Meditation hacks

My two challenges for the month of May were the following:

  1. Not complaining.
  2. Meditating every day.

Nr 1, I probably failed somewhere around the 4 minute mark, but I managed to start (very slowly) to incorporate mediation into my daily activities. I don’t think it was a resounding success though, so I will try to tackle the same two challenges for the month of June.

I am by no means a meditation blackbelt, despite having made it through a Vipassana session last year. Therefore, I am very keen on approaches that make it that little bit easier. Here are some of them that I have found work quite well (as life is about shortcuts and taking the easy way yeah)

  1. Ten deep breaths

As I said, meditating is haaaaard (there goes my not complaining challenge). Many of us struggle with sitting still for half an hour in the morning dark. However, I found that taking ten breaths concentrating on making the exhale longer than the inhale is a great two-minute activity to reset your batteries. I use this during the day when I get overwhelmed, and before going to bed.

How to do it: Sit or stand still, close your eyes and slowly breathe in, then breathe out, trying to make the exhalation equal or longer in length than the inhalation. It is not necessary to take a super deep breath (you’ll end up hyperventilating), but it is necessary to slow it down.

2. Walking meditation

Mindfulness meditation centers around making yourself focus on sensations, noticing them and noticing their temporary nature. I find that doing this while walking to work is helpful in starting the day more grounded and calm.

How to do it: When walking, scan your body from head to toe and notice sensations. The noise of the tram passing you by, the wind in your face, the fabric of your clothes, the waistband of the too small pants you got on the internet digging into your midriff. Notice that all these feelings are temporary, they come and go- come and go.

3. Empathy/gratefulness meditation

I discovered this approach in the  book Empathy by Roman Krnazich. It is a great way of connecting to the world, practising gratitude for all we have and do, and all the people who make it possible for us to have/do these things.

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Today, I am grateful for coffee.

How to do it: Start with your morning routine. During each activity within your routine, imagine all the people who stand behind what you do. The corner shop man who sold you the toothpaste, the person in the factory who made that toothpaste, the people taking away your trash after you are done with it. You can also do it with other parts of your day, little by little.

So, do you meditate? Or do you not complain? Any tips for those starting out?

 

 

On fucking up

How can we be convinced to do new stuff if we are scared to screw up?

The premise of all motivational literature is that humans can be influenced to change their ways and take action by the promise of gains and improvements in the near or distant future. This wouldn’t explain though why anyone would still keep smoking or voting far-right parties. Experiments have found that we are much more influenced by our fear of loss. A bit counter-intuitive, but the amount of unhappiness that we feel when, say, getting a salary reduction of 100€ is much much bigger than the happiness generated by a raise of the same amount.  “Loss” includes that of material goods (our country’s social security will be depleted by the damn immigrants!), but also that of social resources such as approval from others, security and social standing – basically, that no one will want to hang with us any more. The problem is, being motivated by fear of loss makes us stressed, overall fucking miserable, and unable to implement change. The sweet spot for improvement is apparently a mix of a lot of positive feelings and inspiration about the future self that we want, with just enough negative stress to get us to buckle up and do the work. However, because our strong response to loss, this balance usually hangs much more to the negative side.

So, what can we do to shake things up for ourselves and for others? There are two ways to influence this balance of positive and negative. One way is reinforcing the positive side (of which we will talk in a later blog), and one is trying to reduce the negative side-  making us less afraid of loss and screwing up.

In the case of fear of failure, there is a wonderful initiative that I wanted to tell you about. It is called FuckUp Nights, and you should go see if there is one near you ASAP! It’s a series of of Ted-style talks by people on their biggest failures. Speakers tell stories of failing at business, seeing movements they believed in collapse and messing up so badly at their jobs that they got fired. Look at the lineup of the event that I am going to tomorrow:

“- Philip Hellemans, skydiving teacher. Philip will talk about the ultimate skydiving failure: ‘losing’ a student in the air. This happened to him once. A student got separated and didn’t think to open his main parachute himself. His life was saved by the automatic opener, but still he landed hard and displaced his vertebra.

