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Category Archives: Happiness

Taking some time off and the complete serenity of it

Not long ago I wrote about how important it is to timely act upon all decisions and urges we have, and not put things off (you can find the post here). I mentioned there that I was planning to take a few weeks off between my two jobs because I had never before had the chance to do that. Well, now my time is up and I wanted to share how the whole experience went for me. Spoiler alert: It was one of the best things I have ever done and few things in life have made me happier.

One of the first things that happened was that I was put in uncomfortable situations. I travelled with a group of other people, who spoke a language at which I don’t feel super fluent; I travelled alone, going on daily excusions, communicating with people I never met in my life, explaining and sometimes defending the fact that I was travelling alone. I travelled with my boyfriend and we were offerred overpriced touristic ‘attractions’ which made me feel quite uncomfotable. But all of these weird and uncomfrable things did expand my horizons, one way of another.

Secondly, I got to visit stunning places I always wanted to go to. All of them — to some extent but not equally — had rich history, interesting culture, beautiful nature, delicious food, soulfood music, friendly people, interesting flora and fauna, and all the air of a new place that charms and mystifies you.

When you take away the stress and pressure of your job, of the daily routine, of all small troubles and trepidations you have in your everyday life, something wonderful happens. You open up for new experiences, you start noticing the small beautiful details of things that surround you, and stop sweating off the small stuff. You become content with little and you want to do more. But then again, it is easy to feel that way when you have nothing to really worry about.

I had the chance to spend time reading books, doing some sports, watching movies and TV series, to find new music that calms and inspires me and overall, open up and allow myself to be moved by different forms of art. In the past, whenever I had some free time, I would devote a bigger part of it to learning something new, usually related to my job, or related to learning the local language (in my case, Dutch). But now I read for pleasure. I watched silly, as well as beautiful movies. I watched TV series about beautiful places and women leading ordinary lives but having extraordinary friendships. I ran outside when the weather permitted and simply enjoyed the sun and breeze in my face, taking in the view wherever I was. I listened to music that gave me goosebumps. I sang in the shower to it and danced to it while no one was around. I lied on a gorgeous Caribbean beach and simply looked at the wind playing with the palms’ leaves.

For a few weeks I simply did nothing but I felt everything, experienced so much and have seldom before in life had this feeling of pure content and serenity. I focused on myself, and at the same time, focused on everything and everyone but me. I reflected and felt grounded. I travelled, I saw, I sought and felt complete and utter freedom. Would I have felt this way if things in my life were different, if say I did not have a job waiting for me, or a person happy to see me back from each new trip? I don’t know. Will I ever be able to travel as much, and to feel this way of complete freedom and satisfaction with my life and feel like I might not have everything I ever wanted but I have more than I ever hoped for and needed? I don’t know. Will I be able to go to some stunning, gorgeous places any time soon and forget about all the little troubles I might have at that point in my life? I certainly hope so. It might not happen to me again but these past few weeks have been among the best and happiest time in my life. I felt I have travelled a lot but I always felt at home, I always felt safe, sometimes homesick though not sure for where. And now I returned and feel at ease. I feel sad it is over but I am energized and ready to tackle a new challenge. But I have to admit a very good part of this all was that there was someone, always awaiting for me to return.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2017 in Happiness, Travel

 

How I plan to crack the secret to happiness

I’ve posted before that I am somewhat of a long-distance runner. Recently I got new running shoes and tonight I was testing them on a long run when something did not feel right. I mean besides the fact that the decreased intensity of my recent trainings has made these long runs more of a torture. Simply, there are those periods in your life when you cannot help but feel like Raj in the Big Bang Theory in this segment below:

Pretty much you have the feeling that NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS!!!

As I have tackled some happiness research on my own, I have done the 100 days of happiness challenge, and recently have immersed myself into the exciting field of data science, I decided to use my knowledge of social and data science and try to track what really makes me happy. Of course, we all have an underlying idea about how to keep our spirits up — building and nurturing social support networks, have security in your job, in your personal life, etc etc. I am aware of how to raise my spirits in the short run but maybe there is some underlying pattern that really affects me and I have not realised. Or maybe I will get a fresh perspective on how much different aspects of my life matter.

