More thoughtful adventuring

Travel and adventure seem to be essential to the minimalist philosophy. They reflect the shift in focus on experiences rather than possessions that is at the heart of the movement. I am no stranger to this. Seeing new places and doing stuff for the first time are among my favourite things. However, focusing on what matters also calls into question the way we do travel and adventure. If you seek to focus on the essential, you will end up thinking about they way your choices -travel and otherwise- fit into the wider picture: environmentally, socially and ethically. It makes choices and planning harder, and it might look like a way to spoil the fun and take out spontaneity of trips, not to mention making travel more expensive. At the same time, isn’t it bloody great to have more and better adventures, that reflect who you are and maybe even contribute to making the world a tiny bit of a better place?  Below are some ways you can start to make a shift.

  1. Think it through

Being at the beginning of a journey towards #simpleliving, I definitely have more challenges than answers in this area. The first phase of the change is becoming more aware of the context and consequences of your choices, and it does feel uncomfortable.

For instance, the environmental impact of all those city breaks and work trips that we take planes for? Makes me feel very bad. However, I have struggled so far to do something about it.  However, we have started to plan more train and car-powered holidays with J, which could make a difference in the future.

Overthinking does offer other benefits beyond feeling guilty though. It allows you to realise what is it that you really like, and plan a trip that corresponds to those criteria, be it people, activities or ways of travel. I am starting to realise how much I enjoy outdoors and sports activities, which is a surprising twist to my usual holiday spent mostly in museums. Shopping bans and thoughtful spending initiatives have also put a damper on my tendency to buy souvenirs and something for myself “because that will remind me of the holiday”.  Now I know and integrate these in the plans, and trips are much more fun!

You can also think about giving back to the places you visit through supporting local charities, shopping and eating local (the local Starbucks doesn’t count as local!) and visiting community initiatives.

2. Go small/slow

Sometimes the smallest trips are the sweetest! We often neglect exploring our immediate surroundings, and just paying more attention to what’s out there in our own country/city, one can have so many weird and wonderful adventures! I am really inspired by the concept of “microadventures”, which I discovered through the blog of Alastair Humphreys. It is about doing short and exciting things, be it a day hike following a river or spending a night outdoors. These small actions don’t take a lot of planning or time and can help to shift your perspective on the world. Atlas Obscura is another cool resource for weird sights to visit in your vicinity.

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We visited the Eupen dam yesterday for an awesome hike, even though water reserves were very low on my dream destination list before.

Similarly, taking your sweet time while traveling often makes for much more satisfying experiences. You can squeeze all the sights in Rome or Paris into 3 days on a weekend trip, but you will leave exhausted and feeling that you haven’t really experienced the city. Take your time to drink that Aperol Spritz/read a book for an hour in a cafe or just sleep in, and you will have way, way more fun. FOMO is ruining those weekend trips for us.

3. Don’t be afraid to say no

Coming from a person with 6 trips to weddings coming up in the next few months, this is not the most credible piece of advice, but hear me out. If you start thinking about why and how you do things, you will inevitably end up with decisions to make. Some examples from my recent trips include:

  • Should I bring checked luggage? (Nope, you’ll be fine with carry-on, no one minds if you wear the same two sweaters all week. Or for two weeks.)
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Carry-on for two weeks (cat was left at home in the end)
  • Everyone is going cage diving with sharks! AWESOME, let’s do it! (Nope, upon reading up on the practice, this is actually highly controversial and quite possibly harmful to the sharks. Ahimsa, dude.)
  • We just got an invite to the sixth wedding abroad this year. Should we really take another trip? We are broke already as it is. (Yeah, we never said no to a wedding invite. Friends are the best!)

