Tag Archives: Social Relations

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.

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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

 

We have to talk about suicide

800,000 people. That’s the number of people who die through suicide each year. And 25 times more, 20,000,000 people, make an attempt to end their life. To put the number in perspective: it is as if all of Amsterdam disappeared, or as if all of Mexico City made an attempt in a year.

Contrary to the belief of some, suicide is not only a problem in developed Western countries. It is a global problem: World Health Organization data for 2016 shows that four fifths of suicides occurred in low or middle income countries. We have to talk about suicide, and 10 September – world suicide prevention day – is a good moment to start.

Happiness thus affects many people, and is the second cause of death for 15-29 year olds. But what can we do to prevent suicide?

I am not a psychologist, and to anybody who truly does not see a purpose to be alive I would above all recommend to seek immediate professional help (and to be clear, this blog does not offer professional help). In many countries, there are suicide prevention hotlines you can call when in crisis. Wikipedia lists them here.

What to do when you have thoughts about suicide

For less acute cases, there are a few things that can be done (partially based on the tips of the Dutch suicide prevention hotline 113:

  • Seek professional help. Get help from a professional therapist to tackle the problems you are facing.
  • Talk to friends or family, or write down your worries. If you express some of the thoughts that are bothering you, their weight is already smaller.
  • Get a daily routine. Make sure you sleep enough and eat in right amounts. Go outside for a walk, or exercise: fresh air and movement already give a boost to the hormones regulating how you feel.
  • See life in perspective. Moments of happiness pass by, but the same is true for moments of unhappiness. The dark side is a part of life.
  • Show gratitude for the good things. Pay attention to and appreciate the small and beautiful things that happen: rays of sunlight on your skin, a nice coffee, a smiling person on the street. You can even consider the ‘three good things‘ practice and start writing down positive events during your day for at least a few weeks.
Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

What to do to help someone who is down

Suicide and suicidal thoughts are a social issue. What can we do – as individuals – to reduce this source of suffering around us?

  • Speak up and offer help. When you suspect that someone feels lonely and a burden to people, and is not afraid to die, reach out. Talk about the problems they are facing. And not only in autmn, winter or Christmas time: summer can also be a time of darkness.
  • Talk about suicide. According to the Dutch suicide prevention hotline, there is no need to shun the subject. In their experience, talking about suicide does not result in a suicide attempt. Youth could be an exception though: if they talk about suicide openly, this could influence behaviour.
  • Encourage the person to get professional help. Support them in reaching out to professionals.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t make yourself responsible for all the suffering you see. Use your own support network to express your own feelings.

Equip people to face the ups and downs in life 

As a society, there is still a lot what we can do to improve suicide prevention: continue breaking the taboo, train doctors and other health care professionals in recognising and treating suicidal thoughts and depression, and reduce access to tools used for suicide.

There is more that can be done to strengthen mental health and build resilience. Depression and schizophrenia are said to account for 60% of all suicides. Schizophrenia is a complex disorder, and there is no easy cure for depression. Many cases are inappropriately treated or not treated at all.

As societies grow richer and people live longer, more investment needs to be made to better understand how depression can be prevented and treated. It can start with changes in education: increase emphasis on life skills and happiness at schools, to help people face the ups and downs in life. Happiness education may be a factor that helps to prevent suicide.

 

Do you have suicidal thoughts? Please, please, please, reach to a suicide crisis line. Find an overview here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines 

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.