So I plan to collect daily data (or perhaps record twice a day) of how I feel emotionally, how I feel physically and all the little dirty nitty-gritty details that might seem superficial to me but perhaps affect me more than I would like. And those doing science perhaps are already dismissing that it is not possible to quantify happiness..well, perhaps it is not entirely possible to compare my 9 to your 7 on the 10-point scale with great precision, I can surely compare my 6 to my 7. And I am writing a post about it because it would be like my commitment device — its much harder not to do something after you said/wrote in the open that you would do it. Even if it concerns only yourself and no one else cares. After all, we all are working towards the same means, whether you like to admit it or not. So I will get back to you with all the details in a couple of months.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Happiness

 

A challenging year

I hate drawing the line and counting my blessings as one is supposed to be as the calendar year approaches its end. For me, the whole deal with New Year Eve’s party craze and resolutions is a bit forced and fake. Just because the calendar changes does not mean anything in your life would necessarily be different. And in order to stick to a resolution, you should make it when the time feels right and not because you are almost expected to.

Apart from feeling towards NY’s Eve the same way as the Grinch towards Christmas, I can as well partially look back and assess what took place in the past 365 days. From one hand, it was a good year because I was lucky that nothing too bad happened to me. No one that I loved died, no one broke my heart, and I did not miserably fail in a number of things.

Yet, due to some personal problems and difficulties in my job, I found myself severely depressed at the very beginning of this passing year. So much so that I decided I needed to take some serious measures and change the way I perceive things before they completely overrule me. Somehow I stumbled across the 100 happy days challenge (you can read about my experience with it here ). The idea was simple. You take a photo of something that makes you happy every single day for  100 days and post it on social medium of your preference. And believe me, after spending 4 hrs commuting, running in the rain, and teaching some students who could not care less about the subject, you might have to dig really deep to come up with something positive. I literally had to photograph my food a number of times. Yes, I became one of those people. But I stuck to the challenge and I finished it. And maybe I did not become happier per se, but at least it created a nice habit. Till this day, I am on the lookout for a bright moment in my day and take a mental photo of it.

Then, I improved my running. First, I did a personal best in the 10 miles (16km) distance. Then, I spent the summer and fall preparing for a marathon. And I did successfully run my first marathon (see here). It was excruciating but I was very very happy and proud of myself for finishing without being devastated afterwards.

I also managed to successfully finish my reading challenge — to complete 50 books by the end of the year. Currently I am at book 55. But this one was not so much of a challenge as reading is one of my hobbies. But I have to admit that sometimes I consciously traded reading for going for a walk or a movie, for instance. And though that one was not much of a challenge, I am still happy I managed to keep up with some made-up number,

I also improved in a foreign language and plan to do so in the coming year. I did not travel as much as I wish I could but I visited a new country and saw fascinating things that moved me and impressed me, which, in a way, made me appreciate also the place I live. And I’ve loved and been loved. So maybe it has been the year of conquering challenges after all?

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2014 in Challenges, Happiness

 

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About love and kindness. And warm, fuzzy feelings

I’ve been on a soul search for home, family, friendship, kindness, and all those things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning — albeit not on purpose. As I was quenching my sorrow in Steinbeck’s genius, I stumbled across the story of his own journey and reflection upon some of these same issues (in his “Travels with Charley”). Returning back to his hometown, he writes:

My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance — and I wanted to go for the same reason… You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.