– Justine Harcourt de Tourville, American communication specialist. Six years ago she fell in love with a charming restaurant in Antwerp and bitten by the entrepreneurial virus, she decided to buy it, unaware of the skeletons that were about to fall out of the closet. She will share the story and lessons discovering all kinds of deadly business problems and having to let go of a dear dream.

– Roxane Kaempf, interactive experience & mobile consultant at IBM. After finishing her master thesis on sustainable tourism initiatives, Roxane decided to turn her research into a start-up. Together with her co-founders, they achieved funding and were invited to travel to cities all over Europe. But delays, communication problems and – most importantly – a lack of income led to them shutting down the website. Roxanne will talk about what went wrong and what could have perhaps prevented the business from going downhill.”

Not your average rosy TedX world, is it? The speakers share the facts, the aftermath of the fuckup and what they learned from it. I love that the talks do not even conform to the glossy self-help cliché where you only hear of failures once the person has established a supersuccesful new venture, thus presenting success as a necessary precondition to ‘fessing up about the struggle. Speakers are really candid about all that comes with messing up. The audience asks questions, in a super relaxed and empathetic atmosphere, which by itself is enough to give me a little warm and fuzzy feeling inside!

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They have pretty cool ads too

The awesome thing about the concept is that it lets us normalise failure and talk about it in terms that reduce the fear of it, thus acting on the negative side of that balance that I was talking about above. Going to a couple of these has already helped me to be open about my own fuckups with others (hello, community yoga class I organised where ZERO participants turned up).  It might also inspire you to :

  • Host your own Fuckup Night! The world needs more of these. Or just go to one that is organised nearby.
  • Try to be more open about failures, struggles and mistakes in your own life, be it a project in sports, self-improvement or your work. The way you phrase things is of course important, but in 99% of the cases, I have found people (even clients!) to be much more understanding, supportive and appreciative of the honesty than I would have given them credit for.
  • Engage with others when they open up about their fuckup. Share the love.

 

Do you have other tricks that help reducing your fear of loss?

(disclaimer: I am definitely not paid by FuckUpnights to promote their events, which are also free to attend)

Great yoga reads

I have come across so many great articles and books that have helped inform my budding yoga practice. Here are some of my recent favourites.

Yoga and the individual

1 The difference between practicing yoga postures and having a yoga practice

This post from The Yoga Lunchbox NZ looks at what are the conditions that help set apart the practising of yoga for self-realisation, and that of doing it for something else (strength, flexibility, sponsorships, awesome pants).  This is no clickbait so I give away the solution: it is 1) a container (daily practice) and 2) a teacher.

Why are these two elements of container and teacher crucial to create a yoga practice?

Because real work of yoga arises not in the physical achievement of the postures, but in the understand of the Self through observation of our relationship to the postures.

So, get practising and look for a guru!

Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga

I read this book while struggling with some difficult stuff personally, and it touched me a lot. This is a memoir about the journey of the author to yoga, and what her practice mean to her. What really speaks to me is that she talks about struggling with postures and philosophy, and not only in the terms of overcoming them- some struggles are bound to stay. The book also balances asanas with meaning focuses on everything that is beyond the asanas, and how the pursue of yoga can help you become a better person.

Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It

Although not strictly a yoga book, I find this one really relevant for personal development for everyone dealing with others. That includes most yogis! Being more empathetic is also one of the values you may want to develop through your yoga practice.

 This is a book about the power of empathy to change ourselves as people, but also our societies. It tells you about fascinating psychology/sociology research, great stories, and even has a list of 6 things that you can do to grow that side of your personality.

If you’re short on time, the author gave a talk at a Google campus which you can watch below.

