Monthly Archives: March 2011

Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

Here is the Executive Summary of the Report I introduced yesterday: Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations (plus some photos from Cambodia, just because). The research report is available for purchase from the People In Aid website.

Background, and purpose of the research

In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the level of stress, trauma, or violence experienced by humanitarian workers, but relatively little focus on the other side of the coin – qualities that promote resilience and thriving in these challenging environments. People In Aid, through this report, undertakes an initial exploration of the personal skills and strengths, and organizational structures and practices, which can promote resilience in managers working for international humanitarian organizations.

What we did

During October and November 2010, interviews were carried out with fifteen individuals humanitarian workers, staff support specialists, and psychologists who well placed to comment on these issues in relation to middle managers with humanitarian organizations. These discussions, author experience, and published research, informed the content of this thought/research paper and allowed us to:

  • Suggest a useful working definition of resilience;
  • Identify some key indicators of resilience for managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Identify some key points of influence – organizational structures and practices that can strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Offer some practical suggestions for ways that humanitarian organizations can help increase the resilience of their middle managers.

Summary of the discussion topics

There is no universally accepted definition of resilience. The definition we propose here is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.

Key personal skills and strengths of resilient humanitarian workers include:

1. Adaptability. Adaptability is the result of a number of skills and abilities working in tandem to help us deal well with challenge, change, and setbacks. Two related themes particularly pertinent to humanitarian workers are pragmatic idealism and the ability to cope with ambiguity.

2. Problem solving ability. Humanitarian workers who are naturally challenge-oriented, employ problem-focused coping, are able to accept imperfect solutions and partial victories, and independently learn as they go, fare better. 

3. Sense of meaning and purpose. A sense that what they are doing is meaningful and purposeful is very important to most international humanitarian workers – and those with strong values and a clear belief system rooted outside themselves fare better. However, the ability to be flexible in adapting these beliefs over time is also very important. 

4. Good relationships/social support. There is no single factor that will make you resilient, but good relationships may be about as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Supportive relationships that extend well beyond mere acquaintance are vital, yet can be challenging for international humanitarian workers to maintain over time. 

5. Optimism and the regular experience of positive emotions. Having a generally positive outlook (realistic optimism) and a sense of humour/fun are common attributes of resilient humanitarian workers.

6. Emotional regulation. The ability to regulate and manage intense and negative emotions when appropriate is an important part of resilience. Humanitarian workers who are able to strategically use strategies related to attention control, cognitive reappraisal, and emotional expression, are more resilient. 

7. Self-awareness. Resilient humanitarian workers know themselves well – their strengths and relative weaknesses, their limits, and their needs. This self-awareness underlies their awareness of their limits.

8. Balance, and the ability to pace oneself and disconnect. Many resilient humanitarian workers appear to live by the matra, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” They find ways to pace themselves and disconnect from their work both in the short-term and the long term.

9. Physical health. The basic building blocks of physical health – eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising – are often neglected by humanitarian workers, but without some basic level of physical health to draw upon, resilient actions and reactions become less likely.

Some of the most challenging demands that managers in humanitarian organizations face were identified as:

  • Managing others: Frequently mentioned issues included a lack of management experience to do the job required and having a lot of responsibility without the commensurate authority.
  • Being managed by others: The stress caused by constant organizational change topped this list, followed by mismatches between headquarter-office expectations and field capabilities and having a poor direct manager.
  • Workload: Too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
  • The structure of their role: Many humanitarian workers seem to relish the variety inherent in their jobs but also find it stressful to have to be wear many different hats and be adept in so many different ways.
  • Personal coping and self-care: Environmental hardships are not unexpected although still stressful, and the “place” and “pace” of the work makes it challenging to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

Some key points of influence in organizational structures and practices that can help strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations can be found in the following areas:

  1. Management practices: Frequently mentioned during interviews was the need for this topic to be a strategic priority for upper management, part of the organizational conversation in the context of a culture of affirmation, and basic good-management practices such as regular professional supervision meetings. 
  2. Role structure: More commonly than not, in this field, the scope of the role and the position expectations are such that the job is literally impossible for one person to accomplish. Realistic and clearly defined expectations, and more assistance identifying strategic priorities when needed, could go a long way to increasing the resilience of humanitarian managers. 
  3. Training and skill building: Most humanitarian workers are hungry for training and skill building opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and career planning. Of particular importance is the need to assist people who are promoted to management positions with little or no background in management learn how to better manage others.
  4. Support services: Making psychological support services available – particularly by providers outside the organization or completely removed from a person’s line manager – was repeatedly identified as helpful.   
  5. Policies and benefits: Adequate vacation and R&R leave, and the provision of amenities in situations of shared accommodation, were identified as particularly crucial to helping humanitarian workers maintain resilience.
  6. The recruitment and handover periods: It is hard to over-estimate the importance of good recruitment and information transfer to an organization. An organization that manages to consistently identify and hire people who are already naturally resilient are going to be way ahead of the curve. In addition, good information transfer during an adequate handover period provides new staff with a critical running start in their position.

