhutan as a country is struggling with the arrival of modern times. Or more precisely, with the arrival of TVs – replacing yaks – in the countryside.

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