His prose is spot-on and beautiful and gives me goose bumps. But I also tend to disagree. And this is not another where-is-home post. It is about everything else wonderful and not so wonderful in life that we often question, seek, and pursue. I now know home is not a place, but a feeling. Or a person. Or a certain feeling only a certain person urges in you. Who just by being part of your life makes everything better and easier. And that person, being well, can contain all the happy moments in your life with their presence. And it is so numbing when they are away, or in pain, and all the love in the world is not enough to help them through their troubles…

But human beings can sometimes do great things out of love and they can perform tremendous acts of kindness. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s father died on her birthday, Chris Martin wrote “Fix you” for her and it is a truly beautiful song. Pipi Longstocking (if I remember correctly from my primary school classes) was created after Astrid Lindgren was making up the storied about the adventures of the little girl with red hair to entertain her sick daughter. Mendelsohn’s sister was also talented at composing music (some accounts say even more talented than he was) but allowed her brother to present some of her compositions as his own (ok, here the fact that it was unthinkable for women at the time to compose music might have mattered as well). Or Wagner, of all people, composed as a present for his wife on her 33rd birthday a symphony and then with the help of an orchestra woke her up in the morning playing the work he created. Joe DiMaggio’s love for Marilyn Monroe outlived their brief marriage and according to some stories I’ve read in the media, he continued sending red roses to her grave 3 times a week for the next 20 years. Keanu Reeves became a popular meme with his sad, sitting-on-a-bench-eating-a-sandwich photo. Then details about his personal life emerged and it became widely known that he has been through profound personal losses (his father walked out when he was an infant, his best friend died in his early 20’s, his child was stillborn, and then his very depressed fiance died in a car accident) and at the same time, he has been known for being unbelievably altruistic, generous, kind, and down-to-earth. Sort of a modern day quiet hero.

And much greater acts of kindness surround us. Perhaps some of them we are able to perform ourselves. Perhaps others we can witness and feel awe and inspiration, a strive to be better human beings, to cultivate our souls and try to engulf into a bubble of goodness others as well. And when our dearest people suffer, we can only love them more — in any way that they need us to — so that they find the strength to embrace and battle their demons. And when they are in their best and around us, we can love them with all that we have and be grateful they ever happened to us.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Happiness, Nostalgia

 

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The paradox of declining female happiness

Happiness and well-being are not a main topic of my research (though I have a paper dealing with well-being) but are subjects I have been interested in. Sometimes scientists — at least economists — tend to forget the big picture. We are so focused on our small, specialized little topics that we forget or disregard why a certain subject matters for society and how it impacts the overall the well-being.

I thought I had done my reading and was familiar with most of the theories explaining what determines well-being and the different aspects of the problem. But recently I came across an interesting paper that puzzled me. It itself did not offer answers, just documented the trends, so it made me ponder for explanations. The paper has to do with the paradox with declining female happiness. Why a paradox? Well, because women’s lives have improved significantly in the past century, even in the past few decades. They are becoming more educated, participate actively in the labor force, the wage gap with men has decreased somewhat, technological advances decrease their labour in the household, etc. Women themselves also agree that their lives have improved. However, their happiness/life satisfaction levels have dropped progressively in the past 3-4 decades in Western Europe and the US in comparison to men.  Whereas it used to be the case they women would report higher life satisfaction than men, now things have reversed. The big question, of course, is why?

One explanation would be that though women are more often participating in the labor force than before, they are still expected to carry the burden of the household chores, making it something of a “second” shift of work. However, if this was the case, the declining happiness would have been observed only for working women, but stay-at-home housewives do not report any higher levels of life satisfaction. So this could not be the whole explanation.

What is more, the trend is observed across different samples of the population, and women from different educational, socioeconomic backgrounds, from different ethnicities, having different marital status and irrespective of whether they have children or not.

Another possibility is that despite the higher opportunities that women nowadays have compared to a few decades ago, their relative comparison to men and the opportunities available to men exert a negative effect on women’s well-being. Comparison to one’s peers can have an important impact on the way we value our own satisfaction with life. Then, things such the wage gap, could have an important role in women’s overall well-being. However, there is another curious paradox. Despite the obvious inequalities in the work place, women report high work satisfaction (even higher than men).