Critical questions for further discussion

A PhD (or several) could be written about each of the major topics addressed in this report. As such, the paper raises many questions that could benefit from further research and thought. The following a few of the key questions that we hope will catalyze further discussion and exploration:

  1. Is there a difference between the qualities that help make humanitarian workers resilient in the short term versus the long term?
  2. Do humanitarian workers who are highly resilient actually perform better in their role or are they mostly, rather, less stressed and/or damaged by the demands of their work?
  3. To what extent can organizational structures and practices really help build individual resilience? To what extent is it the organization’s responsibility to attempt to do so?

Resilience Research Report – The Introduction

Resilience is a defining theme of my life at present – last week’s chapter for the distance learning course I’m writing was on personal resilience and this week’s is on organizational resilience.

In April, I’ll travel to Bangkok to spend a week working with the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma as they bring together journalists from around Asia for a week. Guess what I’ll be speaking on… Yup, resilience.

And back in November I completed a research report for a very cool organization in London, People In Aid, on Building Resilient Managers in Humanitarian Organizations. That project has recently been published and is available for purchase on People In Aid’s website. Over the next two days, however, I’m going to share the introduction and the executive summary of that report on my blog.

I’ll be back later in the week with more stories to share. Perhaps they will be stories of how my mother demonstrated resilience this morning when she realized – apparently for the first time – that I was going to be home for five whole months later this year around the time the baby is due (there was only a slight gulp and a couple of seconds delay before she smiled brightly and said that it would be absolutely lovely to have me). Perhaps they will be stories of whether or not our poor pup, Zulu, demonstrates resilience when he wakes up from the anesthetic this afternoon and realizes that his testicles have vanished. Perhaps they will be speculations as to whether my bladder will ever demonstrate resilience once there’s no longer a baby in there to squish it down to the size of a lima bean (please, anyone who has been pregnant, tell me this is so).

But that is all still to come. For now, here’s the introduction I penned to the report Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations: Strengthening key organizational structures and personal skills that promote resilience in challenging environments.

Mike doing a handstand atop Jebel Rock in South Sudan


International humanitarian and development work has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. As the child of a development worker I grew up in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, the US, and Australia – flipping regularly between worlds of poverty and plenty. As a young forensic psychologist with a background in stress and trauma I left Australia to seek humanitarian jobs of my own in The Philippines and Croatia, and then worked for seven years as the Director of Training for a non-profit that provides psychological support services to humanitarian workers around the world. Recently I married someone who was working with a humanitarian organization in Papua New Guinea when we met. Even more recently we moved to Laos to undertake development work.

During the last twenty-five years I have met many humanitarian workers in many countries. They are, for the most part, an amazing bunch doing fascinating work.

They are people who help provide water, food, shelter, and sanitation after disasters to help reduce the shocking number of people who die during these periods from exposure, starvation, diarrhea, or disease.

They are people who advocate for change in chronic emergency situations, or who document the stories of refugees in camps who are desperate for a chance at another life. Persecution histories, these stories are called, and they are largely tales of horror and fear.

On the development end of the spectrum – they are people who work in remote communities to help develop sanitation infrastructure, or build and equip schools, or establish rice and animal banks or small businesses. All of these initiatives can raise the standard of living in poor communities and help buffer the families within those communities from the impact of unexpected challenges such as illness or drought.

Humanitarian workers do not have easy jobs, nor are they particularly safe. During the last 15 years intentional violence has become the leading cause of death for humanitarian relief and development workers in complex humanitarian emergency situations, and kidnapping is on the rise. Humanitarian workers already confronted with the realities of poverty, conflict, starvation, and disease must also face the reality that their work is dangerous. Being shot at or bombed; being assaulted, kidnapped or carjacked; being threatened at a checkpoint by a child totting a gun – in many parts of the world these are not infrequent occurrences.

Most of the humanitarian workers I know, however, don’t pinpoint this sort of danger as the most stressful aspect of their work. Most humanitarian workers who leave the developed world and head for the developing world expect (on some level, anyway) to run certain risks. Fewer expect to find environmental hassle factors such as unreliable communications and shared accommodations, or organizational challenges related to bureaucracy, management, and communication quite so frustrating and wearisome. Perhaps even fewer expect to have their fundamental ideals and beliefs about meaning and purpose challenged, reshaped, and sometimes shattered during the course of their work.

Some of those who decide to pursue humanitarian work don’t make it past two years before burning out – spent, disillusioned, or traumatized. Some people survive for much longer than that, but do it at cost to their closest relationships and while flirting (or worse) with alcoholism or other addictions. But some people genuinely seem to thrive in this line of work. They seem able to bounce relatively quickly from traumatic events that come their way, and remain passionate and committed to the work. Some even seem able to do this without sacrificing their relationships, their health, or their sanity in the process.

After years of focusing on the impact of stress and trauma, of seeing people who were not coping, I started to wonder about those who were. What, I wondered, were the qualities that helped humanitarian workers thrive? What sets apart the resilient?

Tomorrow: What were some of the key findings of this report? I’ll post the Executive Summary.

Happy Birthday To Me

I’ve been quiet on the blog this week, I know. It seems that I cannot, in the same week: (a) Write thoughtful blog posts; (b) Successfully edit my memoir; and (c) Complete my consulting work. This week blog was the egg that got dropped. Oh, and the tail end of my chapter on personal resilience for the University of East London that I was scheduled to complete this afternoon.

I had all good intentions of finishing it, really I did. But I came back from lunch absolutely exhausted and decided that my birthday present to myself would be to go to sleep instead.

It was a great birthday present.

Now, however, I am groggy, spaced-out, and no further along in either finishing my chapter or answering the questions Mike was asking me over lunch about how I felt about turning thirty-five.

Thirty-five, Mike and I agreed while sipping fruit shakes and gazing out at the Mekong, sounds solidly middle of life. It sounds mature. It sounds established. It sounds like an inflection point of sorts, and as if, by 35, we should have accumulated a nice big invisible backpack of wisdom along the way. It sounds way older than we both feel.


I can so clearly remember turning thirty. That weekend in Mexico with friends and lobster and margaritas seems an age ago now. So does the essay I wrote that month about my hang-ups around that birthday, Where’s the Fun in Normal?

“Now that I’m turning 30,” I wrote then, “I’m finding that I’m less worried about not having achieved the milestones of marriage and children than I am about the fact that people are going to start expecting me to be capable, knowledgeable and accomplished as I travel the world. The fact that I (sometimes) am all of this will no longer be surprising and noteworthy. It will be normal. And where’s the fun in normal?”

I can remember the person who wrote those words. But, now, five years down the track I am surprised and somewhat relieved to discover that they no longer hold true for me. I no longer fear losing any “child prodigy” status I once held; I’ve accepted that it’s long gone. I believe I have tamed my instincts to take different paths long enough to ask myself whether there are good reasons to take them, apart from the fact that they are different. I have made progress in outgrowing my habitual tendency to judge my life through the prism of other’s perceptions. And I no longer fear that normal would equal boring and that boring is a fate worse than death.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven’t yet figured out whether this last point is due to a genuine maturing, or more to the fact that little in my life could be considered normal during the last five years and that perpetually living life in the hurricane of the unusual is exhausting.)

During the last five years I’ve met, courted long distance, married, and conceived. I’ve published a novel. I’ve left the beaten path of LA for the less traveled road of Laos. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses – I’ve also developed a full-blown case of lyphedema that is annoying at best, painful and limiting at worst, and requires daily attention. But, all in all, these have been the best five years of my life to date.

I don’t yet feel nearly mature, established, or wise enough to merit the age of 35. But I am relieved, when I check the rearview mirror, to see growth. Growth in a quiet, centered, sort of self-confidence. Growth in love. Growth in happiness. It all gives me hope that (whatever sort of inflection point 35 really represents) this sort of growth will continue to be a part of the journey.

And, of course, I still have a couple of things left on that To Do list I drafted the month I turned thirty. I’ve swum with dolphins, but I haven’t rafted down the Amazon (uh, don’t hold me to that one Mike, I may have changed my mind). Most importantly, I haven’t eaten ice cream on every continent in the world. Come to think of it, although I was already treated to ice cream at lunch, I may start training anew for that global ice cream eating marathon tonight. For, as with so many areas of life, I suspect that perseverance and disciplined practice are likely to prove the keys to success in that quest.

That sounds sensible to me, anyway. Maybe there’s more stuffed into that invisible backpack of wisdom than I give myself credit for. Or maybe we should just feel free to eat as much ice cream as we want on our birthdays without having to resort of justification gymnastics. Either works.

What about you? If you’ve turned 30, or 35 (or 40, 45, 50, etc) what did you reflect upon? If you haven’t, what has so far been a milestone birthday for you? Why?

[Birthday celebrations off the beaten track: 30 in Mexico, and (almost) 35 in Thailand]

Back at Home are Mike and I: Jottings on art, parenthood, and home

Well, we’re back from Thailand and we hit the ground running this week. Although, after a full week of looking at this on Koh Tao…

And this on Koh Samui…

And strolling through resorts…

And buying satay off the beach…

And dining in lovely seaside restaurants as the full moon rises over the ocean…

Well… let’s just say I wouldn’t expect any sympathy from anyone if I tried to complain that we’ve had some re-entry shock with getting back to work. So I shall just say that we’re well and truly back at work.

Mike returned to scores of emails and the usual collection of unruly work-related campfires needing to be tended (and, in some cases, extinguished). I have returned to a new schedule of memoir work in the mornings and consulting work in the afternoons.

I’m jotting this down in between switching from memoir to drafting a distance learning chapter on personal resilience. I have ended this morning’s memoir work without much idea about how to fix a tricky chapter transition. Or, maybe more accurately, how to fix a tricky whole chapter.

That would be chapter, uh, two.

Sigh. I hope something shakes loose on that front this week as I am determined to finish this edit before the baby arrives. Because, of course, after the baby arrives my life as I know it now will end. I will never again find the time or energy to write anything worth reading, and Mike and I have probably just gone on our last truly relaxing holiday and enjoyed our last meal out at a lovely restaurant.

OK, so maybe I’m being just the tiniest bit melodramatic. But I have to admit that stalking my genuine happiness about this coming baby is no small army of fears – fears clothed in thoughts similar to those above. So, as I get into a serious creative writing rhythm again, I was particularly delighted to stumble across a great article recently called The Parent Trap: Art After Children.

Frank Cottrell Boyce writes:

There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.

While I would argue that it may, in fact, be easier to write while locked up in prison than while trying to get kids ready for school every day, I loved this article for standing in opposition to some of my fears. Well worth reading if you are an artist with a family, or thinking about having one.

In addition to all things babies I’ve also been mulling on all things home as I start to pick up the threads of my memoir once again. I stumbled across this poem by Emily Dickinson recently and it intrigues (and baffles) me. Anyone want to help me out by offering their thoughts on it? I am particularly confused by the last two lines – about feet retiring and faces remaining.

Away from Home are some and I

Away from Home are some and I —
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly —

The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We — difficult — acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire.

Thanks for dropping by!

Ten good things about boys: Attaining synthetic happiness one gender stereotype at a time

As we’ve been mulling over the fact that we’re having a boy this week, Mike and I have been talking about all things little boy and little girl. It started right after the first ultrasound.

“OK, tell me three good things about little boys,” Mike said to me while we were sitting in the white, tiled hallway of the hospital in Chiang Mai.

“Well, you wanted one to start with,” I said, tired, and not really ready to begin processing the news we had just been handed.

Mike laughed. “Is that the best you can do?”

“Yes,” I said, then pointed to the television on the wall. A news presenter speaking Thai was sounding rather frantic while footage of destruction marched across the screen.

“Is that a tsunami?”

It was. We watched footage of what was unfolding in Japan silently for a while. Then we talked about how we sure hoped the coastal area wasn’t too populated. And what we could make out of how the tectonic plates had shifted. And about the 2004 tsunami and what we’d seen of its aftermath. After that we weren’t much in the mood to talk about gender.

But as the week has progressed in a relaxing blur of pineapple fruit shakes, warm seas, and Thai food, we’ve found ourselves circling back to the topic repeatedly.

“Three good things about boys are…???” Mike will tease me at random intervals.

In response to this I usually pretend to think hard, then shrug my shoulders and shake my head.

“Good things about boys?” I might say. “I’m really trying here, but I have to say I’m drawing a blank.”

(I usually only say things like this when we’re sitting at a table in a restaurant or in some other public place where I run less risk of being tickled unmercifully or pestered with a shower of kisses.)

But the fact of the matter is, I have come up with some good things about little boys. And as I’ve been busy synthesizing happiness this week, I’ve also spent more than a little time mulling over the issue of gender stereotypes.

What ideals and expectations do we consciously or unconsciously hold about little boys and little girls? How many of these are grounded in fact? How should we let them influence our parenting? Do we even have much of a choice on that front – is it possible to be gender neutral when raising kids?

I know the answer to that last question is no – it’s not possible to be completely gender neutral in how we approach raising kids. Nor, am I convinced, would that be totally desirable even if it were possible. As for all the other questions… Well, I have some more digging and thinking to do.

But before I spoil things by doing too much research and finding out too many actual facts on the subject, I thought I’d share my rather unscientific and less than rational list of good things I’ve so far come up with. In no particular order, here are ten good things about boys:

1. Boys burn more calories on a daily basis than girls, so it stands to reason that boy babies in utero also need more calories than girl babies. The doctor in Thailand also told me that I should be drinking multiple glasses of milk every day. This all means that I can safely (nay, I should) be eating at least one extra scoop of ice cream every day that I am pregnant.

2. Mike’s aunt Kathy assures me that boys make excellent weed-pickers, rock-pullers, and wheelbarrow-pushers. I am assuming this also extends to carrying my luggage in airports. Bonus.

3. Mike tells me that not only are boys born without poo shame they also tend to hang onto this quality throughout adulthood – hence saving themselves a great deal of social angst. (For more on poo shame see, The Existence of Poo).

4. In one backed up be medical research, a little boy is much less likely to suffer down the track from my oh-so-fun medical condition, lymphedema, than a little girl.

5. Boys tend to have better spatial orientation than girls (I do believe this one is also backed up by science). On a practical level this will mean that with two men in my family I can almost entirely abdicate navigation responsibilities.

6. A boy may be less drama in the long run than a girl. (Think teenage years and, really, most of early adulthood).

7. Boy clothes are easier (and often cheaper) than clothes for girls, and boys’ hair is easier to care for.

8. There will be fewer princess movies, princess costumes, and all things princess in our house.

9. Hopefully our little man will grow up less burdened by an acute awareness of his physical appearance than little girls can be. I hope he’ll wage fewer battles in the hero’s journey towards the realization that self-esteem must be built on something more than being thought beautiful and desirable by others.

10. Finally, as my good friend, Danielle, pointed out, “Dads toilet train boys easiest.” I’m doubly thrilled on this front, as it means Mike will get to use his water and sanitation training and I just love to see him living in his strengths.

Cheers from Southern Thailand, where this list is a work in progress. In fact, Mike, I, and little Mango McWolfe may just go sit by the pool now and work on it some more. Have a great weekend! Catch you next week from Laos.

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It’s a…

All the women at Mike’s office want it to be a girl.

Our landlady wants it to be a girl.

Mike’s mother, after having two boys of her own, wants it to be a girl.

My sister wants it to be a girl.

The woman who sells us our favorite nutella crepes off the street stall wants it to be a girl.

Mike and I mostly wanted to hear that Mango McWolfe (the baby’s name of the week) looked healthy. But apart from that, I wanted it to be a girl. Mike initially wanted it to be a boy, but yesterday he told me that in recent months he’d begun to change his mind and decided that he, too, wanted a girl.

So I had two consults about two babies yesterday.

In the morning I chatted to an editor about the draft of my next book – the book I have been stalling on going back to for the last four months. I finally decided that what was needed was an impartial opinion from a trained professional as to its strengths and weaknesses and any potentially fatal flaws. This, I figured, might help me get some focus back and renew my willpower to push through to the next (and hopefully final) draft.

Her diagnosis? Thankfully it was, “healthy, sound, beautiful raw material that needs a bit more thought and work in parts before being ready to face the world.” Another couple of months (if I get my act in gear) should see the job done.

In the afternoon Mike and I flew to Thailand for the second consult of the day. I’m about 19 weeks pregnant now, and general consensus is that it’s a good idea to get an impartial opinion from a trained professional as to the baby’s strengths and weaknesses and any potentially fatal flaws right around this time.

So off to the hospital in Chiang Mai we went, stopping at a coffee shop along the way to dose the little Mango with caffeine so that it would dance around for the ultrasound and we’d have a higher likelihood of finding out whether it was a boy mango or a girl mango. (This was my sister’s idea, by the way. If any of you want to take it up with her, write to me and I’ll pass along her email address.)

The doctor’s diagnosis? Thankfully it was, “unremarkable” – which (contrary to what you want an editor to say when discussing your writing) is exactly what you want to hear when you’re lying on a hospital bed staring at your unborn child sucking its thumb in your womb. The doctor reassured us that everything seems to check out healthy, sound and… male.

Yes, it’s a boy. A boy that needs a couple more months before he’s ready to face the world.

If I had everything in life the way exactly the way I wanted it, this book would have been done two years ago and the baby would be a girl. (Also the temperature of anywhere I was living would be permanently set at 22 degrees Celsius and ice cream and fried spring rolls would live right down there alongside vegetables on the healthy end of the food pyramid.)


However pretty much every acquaintance who’s had a child, and my recent studies in positive psychology assure me that, at least with regards to the baby’s gender, any disappointment is likely to be temporary.

It seems that there are two kinds of happiness in life. One kind is the happiness of getting what you want (researchers call this natural happiness), and a second kind is the happiness that we manufacture when we don’t get exactly what we want (also known as synthetic happiness).

In situations when you have no choice in the matter (such as, just to pick a hypothetical example, you find out your baby is a little boy when you were sort of hoping for a little girl), just give it a bit of time and your psychological immune system will generally kick in and synthesize happiness. And here’s the real kicker… research shows that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as natural happiness. Synthetic happiness can literally help change our preferences so that we want what we ended up with.

Mike, who often processes with the speed of a supercomputer, is probably already there. Forty eight hours later, however, I am still staring into the distance and repeating “it’s a boy, it’s a boy,” to myself multiple times a day – trying to hang onto this realization and extract some sense of what it might mean, and failing on both accounts. Knowing me, though, I’d probably be doing exactly the same thing if we’d found out Mango McWolfe were a girl.

Luckily, Mike and I are spending this week in Southern Thailand on the islands of Koh Tao and Koh Samui, so I can hang out in an infinity pool and stare out to sea through palm fronds and frangipani flowers while I talk to myself about little boys. And sitting here this afternoon in our room, looking out at the ocean past the end of our canopied bed and feeling little baby boy Mango tumbling inside me, synthesizing happiness doesn’t seem all that challenging.

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about synthetic happiness, start by watching this TED talk by Daniel Gilbert.

P.P.S. Thank you for all the comments and stories left on my last blog: life lessons in pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows. They’ve made me laugh, and think. Keep sharing your stories!

Life lessons on pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows

I still remember the moment, about two months after we were married, when the cows made their first appearance in the discourse of our relationship. I can’t remember what we were debating now, but it led to the following exchange.

“You know who you remind me of?” Mike asked in a tone of mingled frustration and admiration. “Ivy, our second smartest cow on the farm when I was growing up.”

What?” I said. “Who was the smartest cow?”

Photo: Martin Cathrae, Flick

“That was Emmy. She was awesome. She was the sweetest cow ever, so bright, and so gentle. She was the queen matriarch of the herd. All the other cows followed her everywhere.” Mike got slightly misty eyed at the memory. “She was my favorite. She was everyone’s favorite.”                   

“What was Ivy like then?” I asked.

“Ivy was smart all right, but boy was she ever obstinate,” Mike said with grudging respect but a total lack of misty-eyed affection. “Ivy was the only cow that ever figured out that if she wriggled right under the electric fence it would only hurt for a little while before she would be through to the other side and she could have a whole, untouched pasture to herself. Emmy was smart and used it for the good of all. Ivy was smart and used it for her benefit alone. She was a determined, stubborn bugger. And she kicked.”

In a rare turn of events I was momentarily speechless.

“Ivy was my second favorite, though,” Mike added quickly after glancing at my face. “You couldn’t help but admire her even if she was a bugger.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I remind you of your second favorite, second smartest cow.”

“There were 40 cows in the herd, honey,” Mike said. “Second isn’t bad.”

It took a long time after this exchange before I grew to appreciate the cow stories. I certainly wasn’t amused the night I woke up with cramps at 3AM and Mike told me that he thought midnight cramping may be part and parcel of the female mammalian system because he’d noticed over the years that pregnant cows usually went into labour in the early hours of the morning. And I didn’t particularly appreciate the subsequent descriptions of how he had to help hand-deliver the calves (in some cases, using chains to pull them out) when labour didn’t progress.

“Oh, Ivy was a good breeder,” Mike told me when I inquired, with mingled sarcasm and curiosity, about my bovine doppelganger.  “I don’t think she ever had trouble delivering. And whatever else you can say about her, she was a very good mother. If her calf ever started bawling she always came running, usually looking to bite someone.”

Slowly, however, over the two years that we’ve been married, the cow stories have started to make me smile. And just the other night, for the first time, I wondered whether those cows haven’t helped prepare Mike for marriage and parenthood in important ways.

The other night we were out to dinner with friends who have just had their fourth baby. Hannah was telling me about some of the things she wished she had known before she delivered her first baby.

“I wish I’d known how hard breastfeeding could be,” Hannah said. “I had no idea about even basic things – like the fact that some women produce more milk than others, and that flow rate can be different. For some women the milk spurts out so fast the babies practically choke on it. For other women it comes out really slowly.”

“OK,” I said slowly. This was news to me.

“Anyway, having trouble breastfeeding was such a shock,” she continued. “Holton just wouldn’t latch on for ages, and then my milk didn’t come in for a long time, and then I got cracked nipples, and then mastitis, and then – because we were here in Laos and didn’t get to a doctor quickly enough I think – I developed an abscess in my breast.”

“Huh,” I said, feeling horrified in that way you do when you see a car accident and you’re secretly glad that it has nothing to do with you. I am still, on some level, clearly in denial about the fact that I am pregnant and will be giving birth and attempting this feat called breastfeeding in less than five months.

“Breastfeeding is just not as easy as you would think it should be,” Hannah said. “I’m happy to show you some tricks. Western women don’t often get the chance to see breastfeeding up close, so how are we supposed to know how to do it in the best way?”

“That would be good,” I said, thinking that she had a point. How were we supposed to learn in a society where women are fairly shy about whipping out their boobs in public and inviting detailed scrutiny of the whole process?

Well, apparently one other way to learn some of this would have been to grow up on a farm.

“I had such good filters tonight, honey,” Mike said triumphantly after we got home from dinner. “I was going to say all sorts of things during the breastfeeding discussion, but I didn’t.”

“You were going to talk about cows, weren’t you,” I said.

Mike ginned.

“Alright,” I sighed. “Tell me about the cows and breastfeeding.”

“Well,” Mike said. “Everything Hannah said makes sense. Our cows also used to vary dramatically in terms of how much milk they’d produce and how fast it would let down. And some calves, oh my word, some of those calves were so dumb. They just couldn’t figure out how to drink – you’d have to spend hours out there coaching them.”

“Really?” I said. “They didn’t just know? How do you teach them?”

“First you’d prod the calves in that direction and hope they’d figure it out. But if that didn’t work, eventually we’d have to milk the cows and put it in a bottle and hope that the calves would made the connection between what comes out of the nipple on the bottle and what comes out of the nipple on the cow. But some really struggled to make that quantum leap. We had one calf we thought would die it took him so long to figure it out.”

“And I know all about mastitis because the cows used to get it,” Mike continued while I took this in. “Sometimes the calves would develop a preference for only one set of teats – usually the forward ones because they were easier to reach and the calves were lazy. Then the back ones would get full and blocked up and infected.”

“What did you do?”

We’d have to massage and hand milk them on those teats, and sometimes they needed antibiotics.”

As far as I can see so far, Mike’s farm background has substituted quite well for older sisters in preparing him to deal with period cramps and breastfeeding challenges, as well as equipping him with skills in the area of assisting in the delivery of baby mammals (skills that both he and I fervently hope he does not need to employ later this year). And I will admit that I’ve grown quite fond of the cow stories, even if they involve Ivy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all other animal analogies are fair game.

The other day, when I recalled some random (probably useless) fact, Mike asked me, amazed, how I’d done it.

“I have a good memory,” I said modestly.

“Just like an elephant,” he said. “You’re my elephant.”

“Careful,” I said. “Thin ice.”

“Oh, honey,” Mike said. “Instead of the second smartest cow you can be my smartest elephant.”

“What was that I just heard?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, a big splash.”

What about you? If you’ve had children, what is one thing you wished you’d known before you had your first? If you haven’t had children, what questions or observations do you have?

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Dead cats, working elephants, new schools, and other tidbits from Laos

It’s a public holiday here in Laos, so Mike and I are celebrating by working together at the kitchen table. Yeah, we really know how to do public holidays in style.