4. Get out of your comfort zone

This sounds like the exact opposite of finding what you know you like. But you know, paradoxes are what make us tick! Speaking to strangers is one of the most terrifying challenges to me. Yet, whenever I muster the courage, it usually results in a nice exchange and learning something about the place I am visiting. Other ways of pushing yourself a little can include trying new activities (sports or dunno, participating in a flashmob) , visiting places you would have never considered a worthy destination, or just saying yes when friends and people you have just met propose to do something fun (with some obvious limits on saying yes to offers from strangers! Stay safe everyone!).

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J and our friend Ingrid leading our group in getting awfully lost in the woods of Eupen.

What are some of your tips for thoughtful travel?

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Dealing with the aftermath

Two days ago, the city that has been home for me in the past 5 years, has suffered a terrorist attack.  Incredulous, shocked, sad and shaken, we watched the terror unfold through twitter, news sites and texts. We spent all day reassuring family, friends and friends of family that we were allright, and that we were staying in a safe place.

As the day ended, we entered a new time, that of dealing with the aftermath. People gathered in the center of Brussels and transformed the Bourse square in a memorial, but also in a safe space to mourn together. It made me think of all the strategies that people use to cope. some I have observed, and some have origins in psychological research.

Business as usual

Today, the city is making an extra effort to show that life goes on. Differently from the lockdown earlier this year, schools and offices are open and people encouraged to go to work. This may have the unintended effect of forcing people to take the public transportation that they may be too afraid to use otherwise, and reinforce the feeling of normalcy of travel.

Being together

In the center of Brussels, Bourse square is one giant memorial. Messages of peace in all languages, flowers and candles cover the ground and the buildings. Being in the center, it is a multicultural spot shared by all faiths and backgrounds, far from the upper-middle-class expat European quarter. The space sends the message to all, that it is OK to come here to mourn and to be together, for everyone.

Slowing down and finding a common wavelength

For those of us not direct victims of the attacks, there may be some value in slowing down in our reaction, acknowledging our feelings and listening to others in an empathetic way.

One quick glance at social media shows the extent to which fear and shock bring out violent, racist and xenophobic attitudes. It takes some conscious effort to understand the way many of us react out of fear, and perhaps express views that are inspired by this and not their values.However, it may also not be the best moment to attempt reasoning with the people making shockingly insensitive or violent statements. I have been trying to apply some of the learnings from my coaching course to this problem.

Thoughts and experiences stimulate neural networks either through a state called positive emotional attractors (PEA) or negative emotional attractors (NEA). These two activate different parts of the body. Basically, PEA triggers constructive cognitive and physiological responses that enhance an individual’s motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience etc. The negative emotional attractor (NEA) triggers another process by calling attention to current social and environmental stressors that may compromise an individual’s effectiveness, but also enhance focus on single tasks. THOSE social media users are definitely in an  NEA state, through their focus on threats and anger. As they are in the grip of emotions and a flight-or-fight rush, they are not receptive conversation partners for a discussion based in appeals to our higher nature (typical of PEA).

I find this really difficult, and tend to get up in endless fights about value-laden topics with people on a very different wavelength from mine. * learning point!*

Similarly, different mental settings often make it difficult to deal with negative emotions, even when we are feeling the same way about something. In our case, I have experienced a few instances where someone was upset and in need of empathy and reassurance, maybe just a hug. What some others do at times is instead attempt reassuring through a logical reasoning, such as “just remember that statistically you are still a hundred times more likely to be hit by falling furniture than by a terrorist attack”. True, but SO unhelpful! Also, yet another thing that I did just yesterday in a conversation with my mother.

Empathetic, attentive listening can help us avoid these two discrepancies. And I will definitely try to do it better, not only in dealing with the fallout from these attacks.

Talking to victims

The Belgian College of Psychology has also published some guidelines resonating with this impression, based on insights from clinical research. These can be very useful to keep in mind as many of us will meet acquaintances who were in the airport or the metro when the bombs went off.