Is it perhaps simple: the whole complexity of what is expected of women nowadays and the stress it brings about? Is inequality simply changing form? From one hand, women are expected to have regular jobs, just as men, but the burden of taking care of the children and the household work still falls on women. Not to mention (this is a very unscientific and absolutely unmeasured argument and comes mainly from personal observations) the expectations that surround what a woman should be and how she should look like or act? It is expected of women to at least put some effort and take care of themselves (if not always look stunning), they are expected to stay healthy and look good, it is not encouraged if they lose their nerves every now and then, complaining is also often criticised and frowned upon. And all this while building a successful career, running an impeccable household, and raising children to become good and responsible human being? Well, I am not surprised their happiness is declining. But, of course, we need more detailed data from move from the anecdote to the real argument.

Maybe the way women evaluate their life satisfaction also has changed. In fact, it is difficult to rule that out completely.  Having, theoretically, equality but in reality, being obstructed by so many factors in obtaining it, must be frustrating indeed. Whatever the reason, the issue is definitely very interesting, deserves our attention and hopefully, soon the mystery will be solved, and we will be seeing more happy, smiling ladies around us.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Happiness

 

Why you have to clean up your life (and start from your closet)

In many ways, I tend to be a perfectionist. I like it when things have some order and whenever possible, I prefer to stick to this order. I see no reason why my T-shirts should not be perfectly folded, my underwear should not be sorted by color, my dropbox work-related folder not free of extra material. So having this minor OCD, I like to fundamentally clean my closet every now and then. I usually keep it rather neat but every now and then I am overwhelmed by the need to sort my possessions out and get rid of everything I do not wear. Here is where women start to hate me- I have not really gained much weight for the past 10 years, and with the exception of one summer that I spent in the US, I have maintained the exact same weight that I had since I was in high school. This means my choice of what to get rid of is not eased by clothes I no longer fit in. And every time I try sorting, I realize I do have more clothes than I need. I do not buy expensive clothes, I stick to average-quality, low-price brands. When I was a student and had a rather limited budget and stressful studies, more than anything I enjoyed some spontaneous and successful shopping spree. And I was rather good at spotting real treasures among items on sale. This means I have gathered substantial amount of garments I do not make much use of.

Starting with my clothes, I realized I tend to extrapolate this to other aspects of my life. I tend to stick to some rules and habits that I should shake off but never bothered to, I tend to keep in my life people who have disappointed me and just with their presence suck the energy out of me, or remind me of how much they let me down. Solving the issue with clothes is easy- you can give some to friends and family, donate them to charity. That always makes me feel good because it feeds my OCD and gives me a minor feeling of having done something good for others. Figuring out the rest is not always that simple and easy, though. First of all, it takes a lot of self-discipline and the ability to have a distance from yourself, to judge yourself objectively in order to spot what type of behavior is harming you. It could be smoking, binge-eating on cookies in the evenings, staying up late not doing much and then hating the whole world the next morning, etc. Everyone has their own demons and their own unique capabilities to fight them. 

I have recently made some changes in my life and hopefully, will see good results in the near future. First of all, I decided for a while not to spend any money on clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery, and all other accessories. Instead, I’d rather invest this money in books, some online courses, trips, or simply save it. It’s so great that we live in a world where you can just come back from work in the evening and watch videos from a course in forensic science, given by a British professor at the University of Singapore, for example. Or just with one click, you get the book you were looking for delivered on your e-reader. And I don’t think I need to point the benefits of traveling to anyone. 

I am also a person who likes a little challenge every now and then. To think of it, I started my PhD with the mindset of coping with another challenge (and challenging it is, but that’s another question :P). So, I recently decided to sign up for the Amsterdam marathon, which is around 5 months from now. I’ve been running for pleasure for maybe 10 years, never taking it too seriously. I was just running because it always helped me to shake off the stress of daily life and kept me in shape. I have completed a few 10 mile (16K) crosses, subsequently improving my own time, and also a half-marathon last year. So, I figured “When if not now?”. And I signed up. A part of the process of preparation would be not only the extensive long-runs, but also the food and drinks you take. So, a few days ago I gave up drinking. Before the half-marathon i did not drink for 2 months again but now I am looking at a longer period. Plus, the summer is just around the corner. And not being able to sip some beer to cool off the heat, or some wine as you are enjoying the summer evening breeze pains me just thinking about it. But, ultimately, if you are going to do something, do it right!

Lastly, there comes a point in your life when you should learn to let go of people. People who don’t seem too eager to keep you in their lives, people who don’t seem to realize they are wrapped up in their own (imaginary) problems (whereas, I believe, friendship is a two-way street), or simply people who were a big part f your life in certain period but then the circumstances no longer bring you together. It is important to realize that the latter category are not the friends of a lifetime and not to confuse the two. Sometimes such people would come wrapped in the enthusiasm and novelty of a new step or a period of your life, but once the events that were forcing you together are in the past, so is the friendship. And that’s OK. Just be grateful for such people and let them go. This cool, little red dress I bought four years ago might still fit me, but it does not mean I should leave the house wearing it. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have good memories of times I spent wearing it.   

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Happiness

 

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Has the #100happydays challenge really made me happy?

Some of you probably have heard of the 100 happy days challenge, or have seen friends in different social networks who are posting photos of something that made them happy for 100 days in a row. Check out the original website: http://100happydays.com/

Essentially, what is the whole fuss about? You take a photo of something that made you happy for a 100 days in a row and share it with your friends on a social network of your choice. It can be a nice experience, delicious meal, meeting with an old friend, etc. I have to admit, some days it was more of a challenge than during others. After all, we all have these gloomy, dark Mondays when work is not that bad, but also not terribly thrilling, social life is rather slow, and nothing whatsoever exciting happens to you. I really had to dig deep to come up with a photo of something that made me happy. In most days, it would be something that would just make me smile. Other days, there were things and experiences that made me out-of-my-mind happy, but I just failed to capture the moment (or simply did not feel like sharing something very personal with facebook). But I have always liked a challenge, so this one came just at the right time.  

It was shortly after New Year’s Eve, and I guess I was still under the influence of the whole New Year’s resolutions craze, when I stumbled across this 100 happy days initiative. I had had a tough few months, to be honest pretty much everything that could wrong, went wrong at a certain point, at times — simultaneously– and I ended up pushing myself to get out of bed in the mornings. Of course, at the cost of blood, sweat, and tears, you have to pull yourself together after all. Or, as a character in a book by Steinbeck that I am currently reading says, “it’s about putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, and that’s all I can think about”. In a nutshell, I needed to start appreciating life, and find a little bit of sunshine in those days of gloom.

And I stuck with it. All 100 days of it. If I have to really pick a title, I would not call them 100 days of happiness, but  the 100 days of my life when I struggled to re-discover happiness. Well, it turned out that my low mood was mainly due to lack of vitamin D (that is a real thing if you live in a country where the sun does not shine a lot, or you are so busy that you don’t go outside) but my 100 happy days created a good habit. You force yourself– in your days of misery– to pause for a moment, have a look around, take a deep breath, and just try to notice. Because once you start paying attention to the small, astonishingly simple and yet, breathtaking things around you, it becomes like a healthy habit. Now, even if I am stuck in my office late in the afternoon, way overdue the end of the workday, I will pause for a moment to look at the sunset. Or as I am running, I will pay attention to the blooming trees, the flowers sprouting around without no one planting them there or taking care of them, the cute ducks and swans that you see along almost every canal or a river in the Netherlands. I do not have the social life I’d like to due to a busy schedule, but now I do enjoy every rendezvous more (ok, maybe also because it happens less often), and derive more joy from things as simple as reading a book or watching a movie.

So, no, the 100 happy days did not make me leap with joy, but in a way, they gave me what I needed at the moment– the good habit of just taking a mental pause, and freezing a beautiful picture in my mind. It did not change my life to 180 degrees, just helped me start applying those universal, simplest of rules, that, at least I knew very well but had not really fully enforced. And some days, that’s all you need– just a small, kind gesture, pure and honest politeness from a stranger, a stunning sunset, or cozy time with favourite people to make you feel…well, if not 100% happy, then at least, appreciative, and grateful for it all!    

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Happiness

 

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