Category Archives: Ted Talk

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Basic income: utopian dream or the road to happiness?

Few ideas are more exciting for a happiness economist than a basic income. It sound like utopia: free money for everybody. Could it actually work?

The Swiss basic income referendum

The Swiss electorate had the chance to have its say on Sunday. And the answer is a resounding ‘no’: 77% of the population opposed the idea of a basic income. In the design for the Swiss referendum, the basic income would be unconditional: nothing would be demanded from citizens in exchange for the transfer of money. The level of the basic income would have to be set by law, according to the initiators, but they argued that 2,500 CHF for adults (around 2300 Euro) and 625 CHF for children would be an appropriate figure. That sounds like a lot, but remember that Switzerland is rich: a salary for a supermarket worker is around 3,000 CHF.

Proponents of the basic income argued that it would “enable the population to live a dignified life and to participate in public life”, providing people the freedom to live their life as they want. They also argued that basic income would be needed in an age where robotisation and digitisation would mean that many current jobs won’t exist anymore in ten years. The basic income has also been portrayed as an easier way to provide social security in a modernised and more efficient welfare state.

Opponents argued – not surprisingly – that the math behind the idea doesn’t add up. According to estimates, the Swiss state would spend around 200 bn CHF, or 35% of GDP, to pay its citizens such a basic income. It would require around 25 bn CHF extra in taxation revenue (which may have pros, as we saw last week) or expenditure cuts to finance the scheme. Beyond that, the idea would risk to destabilise the entire economy, as people wouldn’t work as much as before. In addition, there were moral arguments on the national laziness that would ensue.

Switzerland won’t have a basic income. But don’t believe proponents are demotivated by the loss. Instead, they see the fact that over 20% supported such a radical income as a sign that the real public debate is only about to start.

Performance by the initiators of the referendum, who dumped 8 million coins at a square when they reached the necessary number of 125,000 signatures to call the referendum. Source: Wikipedia,

Performance by the initiators of the referendum, who dumped 8 million coins at a square when they reached the necessary number of 125,000 signatures to call the referendum. Source: Wikipedia,

A Finnish experiment in simplification

While I am sympathetic to the idea, I do have my doubts on the math. It might be worth studying the consequences of a basic income for a smaller group, before implementing it for everybody. That is exactly what will be done in Finland: in 2017, it will provide a basic income to 10,000 lucky sampled citizens. Participation is mandatory. Importantly, the Finnish experiment will also simplify the social security system as part of the exercise.

Some proponents support basic income as a way to rationalise the various categories of social expenditure. Finland has around 100 different categories of social security spending, and during the experiment 50 of these would be replace by one single basic income. Also in other countries, citizens are subsidised for several hundreds of euro per month, for instance via services accessed for free. Couldn’t all this be simplified into one basic income? Or would it still be impossible to fund it? The Finnish experiment will be closely watched.

Free money, a way to happiness

Even if we may be unable to introduce free money for all, there are a couple of lucky people who actually received a basic income. The German foundation Mein Grundeinkommen crowd-funds a basic income: every time when they’ve gathered 12,000 Euro, one winner gets a basic income for one year. And according to its director Michael Bohmeyer (who receives his own monthly 1000 Euro basic income via the proceeds of shares in the company he left), the results are amazing.

Speaking at a panel discussion in Brussels, Bohmeyer told how he feels a lot more free, secure and relaxed with his basic income. When receiving the income, he realised how much people are in running mode every day. Work and the need to have a salary to provide for our life results in a lot of stress.

In his experience, that doesn’t mean that nobody would work anymore if they receive a basic income. Of the around 40 people who won a basic income through the lottery, all but one continued to work. And maybe it’s an issue of low trust in others: when asked if others would still work when they have a basic income, around 80% said no. When the question was if they themselves would still work, around 90% said they’d continue to work, says Bohmeyer (video in German).

Basic income may not only about simplified social security, but also about a better work-life balance and higher happiness. Let’s hope that the Finnish experiences shows that it is actually possible to get the math right.