Firstly, they have recommended for those who have been directly affected by the attacks to try avoiding re-living of the events. For those who are interacting with victims, this means avoiding asking for a detailed description of what happened. This recommendation comes from research that showed that trauma victims who were debriefed by a psychologist (basically, talking through their experience) after traumatic events, were more likely to develop PTSD in the aftermath than those who were not debriefed. Looks like reducing the retelling of the event allows more space for the mind to heal. It might be difficult or appear insensitive to not ask people about their experience, so I think I may stick to telling them to talk about it if they feel like it.

The second recommendation gives some tips for reacting to someone telling us about their experience with the attacks. Others can help the victims process their narrative of the event by supporting an interpretation of agency and empowerment in the situation. In this case, this should help the trauma victim interpret their experience as somewhere where they took action to preserve their lives and maybe help others. Therefore, to be a helpful conversation partner, one should focus on asking questions such as “What did you do to get out of it despite all?”This is definitely a good strategy for the times when you cannot avoid talking to people about their experience.

It also looks like not everyone should go to therapy as soon as possible after the attacks. The BCP recommend official psychological intervention if the victims still have difficulties in dealing with the event a few months afterwards. Apparently our minds have the kickass super power to haul themselves back from shocks?

Thinking about what matters

I have to say, I felt extremely shallow for thinking about my capsule wardrobe and decluttering on the morning of the attacks. Of course I could not have known, but events like this make it clear that just as there is more to life than mindless consumerism,  there is also more to life than a concentrated tweaking of my own little environment.

In the coming months, our lives will likely have many more conversations about the importance of freedom and tolerance in our societies, and what it takes to make a society a real community. One of the Dutch words for society is “samenleving”, or “living together”, which really captures the effing difficult task that is ahead of us.

 

 

First day of spring and Project 333

I have been lagging behind on my challenge calendar, and thought why wait until the first of April to start something new?

As part of the shopping diet, I had been flirting with the idea of a minimalistic capsule wardrobe for a while. I hope that it will help me understand more about minimalist and simple living, and maybe shave a few minutes off my generously timed morning routine. I may also harbour secret dreams of looking marvellously, effortlessly put together forever, but not sure how chucking my rompers in a big plastic box is going to achieve that in such a short timeframe.

I follow Project 333, so thought to give their system a try. Here is how it works:

33 items of clothing

You are supposed to choose 33 items of clothing including coats, accessories and shoes, for your wardrobe. The number does not include sports clothes and underwear. You are supposed to pack everything else away out of sight.

I had quite a hard time choosing my 33 items! I would like to blame it on the fact that spring hasn’t really arrived in Belgium yet, and March-May is a difficult time of the year to plan for, and that I have a few weddings coming up, and …you get the idea. But finally I got my shiz together and took the plunge. It is a bit embarrassing that I had to reassure myself multiple times that I can swap things out after the 3 months, or that really if it is an emergency, I am not going to be too tough on myself and deny the possibility of getting a cocktail dress out. Considering that I have not worn a cocktail dress or drank a cocktail in 6+ months, I should just chill out, really.

Anyway, here is what my closet looks like:

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I still allowed myself 2 freebies because of aforementioned weddings, and do not include accessories beyond bags. Excited to see how it will turn out!

Until May, beloved rompers! xoxo

8 tips for thriving

NPR just published a helpful little laundry list of actions and mindsets that can help you thrive. They specifically focused on middle age, but I think these are all applicable to people at all ages. My favourite recommendations were about always being a rookie and investing in long-term goals and relationships rather than only immediate gratification. I repost the full article from Barbara Bradley Hagerthy, who wrote an entire book on re-inventing yourself as a middle-ager, below.

1. Aim for long-term meaning rather than short-term happiness, and you will likely find both. Aristotle suggested as much when he talked about eudemonia, or the good life: striving with a purpose — raising terrific children, training for a marathon — rather than setting your sights on immediate pleasures, such as enjoying a good meal or day at the beach. It’s also the best thing you can do for your mind and your health.