Yoga and the community

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga

OK so this is a book about Bikram- actually one of the books that unleashed the shitstorm that has been going on for a while now. It is also an absorbing deep dive into the world of Bikram, from the stories of individuals to the wider community around him,  the whole cult of personality and the culture of competitive asana championship. It looks at all the abuse and conflict that people close to their guru have experienced, but also how the practice itself seems to work for so many. Counter-intuitively, reading this actually MADE me go to a class to see what it is about! More predictably, it made me feel very uncomfortable about giving money to anything connected to that guy. But I did actually quite like the sessions, and luckily my local “Bikram” studio has left the franchise and re-branded themselves a few weeks after my first visit. Hooray!

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Definitely not Bikraming here, but doing yoga with my mom and brother in a field in rural Hungary. I know you are eager to know the details of my outfit. Bottom: Bro’s thrifted sweatpants cca 2002 Top: my favourite sweatshirt supporting the fantastic Skateistan 

5 Justice

This is one of the most thought-provoking articles I have read in a while. So much of the talk and thinking around yoga concentrates on self-actualisation and individual progress. Much less attention is paid to the ways in which  this eternally positive discourse about yoga is inserted in the wider community and how it can contribute to or even hinder social progress. I would love to hear what yoga teachers think about this! The text has several hyperlinks, all worth clicking.

And then I became a yoga teacher, and somehow, all those feisty, political issues became quietly taboo. Modern yoga culture has a tendency to respond to politico-structural issues with fuzzy, pink-tinged, life coach answers; which in the case of structural inequality actually increases rather than decreases oppression. So when yoga studios are struggling to survive urban gentrification and they run more and more teacher trainings, leading to more and more yoga teachers struggling to find students, the answers given are all about personal change – from marketing oneself better to setting a clearer intention. Even though the teachers with the most at stake are those already most marginalised. It’s easy to preach non-attachment when your income is already secure.

What are your favourite yoga books/articles?

Judging success – An exercise

The awesome Joshua Becker has posted this list on Becoming Minimalist a  long time ago, but I discovered it last week, and it has had me thinking ever since.

His point is that too often we pass judgement on the achievements of others based on a wrong set of values. Measurements such as income, physical possessions (and I would add, enviable around-the world backpacking trips and Twitter followers).  But those indicators may not be relevant to what life really is about. In a quick test, you can ask people, how they define a good life next time you are at a dinner party. I have to admit, owning a matching set of Smeg household appliances rarely makes the list, no matter how deep a twinge of longing I feel every time I am near one of those foxy little things.

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Just LOOK AT THEM. (credit)

Thus, in judging others and ourselves, we often get sidetracked by forgetting about the original goal.  This is not unique to our personal lives, but it something that I see a lot in my work with NGOs as well. I think, humans may just be really rubbish at keeping invisible and long-term objectives in mind. In the case of not-for-profits, even though an organisation may be striving to, say, combat malaria in a developing country, they often find themselves discussing Facebook likes and media appearances (or, even worse, internal tussles) a big chunk of their time, often without making the link with their ultimate goal – less malaria.

So, if we aim to live the Good Life, who is it that we should envy, and look to as examples? I copied the entirety of Joshua’s list below because it is so beautifully written and inspirational.

1. Character in solitude. Our character is best revealed not in the the public eye, but in private. What we do when nobody is looking is the truest mark of our character. And those who display character in the dark will always reflect it in the light.

2. Contentment in circumstance. Often times, contentment remains elusive for both the rich and the poor. It is a struggle for humanity no matter their lot in life. Rich is the man or woman who can find contentment in either circumstance.

3. Courage during adversity. Courage can only be revealed when it is required. And only those who have displayed it and acted upon it during adversity can lay claim to its possession. This adversity can take on many different forms, but courage will always look the same: action in the face of fear.

4. Faithfulness in commitment. Those whose words are true ought to be highly lifted up in our world today. Whether our word is given with a handshake, a contract, or a wedding ring, those who hold true to their oaths are worthy of commendation.

