Wedding planning behaviour: Part 1- Staus quo bias

The difference between planning a wedding and planning any other party is in the amount of cultural and emotional context that comes into play.  Suddenly your party has to be an expression of what you stand for, who you are as a person/couple, who you are as a woman, what are your family and cultural heritage. There is also  a strong element of judgement and being judged against criteria established by the social groups that you are part of. As a result, decisions are subject to behavioural biases even more than those taken in our daily lives.

I have been thinking a lot about how we are taking decisions related to our wedding. (Yes, I know it would be so much easier if I just did as my lovely mom suggested!) In this series of posts I will give you a few examples of bias that I have encountered in our own process of planning a wedding so far.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias is evident when people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing (see also inertia) or by sticking with a decision made previously (Samuelson, & Zeckhauser, 1988). This may happen even when only small transition costs are involved and the importance of the decision is great. Samuelson and Zeckhauser note that status quo bias is consistent with loss aversion, and that it could be psychologically explained by previously made commitments and sunk cost thinking, cognitive dissonance, a need to feel in control and regret avoidance. The latter is based on Kahneman and Tversky’s observation that people feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions taken than for bad consequences that are the consequence of inaction (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). [source]

How do we know what a wedding is supposed to look like? It is handed down to us through culture, from examples in our communities to the representations of weddings in popular culture. In my case, popular culture is also heavily influenced by my Hungarian origins and Anglo-Saxon culture due to our cultural diet (tsk tsk, gotta get to that art cinema). In my culture and experience, these have the following elements:

  • Event takes place on a Saturday, in presence of many friends and families.
  • Families very closely involved. Guests include friends and acquaintances of the parents.
  • An occasion that has to be elegant, no expense should be spared.
  • An event on which attendees will pass judgement. It is important that this judgement not be negative.
  • Church/religious and civil ceremony.
  • This is the bride’s big day, who can be a princess for a day. The bride’s wishes and taste are more important than the groom’s.
  • The bride should wear a very elegant white dress unlike any dress she would wear in everyday life (“like a princess”), idem for hair and makeup. The dress however should not be too revealing (“slutty”) or too casual. She should carry a bunch of flowers. The groom should wear an elegant outfit, minimum a suit.
  • Guests should be treated to an elegant sit-down dinner.
  • Set of Hungarian wedding traditions (don’t even get me started).
  • etc.

The first result in my Google image search for “wedding” [source] It looks lovely, also because it conforms to our expectations.
I am not saying that status quo is “bad”. The act of getting married is in large part also part of the status quo, and traditions have an important place in reinforcing social bonds, etc. As a result, it is relatively easy to plan a wedding – we all know what is expected and wanted from us. This is the measure against which weddings are judged (where I am from. If you are from a different background, of course, different factors are at play).

The status quo is also the baseline for taking decisions that diverge from the tradition- no one starts with a blank slate. At the same time, if for some reason one decides to have a wedding that is different from the above, it disappoints the expectations of the social groups. As you see from the definition above, deviations from the norm tend to be perceived as “loss”, so generally in a negative light. Choices that deviate from the norm need to be justified.

Traditional Hungarian weddings have a somewhat different set of baseline expectations. I would love to swap the crowd at the two example weddings and hear their opinions! [source]
As a result of J&I coming from different backgrounds, having a limited budget and sharing some beliefs that differ from those of our communities of origin (being atheists and feminists), we had a strong incentive to discuss and negotiate all of these elements. Indeed, once we started questioning what our wedding should look like, it became a more interesting, but also more complicated gathering to plan.  In some cases we chose keep to the status quo: we will have guests and share a meal, I will wear a dress and we will have a ceremony. In others, we have decided to change things: for instance, we will not host a very elegant dinner or have a church wedding,  and I will likely not be a “princess for the day”.

Finally, in some cases we keep to tradition but try to add a tweak. In Hungarian weddings it is customary to “sell” the last dance of the bride as a maiden: guests donate money for a few seconds of dancing with the bride then hand her over to the next paying partner. We are thinking of making this a bit more feminist by both of us doing the dance and donating the proceeds to charity. Anyway, we are definitely aware of the fact that judgement will be passed on all elements of the day that deviate from guests’ expectations. This will be especially true as our international group of guests will each have their own baselines and expectations.



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!

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)

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.

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.

Untitled presentation
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.
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.

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).

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?





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.



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.