For another passionate case on basic income, see the talk of Rutger Bregman, a Dutch journalist and basic income enthousiast. He wrote a book on the basic income under the title ‘Utopia for Realists‘.

The Good Life: 75 years of research in five simple words

One of the eternal quests of men is to discover the good life. The key to happiness, one would suppose, cannot be simple. What would the conclusions be of a 75-year study of the Good Life be? They must at the minmum fill a small library.

In what is now one of my favourite TED talks, Robert Waldinger summarises the takeaways in twelve minutes I need to eat my breakfast.

75 years of study

Waldinger is the director of the so-called Grant Study. In the longitudinal study, started 75 years ago, Harvard students starting university in the years 1939-1944 have been studied throughout their life. Every two years, research staff came to see them, asking them about health and illness, happiness and misery, career and love. Based on thousands of data points, the researchers got an in-depth understanding of how the health of these 268 men developed over life. The study included people running for senator (and one US President – guess and check at the end of the post if you were right!), doctors and lawyers, but also people who fell down hard from the top. And to ensure the findings wouldn’t be biased on different realities of the Harvard elite, the study early in its history was complemented by a survey of a sample of 456 inner city Boston boys.

Social relations for happiness and health

How did Waldinger summarise all these years of data in his twelve minutes? Simple: he pointed out how social relations are the key to our happiness and our health:

  • Social connections are good for us – and loneliness kills. Social relations to friends, family and community are correlated with longer lives. And loneliness is toxic: it’s associated with earlier decline in health.
  • Quality is king. Living in conflict is bad for health: high-conflict marriages without affection may even be worse than getting divorced. That doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly: the typical bickering old-age couple isn’t too problematic, as long as both partners know they can rely on each other in case of need.
  • Good relations protect our brain. If you want to predict the health of someone’s brain at age 80, data of their relationship satisfaction age 50 provide a good indication.

Is it really that simple?

If you’re a sceptic, I know what you’ll say reading this. First: how can we make judgements based on relatively small samples, of only 268 and 456 studies. Second: is there proof that this correlation means causation. If we study 10,000 instead of just over 700 people, are the effects the same? Thirdly: is the key to happiness this simple and obvious? Can it be reduced to, just, being a good person to your wife or husband?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. I haven’t conducted the research myself. I haven’t analysed the 10,000s of data points to come to these conclusions. The way I see it is that these conclusions, maybe more than anything, are good reminders to focus on the big picture from time to time as we frantically go from place to place and task to task, busy living our lives.

In two articles portraying the study in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2013, Waldinger’s predecessor as study lead George Vaillant presents a couple of other lessons. And again, these are quite obvious, or at least, they don’t come as big surprises:

  •  Alcoholism is destructive, and the number one cause of divorce.
  • From a certain point, a higher IQ doesn’t affect incomes anymore
  • A good relationship with your mother matters your entire life
  • And: aging liberals have better sex lives (ok, maybe that one was actually less obvious!)

Tools to unravel the mystery of happiness

In our attempts to unravel the mystery of happiness, we use all kind of different tools, from spiritual retreats to decade-long surveys. Ultimately, even though happiness means different things for different people, probably the conclusion of most of these quite similar. In the words of Vaillant, when summarising his decades as leader of the study:

“Happiness is love. Full stop”

 

And who was the later US President who participated in the study? John F. Kennedy.

TEDxBrussels: doing good in the ‘deeper future’

‘Deeper Future’: that was the official theme of TEDxBrussels 2016 earlier this month. Under this theme, speakers explored how in the future we have ‘food computers‘ to grow our food, communication networks based on connected moving vehicles, and – less across the frontier, but very important indeed – patients who select their doctor.

Apart from the Deeper Future, I picked up a another underlying topic across several of the talks: Doing Good. Doing the right thing and being a good person, matter for happiness, it emerged from three talks I would like to highlight.

