Tag Archives: Nature

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?
PURA VIDA!