5. Generosity in abundance. To those who have received much, much should be given away. Often times, this abundance comes in forms other than material possessions. And in that way, we each have been given much… and each ought to be generous in our use of it.

6. Graciousness towards others. Those who routinely extend grace to others are among my greatest heroes. They have a healthy realization that this world is largely unfair, that people come from a variety of backgrounds, and that nobody is truly self-made… even themselves. As a result, they are quick to extend grace and mercy to others.

7. Gratitude despite circumstance. Those who can find enough good in any circumstance to express gratitude are typically focused on the right things. And those who are focused on the right things tend to bend their lives towards those things… and draw others along with them.

8. Honesty in deprivation. It is when we are deprived of something desired that honesty is the most difficult. Whether we are deprived of something physical or intangible (like a desired outcome), dishonesty is often used to quickly take gain of something. Those who show honesty during deprivation reveal how highly they esteem it.

9. Hope during heartache. When heartache cuts at such a deep level that simple optimism is not enough… only hope can emerge. When it does, it is undeniably from a source far greater than ourselves. And those who find it, discover one of the greatest powers in the universe.

10. Humility in accomplishment. Those who are quick to deflect praise in accomplishment ought to be first in receiving it.

11. Inspiration in relationship. We are all in relationship with others – sometimes in person, sometimes in print, sometimes in other ways. These relationships should not be used solely for personal gain but for bringing out the best in others. And those who inspire others to become the best they can be should be gifted with more and more and more relationships.

12. Integrity in the details. Integrity is found in the details. Those who show integrity in the little things of life will typically display it in the bigger things as well.

13. Kindness to the weak. It is usually the weakest among us that are in most need of our kindness… and yet they receive it the least because they have no way to immediately repay it. When kindness is only shown for the sake of repayment, it becomes an investment and is no longer true kindness. Our true measure of kindness is shown in how we treat those who will never repay us.

14. Love for enemies. Anybody can love a friend. Anybody can love those who treat us well… and everybody does. But it takes a special type of person to extend love towards those who treat us unjustly.

15. Optimism towards others. See the good in everyone. There is simply no way to bring out the best in others if you haven’t seen it first.

16. Perseverance in failure. Failure reveals much about our heart. It reveals our character, our humility, and our perseverance. We will all at some point face failure. And those who get back up and try again ought to be esteemed in our mind.

17. Purity in opportunity. While character is revealed in solitude and integrity is revealed in the details, purity is revealed in the face of opportunity. When dishonest gain (money, power, sex, etc.) presents itself, those who choose purity ought to be praised. Not only do they personally sleep better at night, but they make this world a better place for all of us.

18.Respect for authority. Authority brings order to a world of disorder. Certainly there are numerous examples throughout history (and today) of proper timing in overthrowing authority that oppresses its subjects. But in most cases, authority brings reason and order… and it should be allowed to do so.

19. Responsibility for mistake. From the weakest to the strongest, we all love to pass the blame. I can see it in my 5-year old daughter and I can see it in my government leaders. We are a people that are slow to accept responsibility for our mistakes. This is unfortunate. Because only those who can admit their mistakes have the opportunity to learn from them.

20. Self-control in addiction. We are a people that too often give control of our most precious asset to another. We fall under the influence of substances, possessions, or entertainment. When we do, our life is no longer our own. And those who retain self-control in the face of addiction ought to be recognized as unique and judged accordingly.

Reflecting on how we ourselves are doing on these values can be such an important tool in self-discovery. I have come up with a self-assessment tool based on the Wheel of Life.  You can print it out and use it in a meditation session (or while having breakfast/ waiting for the bus, whatever works for you!) to assess where you are on each of the twenty characteristics. It is also a fun colouring for adults exercise.

Keep in mind, there is no objective “maximum”to any of these values- it is just based on how far you think you could go, and how far you have come. It can also be interesting to ask someone who knows you really well, to give you some feedback on your scores. If you choose to do this, be ready to make yourself rather vulnerable in front of the feedback person. At the same time, you are very likely to hear some unexpected praise.