The Bank of the Common Good

Using finance for Doing Good, that is the aim of the Bank of the Common Good established by Christian Felber. Felber is a strong believer in social justice and the Common Good, and already explained his economic views at TEDxVienna last year. He started the establishment of the Bank of the Common Good to show what a bank would do when its first and foremost purpose is to truly to serve the public good. The Bank would not only have to be sure about the ethical, environmental and social effects of its investments, argued Felber. It would also have to meet high standards for transparency and participation of its depositors in decision-making. By Doing Good, the Bank of the Common Good could contribute to the quality of life in all society.

Can it happen? At the moment, over 3000 individuals have contributed capital of around 2,35 million Euros. If the mark of 6 million is met, a full banking service including savings accounts and credit cards will be launched. That is Doing Good on quite some scale!

Slider_1500x350

TEDxBrussels logo 2016

The Good Lobby

Too many people use their talents to advance the interest of large firms, rather than to Do Good, is the diagnosis of Alberto Alemanno. Alemanno teaches EU affairs, but also has radical ideas to change European policy process. His project for the Good Lobby is based on the idea that many people want to do their jobs and life their lives, but are also committed to spend some time in making the world a better place. But how to bridge the gap between online ‘activism’ (liking a facebook page, signing a petition) and the full-time engagement needed for real social change?

Alemanno has found a middle way to allow individuals to use their full potential in changing the world: the Good Lobby. The idea is simple: by becoming a Citizen Lobbyist and contributing skills a couple of hours of week to NGOs working on a good cause, you can make a difference and contribute to a better quality of life. And ultimately, it will also make you happier, promises Alemanno.

Become a Citizen Lobbyist - Alberto Alemanno on stage

Become a Citizen Lobbyist – Alberto Alemanno on stage

 

Love in the future: subcontracting or radical?

One of the most surprising talks during the day – and one I definitely recommend to watch back once it’s available in the next few weeks – is the talk by Croat philosopher Srecko Horvat about love. As a philosopher, Horvat mainly wondered about the oddities of love nowadays and in the future. Modern technology has changed the way people experience love in their lives, and not always for the better! Horvat took his audience on a tour starting with a datingmaster app providing tips to navigate through an awkward first date. But in the deeper future, it goes further than that: it is possible to subcontract love. Online dating is cumbersome: wouldn’t be easier to hire someone to do write the messages and score the date for you, and then just show up for the date yourself?

Love certainly isn’t easier in a time of selfies, concluded Srecko in his plea for ‘radical love’. Narcissus died because he fell in love with himself. And also in a time of individuality, we might be too afraid to fall in love. But without the fall, there is no chance to love…

Visual representation of Horvat's talk, by the team of Visuality.be

Visual representation of Horvat’s talk, by the team of Visuality.be

 

Bonus: the Brussels’ soundscape

I promised three highlights, but let me add a bonus! Witty and creative, musician and artist Sonoren demonstrated his edited version of Brussels’ soundscape to the audience. It might sound weird at first, but it’s a great way to explore the city in a completely different way. And if you can’t wait for the talk… there is an Easter egg here.

A postcard providing a visual explanation to the talk

A postcard providing a visual explanation to the talk

Keynes’ dream: how to get to a 15-hour working week by 2030

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

In his essay on “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren” from 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that in the future, people would only work fifteen hours a week. In hundred years, he wrote, the standard of life in progressive countries would be four to eight times higher than in 1930. In the extract above, he wrote that  for ‘the old Adam’ in 1930, a fifteen-hour working week would be necessary to fairly divide the available work across the population.

With 14 years to go, there’s still a lot that needs to be changed!

Considering the gap between current working hours of 35 (officially in France), 40 hours for most and 50-60 or more for workaholics, maybe we should strive to reduce our working hours in smaller steps at first?

According to OECD data, the average working hours per year stands at 1770 hours per year across the OECD countries. These are not equally divided through the year (think of Easter, summer, and Christmas breaks): the weekly average is probably around 37 hours. These figures are actually worked hours, per worker, so including part-time workers and seasonal labour.

Against prejudices, the number of hours stands at 42 in Greece; in Germany and the Netherlands, the average is around 30. In the latter two, these figures are skewed by the high proportion of part-time workers, but also can be seen as a sign of high labour productivity! And surprisingly, it’s not Americans or Japanese that put in most hours. Instead, the workaholics of the OECD live in… Mexico. At 2238 hours per year and some 45 per year, the average person’s working week is some 50% longer than in Germany and the Netherlands.

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries. Source: OECD

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries (click to enlarge) Source: OECD

 

Step 1: down to 30 by 2020

What if we could achieve this level of 30 hours without these tricks? In their history, the Green and Socialist Parties in Sweden have aimed to reduce working hours to 30 per week. Scandinavian countries have a reputation for a healthy work-life balance and indeed are towards the left of the curve. Swedes work a bit more than the French with their 35-hour working week policy.

Last year, a retirement home in Gothenburg started to experiment with a 30-hour working week. Nurses tell researchers they feel they have more energy. The experiment is funded with a subsidy of around 500,000 euros to compensate for the higher number of staff needed to care for the residents.

But other examples cited in another article, such as creative and service industries, suggest that not so much more staff is needed. People still want to do a good job, and may achieve similar levels of productivity in six hours as in eight, says an app developer. With some testing and refinement, wouldn’t we able to get this rolled out by 2020?

Step 2: let’s get down to 21 by 2025

From the perspective of the new economics foundation, a think-tank on “economics as if people and the planet mattered”, getting down to 30 is good, but only halfway there. In a pamphlet and a TEDx talk, researcher Anna Coote argued for a 21-hour working week ambition (she herself, a recovering workaholic, is at 30 hours).

She argues that shorter working weeks would have a range of social and environmental advantages. For instance, it would distribute work more evenly across society, and hence reduce unemployment, and increase our ecological footprint. Now, we are getting close to Keynes’ expectations 85 years back. Doesn’t it sound utopian to work only four/five hours per day, four or five days per week? Or is it really feasible to do this within ten years, coinciding with decarbonisation of the economy and lower energy use to meet the targets of the COP21 climate change agreement?

Step 3: down to 15 by 2030 – or why not limit us to 4 hours?

But for the American dream, 21 hours is not good enough, and we might be able to do better than Keynes’ 15 hours. American dream salesman and self-help author Tim Ferriss wrote a well-known book entitled the ‘Four-Hour Working Week‘. In the book, he explains that for most entrepreneurs, a small amount of clients brings in most of the revenue. As such, by focusing on these, outsourcing all support functions, and living in low-cost countries, Ferriss claims it is possible to only work four hours a week. Whether you take this as a serious career option or too-good-to-be-true, it’s not a model that could apply to society as a whole.

If everybody were to work only four hours, our economic system would come to a stop. But Keynes 15 hours? If we really change our economy’s paradigm, maybe we can get it done by 2030…

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahnemann, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

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

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

 

The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?

 

Happiness in the past, present and future

Robert Biswas-Diener is one of the most original thinkers on happiness I know. His work provides a smart counterweight to the ‘happiologist’ part of positive psychology. A happiness consultant himself, he observes that within the ‘happiness biz‘, there are a lot of people who appear to see happiness at work as the one and only goal.

Interestingly, Biswas-Diener does not agree. He points that when people are happy, they are likely to have a ‘good enough’ philosophy. Gratitude and acceptance form one aspect of happiness. But being grateful with what you have can also hinder self-improvement. Instead, Biswas-Diener believes in the ‘upside of your dark side’: negative emotions like guilt, grief and anger can drive our actions and help us grow.

This is a very helpful contribution to the discipline of positive psychology, which sometimes appears to believe that acceptance and gratitude can take away real problems. Being positive can help in dealing with problems, but cannot take them away. A positive mindset should inspire real actions to face difficulties.

Happiness is in the past..

Only last week I came across Biswas-Diener’s TED talk, with the tile ‘Your Happiest Days are Behind You’. In his talk, Biswas-Diener answers one of the fundamental questions:

How can I be happier?

The common tendency of individuals is to see happiness as something in the future. One of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they project happiness on goals they haven’t achieved yet. And often, these goals are conflicting:

‘If only I met a nice girl’.

‘If only I had a child’.

‘If only I had that dream job at the Commission.’

