Tag Archives: Nature

The look of happiness

Last week, I took part in a two-day program on foundations of happiness from what I’ll simply call the Department of Happiness of Erasmus University Rotterdam – the official name is Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation (EHERO).

The very first lecture was by a philosopher on the question ‘what is happiness’? As could be expected, prof. Jack Vromen’s review of thousands of years of philosophy raised more questions than answers. From Aristotle’s emphasis of the ‘life of virtue’ to Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”, ideas differ what happiness is. And it gets more complicated when we try to set happiness apart from the similar concepts life satisfaction and well-being. My takeaway simply was that we don’t need to have a solid all-weather-proof answer what happiness is. We ‘only’ need to decide what happiness is to us.

But what triggered me most is the picture to illustrate happiness in the deck that Vromen used. While I haven’t been able to find the actual one he used, conceptually it looked a bit like this:

What do you see here? Two people, seen from the back, in nature, jumping out of excitation in the air. It’s a very common theme in stock photos of happiness. Start paying attention to the imagery for online news stories about happiness or search for images of happiness on Google. This is what you’ll usually find, alongside a bunch of smileys of course. I’ve copied a few more examples in the gallery.

On my blog, you’ll also find a few posts illustrated by views of the beach or a tulip field, based on the implicit assumption that being in nature can create moments of happiness (it certainly can, in my experience, and evidenced by an emerging scientific literature).

Still, my favourite image of what happiness looks like is different. It is a picture that went viral in 2015. The picture was taken at the movie premiere in Boston of Black Mass – a crime drama starring names such as Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The picture shows how a group of spectators all get their phones out to depict, I imagine, the celebrities arriving from their fancy cars. Apart from one person: the older lady in the centre of the picture seems to be truly taking in the moment, a small smile on her face. I might be projecting something, but it looks like a moment of happiness for her. And if you see how the image went viral and people praise her for being aware in person rather through their cameras, I think I am not the only person to ascribe this meaning to the picture.

For me, this is what happiness is about: paying attention to the small moments of pleasure in our life. Happiness doesn’t need to always be about majestic landscapes and great excitement. It can be as simple as enjoying the view of the moon in the sky, calm waves on the beach, a glance at a field of tulips, a coffee on the balcony or indeed – seeing a few celebrities at a movie premiere.

Source: the picture now can be found all over the internet, but was originally taken by John Blanding of the Boston Globe

The art and happiness of travel

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Varanasi, India.

A depiction of Vishnu, the sustainer, one of the main gods

A depiction of Vishnu, the presever, one of the main Hindu gods

It wasn’t the easiest place I have visited. I was confronted with a sweltering heat, pollution affecting my breathing, occasional smells of cow dung and rotting garbage, and a cacophonous concert of auto-riksha horns that resounded in my head long after I returned to the calm of my hotel.

At the same time, it was the most mind-blowing of all the places I had the fortune to visit. Varanasi is so different from any other place I have visited. I enjoyed visiting the temples, and learning how Hindu Gods are portrayed. Did you know that Hindus have 330 million Gods? They are not only above us, but everywhere around us.

I was fascinated to walk past the Ganges, the holy river, and witness how pilgrims came here to bath in the river, wash their clothes, and drink a few sips of holy water. On the riverbank of the Ganges, a few sets of stairs are used for the cremation of those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi. According to Hindu mythology, if someone dies in Varanasi, their soul escapes the cycle of death and rebirth. Hence the streets are lined by pilgrims, among them many long-bearded men dressed in orange, waiting for the moment to liberate their soul.

The unique spirituality of the place, in my opinions, far outweighs the discomfort. And it perfectly illustrates why we travel in general, and why our travels can generate such moments of happiness.

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Why we travel

The question ‘why we travel’ seem simple, but is not that easy to answer. For me, travel is a complex art of relaxation and adventure. Overall, I think there are five important reasons:

– to relax: to gain new mental and physical energy, or enjoy lazy days with sea and sunshine

– to learn about the world around us: experience different ways of living in other nations (people already have been doing this since the Roman times! A geographer named Pausanias even wrote a travel guide to Greece in the 2nd century AD).

– to admire beauty: to experience the beauty of nature, art and culture

– to meet new people: to gain fresh perspectives and ideas by meeting people from different cultures or in different settings than home

– to escape our comfort zone: while we need stability, we quickly adapt to our daily reality and bored. Travel helps us to break routines (and boy, did I do so in India!)

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

Travel, for a 2% happier life

Travel creates many moments that could experience happiness: relaxation, learning, beauty, and social encounters. At the same time, travel can also lead to difficult and stressful situations.

Altogether, there is only a small net positive effect of travel of happiness. Compared to people who do not go on vacation, people who travel have a slightly higher level of subjective well-being. According to this PhD study on leisure travel and happiness, holiday trips account for about 2% of the variance in life satisfaction. Probably, the effects are limited due to the simple fact that a vacation ends pretty soon. A few weeks after, sweet memories disappear to the back of the mind and daily routines take over again.

Nonetheless, there’s a clear stream in research suggesting spending money on experiences – which would include travel – rather than material goods is the way to go. While the novelty of a purchase wears off, triggering memories of the holidays through souvenirs, pictures or reading journals helps to keep the experience.

I think I’ve those boxes ticked: I write this on the couch next to pillowcases with elephants bought in India and lighted up this post a few pictures. And describing my experience in Varanasi at the start of the post almost made me hear the chaos of riksha traffic and admire the sunrise from a Ganges boat again. It is as if I haven’t left India yet.