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I wonder what Spiderman would make of this exercise

Once you have your wheel, I suggest you do the following:

  1. See where is your strong point. Is this a key value in your life? How has this value helped you become who you are today? How do you exercise and nourish this side of yourself? Were you aware of this aspect of your personality before?
  2. Now look at the segments with a lower score. Where is it that do you have some way to go? Any surprises here? How do you think building up these values could help you in your journey? Find some examples where you have used this value before, and see how you could build on those experiences to make this a more visible aspect of your life.
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I filled in mine during a break between a million e-mails and dripping orange juice into my keyboard

How do you define success in others? And yourself?

On being bad at sports

I kinda suck at all of the sports I practice. Despite all the effort and enthusiasm, I am a 5+ hour marathoner prone to training weight gain, a rock climber who is still struggling on the easier pitches, and that girl in your yoga class who can still not straighten her legs in Downward Dog. Then again, running, yoga and climbing have been such awesome sources of inspiration, growth and fun over the years, that they have become part of who I am.

At first sight, one would think that sports are about: challenging yourself and having a great time. Physical activity makes you feel good. We have the Holy Trinity of evidence on this: academic papers, common sense wisdom, and bad stock photography.

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Woman laughing alone with tiny, pastel-coloured weights

By the time we get serious about exercising, it also becomes part of our identity and therefore something that we use to validate ourselves.  Working out makes us feel good. But it also arouses feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and overall unpleasant shite. There are so many ways to fail at self-discipline, constant progress and all-round measuring up to everyone else.

Self-worth, measuring and comparing

Am I really good enough if I run the next race slower than my first ever? What if I skip the gym?  How on earth do all Instagram yogis have their headstand and Teeki leggings collection all figured out? I have thought about these questions a lot while struggling with comparisons and self-worth and think that social media fitspo and fitness trackers are two of the main tools that backfire when I am trying to build up an exercise routine that comes from a happy place.

In running, my experience is that it becomes about obsessive time tracking very easily. Technology really bit us in the ass there. Measuring our progress can be helpful in training. But from my job evaluating programs for NGOs, I also know that you will work towards what you are measured on. Humans are incredibly biased towards judgement and measurement. This means that even if you start using Runkeeper with the most positive attitude possible, you will likely get lost in the data and focus on improving your numbers. In psychological terms, your intrinsic motivation shifts towards extrinsic motivation This, if you are an NGO or an average runner, will put you at risk of enjoying your activity less, buying way more gear than you need because of your insecurity, and of losing sight of why you started working out in the first place.

That feeling of yuck and self-pity mixed with not being good enough? Being anxious about improving yourself and comparing yourself with others, who seem to be doing so much better? It is normal. We even have specific research on fitspo, which links it to increased feeling of insecurity and self-worth (albeit accompanied by an increased willingness to work out in some cases).

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Jackie O’ has zero issues with body image on the yoga mat

 

The solution? As the Buddha would say, Let that shit go. Here are some ways I managed to get rid of bad feelings when it comes to sports:

  1. Ask some questions

Reflection is always a good place to start. Think of an occasion where you really enjoyed your workout, and ask yourself what was the reason behind this? It is rarely the data as you often don’t see it until afterwards; and I bet it was not looking damn hot while being in a difficult yoga pose, crushing a Crossfit workout or spinning.

2. Ditch the trackers

I remember feeling like a workout did not matter if it wasn’t in my tracking app, and being quite harsh on myself if I had not improved compared to previous occasions. Let’s face it, if you aren’t  a pro athlete, the ultimate goal of your exercise should probably be something else than competing on time. Switching to a routine without a tracker or leaving it at home at least half the time will help you avoid depending on external validation and tune more into how you feel.

