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Friday, August 30, 2013

Are you possessed? Part 2: Wealthy or not, why living with less is good for you... and not only for you

Point and shoot kinda gal, Flickr

"Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate." (Victor LeBeau, Retail Analyst Post WW II)

It's happened again: a friend just told me about a successful lawyer who quit her practice, moved to a smaller town, and started writing cookbooks.

It seems like we are experiencing a different kind of brain drain these days: smart, successful people quitting their jobs to do something less prestigious, less stressful, more meaningful... even if that means letting go of a certain status, of a higher income and of good benefits In some cases, even if it means letting their diplomas gather dust.

Parallel to that (and often entangled with it) is the new tendency to simplify and downsize materially (as in: less having, less doing, more being).

As a general phenomena, this trend has a few different names:

  • Simple living
  • Voluntary simplicity
  • Frugality
  • Minimalism
  • And the occasionally associated nomadism (living on the road, living on the sea)

What those all have in common is that they aim at escaping the consumerist-based lifestyle, this never-ending loop in which you work, consume, work, consume, and rarely take (or find) the time to just BE:  

"Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it." (Ellen Goodman)

People who move toward such disencumbered lifestyle are looking for a life that is simpler, lighter, more meaningful. This can take various forms and can be applied to various areas at various intensities.

Other than letting go of a demanding, unfulfilling job (or go part-time, or work from home), some become environmentally-friendly to the bone, live off the grid, or adopt a perpetual globe-trotter lifestyle. Some opt for drastic downsizing and get rid of most possessions. Some embrace thrifting, and barter goods and services. Most choose to live with less (sometimes very little) money and/or stuff, and less structured activities.


  • To lower stress and improve health: a lot of us are overwhelmed by all our responsibilities and the pressures put on us, and realize it doesn't have to be that way... especially when our health is suffering from it;
  • To put priorities in order: a lot of us feel that they are sacrificing the important (e.g. family, social life, creative activities, physical activities, contact with nature) to pursue the unimportant (a big title and a big paycheck, or simply a job we don't like);
  • To pursue a dream: a lot of us have a dream on the back of our head that we have put on ice in order to pursue more mainstream, approved and sometimes acclaimed endeavors;
  • To help the environment and the rest of the world: a lot of us realize that our consumerist lifestyle does not occur in a vacuum, and is detrimental to both the planet and other, less fortunate human beings.

Longing to have an impact on the world? 
Well, guess what... you already have one.
Just not the one you were thinking about.
Watch this fantastic video to learn all about it:

I am one to believe that simplifying our lives can only do us good. However, I am not one to build my own house and raise goats. I have fantasized over a life on the oceans, but I don't have the guts (and D does not have sea legs). Never mind those obstacles, I think moving away from a consumerist life and toward a simpler life can be beneficial for me. And so can it for you! 

You don't have to be particularly skillful, or a vegan, or a bohemian (although those are great!) You don't have to live an ascetic life in a monastery (but why not?) You don't have to be unusually wealthy or completely broke (although people from everywhere on this continuum go for the simple lifestyle). You don't need to become an extreme couponing adept (blah). You don't have to let go of all luxury (oh no!). You only have to find your own, personal, unique recipe to simplicity.

The benefits

Simplicity is like drinking water: if you've never really done it, you might find it tasteless at first... but get used to it and you will discover that it is much more fullfilling, and much lighter at the same time, than all the alternatives (juice, pop, alcohol, coffee). 

On top on saving money, your health and the planet, having a simpler life could help you:

  • Find serenity, feel free, liberated, and fulfilled in a way that materialism cannot fulfill you;
  • Reconnect with yourself, find your center and live according to your core values and priorities;
  • Reconnect with others: "Sometimes the most ordinary things could be made extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right people." (Elizabeth Green)
  • Reconnect with the universe: amazing things will start happening, or more precisely, you will start to notice amazing things you didn't notice before. For example, when I came out of the gym the other day, it had rained, and I noticed the dampness of the air and the smell of the water on the asphalt. I liked it. I paused to BE in the moment.

