Tag Archives: happiness

The exhortation of the dawn

Happy Monday morning folks. It’s 5:30am here, I’m saluting the dawn as I have almost every day for the past four months, by feeding a little one. So in honour of early morning wakings here are some beautiful words from the Quran to kick off a fresh new week:

Listen to the exhortation of the dawn.
Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities
of your existence,
the glory of action – the bliss of growth
the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream,
and tomorrow is only a vision,
but today, well lived,
makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
Such is the salutation of the dawn.

We had a great weekend over here – the kind that make dreams of happiness. Here are a couple of pictures of what we’ve been up to recently.

What about you? How do you salute the dawn? Have you read words recently that have stirred your heart?

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Best of Year One in Laos

It’s been just over a year, and 132 blog posts, since we moved to Laos. To celebrate that milestone, today I’ve drawn together some of the best of this last year’s blog posts.

Unless you’re independently wealthy and have way too much time on your hands (or you’re bedridden and desperate for entertainment) I doubt you’ll want to read all of them, so I’ve put them in categories for easier browsing. I’ve also marked a couple of my favorite funny posts with a double asterisk like this ** for those just looking for a laugh.

Thank you all for tracking with me and Mike on this journey. Blogging about our adventures and misadventures during this last year has been one of my favorite things to do. That’s partly due to all the emails, comments and other messages we’ve received. I am so grateful for your interest and your support.

So, thanks again for traveling with us through Year 1 and here’s to Year 2. I have no doubt Year 2 will bring plenty of adventures of its own as well as answers to a couple of key questions that are currently on my mind: Will Mike arrive in Australia before our son? Will my ambivalence about parenthood ease once the little guy is on the scene? Are we crazy to take our baby back to Laos? Will my memoir find a publishing home? And, will Mike give our whining, needy, Zulu dog to the Vietnamese noodle sellers down the street before I return in October as he keeps threatening to do?

However, all that is still to come, and in the meantime here is a glance back at an amazing year…

Cross cultural issues and our life in Laos

Family and pregnancy

Humanitarian work

Psychology

Writing

Over to you: I’d love to hear whether any particular post impacted you this last year or whether there’s anything you’ve been wishing I’d write about. If so, drop me a line or leave a comment below. Thanks again!

Three ways to increase your happiness (The pursuit of happiness, Part 2)

Last Thursday I started a short series on the pursuit of happiness.

That night, Mike and I walked down to the Khan River to try a new restaurant. It’s been storming nearly every day here for the past two weeks (something I’m very grateful for on a personal level as it cools everything down, but worried about on a broader level – these rains have started about two months too early). Everything is bursting green and both rivers – brown and increasingly turbulent – are rising every day.

Over purple sticky rice, stir-fried chicken with basil, and river fish sautéed with ginger, we talked about happiness.

“Three good things?” Mike asked me.

I would like to be able to report that I had a deep, meaningful, and lyrical reply to this shorthand query, but I can’t actually remember what I said now. I can, however, almost guarantee one (or more) of my comments centered on food – food hits my “good things” radar quite a lot at the moment. I bet I talked with anticipatory fondness of the ice cream I was determined to obtain during our walk home.

“Three good things” is something we started doing after I wrote the first chapter on positive psychology for this distance-learning course I’m drafting. It comes out of a research article on positive psychology interventions (PPI’s). In non-academic speak, PPIs are “things you can do to make yourself happier” – not just the cheery mood, buoyant, smiling, fun brand of happiness, but the deeper and calmer sort of long lasting happiness that’s more akin to wellbeing or flourishing.

There are, it turns out, a number of exercises you can do that will increase your “wellbeingness”.

In an article published in 2005 (Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions), Seligman and his co-authors tested five happiness related exercises. They found that three of them lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. As outlined during the experiment, those three exercises were:

  1. Three good things: Write down three things that went well each day, and their causes, every night for a week. These things do not have to be akin to winning the lottery or saving someone’s life. Ice cream counts.
  2. Using signature strengths in a new way: Take an inventory of character strengths and identify your top five “signature” strengths. Then use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for a week.
  3. The gratitude visit: Write, and then deliver in person, a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been especially kind to you but has never been properly thanked.

Seligman et al reported that doing one of these first two exercises every day for a week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months (measured during one month, three month, and six month follow ups). The gratitude visit caused a large positive change that lasted one month. Those participants who (of their own accord) had continued the exercises past the initial one-week period were happier than those who hadn’t.

Want to try one of these exercises? The three good things exercise is pretty self-explanatory. Mike and I have adapted three good things so that it frequently pops up in dinnertime or before-bed conversation. The gratitude visit is pretty self-explanatory as well, although somewhat harder to do if most people that have been meaningful in your life live in a different country. The third, using signature strengths may take a little more work to get going on, but it’s worth the effort.