‘If only I could work less, and have more holidays’

As Biswas-Diener formulates it: the future is an unreliable sources of happiness. How can we escape from our own expectations about the future? There are various ways out. One of them is by manufactured or ‘synthetic happiness‘, as psychologist Dan Gilbert says. What my answer is, I’ll say below. But first, let’s look at Biswas-Diener’s answer.

The past is the source of happiness…

In his very, very worthwhile talk, Biswas-Diener says that the past, not the future, is the source of happiness. The happiest days are behind you. And with a personal story that I absolutely recommend you to watch, he tells us why he so much believes in the past as a source of happiness. The gist is as follows: by remembering happy moments of the past, you will be able to recreate moments of happiness, and you will experience them again.

Have you watched the story? Can you imagine the race between Robert and the little girl in the slum of Calcutta? Great!

Robert states that memories like this race are the ones that are the answer to the question ‘how can I be happier’. And I agree that remembering happy experience is a very significant part of the answer. But I wonder how reliable the effect remains when one remembers the same memory more often. I would expect there is a somewhat limited life span, as the ‘happiness impact’ of these emotional moments may wear off when you tell or relive the story more regularly.

Compare it to a band playing their hit singles: initially it’s great to see the crowd cheer when they hear your top hit. But if concert after concert, day after day, all the audience wants to hear is the same songs, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. A diverse set of top hits (and happy moments!) thus is important.

… or is it the present?

Therefore, I’d argue that neither the future, nor the past are truly reliable sources of happiness. Instead, I would focus on… the present. Ultimately, our life is lived in the now, not in the future nor in the post. Our aim should be to spent our ‘nows’ – the moment that is easiest to control – in a way that makes us happy. We can go out on a day when the weather is nice. We can do sports, meet friends, or work on goals that are important for us. And by doing so, and appreciating the great moments along the way, we both work on a happy future and create a supply of happy memories that we can enjoy again.

Who’s responsible for your work-life balance? You!

Many of us in the work force are facing the same challenge: how to balance our working life with our private life.

In many  organisations, work gives great opportunities for personal development. In well-managed organisations, team members can pool their skills and jointly create a meaningful project. And that is often exactly what skilled creatives in the 21st century are looking for. But whether it is due to demanding bosses or through inherent perfectionism of the employee, the risk that work takes too much time out of a weekday is very present.

Few people live in Denmark, where the working culture seems to allow a good balance between work and private life. At least in the Brussels labour market that I am most familiar with, a strong working ethic is very common. Checking emails in the evening or already during the metro ride home? Responding a colleague during the holidays? Planning Monday’s to-do-list during the weekend? I think it occurs to most people I work with.

On a day that I got up in the early morning to start working, I stumbled on a TEDx talk on work-life balance by a fellow called Nigel Marsh. In his talk, he describes his ideal working day:

Wake up well-rested. Have sex. Walk the dog. Have breakfast with my wife and kids. Have sex again. Drive the kids to school. Do three hours of work. Meet in a mate to do sports in the park during lunch break. Do three more hours of work. Meet some mates for a drink. Drive home for dinner with my wife and kids. Meditate for half an hour. Have sex. Walk the dog. Have sex again. Go to sleep.

I fear that most work organisations are not fully compatible with this working ethic…

But the lessons from Nigel are serious. There are at least two important points in his talk. Firstly, certain career choices are incompatible with a meaningful family life. This is often forgotten or neglected, but it is absolutely true. In the Netherlands, there are some examples from politicians that have taken a step back to spend more time with their family. Mostly, they receive cynical reactions doubting their chances for survival. But it’s obvious: if your job requires you to always be on the job or to travel a lot, this will certainly affect your social and family life. Not everybody wants to make such a sacrifice.

But even outside these extreme cases, he makes another very important point. In the end, it is nobody but you who is responsible for your own work-life balance. Your boss ideally facilitates your happiness at work. Creches and paternity leave, a personal working culture or secondary benefits will all make you help to feel more at ease with your job. Still, your hours also matter. In the short term, your boss decides about your hours and when there is a need for overtime. But in the long term, there is only one person who decides how much and when you work: you!