2. Choose what matters most. Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School describes the eroding effect of short-term decisions — specifically, doing the activity that brings you immediate gratification (such as work) and putting off harder but ultimately more fulfilling activities (such as investing in your marriage and children). I talked with many people who privileged work over family, because work brought immediate rewards. These people closed the sale, they shipped the product, they pulled an all-nighter to get the story on the radio, they were promoted and praised for a job well done. “And as a consequence,” Christensen says, “people like you and me who plan to have a happy life — because our families truly are the deepest source of happiness — find that although that’s what we want, the way we invest our time and energy and talents causes us to implement a strategy that we wouldn’t at all plan to pursue.”

3. Lean into fear, not boredom. Most of us become competent at our work by our 40s, and then we have a choice: Play it safe or take a risk. Howard Stevenson, also a professor (emeritus) at Harvard Business School, believes the greatest source of unhappiness in work is risk aversion — which leads to stagnation and resentment. “There’s a difference between 20 years of experience, and one year of experience 20 times,” he says. Stevenson and the other career experts I interviewed do not recommend chucking it all to blindly follow a fantasy. Rather, be intentional as you try to shape your work to reflect your skills, personality and talents. But we have only one spin at the wheel, so make it count. A great line from Stevenson: “Ask yourself regularly: How will I use these glorious days left to me for the best purpose?”

4. “At every stage of life, you should be a rookie at something.” This insight comes from Chris Dionigi, a Ph.D. in “weed science” and the deputy director of the National Invasive Species Council (that kind of weed). He believes trying new things and failing keeps you robust. He took comedy improv classes and now spends many nights and weekends riding his bicycle as an auxiliary police officer for Arlington County, Va. Always have something new and challenging in your life, he says, “and if that something is of service to people and things you care about, you can lead an extraordinary life.”

5. Add punctuation to your life. Young adulthood offers plenty of milestones: graduating from college, starting a career, getting married, having your first child. But Catharine Utzschneider, a professor at the Boston College Sports Leadership Center who trains elite middle aged athletes, says midlife is like “a book without any structure, without sentences, periods, commas, paragraphs, chapters, with no punctuation. Goals force us think deliberately.” She was so right, as I found when Mike Adsit, a four-time cancer survivor and competitive cyclist, challenged me to compete in the Senior Games (for people 50 and older) in 2015. Suddenly I had little goals every day — a faster training session, or a 50-mile ride — and the prospect of these little victories launched me out of bed each morning. Even if you don’t win — I came in 7th in the race — you win.

6. A few setbacks are just what the doctor ordered. Bad events seem to cluster in midlife — losing a spouse, a marriage, a parent, your job, your perfect health. But people with charmed lives — zero traumas — were unhappier and more easily distressed than people who had suffered a few negative events in their lifetime. According to resilience research, some setbacks give you perspective and help you bounce back. And here’s what I learned from Karen Reivich at the University of Pennsylvania, who trains Army personnel about resilience. After I fell off my bike and broke my collarbone — threatening my book deadline — I called her up. She gave me two tricks: First, “OPM,” other people matter. People who let other people help them tend to recover better than those who are fiercely independent. Second, rely on your top character strengths to get you through. (You can take the character strengths test as well as other questionnaires on the University of Pennsylvania’s site.) As embarrassing as my strengths are — industry and gratitude — they helped me cope until I could drive, type, dry my hair or unscrew the mayo jar.

7. Pay attention: Two of the biggest threats to a seasoned marriage are boredom and mutual neglect. The brain loves novelty, and love researchers say a sure way to revive a marriage on autopilot, at least temporarily, is to mix things up a bit. Go hiking, take a trip to an undiscovered land — or drive an RV down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which my husband and I did in June 2013. Honestly, I thought nothing could be more pointless or boring, but based on the novelty research, we piled in with our dog, Sandra Day, and two friends. Something went wrong almost every day — we got caught in a flood, the brakes nearly went out, we could not figure out how to dump the black water (don’t ask) for some time. We had the time of our lives. It took us out of our comfort zone, it gave us a grand adventure; it was, in short, The Best Vacation Ever.