Actually, one of us does, anyway. Mike let me sleep in until nearly eight this morning and then woke me up with a tray loaded with cheesy scrambled eggs, grilled tomato, mango, dragonfruit, and half a cup of coffee (I’m just easing back into coffee after going off it overnight the minute I was afflicted with pregnancy nausea). So we had breakfast in bed together before we set up our two laptops downstairs and started typing away like disciplined little nerds.

Though if I really were a die hard nerd I’d be working on my consultancy, drafting the next chapter for this distance learning course instead of having spent the last hour perusing my email and google reader, looking at photos we’ve taken this last week, and now writing a blog post.

But this next chapter, you see, is on Wellbeing Economics (how and whether governments and managers should be paying attention to improving their citizens and employees wellbeing) and I feel clueless. So since it’s International Women’s Day I figure I should put off the hard work of getting less clueless until after lunch when I’ll be hot, and sleepy, and cranky because my back (which decided yesterday for no apparent reason that it wanted to really start hurting) is getting worse and worse throughout the day.

Yup, I’m a smart one all right.

But, today, instead of doing the smart thing I’m going to do the fun one and show you some of the things we’ve seen here in Laos this past week. I really wish I had a photo of what I saw yesterday afternoon but, alas, I was without camera when I took Zulu down the street to buy some Japanese eggplants from the woman who sells vegetables from a tarp on the sidewalk.

She had eggplants all right, and right beside the eggplants was a basket with two dead cats in it. The cats were crawling with flies, which the woman helpfully waved off with a coconut fond when she saw how interested I was in the cats. The flies rose up in a thick, dark, cloud, then promptly settled over all of the vegetables. I made sure to wash the eggplants thoroughly.

That was a first for me. I regularly see this woman selling birds (that’s what Zulu’s so interested in in the photo above), rats (sometimes dead, sometimes live), and occasionally dead bats tied in handy bunches. But I’ve never seen whole kitties for sale before.

So here are some images we did take this week of life here in Laos:

Palm tree at sunset from the deck of our house

Zulu, doing his new favourite thing (bringing a big clump of dirt into the house and chewing it to bits)

What Zulu lacks in leg length, he makes up for in ear size

Mike at a cafe on the Mekong on his birthday

Lanterns hanging above the Mekong

Checking out the construction around town on Saturday morning

Building roads and drains, the hard way

Burning rubbish around town – it’s going to get smokier and smokier throughout March as the farmers burn the rice fields after harvest

Rice fields on the way out to Phonxai

The brand new school that we went to see in progress together just two weeks ago – finished now and standing proudly beside the old school

The village surrounding the school

A working elephant alongside the road out to Phonxai

Is International Woman’s Day a holiday where you are? How have you celebrated it? And what cool things have you seen in the past week?

Birthday Presents and Love Languages

It’s Mike’s birthday today, which thankfully I remembered one fuzzy minute after I woke up.

“Happy birthday,” I said, as he placed ginger tea and a plate full of mango and dragon fruit by the bed at 7am. (Sidenote: Ginger tea from Laos could be successfully marketed internationally as a morning sickness remedy, I do believe. So if any of you out there are looking to fund a social enterprise project, there’s a thought).

“So,” I said, as Mike got dressed for work. “Do you want your birthday present now, or tonight?”

“Tonight,” he said, his mind already mostly in the office. Then he paused and smiled like a cherub – the sort of smile that lets me know he’s about to say something sickeningly sweet. “Besides, you’re the only birthday present I could ever want.”

“Awww,” I said dryly, only just managing to stop myself from saying, “Well, you’re not the only birthday present I could ever want so you better remember that three weeks from today when it’s my birthday.”

Mike paused again.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe a version of you that picks up her clothes off the floor,”

“I think that’s a very expensive software upgrade,” I said. “I’ll check for you, but I doubt we can afford it.”

“Oh I don’t know,” Mike said. “I’m paying fifty dollars a month at the moment and it’s working pretty well, but I know it’s only a temporary systems fix.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And the price is likely to jump precipitously the minute we leave Laos unless we take Oun [our maebaan] with us.”

Mike and I have a long-standing debate, starting last year, about birthday presents. He holds that we should not be expected to give them (and also not expect to receive them). I hold that birthdays are the perfect occasion to expend a bit of love and creativity in celebrating someone, and that the celebrating should include at least one birthday present.

I’m not at all sure that either of us clings to our positions on this nearly as tightly as we pretend to, but we certainly hold firm whenever the topic comes up while we’re walking through the night market. We have even polled perfect strangers unlucky enough to be walking nearby on the subject. So far they have all agreed with me. Perhaps that’s because the wives have always answered first and then looked at the husbands as if to say, “it’s your turn now, and you can say whatever you want about whether people should give their spouse a birthday present… as long as you say what I said.”

The only real problem with holding my position in this great debate is that when Mike’s birthday rolls around I need to have a present on hand, and the real irony of the whole thing is that I’m not naturally a gift giver. Occasionally on my travels I see something that I know someone will love and splash out extravagantly – lugging home stone statues from South Africa or crystal carvings from Norway. But often I’m pretty hopeless. It takes inordinate effort to remember to send birthday cards even to my immediate family, and Mike’s generally much more thoughtful than I am about the small, everyday, gift-giving niceties like taking drinks when we’ve been invited to someone’s house. Or, uh, food to a potluck.

