Category Archives: Read Of The Month

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.

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:

Happiness read of the month: Flourish, by prof Seligman

I usually have New Year resolutions. Sometimes only one for the year, sometimes a bit too many. This year I have about five, and if there’s one that I really aspire to make, it is this one: I would like to read a book about happiness every month.

I built up a nice little collection of happiness books, so why not motivate myself to read a bit more this year. And – of course – find an excuse to buy a few extra books…

In January I read Flourish by prof Martin Seligman. I have spoken about prof Seligman, the role he played in positive psychology and the PERMA model of happiness and well-being already before. I however never read his book.


Happiness is out. Wellbeing and flourishing are in.

Flourish came out in 2011, and Seligman wrote it partially to correct his understanding of happiness in an earlier book, Authentic Happiness (2002). Over time, Seligman’s – and positive psychology’s –  understanding of what happiness and wellbeing are evolved. Gradually, the distinction between happiness and wellbeing  became more clear. Happiness relates to a brief, quickly passing moment, and is quite of a buzzword. It is a term easily understood by people, but when you look under the surface, it can have many meanings. Indeed, happiness is often used as a proxy for well-being or quality of life (in his book, Seligman also uses flourishing). Well-being is a more complex and generic phenomenon, describing everything what is important to a living good life.

In 2002 Seligman thought happiness manifested itself in three aspects: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. In 2011, he argued that well-being or flourishing – a more stable and more permanent notion – should be the focus of positive psychology. He also added two ‘missing’ dimensions of flourishing: positive relationships, and accomplishment. The PERMA model was born.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University


The mission of positive psychology

The fundament now laid, most of the book is about fulfilling the mission of positive psychology: increasing flourishing. The chapters focus on what type of positive psychology interventions work. This can be compared to what standard psychology started to do when it was invented: find out, through academic research, what type of interventions can treat personality disorders and depression.

An example of a positive psychology ‘intervention’ is what Seligman calls the ‘gratitude visit’: think about someone in your life that did something for you for which you couldn’t thank them enough. Found the person? Now write down, in some detail, what the person did for you and what it meant to you. Then announce you want to visit the person, but don’t tell them why. When you visit the person, read out your gratitude letter aloud. I am sure that if you try it out, it will be a very powerful moment.

Seligman and colleagues then expanded these interventions in different areas. They built a positive psychotherapy programme to treat people with depression. They developed a positive education programme to reshape curricula in some pioneering schools. And they worked with the US Army to train soldiers on resilience.

The book then even stretches on to other areas, such as the economy and happiness – it was precisely the debate on alternative ways to measure progress than GDP that brought me into happiness blogging seven years ago.


What are your signature strengths?

One of the most interesting areas, though, is the work of Seligman and co on strengths. They defined what key call ‘signature strengths’. While acknowledging we all need to work on our weaknesses, they argued it’s just as important to build on our strengths when we define our ambitions and plans for personal development. The book contains a questionnaire, which can also be found on the website of the VIA Character Institute, that helps you to identify your personal strengths out of a set of 24. I did the test myself, and for me these strengths are honesty, gratitude, and curiosity. It’s a nice narrative to think that these traits define me.

  • Honesty is about authenticity, and being true to yourself. For instance, this helps to share your opinion when someone asks for it, or to name – and then improve – a bad habit.
  • Gratitude means being grateful for the good in your life, and being able to express that gratitude. This can help in maintaining relationships with others (people like to hear ‘thanks’), but also to accept life events outside your control as they are.
  • The strength Curiosity concerns an interest in new topics and experiences. I believe it’s a factor in personal growth, as it motivates to increase or go out of our comfort zone.

Curious what your strengths are? Read more and do the test here.

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character