Happy maps

Logic brings you from A to B. Imagination brings you everywhere. ~ Albert Einstein

When I was a kid, I loved to draw (fake) maps. I spent hours making up own country, usually going by the name of Jasperland. I’d draw cities, rivers, mountains, and desserts. I imagined coastlines and fields of far-away places. And beyond that, I could spend hours going through the atlas or starting at the map of Europe on my wall.

You can definitely say that maps were the passion of my youth. And although I still enjoy maps, I would say that happiness is my current passion. In any case, when I saw a TED talk on ‘happy maps’, it sure triggered me.

Data analyst Daniele Quercia combines the same two passions, maps and happiness, in a talk. Though he has used a bit too many public speaking tricks, his story seems authentic. Everyday, Daniele cycled to work. As advised by his mapping app, he took the shortest route, which happened to go over a car-packed big city avenue in Boston. One day, for some curious reason, he happened to take a side street instead and noticed the difference: he went through quiet streets with trees and breathing space instead of beeping cars.

Daniele figured that many people were like him, sacrificing quietness, beauty, and ultimately happiness for efficiency. If you lose three minutes going through a park instead of a normal street, your brain wins oxygen and your mind wins calmness.

Based on these realisations, he asked people what places they preferred, and created a mapping app that offers you the happiest, prettiest, and quietest route instead of only the shortest one.

Watching the talk made me think about how I go to the office myself. I live a fifteen-minute ride away. I don’t go through big avenues on my ride, but it is true that I get a fair amount of traffic. I do pass a park, but I am only outside of it. With a detour of three to five minutes, I go through the entire park. I’ll give it a try this week. I am curious to discover whether the maps I will be in touch with can help me discover better places and enter a state of happiness – just like when I was drawing them as a kid.

Crush your comfort zone and make the magic happen

Go outside your comfort zone: that is where the magic happens

Have you ever been at a conference with a great speaker that you admire, dying to pose a question important to you? But maybe you were not sure how the audience would react, or you thought that the speaker could think you were stupid. Or you hesitated in phrasing the question, and whilst you were wondering what to say, all the questions rounds were closed. Too late. Opportunity gone…

One of the challenges that we all face as human beings is to exit our comfort zones. And yes, asking questions in conferences is not the most comfortable thing to do. We feel nice and cosy to spend time in the places we know, with people we know, and a conference isn’t necessarily one of these places. But to really have unforgettable experiences, we need to leave our comfort zones and discover the world.

Image found on Reallifecoaching.net

Image found on Reallifecoaching.net

 

Easier said then done. How do you leave your comfort zone?

Well, you don’t leave it. You crush it. Preferably by laying down on the street for thirty seconds. At least, that is the solution from Till Gross (see talk below). With a large dose of enthusiasm and flair, and based on scientific insights, he explains how laying on the street has helped him to get out of his own comfort zone and given him the self-confidence to try scary things. Think of speaking to a girl or approaching top experts in his field, psychology.

The message is simple: we all are afraid to step out of our comfort zone. But if we just start something exciting and new, we make the magic happen. And if we do it over and over again, at some point it will become normal. The example of asking a question at a conference is not a random one. I’ve tried I myself. In Brussels, one gets to attend a fair number of conferences. Initially, I would never speak. But at some point, I realised that I had to change that, and as a general rule, I told myself that I’d always ask a question if a could come up with a smart one. In the beginning it was difficult, but it quickly became a habit – and it still is. That doesn’t mean I always get an answer, or that they are always smart questions, but at least the barrier is removed.

But Till’s message is even broader than that. Crushing your comfort zone doesn’t only help you to experience new things and grow self-confidence. It also helps you to be happier. I absolutely believe is right in that. Often, unhappiness results from comparing ourselves with others, and having the feeling that we are inferior. When you are physically down on the street for 30 seconds, you start a process of not caring about what other people think. By doing so, you do not only remove a barrier to self-confidence, but also a barrier to happiness.

Laying down on the street doesn’t only crush your comfort zone. It can also make you happy.

Post Navigation