In the next post, we will study more in depth the HOW of simplifying our lives. Until then, tell us: 

How do YOU simplify your life, and how does it make you feel?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

All things Hungarian... VIPs, music, dogs... in short, happiness!

julsnewton, Flickr

It's been a while since I dedicated a post to music! (Although the vast majority of this blog's posts contain some.)

And I know, I promised a post on minimalism... it's coming. I just haven't had the time to put it all together like I want to, busied by the last week before school and the constant supply of translation contracts - This week, on top of spending my days enjoying the kids' presence, I'm immersed in diabetes documents at night.

So, the minimalism post is on its way... but in the meantime, let me treat you to some wonderful Hungarian themed music!

(Note: I have never set foot in Hungary, despite my numerous incursions in Eastern Europe: Austria in 1985, 1998 and 2009, Slovakia in 2009, Croatia in 2002, Bosnia in 2002. I've also always had a fascination for Poland - because of Copernicus, Chopin and Marie Curie - and another fascination for Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine - reason unknown... but Hungary? I hadn't heard much about it except for the long gone Austro-Hungarian Empire. It's just that every once in a while, while listening to music, I have very good feelings that I associate to this elusive country. As you will see later, there is also another reason I have an attachment to Hungary nowadays.)

Slovakia, 2009

Now with some fine examples of music that's dear to my heart:

Csardas, Hungarian Gypsy Music
Please listen long enough to hear the lovely shift 
in mood and tempo!

Hungarian Rhapsody no 2
So much going on here!

Brahms, Hungarian Dance no 1

Brahms, Hungarian Dance no 5

And my most recent reason to love Hungary, this beautiful breed of dog, the Hungarian Vizsla Pointer, and its finest specimen, Zia:

6 weeks

10 weeks

7 months

  • Do you have a fascination for a certain country that you've never visited? Why?
  • Of all famous people, dead and alive, who would you want to meet in person? (For me it's Curie... as long as she does not emit any residual radiation!)
  • Do you have any favorite piece of classical music?
  • What's your favorite animal/breed?
  • Do you like goulash?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are you possessed? Part 1: Taking the pecuniary road to happiness, or does money really matter?

David Muir, Flickr

Note: The questions raised in this post mostly apply to people whose basic needs are met, like a roof over their head, enough food to eat, and access to reasonable health care, and who have a choice when it comes to money and work.

Time to answer the sempiternal question: does money bring happiness? Wouldn't it be nice to know, so we can decide once and for all if the rat race is worth it or not?

Once your basic needs are met... is it worth it to work hard and as much as possible, in order to keep making as much money as possible? Even if that means sacrificing other things?

Corollary questions: Do we all have to work full-time? Do we really need all those luxuries we take for granted, to be happy? What would happen if we worked less and lived with less? What would happen if we worked more and lived with more? 

Why do we keep hearing about successful CEOs who quit lucrative jobs to start a small handmade soap venture (that barely pays the bills)? Why do we read about professionals who decide to devote a good chunk of their work to pro bono (non paying) cases? Why do those people seem happier after than before?

Why, on the other hand, do so many of us keep making choices that favor money over other priorities? And why do we think we "have to"?

For you readers I have been combing through the data on that topic.

We've heard it time and again: money does not buy happiness. This hypothesis states that once you're past the poverty threshold (i.e. you don't have to worry about fulfilling your basic needs), and assuming you're not living beyond your means (debt is a big source of stress and an obstacle to happiness), an increase in income will NOT bring a significant improvement in your levels of happiness. Some studies indeed show that past a certain income ($75,000 for example, but some studies come up with a lower threshold), more money does not increase happiness levels (more details here).

I like this hypothesis, but what if it that discourse was more of a propaganda? What if that was a huge lie told to the masses in order to pacify them, just like the caste system of India provides a reason for the stark inequalities? After all, if money DID buy happiness, and if the less fortunate came to know it, we could probably expect a revolution! Interestingly, some studies tend to show that increases in income (even past the $75,000 point) continue to yield increases in happiness levels.

Who are we to believe?

Well, based on my readings, money is not a one-way ticket to happiness... but it's not to be demonized either. As you might have heard, money does not buy happiness... but it helps.

According to Happiness for Dummies, by W. Doyle Gentry, PhD, money does buy some things that help with happiness, like freedom ( freedom of choice, freedom from some stress - although wealth often comes with other types of stress) and support (e.g. a coach, a therapist, etc.) Some other things that money buys, like comfort, excitement and abundance, are in no way an absolute source of happiness. Why is that? Because of a number of characteristics of human nature. Namely:

  • The hedonic treadmill effect (it's the change - for the better - that makes us happy, not the absolute level of what we have);
  • Relative deprivation (we make comparisons with those who have more, which makes us unhappy no matter how much we have... because there will always be someone who has more);
  • Escalating needs (no matter how much we have, we keep needing more, and more, and more, to be satisfied).

Another book that provides useful (and empirical) data on the relationship between happiness and money is The Myths of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. The entire book (and her other writings, for that matter) is fascinating, but for this topic I particularly recommend chapters 6 and 7. There is too much interesting information in those chapters for me to sum it up in one post, but what it boils down to is what we've said before: money is not a one-way ticket to happiness. In some ways it does help, but in others it does not make a difference, and sometimes it could even be a nuisance: "Because wealth allows people to experience the best that life has to offer, it can even reduce their capacity to savor life's small pleasures".

One of the most interesting conclusions Lyubomirsky comes to is that no matter how much money you have, you should spend it on "experiences rather than possessions".

My environmentally-friendly mind finds this idea appealing because consuming less things should mean putting less pressure on the planet. Even if you do have the money for something, should you really buy it if it's not a true need, knowing that every time you buy (with the exception of buying second-hand, maybe), you - indirectly - pollute?

When D and I bought our house, we chose one that was smaller than what the bank was willing to let us buy. First because we did not want to run the risk of becoming 
"house poor", but I also like to think that it has made our ecological footprint smaller. In the same vein, one of my friends was recently asked the following question by her daughter: "Mom, do we buy second hand because we're poor?" My friend aptly replied "No, we buy second hand because we're smart." (For the record, they are not poor.)

Another reason I like the idea of spending on experiences (doing activities, taking classes, etc.) rather than "stuff" is because it feeds you from the inside, not the outside. No matter what happens, you will always have the memories, and they will keep nourishing you (and your relationships, if you shared the experience with other people). 

Based on research on happiness triggers, Lyubomirsky also advises to spend money:

  • On need-satisfying activities (i.e. learning, improving, celebrating, helping, as opposed to "flaunting our looks, power and status");
  • On others, not yourself;
  • To give you time (e.g. "by reducing our work hours or paying others to perform time-consuming chores"). 

That last advice brings us back to actively choosing to work less/make less money. Have you ever considered making that choice?

Finally, Lyubomirsky recommends that we let ourselves linger. Anticipation might indeed be one of the best parts of a good thing. This is not something you experience when you are caught in an impulsive shopping frenzy!

In the end, working hard and a lot might be fine if you love what you do and don't feel you are sacrificing other, more important things. (Being rich, yes... but not at any cost!) Making a lot of dough might be fine as long as you know how to use said dough, and as long as your life doesn't revolve around it; more specifically, as long as you don't rely on it to make you happy.

No matter where you are financially, if you live above the poverty threshold and your basic needs are met, you ought to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I sacrificing for the sake of money?
  • Do I really need that much money?
  • Do I really need more money than what I have right now?
  • What would I need more money for?
  • Would that make me happier, really?
  • Why do I think more money is the solution, as opposed to other alternatives?
  • Am I willing to put the time and effort and the sacrifices it takes to significantly increase my wealth?
  • Once I get to my goal, will I really feel satisfied, once and for all?

Yes, money IS good, and its pursuit is legitimate... but it has to stay in its place: money is to be used as a means, not an end... and its pursuit should not replace other, more important endeavors!

Stay tuned! In the next post, we will go beyond money and discuss why, wealthy or not, living with less "stuffcould be good for you.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Are you being true to yourself?

Walking toward a goal

I was planning to write about happiness and money today. I have been amassing information from all kinds of sources on the topic, and was ready to put it all together in a - hopefully - coherent post (there is so much controversial data on that topic!)

But then something put me off the track. Something that I now really want to share with you, readers! (The "money matters" post will have to wait!)

D, who might know me a little bit too well (that's what being together for 15 years does to people), welcomed me with this picture as I came back from the gym (right click on the following link to open on a separate page in case this picture does not display big enough on your screen:

I swear when I saw the first colored picture, with the words "Tell me something that makes you cry", I almost cried myself. This is what I want to do with people. Talk with them about the "real stuff". The important stuff. When I meet someone who is as willing as I am to have that kind of deep conversation, let me tell you that I don't let them go. Which is fine, because usually they do not want to go either. Over the course of the years I have met and kept people like this in my life. With them, time stops. We could talk all night and not notice that time is elapsing... until the sun rises.

Do you sometimes feel you have something unusual, deep down inside, that wants to hatch? Do you feel there is something special about you that maybe you don't actualize enough? What is it? And how do you feel when you get the unexpected and most wonderful gift of meeting someone who shares that trait?

D did not only have me in mind when he dug for those very unique comic strips. He found the following one and kept it "to show to the kids" (link here: http://zenpencils.com/comic/106-chris-hadfield-an-astronauts-advice/):

I thought this was indeed a wonderful way to illustrate the course of life, and how goals are pursued, in a way that children will understand... but really, this comic strip will likely "talk" to all adults who are on their way to a goal that they cherish.

Are you actively working on your goal, whatever it is? Are you fully aware that it is all those little steps we take daily that lead us to where we want to be... even if there might be unexpected detours on the way? What is your goal and what have you done TODAY to move toward it?

Of course, to know what kind of destination is a good one for us, and what path is the ideal one to reach such destination, we sometimes need a little help. That can take the form of getting to know oneself better. Have you done anything in this respect recently? Here's my suggestion: why don't you take the Briggs Myers personality test? Just click on this link and answer the questions:
This is another place where you can take the test: http://www.truity.com/test/type-finder-personality-test

You can then read more about your profile here and here. The results could amaze you!

If you take the test (and I hope you will!), please write to share your results, and about how they resonate with you!  (Personally I'm either a INFP, the Healer/Idealist, a ENTP, the Visionary, or a INTP, the Thinker/Architect (my friends would say the Philosopher), which might explain why I spend the greatest part of my days shoveling clouds and generally not getting as much done as I wish I did. Luckily, D is an INTJ - the Scientist - and much more efficient at getting things done... all the while enjoying listening to my ramblings! Of course to live happily with a INTJ you have to be a tough cookie. Famous INTJs include Sheldon Cooper, Dr House, Mr Burns and Severus Snape, all detestable characters... whom I love! LOL But seriously, D is mostly adorable... most of the time... and very tolerant of my strange ways. That's no small feat!) What about you?

Speaking of clouds, did you notice the moon lately? It was full yesterday, and still big, beautiful and yellow (where I am anyways) today. What a good timing: today is the birth date of Claude Debussy, famous French composer who wrote Clair de Lune (translation: Moonlight). Why don't you take a moment to admire the moon, and listen to the music that honors it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why camping is good for you, or an apology of the great outdoors

Sea kayaking
Note: all the pictures in this post were taken this summer in the Bay of Fundy, Canada.
(As always, click to enlarge.)

Yes, camping is good for you. And when I say camping, I mean CAMPING. The real thing. With a real TENT. Very few amenities. Even better: NONE. As in back country camping.

Because roughing it is the best way to get the most benefits from the outdoors.

Just one detail: If you've never done it, being that close to nature can be scary.

Bay of Fundy, home of the highest tides in the world.
Here, low tide.

The Stuff

It's scary to be in the great outdoors because you will say "adios" to your daily comforts. What's true for traveling is even more true for camping: if you're too carry your belongings, you want them to be minimal in size and weight. That means everything will have to be stripped to the bare minimum.

Scary as it is, living frugally, with your attention away from "stuff", becomes a wonderful thing as soon as you embrace it.

Early morning fog on the cliff

When I go camping, I bring no electronics, nothing that requires electricity, no makeup, no nothing except for what will provide me simple protection against the elements, and simple sustenance. Entertainment? not needed: how about fauna and flora observation, how about a hike, how about a dip in the lake/the river, how about a nice campfire, how about the starry skies? How about gliding on the water with your kayak or canoe? How about simply listening to the falling rain?

Or how about a nice, musical surprise in the way of camping neighbors who play guitar, ukulele, and the accordion?

Our neighbors played this 
while we were putting up the tent

Which version do you like best?

There's only one paradox. Life in the great outdoors may be simple and a great escape from our consumerist world, but it's not necessarily cheap. Not because you need to buy a lot of things, but because the things you buy, you want them to be of good quality. Good quality, when it comes to the outdoors, usually means lightweight AND efficient. Once you've tried technical clothing and equipment, you won't want to go back. Oh! how I love me merino wool! (But please don't let those material matters deter you from enjoying the great outdoors. A lot of things I bring camping cost close to nothing!)

The People

It's scary to be in the great outdoors because it also means you will become very close to the people you are "roughing it with"... and that's not always achieved without a couple of "adjustments". Don't they say if you can put up a tent with someone without it ending in a fight, it's a sign you have a healthy relationship? I could add: if you still are attracted to someone who hasn't shaved/put on makeup in a week, who dons a ball cap right out of bed to hide their perpetual "bad camping hair", and who wears the same ole hiking boots and clothes day in, day out, you two are a definite go!

We still all get along...
Guess it's a good sign!

I like the people I meet when I camp deep in the woods, because I like the kind of people the deep woods attract. No later than yesterday we had the most fascinating conversation with another camping neighbor, who in his "real life" is an urbanist. (If you're interested in urbanism, may I suggest this blog?)

The Dreaded Self

It's scary to be in the great outdoors because being so close to nature, with so little other distractions, also means you will feel very close to yourself (unless you drown your existential dread in booze, that is).

No need for "substances"...
I'm already high on Mother Nature!

Happy camper enjoying some alone time
with oneself in nature...

I love how the great outdoors present you with so many physical challenges: walking long distances uphill on uneven terrain; paddling endlessly; carrying heavy backpacks or water bags; squatting to set up camp, or to cook (or to p...); balancing on one foot to put your socks and shoes on; and, if you're not so young anymore, simply getting up from your sleeping pad in the morning!

Sometimes on hikes you will need to use your hands as well!
R and A being real troopers.

I'm usually not too bad with the physical challenges, but I met a new one this summer: a hammer induced arm inflammation. I guess I had been working a little bit too energetically on the tent pegs: as I was hammering down the last one, my right forearm suddenly doubled in size and became hard as a tree log! Interestingly it did not hurt at all, and everything went back to normal within a couple minutes. (Unfortunately I was so busy worrying about my new difformity, I forgot to take a picture for you readers!)

In conclusion

Yes, immersing yourself in the great outdoors might mean getting out of your comfort zone (literally), but once you've gotten accustomed to it... ah, the benefits you will reap!

Not too bad a place to end up on a sunny morning...

Freed from all the material stuff, you will explore your surroundings and really see them. You will interact with others and really get to know them. You will be in communion with yourself... for better or for worse!

And when you come back home, like I did today after a wonderful sojourn in the woods with my family, you  will fully appreciate the comforts of modern life!

What is your experience of the great outdoors?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Choose the toothbrush

Cristiana Gasparotto, Flickr

Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken.

(From the beautiful movie Hugoby Scorsese)

I recently wrote a post that tackled a number of taboos. When I asked for suggestions for other taboos I should crush, fellow blogger Roy, from Contemplative Fitness, mentioned suicide. He himself wrote a piece on that topic, a few years ago. That post of his inspired the title of mine; indeed, Roy writes

You see, many days of my life I wake up and must decide whether to put a toothbrush in my mouth, or a revolver. This has been a choice I have faced on awakening on many occasions since my teens. Since I don’t own a revolver, and possess an obvious genetic predisposition toward dirty teeth, and that I still see so much beauty and so many possibilities in the frame of a day, toothbrush always wins.

(Through Roy's post I was also introduced to the story of David Foster Wallace, and if you are interested in a fascinating talk by him, please click here.)

I've been thinking about it since then (the topic, not suicide!), wondering what approach would be best if I was to write about it. I could have talked about Emile Durkheim's theory of suicide, but I believe whoever's interested in the sociological aspects of it can research it themselves.

Instead I decided to simply share what some people have to say about suicide and its best friend, depression. In fact, I will mostly focus on depression per se, which is the main cause of suicide after all, and a real mental illness nobody should be ashamed of. There is still a lot to do in that direction. Most of us don't want to talk about our own depression, for reasons ranging between shame, fear of being judged, false certainty that it will not help us, or simply because we don't want to alarm others. But to reach out is crucial!

I start with a personal "essay", and follow with other people's take on the topic. This post is NOT an exhaustive analysis, but if you feel something has been left out, please do write it in the comments. Please also feel free to share your own experience of depression, to help crush the taboo. Thank you!

Note: If you have been contemplating suicide, or have had depressed thoughts, please get help NOW. There are suicide hotlines in most areas. Your doctor can also point you to the right resources. This post is an essay on suicide, and DOES NOT qualify as help.

My take on depression

Depression runs in my family, which is why I unfortunately know a little bit too much about it. What I know about it is the following:

There's a very wise saying about suicide, which goes like this: "Suicide is a final solution to a temporary problem". This saying is absolutely accurate, and if we could all understand and remember it at all times, then suicide would soon be eradicated. Unfortunately, when you're in a depression, the "problem" does not feel temporary at all. In depression the "problem" is not situated in time nor in space; it is all-encompassing. It permeates your whole life, and sucks both the enjoyment AND the meaning right out of it. If you're truly depressed there is absolutely not reason left to life, or life has become too painful to live, or both.

This is why you cannot simply shake off depression. You need help, and the sooner the better.

Another thing I know is that depression can hit anyone, anywhere, anytime. Even people who seemingly have a fulfilling life, even successful people, can suffer from it. Depression does not spare you; it has no mercy. The other pernicious side of depression is that people who suffer from it are often very good at hiding it. 

If you're not depressed, good for you! My only advice would be: don't let it creep in. Not the slightest. Ever. Especially if depression is a sword of Damocles above your head (i.e. you've had it before). Like Roy from Contemplative Fitness, I use exercise as a preventive measure. When I'm physically active, dark thoughts just don't have a grip on me. They drift by. When I'm not active for more than a full week, I can feel them come back. I know there are studies about the causes of this, but the details are futile. Exercise protects me, therefore I exercise... that's all.

My other strategies to stay on the right track are the following:

  • Don't put all your eggs in the same basket. This way, if something totally collapses in one area of your life, something else will still be there.
  • Actively block catastrophic thinking or "cluster negativity"; it's tempting sometimes to collect all our negative thoughts and assemble them into a dirty snow ball. It leads to depressive statements such as "I fail at everything I try", "Nobody likes me", "I'm no good", etc. Such statements are not allowed in my brain.
  • Don't pursue perfection, or goals that are other people's goals. Think this through. Sit down and have a chat with yourself: am I doing this for myself, or to please or impress someone else?
  • Remember that nothing has the right to destroy your faith in life. Some things might feel unbearable when they happen, but I always remind myself that life is a gift, that it could be worse, and that in time, I will recover.
  • Be grateful. About everything you could possibly be grateful for. Make a list at the end of each day.
  • Reset your buttons: http://happinessdishbestsavouredhot.blogspot.ca/2011/09/life-sucks-reset-your-buttons.html

Of course, if you're already flirting with clinical depression, those strategies won't suffice. They are strategies for the everyday downer. If you're further than that... GET HELP.

Others' take on depression

Depression also runs in society at large. Some people have described it very aptly, which unfortunately means they know a little bit too much about it, too.

1) JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling has explained that the dementors that haunt Harry Potter's story are a metaphor for depression, that she herself has experienced. It's clear from her descriptions that she know exactly what she is talking about:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

2) Allie, from Hyperbole and a half

If you don't know Allie's blog, run, don't walk! When I discovered it, I was, just like hundreds of others, under the charm right away. One day, Allie announced she was writing a real book. She had an editor, she had a date of publication. It was exciting! And then... we did not hear about her anymore. Her blog became silent. Everyone wondered what had happened to her. Depression is what happened to her. Many months later, she reappeared and wrote about her experience of depression. I cannot recommend those 2 posts enough:

3) Role Reboot

This blog recently posted a piece entitled We Need to Talk about Depression, and Everyone Needs to Listen. It describes, step by step, the gradual descent into depression, and it debunks the common myths surrounding that genuine disease:

That's what depression looks like for many people. We are not depressed because we are selfish, lazy, or weak, and we know we are difficult—even infuriating—to live with. So we often cling to denial as tightly as people who don’t understand that depression is a life-threatening disease, people who believe depression is a narcissistic behavior. But it's not a behavior at all.

For the whole article, (again, highly recommended):

4) Wipe Out Suicide

If you're on Facebook, please check out their page. Lots of great stuff there.

5) The song that best describes depression (I translated the lyrics below):

Maman, by Pierre Lapointe

Mom, tell me why
The birds deep in my heart
Cry each and every minute
Even if you're there to comfort them
Mom, tell me why
Everything that moves around me
Makes me feel like crying
Like the day I came out of you

If that's what it's like to be 20
I'd rather be a child
If that's what it's like to be 20
I'd rather die now

Mom, tell me why
I feel old inside
Even if the minutes of my hours 
Are still to young to put me to sleep
Mom, tell me why
Happiness, in my hands
Breaks like porcelain
Is it because I'm too clumsy
Or because life likes me no more

In conclusion

Depression spares no one, but it's not a reason to surrender to it. Know yourself, and surround yourself. Never, ever, face it alone.

Let's all focus on this quote from the movie Hugo, which reminds us that we all have a reason to be here:

Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains takes you to places. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine... I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

For more on depression, you can do a search at the top right corner of this page.

Update: Since I posted this piece, 2 days ago, I received a very serious confidence. This post prompted a good friend of mine to confide in me, and to tell me she has been having suicidal thoughts for a while now. I am keeping the communication lines open, and she will see her psychologist today to talk about it. 

This is exactly why we need to talk openly about this difficult topic: so that people feel more comfortable opening up and getting help. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Who am I?

The Jordan Collective, Flickr

How often do you ask yourself that question:

"Who am I?"

Knowing who we are is the first step toward making the right choices for ourselves. Sometimes it's surprising how little we know about ourselves, or how misleading our views of ourselves can be.

If you're skeptical, think about this: if we were really clear on our deepest nature, needs and aspirations, we would be able to fulfill our own needs and feel content pretty much all the time, wouldn't we?

Intrapersonal intelligence, or the knowledge of oneself (through introspection), is one of the eight intelligences put forward by Howard Gardner's Theory of multiple intelligences, and a trait that I've always considered particularly important, even before I knew about this theory.

To do a short test and discover which intelligences are your strongest: 

Not only is it useful, it's fun to reflect on our personality and intrinsic tendencies. No later than this morning, I was chatting with D, and we commented on how the girls have been playing with dinky cars lately. D and I were both dinky cars enthusiasts in our younger years. I said that my brother and I would bring them to the sandbox, where we would build a whole city, complete with buildings, roads, rivers, etc. to play with our dinkies. D said: "I would never have put my dinkies in the sandbox, because it ruins them." I replied "Well I did, because it's so much fun."

That single observation tells a lot about D's personality and mine: he is good at discipline and responsibility. His things are always in order. I am good at fun and enjoyment of life. My things are often messy. We were already like that as kids, and apparently it hasn't changed. Which is perfect, because we complete each other really well. Without him I would lead a disorganized life, and without me he would lead a boring life.

(The best part of D being so careful is that his dinky cars stayed in such a good shape that they are the ones our daughters play with, some 30 years later.)

Any trait of your personality that you can trace back to your childhood? How does your spouse (or best friend) compare?

In my teens, I got a book that's a fantastic catalyst for self-knowledge: The Book of Questions, by Gregory Stock.

Some examples include:

  1. For what in life do you feel most grateful?
  2. What has been your biggest disappointment in life? Your biggest failure?
  3. What would you like to be doing 5 years from now? What do you think you will be doing 5 years from now?
  4. Would you have one of your fingers surgically removed if it somehow guaranteed immunity from all major diseases?
  5. If you could spend one year in perfect happiness but afterward would remember nothing of the experience would you do so? If not, why not?
  6. Would you be willing to go to a slaughterhouse and kill a cow? Do you eat meat?
  7. What do you seek in a friend yet neither expect nor want in a lover? Are you attracted to people who are healthy for you to be around?
  8. Is there something you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?

And many more thought-provoking ones. Those questions are fascinating because they force you to question your deepest values and priorities, your strengths and your weaknesses.

Answering questions like these builds self-awareness, but you can also use it as a conversation starter and to get to know people better. You can even have your own "game of questions" with friends or family, where each of the participants comes up with her/his own question for the group. Today, we played with the children. Here are some of the questions we came up with:

Aimed at the adults:

  • Would you rather run 25 km or spend a night alone in the jungle (with no tent)?
  • Would you rather have 12 children or no child at all?
  • Would you rather eat unhealthy junk all the time, or healthy, but very spicy, and sometimes "weird", Chinese food all the time? (we're talking REAL Chinese food)

The real thing (yes, those are scorpion skewers)
(and no, I did not sample them)
Beijing, 2010

  • Would you rather wake up tomorrow able to play whatever you want on your favorite instrument, or able to run ultramarathons (e.g. 100 km)?
  • Would you rather lose all your money or lose your spouse?

Aimed at the kids:

  • Would you rather have no friends whatsoever to play with, or not see your dad for a month?
  • Would you rather eat a piece of pie with ice cream on top, or spend an hour at the lake?

And last but not least:

  • Would you rather burp uncontrollably (and loudly) every 15 minutes, or fart uncontrollably (and loudly) every hour?

So... did any of those questions inspire you? Feel free to provide your answer(s) in the comments below. You could even provide other potential questions!

For more on the topic of self-knowledge:

Know thyself

It's not what I think it is

Show me your neurosis, I'll show you mine

only alice, Flickr

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The cruel truth about weight loss

There are many reasons why we want to lose weight: to improve our health, to feel better, to look nicer.

One thing that does not vary, however, is this cruel truth: losing weight (and keeping it off) is a tremendous feat.

One of my friends, who's recently been told she has high blood pressure, had been trying to lose weight for quite a while, by exercising regularly and by being careful about what she eats...

... to no avail.

Eventually she started journaling her food. Halfway through the first day, she said to me "Huge reality check! I though I was doing good, but I was still eating way too much!"

I could only acquiesce. I've been there.

Recently I completed a 1-year fitness journey with a personal trainer. I have now been "maintaining" for almost 4 months.

I have also been reading testimonies by other people who have lost weight/have gotten fitter.

What have I discovered?

I discovered that you can reach your goals if you are willing to put the effort. That does NOT mean to starve yourself and exercise like you're preparing an Everest ascent. In fact, I never suffered from hunger or from exercise-related exhaustion.

I discovered that the real key words of weight loss are NOT "difficult" and "painful" (although it WILL be challenging), but rather gradual and sustainable. With this in mind:

- I ate around 1800 calories/day (they add up faster than we think!);
- I aimed for the right proportion of macronutrients (carbs-fat-protein), without excess;
- I exercised intensely 1 hour/day, 6 days a week;
- I was allowed 2 "treats" per week (e.g. wine, dessert, etc.)

I had to make adjustments, but I found this reasonable. I simply did what I had to do, day in, day out.

HOWEVER, what struck me was how little wiggle room I had. This aforementioned program was not too hard to follow, and did bring about the results I was looking for, BUT...

... I soon realized that there was no goofing around. This was my new life, period. Each time I departed from the guidelines, I would almost immediately stop improving, and if I stayed on the wrong track for too long (i.e. more than a few days), I would regain fat and weight, and my workouts would start feeling laboured.

In short, I realized that one of the main components of a healthy lifestyle was consistency. There would be no slacking off, no excuses. Going on vacation? Having company over for a few days? Experiencing stress? Those make it harder to stay disciplined, but you still have to.

Another thing I discovered is that society and the media have been lying to us. Those skinny people you see eating junk and dessert and caloric drinks on TV? A huge lie. You just cannot eat like that and be a thin, fit adult. Sorry folks.

Finally, I discovered that it's totally worth it. The benefits you gain from being slimmer and fitter far exceed what I could fathom.

What have YOU discovered?