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays - for a sunrise on the Ganges

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays – for a sunrise on the Ganges


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.

Walking in the sea, an adventure in the Wadden Sea

Saturday morning, 6.30. Time to wake up. It promises to be a fun day: in a couple of hours, I’ll find myself back walking through layers of mud, in wet socks and shoes and covered in mud up to my knees. I’ll be spending four and a half hours through a two to five centimeter layer of sea water, here and there interrupted by a meter-deep waterway for ships or a layer of mud so deep I need all my forces to move forward and prevent myself from getting stuck.

Why on earth did I do this to myself?

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In the North of the Netherlands, the Wadden Sea is a shallow sea, separating five islands from the coast of Frisia and Groningen. The ineraction between the tides create an ecosystem unique in the world. With ebb, the water retracts and leaves the sand plates exposed. They’re like all-you-can-eat buffet in a restaurant or hotel: the shellfish ready to grab are a birds paradise. With flow, the water returns and cockles, crabs and millions of worms have the sand for themselves again.

Beyond many types of birds, another creature enters the plains of the Waddenzee during ebb: the human being; rather than food, it is adventure that he seeks.

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Out in the open

‘Wadlopen’, as a Wadden Sea walking or mudflat hiking as it appears to be called in English, is a special experience. You are out in the open, walking in the sea, in an area that is only accessible during those couple of hours it takes you to cross through. You feel in touch with the elements, facing the wind blowing through your hair and the sun shining on your face. Nature is present in the form of thousands of little worms crawling under your feet, some crabs here and there, and the shells you crush below your feet. We crossed a ‘shell cemetery, where the streams of ebb and flow had deposited hundreds of shells to a sand plate. Further away, we even spotted a seal.

Horizontal alpinism

It is also a tiring experience. Those parts that are  sandy and solid are like a walk on the beach, but many parts are not. Occasionally, you are stuck so deeply in the mud that walking is as tiring as on a mountain. Indeed, wadlopen is also known as ‘horizontal alpinism’. But when you arrive to the coast, or when you experience the magnificence of a warm shower, none of that counts anymore. The only sensation going through you is a feeling of accomplishment and bliss.

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This must be the ‘after’ photo

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At the coast, you arrive to a natural reserve with wild horses!

Costa Rica: the secret of ‘pura vida’

For some time, I believed Bhtuan was the happiest country on earth. A close relation to nature, a gentle Buddhist philosophy and to top it off: the cradle of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan probably is quite a happy place (and my dream is to travel there). But reading more about national happiness levels, I discovered more and more about another positive outlier: Costa Rica.

Costa Rica ranks twelfth in the World Happiness Report list of happiest countries, dominated by Western countries. It even tops the list of the Happy Planet Index, an index that doesn’t only measures happiness, but also adds environmental performance in the equation.

Why is Costa Rica, despite its relative poverty, such a happy country? When I asked Google, I got several different answers: the lack of an army, healthy food, a slow pace of life. As I wanted to validate these points in a scientifically completely invalid survey, I also asked some Costa Rican friends of friends and people who lived there for their comments.

“General speaking I  believe that Costa Ricans are quite positive in their live, even though they suffer from corruption, unemployment, injustice and crime. Why are we still so positive? Honestly I don’t know. Maybe we are born with this mindset.” – R.


Is this mindset to Costa Ricans, or is it of a factor that holds true for all Latin Americans? The case is made that a manana manana attitude prevalent in Latin America leads to higher happiness levels. Indeed, the figures of the World Happiness suggest that there is a ‘Latin American bonus’ in happiness levels. When taking values about more objectives indicators associated with happiness (wealth and comfort, social support, freedom, generosity), happiness levels in Latin American countries are about 0,5 (on a scale to 10) higher than one would expect on basis of the data. Butnature, weather and food also count:

“Close contact with the nature and the very very nice weather help to be happy. Latin culture and in particular the tendency not to be worry is another important point. They are simple people and they enjoy the life with simple things.” – C.
“We eat healthy food: a variety of fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, eggs, milk, bread, good coffee, not too much meat and artificial deserts, etc.. Yes, nature is generous…” – F.

The lack of an army could also be a factor in it (though Costa Rican policemen are heavily armed), in an indirect way:

“Since we don’t have army (we are pacifist), all the money of the State is distributed in education (schools, high schools and universities), health (hospitals, social security), and ecology (beaches, forests, tourism). In my opinion, these three elements are very important to have a ‘quality of life’.” – F.

But one of the key factors, apparently, is what Costa Ricans call ‘Pura Vida’ – a generally positive concept that can mean anything, from hello to thank you and that can be used in happy situations, and even in sad ones.
“We have a tendency not to worry…I would even go as far as to say, a tendency not to care. Maybe it’s related to the fact that since we have never known conflict or difficult times as a country, it means we have never really learned to fight for things that are important to us. For example, most people are unhappy with our government and political parties, but no one does anything about it, indeed 35% of the population did not even vote last election.” – M.
“The Pura vida phrase does influence the way to see our lives. Pura vida is something cultural- we say this phrases a lot during the day. It has different meanings , but all of then positive.” – R.
“Pura Vida to me means to take life carefree: you can fix all problems. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry: life still goes on.” – C.
pura-vidaThere certainly are a couple of factors that make it a lot easier to be happy than miserable in Costa Rica: wonderful nature – and a close relation to it, good food. Of course paradise on earth does not exist, not even in Costa Rica. But the basic quality of life is quite good, and the Latin bonus gives another boost. A pura vida philosophy – ready to every situation – does the rest. A pure life: what else do we need?