3. Diversify your social media feeds and inspiration

There is no one way to do awesome stuff. If you struggle with feeling inadequate, it can be very helpful to widen your inspiration sources to include a rainbow of role models. Social media is full of them! Following campaigns such as This Girl Can and body positive activists like Dianne Bondy can help you focus again on what the essence of your chosen sport is.

Any other suggestions for a happy and balanced exercise routine?

 

 

 

 

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:

tackle

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)

dantonsm

 

5 Things Friday – 5 things I changed in the past 6 months

 

As a somewhat anxious person, I tend to focus a lot on the road lying ahead and aaaaaall the tasks and change that still need to happen, in my life and in the world in general. However, I am trying to get better at appreciating progress, and celebrating success. Plus, looking back can be very useful for perspective and motivation, and don’t we all need some of that.

In the past six months, I have changed some aspects of how I live. Here are 5 examples.

  1. 30/60 day Challenges

J and I came up with the idea of a series of focused 30-60 day “challenges” aimed at stuff we would like to get better at, change in our lives, or which we thought would just be fun. The reasoning behind is that it is much easier to do something for a limited amount of time, rather than trying to change “forever”. Forever is a long time and it can get overwhelming to think, “Oh f*ck, I have to get up at 6 am and exercise for the next 60 years”.  30 days of getting up is far more manageable, while being suffi to see some  results. 60 days of daily yoga was definitely enough to level up my practice and forced me to go to a few classes that I would have never tried before (hello, hot vinyasa! *faints*) The full list is here.

2.  Monthly donations to charity and volunteering

We have decided to take a more systematic approach to giving to charity. We donate 150 euros per month to a charity (changing by month). It  is not as much money as we could potentially donate, and nothing compared to the amazing people at Giving what we can, but we plan on increasing the amount as we go. 150€ is already big enough to make a difference in some of the campaigns that we support, such as building  a home for a person with Habitat for Humanity, or support fundraising by friends.

I also started volunteering with Minor-Ndako, a wonderful organisation working with non-accompanied minors who arrive to Belgium as refugees.

3. Decluttering

In January, I took up the Minimalism Game. This is a challenge where you discard/donate 1 item on Day 1, 2 items on Day 2….for 30 days. I used this together with the KonMari method (see here for a great behavioural economics take on it) to make it easier to let go of stuff that I don’t really like.  It was actually not as hard as I imagined, which is a possible indicator of having way too much shiz in our HQ!

Anyway, what I like about this challenge was that we keep going on decluttering even after day 31- we have a huge IKEA container in the bedroom, and keep putting stuff in there. We keep asking the question “do I really use/need/like this?” and are getting quite good at separating from objects. Items go either to the nearby charity donation box or the self-service donation shelves at our local municipality. I have made repeat trips to the shelf, and it is great to see that all our declutter items have found a new home quickly!

4. Shopping less

This is my nemesis. I am a HUGE fan of thrift shopping and a sucker for sales. However, the humiliating moment of dragging  EIGHT trash bags full of one-time thrift-store “finds” to the donation box made me realise the waste of time and money the habit had become. I have made baby steps though! With my new, de-cluttered closet I also aim to:

  • buy less clothing overall (I objectively have plenty and can cover all occasions from marathon training to a Great Gatsby theme party and everything in between). This has been a moderate success so far. I have passed on buying many items I would have wanted, but am too embarrassed to share how many hours I spent looking at ankle boots on Amazon.
  • when I buy things that I really need, go for 1-in- 2 out.
  • buy preferably secondhand, and if not possible, then as ethically produced as possible.

5. Taking lunch to work

I am aiming to take at least 10 lunches from home per month. This is a not a very painful change as my usual workday sandwich doesn’t make me particularly happy or add a special break to my day, but one that can definitely help me save some money and eat healthier.  If there is a way that makes eating rice and vegs from a box feel like an accomplishment, sign me up!

 

Have you been working on bettering your everyday life? What are some of the changes you have made?