This year, however, I do have a present for him. It cost me all of ten bucks, but I’ve carried it across oceans since I found it eleven months ago and I’ve been hoarding it with anticipatory glee.

But late yesterday afternoon I decided that wasn’t enough birthday fanfare, so I hopped on my bicycle and rode down to the little grocery store that stocks imported cream, fresh milk, and other such goodies.

“What are you doing?” Mike asked when he got home last night.

“I’m making birthday French vanilla ice cream with some of those the vanilla beans you bought back from PNG that we keep saying we should use for something more than flavoring sugar,” I said, trying to judge when the eight egg yolks two and a half cups of cream I was stirring were just about to simmer so that I could yank them off the stove.

“Ah!” I yelped. “It’s boiling! Quick! Get me the milk!! Quick!”

“You know what I really want for my birthday?” Mike teased me a couple of minutes later, kissing the back of my neck as I stood at the kitchen bench. “For you to get me that information I need for our taxes. Forget presents, baby, I want your bank details.”

“What?” I said, a trifle crossly, staring at the creamy, eggy, vanilla-flavoured, clumps left in the strainer and wondering whether I’d ruined two hours work and enough calories to keep half a dozen people alive for a week. “French vanilla ice cream and toaster oven brownies aren’t enough?”

“French vanilla ice cream is you speaking your love language to me,” Mike said. “I can see it and appreciate it for what it is, but bank details and tax information so that we can finish a task… that’s my love language.”

And then we both laughed. Because laughing is perhaps the best way to bridge the gulf that lies between French vanilla ice cream and taxes.

“I can’t find the tax stuff for you tomorrow,” I said. “I have too much work to do. But maybe, if you’re really lucky, I’ll pick my clothes up off the floor.”

Happiness and the Mango Tree Rains

It rained last night and today – a brief, wet, respite right in the middle of the dry season. Locals have told us that these rains generally come every year, sometimes just for a day, sometimes for two.

“They water the mango trees,” they say, nodding, as if these clouds have arrived specifically to provide the mango trees with the boost to get them through until the monsoon. So Mike and I are calling them the mango tree rains.

The mango tree rains are making more than just the mango trees happy – they have dropped the temperature at least fifteen degrees and that’s always cause for celebration on my end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week – not just because of the mango tree rains but also because I recently agreed to write a distance learning course on wellbeing and resilience as it’s related to the humanitarian field for a university in the UK. This course has ten chapters in it on topics as diverse as childhood attachment and community resilience. I said yes to this project partly because I thought it would force me to learn a fair bit. On that front I haven’t been wrong.

I’m finding the chapter on positive psychology that I’m working on this week particularly interesting.

Positive psychology studies topics as diverse as happiness, optimal human functioning, subjective well-being, and the meaning of life. If you’d like a brief introduction you can go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and download the first article on the list – a Time Magazine Cover Story on The Science of Happiness.

Over lunch yesterday Mike and I were discussing this thing called happiness and one psychologist’s take on it. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  1. Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  2. Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  3. Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important.

“So how would you rate yourself on each of those domains right now?” Mike asked me yesterday.

These sorts of questions always make me look at the ceiling, fidget, and try not to get too hung up on the scores of “well, it depends on…” caveats that are suddenly flooding my brain.

“OK,” I finally said. “High on engagement – I tend to be very involved in whatever I’m doing. A bit lower on meaning at the moment. And fairly high on pleasure.”

“Really?” Mike said, giving every indication of being surprised. “High on pleasure?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, we get to hang out together a lot at the moment. We live in this nice house and all the air conditioners work. And we have a little dog to play with that makes us laugh. And you work five minutes up the road and often get to come home for lunch. And we can walk to dozens of restaurants here and eat out anytime we feel like it. And we live in this cool country that’s pretty interesting. I mean, the pleasure index is going to go down the hotter it gets – that’s unavoidable. But it’s been pretty high this last four months.”

“Huh,” Mike said. “That’s so different than the way I would have looked at it. I was thinking of pleasure being more associated with things like adventure bike rides and hiking, and I’m not doing a lot of that at the moment. And I would have thought your pleasures index would have been lower anyway.”

Oh yeah, I suddenly remembered. I’d spent a good proportion of the last three months battling pregnancy nausea. And I’ve been alternating between happy, neutral, ambivalent, and terrified about said pregnancy. And I’ve been craving bbq sauce on hamburgers and other things hard to procure here. And the hot water heater in our bathroom hates me and tends to turn off about four times during every shower, sometimes refusing to come back on at all.

Perhaps it’s good that these are not the first things to rush to mind when I’m trying to think about how happy I am. Perhaps I am more of a pessimistic optimist than an optimistic pessimist after all.

Or perhaps (thanks again to pregnancy) I have the memory of a goldfish at the moment and I am not a good judge of my own happiness.

Seligman would endorse the first of these possibilities. He argues that “we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences.” For him, studying how we feel moment-to-moment puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. It is the remembered self that provides us the truest reflection.

What do you think? Are we our memories more than the sum total of our moment-to-moment experiences? And how would you rate yourself at present with regards to pleasure, engagement, and meaning?