To get started on the Using Signature Strengths exercise go to an interesting website that Seligman and his crew have created called Authentic Happiness. Register (it’s free) so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center. Then take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s not a short questionnaire, so set aside at least half an hour.

The authentic happiness site will store your results on the survey so that you can review them anytime you return. I’ve taken the VIA Survey twice, five years apart. Interestingly, three of my top five strengths were the same both times but two had changed.

My top five strengths in September last year were:

  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Capacity to love and be loved
  • Humour and playfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open mindedness.

Sound like a lovely constellation, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s leave it there and not address the fact that smack at the bottom of the list, in last place at number 24, came “Modesty and humility”.

Want to read more about happiness? Here are some references to get you started (the Wallis article and the Dan Gilbert’s TED talk are good places to start):

  1. Wallis, C. (2005). The New Science of Happiness. Time Magazine.
  2. Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  3. Seligman, M. et al. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 50(5), 410-421.
  4. Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: Why are we Happy?
  5. Nic Marks TED Talk: The Happy Planet Index
  6. Chip Conley TED Talk: Measuring what makes life worthwhile 

Still curious about this topic? Let me know your thoughts and questions and I may do a follow up post down the track…

The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • 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. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!

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?

Singular moments and nuanced epics

We’re back in Laos – we arrived yesterday towing a mixture of emotions in our wake. I’m a bit sick of every experience and transition bringing both good and bad with it. What happened to the days when I felt sheer, unadulterated, joy at something? Or even pure happiness?

Who am I kidding, I rarely do unadulterated anything. Possibly the closest I’ve ever come to unadulterated joy was finishing my end of year exams when I was sixteen and realizing that I wouldn’t have to study for eight, heavenly, weeks. And I do taste pure happiness now but it’s in tiny moments, like this morning at 5:30am when Mike heroically got up to deal with our whining puppy (who’d already woken the whole house at midnight and had to be installed in our room to settle him down again). Mike opened the door to his crate and Zulu shot out – a golden blur propelled by a wagging tail – and promptly scooted under our bed. There he settled down to eat a snotty tissue and pretend he couldn’t see Mike on his hands and knees, commanding him to come out. For some reason I found the sight of Mike, kneeling on the wooden floor in his pajamas and trying to look stern, hysterically funny. It was a small, light, bubble of pure happiness that was all the more startling for having formed in pre-dawn darkness.

It’s in tiny moments like these – moments that often last no longer than a couple of seconds – when I feel a singular something. Big, epic, things like moving countries or getting married or returning to Laos never bring singular emotions. They are magnifying glasses, enlarging both the good and the bad. And so it has been with this return.

The good has been great. Stepping off the plane to find Luang Prabang crisp and cool was a wonderful shock. Mike had told me that the weather this time of year would bring relief, but back in June I had no framework for understanding this. I’ve never lived anywhere so overtly tropical where the weather really does change drastically from an unrelenting steamy to a clean and edgy chilly.

Seeing Zulu so excited to see us that he peed himself, and so mystified to have us back that he didn’t try to chew on us with his sharp little teeth for eleven whole minutes after we walked in the door, was gratifying.

And dining last night at one of my favorite restaurants here, Tamarind, was gastronomically celestial. The monks were halfway through their evening chanting as we arrived, snagged the last free table, and waited for our feast, and what a feast it was. Lemongrass stalks stuffed with ground chicken and herbs and then grilled. Blackened pork wrapped in bamboo and served with a tart tamarind dipping sauce. Green beans seasoned with oyster sauce and fresh chili, so crisp they squeaked between my teeth. A glass of lime juice with a lemongrass-stalk straw. A creamy pumpkin and coconut soup. A dipping platter of smoky eggplant, tart salsa, sesame-studded dried riverweed, and something I’ve learned the hard way to stay away from – a paste made of buffalo, chilli, and jam. Oh, I almost forgot the sticky rice served in woven baskets. I love the sensuousness of those warm, fat, grains between my fingers and the tactile communality of eating mostly with our hands.

Yes, the good here is great. But there is always, always, the other hand with epic adventures. And on this other hand are moment like the one last night, when I went to wash my cold face before bed and realized anew that we have no running hot water anywhere but the shower (when the wall mounted hot water heater isn’t playing up). And when our neighbors play their radio yesterday afternoon much more loudly than I think is strictly neighborly, for hours. And when our unsettled puppy wakes up at midnight and refuses to stop crying. And, right now, when I’m busy typing this and an electric saw starts grinding away on metal about twenty feet away.

Oh yes, we are back in Laos and it is a mixed bag. But, then again, that’s pretty much adult life I suppose.

Other parts of adult life are unpacking after a trip, and filing, and completing paperwork, and cleaning up the office, and invoicing clients, and feeding myself instead of just trusting that my Mum will throw lunch together, so I better go. But, first, what about you? When is the last time you felt an uncomplicated emotion?