8. Happiness is love. Full stop. This observed wisdom comes from George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and researcher who directed Harvard’s Study of Adult Development for several decades. The study — still ongoing — followed men from the Harvard classes of 1939-44 to see what makes people flourish over a lifetime. Vaillant found that the secret to a successful and happy life is not biology. It is not genes. It is not social privilege or education. It is not IQ or even family upbringing. The secret to thriving is warm relationships. Oh, then there’s this happy coda: Second chances present themselves all the time, if you’ll only keep your eyes open.

Back on track – 5 things Friday

After 3 weeks off sick (yikes), I am finally back at my normal rhythm and trying to catch up on blogging.

One of the silver linings of being confined to a couch for a couple of weeks is that it offers a lot of time for watching costume dramas, I mean catching up on reading. Here are 5 awesome books that I read in the past month.

Non-fiction

  1. Ocean of Life – Callum Roberts

This is one of the most depressing and yet fascinating books I have read recently. To be short, humanity has ruined most of our oceans, and the destruction is likely to be irreversible. It will also have far-reaching effects on the way our world, diets, societies and environment functions in the future.

While ruining  the experience of eating sushi forever, the book also manages to be incredibly informative and interesting,  as it tells you a lot about science-y stuff interspersed with anthropological-cultural anecdotes.

Reading this book made me very enthusiastic about awesome initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup, but also panicky about whether anything we can do is too little too late and we are headed for inevitable doom in acidified, jellyfish-filled waters.

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So pretty, so sturdy, will replace so many other species.(credit)

2. Cooked – Michael Pollan

I loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which focused on the origins and impact of what and how we (well, them Americans) eat. Cooked is also brilliant, a bit more light exploration of how we prepare food, and what it tells us about homo sapiens as a species, but also human societies. He follows three ways of preparing food: barbecue/roasting; cooking with water; and fermenting.

Besides offering inspirational cooking tips (I shall never again rush frying onions!), Pollan doesn’t shy away from exploring the power dynamics intrinsic in cooking. He takes an intelligent and sensitive approach to issues of gender and race, and does not shy away from discussing these and his own limitations in reflecting on them. So unexpectedly precious in a Western, middle-aged male food writer!

3. Tiny beautiful things – Cheryl Strayed

Agony aunt columns are some of my favourite things on the internet. I spend more hours than I care to admit reading Dear Prudence, Carolyn Hax and Dan Savage, hoping one day to be able to give similarly empathetic, sensitive and punchy advice to people who ask for it.

My enthusiasm for this book may have been enhanced by the fact that I read it while tripping on fever and medications. However, I have re-visited some parts since to recommend to others, and ordered two copies for friends, and it still holds as a kick-ass advice book. Cheryl Strayed is an awesome lady! I particularly admire her way of making herself as vulnerable to her readers as the writers of the letters. She also gives awesome suggestions based in compassion, mindfulness and hope.

Just to give you an example:

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Fiction

4. A Little Life – Hanya Yanahigara

This book is one that I read because I am trying to read more from authors that are not white men. It was also a gut punching, absorbing drama about how some traumas cannot be made right, no matter the love that one receives. Although not always super credible (full of very very rich and successful people), the story just draws you in and you find yourself in despair over the sorrows of the characters. Melodramatic, but so, so good.

5. A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, about the age of Henry VIII, had rocked my world. Mantel is a ridiculously good historical fiction writer, and you actually sense how much precise research has gone into the books. I have to admit, I use her books also to brush up my knowledge of history, which is quite fragmented and faded. A Place of Greater Safety is about the French Revolution and it has taught me a ton about the Revolution that I had forgotten since high school.

Here are some marginally appropriate comics from the brilliant brilliant Kate Beaton. (more here)

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