Tag Archives: Friendship

My new year resolution: a year of happy birthdays

When I was a boy, my grandparents had a birthday calendar in their toilet, just as many Dutch families do. On twelve pages – one for each month of the year – the calendar listed when their (grand)children and friends had their birthdays. As the calendar didn’t mention the days of the week, my grandparents could use it year after year.

Next to it, they had a print of a rhyme by Toon Hermans, a Dutch comedian and poet. It went as follows:

Vandaag is de dag

Hij komt maar één keer

Morgen dan is het

Vandaag al niet meer

Niet zeuren, geniet

van het leven, het mag

Maar doe het vandaag,

want vandaag is de dag.


Today is the day

It comes only once

Tomorrow it won’t

Be today anymore

Do not complain,

enjoy life, you may

But do it today

cause today is the day.


Birthdays and happiness

While I do care about my friendships, I am terrible in remembering birthdays. Even Facebook’s notifications – where every birthday becomes a number in a red box next to a bell, asking for your attention – do not help me. I am not as intimated by red numbers anymore as I was when I first got Facebook and a smartphone.

I think birthdays are important: it’s worth celebrating life, and it’s worth celebrating others that are important to you. Humans are social animals, and we need others to be happy. A birthday offers the occasion to have a small celebration, to appreciate the year that has past, to spend time together in pleasant company, or just send our good wishes. I’d imagine there to be a positive correlation between sending and receiving birthday wishes and happiness (though I didn’t come across any research on birthdays and happiness – I suggest this to be subject of further research).

I thus believe it’s a worthy goal to change myself, and get better at birthdays. Therefore, one of my New Year Resolutions this year is to remember my friends’ birthdays. Reminiscing about my grandparents’ birthday calendar, I set out to get the best tool I could think of to support me in meeting this resolution: an old-fashioned birthday calendar. I even managed to get one with the very poem lighting up my grandparents’ bathroom.

So I hope that 2019 will be the year of remembering and celebrating birthdays. Because many days this year, it will be “today is the day” for one of my friends. And I hope these birthdays will be happy ones.


The morality of the market: can everything be bought?

Can everything be bought?

Last week I wrote about ‘Happy Money’, written by Harvard professor Michael Norton, and concluded with him that happiness can be ‘bought’ when money is spent wisely.

Today, I want to face another question: should it be possible to buy everything with money, even if it is unjust, unfair or immoral? Another Harvard professor, philosopher Michael Sandel, has written a book pondering all facets of this question.

I bought Sandel’s book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ in February, shortly before travelling to my course on happiness economics at Schumacher College. His prose made me realise how evasively money has entered all domains of life and how absurd some transactions are.

Allow an ad on your forehead: $777

In his book, he dives into various weird, and sometimes even out rightly wrong, areas of capitalism:

  • Lobbyist pay homeless people to wait in line for Congress hearings in Washington  (quite sure this does not happen in Brussels): $10-20 per hour.
  • The pay a six-year-old school child in Dallas gets for reading a book: $2.
  • Compensation for offering your forehead as an advertising space for Air New Zealand: $777.
  • If you are a woman addicted to drugs, you can ‘earn’ money by agreeing to sterilisation: $300.
  • Markets crowding out social values: priceless.

Some of these are clear excesses of capitalism, whilst others are a little more subtle. In a way, money and power have always mattered. Wealthy businessmen are sponsoring the presidential campaign Obama in the hope to get rewarded with an ambassador post or a certain policy. Or they might make a donation to an Ivy League university in the hope their children will be taken on. Like it or not, but I fear it is how the world works and worked for centuries. But even if that is reality, it does go against the principle of equality we all sympathise with – unless we risk losing out ourselves.

Rent-A-Friend: $10 per hour

Still, we know that these things feel a lot better and authentic when they are deserved. In 2000, a Dutch movie ‘Rent A Friend’ came out, about an an agency that rented out ‘friends’ to people that felt lonely. Despite the feeling that friendship can’t be bought, the idea has been taken up in real life: www.rentafriend.com boasts being able to offer over 500,000 ‘friends’, starting at $10 a hour, though many will waive their fee if you take them to a concert or sports event – very generous!

Markets in life and death 

Markets should have limits, argues Sandel. And it should be us as people, citizens, consumers to pose them. One of the most fascinating chapters talks about the markets of life and death. He documents many examples where life and death are sold and bought. For instance, he speaks of ‘celebrity death pools’, where people place bets on who is most likely to die.

Death list is one of these sites (though it appears there is no money involved). ‘Hopes’ are her on a death for Prince Philip or Stephen Hawking; Fidel Castro is on for the 11th year. Castro also makes it to a list at ranker.com. Here, voters have a good hand; six names out of the top ten have died this year.

But Sandel cites even crazier and more repulsive practices: employers  take life insurances on their employees, and then cash the payout if they die prematurely. Or people trade on the terrorism futures market, which rewards people who rightly guess when and where terrorists strikes, and how many people are killed.

Bring morals back to the market

From a capitalists perspective, there is nothing wrong with this. It is a market, and people are only accountable to themselves for their transactions. But as Sandel indicates, there are too many absurd, immoral, and sometimes plain wrong things that are bought and sold. And all this should stop.

Still, I don’t think laws and regulation are not the best ways to put limits to these markets. It is a moral issue, and it is our responsibility as citizens to reflect on our decisions and follow or moral compass. The limits of markets are set by consumers and nobody else. In recent decades, we have allowed ourselves to go way too far. It’s time to bring morals back to the market.

Everything can be bought. But markets crowding out social values: priceless.


Little surprise: also Sandel has given a TED talk about his work.

Intense London days

London, lovely London! I just spent five intense days in the City. The programme was so full with meetings, pub meals, walks and quality time with nice folks that the post on Costa Rica that is writing itself in my head didn’t make it to paper yet.

Back in the metro from Brussels Midi to my stop I realised I was too busy being happy to write about it – probably the best excuse ever. I’ve heard before, in this TED talk by Shawn Achor, that writing down your happy experiences on a regular basis has proven to have a lasting positive impact on your happiness levels. So, here are some of the highlights:

  • A walk to Kensington gardens on Thursday, just after my arrival to London. I had a very long working day on Wednesday. Fifty minutes through a park with coloured leaves, and my head was empty and ready to absorb new experiences.
  • A series of challenging meetings with financial sector experts, and a feeling of mastery and true understanding of what’s happening in this field.
  • Meeting some wonderful old friends in a new environment and noticing they haven’t changed even a little.
  • Sharing a hostel room of dubious quality with nine Dutch guys in a constant flow of mildly offensive remarks and attempts to outsmart each other.
  • The surprisingly flashy colours in the collection of Renaissance art in the National Gallery.
  • Extreme friendliness and hospitality of two friends who now wisely decided to date each other.
  • This lovely piece of street art in Shoreditch: