What is REDD+?


As you may have guessed after reading the witty quote in the image above, today’s post is all about trees and REDD+. In case you have never heard this term before, I’m not trying to confuse you, trees are of course GREEN not red, and REDD+ is not a typo or the newest funky colour creation by a designer with too much time on their hands.

REDD+ is a mechanism designed by the UNFCCC (remember last month’s post? The UN forum where people negotiate everything to do with climate science and what we can do about climate change) and stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”, which is a bit of a mouthful. As I warned you in last week’s post, the UN community loves its complicated acronyms.

If you wanted to put it into simple terms, you could say that REDD+ means reducing CO2 emissions by not chopping down trees. But alas – the world is not simple and everything is complicated (there’s a bit of optimism for you…).

But let’s take a step back first. This is quite a complex topic and you probably don’t have the patience to read about everything in too much detail in a blog post, but I hope to clarify some of the issues mentioned in this post in future blog posts.

But, anyway. Trees.

Who doesn’t like trees? They’re green, they’re pretty, they provide oxygen, birds live in/on them and we all love to watch squirrels hop from branch to branch. But, of course, trees do much more than serve as a reminder to us romantic city-dwellers that we have a connection to nature. Trees are at the heart of sophisticated ecosystems and play an important role in keeping the world as we know it stable, safe and productive, especially in relation to climate change.

Trees play an important part in mitigating global warming. They are essential in taking up CO2,  the most notorious of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the stuff we like to emit like confetti at a birthday party.

Side note: For anyone who’s asked themselves what the other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are: they are methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur Hexafluroide (SF6). And another interesting tidbit of trivia: Did you know that the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, in other words stable and small concentrations of CO2, actually keep the Earth 33°C degrees warmer than it would be otherwise and make life on this planet – as we know it – possible. The problem is that the stable concentration of 270-280ppm of CO2has increased to 380 ppm since the Industrial Revolution and has since been steadily rising. It is estimated that there are 3,000 gigatonnes of CO2 in the air to which humans add about 26 gigatonnes per year. Great stuff, go us.

But back to trees and why they’re great. Without going into too much detail because most of us are familiar with the process of photosynthesis, green plants convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen, a chemical reaction which requires light energy which is absorbed by chlorophyll, a substance in plants’ leaves. In other words, trees absorb carbon as they grow and provide a stable, so-called, ‘carbon sink’ as they mature. Carbon sinks are natural or artificial reservoirs where carbon compounds are stored for an indefinite period of time. Young trees especially take up higher amounts of carbon as they grow. Although trees do release carbon back into the atmosphere when they die, in a healthy forest carbon sequestration rates are stable and carbon also tends to get locked away in the soil.

The Issue

Deforestation and forest degradation are the second leading cause of global warming, responsible for about 15% of GHG emissions. Moreover, some forest-rich countries are losing forests at an alarming rate: Indonesia, for example, has lost 6 million hectares of forest between 2000-2012 – that’s an area half the size of England. And it gets worse: Indonesia’s primary forest loss is increasing by an average of 47,600 hectares per year.

As a result, tree planting, reforestation and afforestation have become popular methods to mitigate climate change and global warming. But forests are not just important for the climate. There is also a vast amount of people around the world who depend on forests for their livelihoods.

The Center for International Forestry Research reports that 1.6 billion people in total directly depend on forests to sustain their ways of live, and 90% of people living in extreme poverty depend on forests for their livelihoods. 22.2% of household incomes in developing countries depend on forests for fuelwood, building poles, building materials or NTFP (non-timber forest products), such as food security, cultural practices or medicinal needs). Moreover, more than 75% of the world’s accessible fresh water is provided by forest catchments. And then there’s all the other benefits that forests provide like erosion control, flood prevention, protecting watersheds etc…

At the same time, forests around the world are under serious pressure. As the global population grows, there is rising need to expand agricultural land to guarantee food security at local, national and international level. The reason why I say local, national and international is that both subsistence agriculture, i.e. local populations farming for their own needs, and commercial agriculture result in forest clearing for cropland or pasture. At the same time, many governments give concessions to logging and/or mining companies to deforest land or extract forest resources for commercial products. Other drivers of deforestation include urban expansion, infrastructure development, unsustainable harvesting regimes for timber or fuel wood, or natural and/or mad-made forest fires.

NB: A great contributor to forest fires is slash-and-burn agriculture which is the practice of deforesting a plot of land, then burning the remaining vegetation with the purpose of clearing it to convert into agricultural land and using the remaining layer of ash to fertilize crops. Often these forest fires get out of control, like we’ve recently seen in Indonesia. The reason for this is a) didn’t your mum teach you not to play with fire and b) forests, especially in tropical countries, often have peat soil which is highly flammable. Peat soil is a thick type of water-logged soil with high organic density. Read more about Indonesia’s forest fires here

In other words, forests are in BIG trouble which is bad for the climate and the people. It’s not hard to see that many forest-rich countries face pressure from all ends. Yes, they want to protect the climate, biodiversity and ensure healthy ecosystems, but they are also under pressure to supply food and space for growing populations and stimulate their economies to raise their standards of living.

The problem is, of course, that we live on a planet with a finite biosphere. There is a limit to what the human population can do and get away with it, which requires recognizing and respecting planetary boundaries. At the moment, we are doing the opposite, proven by climate change and large-scale biodiversity loss. Yet, we also need to respect the basic needs for humanity, including food security, income generation and access to clean water.

The Solution?

So, the good people at the UN put their heads together and tried to come up with a mechanism that would protect forests from deforestation and degradation and help the climate, but also ensure that countries have an incentive and don’t lose out in doing so.

And thus, REDD+ was born. Launched in 2007 at COP13 in Bali, the UN started designing this programme with the aim to halt forest loss by providing an incentive to developing countries to conserve forests. The essence of REDD+ is providing compensation to developing countries for activities undertaken to protect forests and implement good forest management.

The general idea is to use carbon as a quantifiable metric that payments can be tied to. Or to put it simply: I’ll pay you 10 dollars for every tonne of carbon that you don’t emit from this hectare of forest (*illustrative example). The ‘+’ in REDD+ recognizes that preventing deforestation and forest degradation is not just about reducing emissions, but also about forest conservation, sustainable forest management and enhancing forest carbon stocks (i.e. assisting natural regeneration by planting tree seedlings in degraded areas).

So, that’s all well and good. Problem solved, right? Well – like I said, nothing is ever easy and anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is. Actually, REDD+ has been difficult to kick off and is in fact still ‘in development’.

First of all, it’s been remarkably hard to get countries ‘REDD-ready’. REDD-readiness refers to whether countries would have done all the necessary homework and have an idea how a REDD+ project would actually look like. For one, this means identifying the root causes of deforestation, as well as identifying all the stakeholders that are affected by how forests are managed. Often, countries are able to identify direct drivers of deforestation, such as giving concessions to multinationals to implement palm oil plantations, but find it difficult to address the underlying drivers of deforestation: international markets, commodity prices etc.

Secondly, we are talking about trees and forests as these abstract things we can collectively decide about. But the fact is, people live in forests and use them a certain way. Offering them compensation for changing their ways is often not enough to really tackle the issue. Moreover, some developing countries suffer from the lack of good governance and are affected by corruption, which often means forest-dwelling communities aren’t consulted at all. Imagine you live in a community that has traditionally had access to the forest to cater to your needs, and suddenly the government says “Sorry, but this resource is now off limits to you – sucks to be you”. Or, perhaps the situation is reversed and the community really wants to protect its forest, but the government wants to continue giving concessions to logging companies. There are a myriad of ways in which implementing a REDD+ project could lead to tensions between local communities, district administrations and national governments.

Forest governance and land tenure have therefore been important sticking points in designing REDD+ policies. Who has the right to decide over how to use land and how can we ensure that everyone’s needs are balanced with forest conservation? The point is that any such programme requires large-scale consultation and sometimes institutional reform to make forest protection work- and that often takes time and political will. Furthermore, this also implies investment in capacity-building and training communities on how to ‘do’ forest protection: how to patrol areas to prevent illegal logging, how to measure and monitor changes to canopy covers, how to move away from slash-and-burn agriculture, etc.

In order to prevent countries from implementing badly designed policies in relation to REDD+, the UNFCCC introduced REDD+ safeguards at the 16th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico. These safeguards set as prerequisites that actions must be consistent with national forest programmes and international agreements; that national forest governance is transparent and effective and in line with national sovereignty; that knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities is respected; that all stakeholders have full participation, especially local communities; that actions are consistent with forest conservation and forest protection is incentivised to enhance social and environmental benefits; actions to address reversals; actions to address displacement of emissions.



The other side of REDD+readiness is very technical and has to do with how to quantify the reduction of carbon emissions which payments could be based on. As the general idea is to introduce performance-based payments tied to carbon sequestration, countries need to sort out the science: setting baselines, establishing reference levels, determining deforestation rates, implementing monitoring systems, addressing the problem of permanence and leakage, which are (the last) two points addressed by the Cancun safeguards. Without getting too much into the technicalities, leakage refers to the fact that conservation in one area must not shift deforestation to another area, and permanence refers to long-term emission reductions through forest protection as opposed to communities/governments changing their minds about forest protection after a few years of conservation.

Thirdly, there is of course the tiny problem of: With what money exactly are we going to pay communities to protect their forests? More than $8.7 billion in public and private sector funding has been committed to 47 countries in getting REDD+ underway from 2006-2014, which has funded a lot of REDD+ readiness activities in different countries, such as policy design, establishment of MRV (Measuring, Reporting and Verification) systems, and designing REDD initiatives, but this investment is perceived to be small in comparison to what’s needed to make REDD+ a working mechanism for forest conservation.

Proposed transfer mechanisms include carbon trading (as in, paying for carbon credits from REDD which could be ‘retired’ on the voluntary or compliance carbon market), or paying for sustainable forest management. So far, there is no formal mechanism for REDD+, meaning there is no regulatory framework for forest carbon credits, and there has been no formalised international recognition for the role of forests under the Kyoto Protocol (something that seems to have been corrected by the Paris Agreement of COP21, see below).

Although voluntary REDD+ pilot projects have started around the world and forest carbon credits have been traded on the voluntary market, there has been lacking demand for supporting REDD+ schemes due to a lacking binding international agreement that includes forest carbon. In other words, there has been no signal to the market that people should buy these credits, so people haven’t.

Nevertheless, things are looking up. In November 2015, just at the start of COP21, Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom announced a joint agreement to pledge US $5 billion to REDD+ under the UNFCCC to performance-based emission reductions. This has signalled an important shift in policy to advance REDD+ and to take forests into account within the broader climate change mitigation agenda, or as Steven Schwartzman, the Senior Director of Tropical Forest Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, put it:

“This is the most important signal that this COP can send for forests,” he said. “What forests needed here was a real signal that donor countries were going to come up with adequate funding to support countries that are really putting serious programs in place to reduce deforestation and show that it’s working.”

Looking forward

Luckily for all of us, the international binding agreement at COP21 has recognized the vital roles of forests for the climate, local livelihoods and biodiversity. The details of the Paris agreement have yet to be hashed out, so there is still no clarity around how a market mechanism for REDD+ would look like or what other options there are to successfully finance REDD+. It may be possible that a new market mechanism will be created for just forest carbon, or that public-private or bilateral partnerships will become more important to stimulate investments for forest emission reductions.

Ecosystem Marketplace’s Supply Change initiative recently reported that around 300 major commodity companies, including Walmart, L’Oréal, Danone, and McDonald’s amongst other, have made commitments to fight deforestation from within their long and complex supply chains.

Many critics of this scheme say that REDD+ is just another way of commoditising nature. Should the vital ecosystem service of carbon sequestration really be a tradeable product? And is it fair that developing nations, the least polluting countries, have to keep their forests standing so that developed nations can go about ‘business as usual’? These are some of the ideological questions tied to REDD+ that resonate with some of the criticisms around carbon markets – why is it that we have to put a dollar sign on everything to recognize its inherent value? Well, this is a subject I will leave for another day since this blog post is already quite wordy and should probably come to an end here.

Going back to the beginning of this post – my personal idea is to put WIFI chips into all the living trees on earth, so that we have great and free signal everywhere and recognise the value of trees.

For more information on REDD+, watch this video:





Why does COP21 matter?

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while. The main reason for this is that I went through a bit of a life change that has distracted me a bit: After 3 years of living in Panama, I moved back to Edinburgh last January. When I say “I moved back’, I should stress that I am not actually from Edinburgh but that I went to university in Edinburgh 5 years ago.

I moved back because I started a new job at an NGO which deals with sustainable development. As most people who’ve moved around a bit will know, it is thrilling and exciting to move on to new and exciting things, but sometimes it’s also exhausting and challenging to adjust to new places and new tasks. I’ve been itching to get back into the blogging game, but have to admit that I used my free time last year mainly to do brain-numbing things (about to finish the Harry Potter series…) to prevent information overload as I often felt overwhelmed and exhausted.

Even though I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions as I find you usually just end up disappointing yourself, I’ve been meaning to revive this blog for a long time now, and so I decided that 2016 is the time and place to finally time to get my stuff together and get back to writing.

Although I’m still interested in popular science, there’s going to be a bit of a thematic shift on this blog. I will probably move a bit more towards discussing environmental and sustainable development issues, mainly because that’s the field I work in and find fascinating, but also for the very selfish reason of being better able to understand some of these concepts by writing them down.

For months, I’ve been racking my brains on how to find the right theme or opening to get into writing about environmental issues and how to frame a series of posts on sustainable development. Luckily, I’ve basically just had a opening handed to me on a silver platter – ta-daaaahhh – the most recent Paris Climate Conference, COP21! Which I went to!

COP21 – what’s the big deal?

If you work in a certain field, you always kind of just expect everyone to know what’s going on in your line of work although they have nothing to do with it.  So, I was very surprised when I told people excitedly that I would be going to COP21 and most people reacted like this:



So, to break it down: COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’, referring to the UNFCCC parties. Yes, that’s another acronym. Get used to it. The whole sustainable development field is a minefield – or playground, some might say – of cumbersome acronyms that you have to hear and write down at least 10 times until you get them right. And I still said ‘UN-F-C-C-C’ for years until I found out that you say ‘UN-triple-C’. Duh.

UNFCCC stands for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is a treaty/convention that came out of the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio. It’s basically a forum for countries to come together to measure progress related to climate change mitigation and to come up with implementation strategies. COP – Conference of the Parties – is the main event at which the UNFCCC parties convene. The number at the end of the COP acronym indicates how many conferences there have been.

So, I travelled to Paris at the end of November last year to attend COP21, where I had access to both the main site (where the ‘suits’ hang out) and the public ‘Climate Generations’ area (where the ‘hippies’ hang out). Of course, it’s not as black and white as this, but the official area certainly seemed a lot stiffer. I was a complete COP-newbie and therefore felt very cool and important walking around the grounds with my flashy badge. I soon realised that being excited about being at COP was my first rookie mistake because everyone I ran into just rolled their eyes and told me how they had ‘COP fatigue’ and how it was ‘soooo boring’. And to some degree, I could understand the weariness. Especially after a couple of days when I realized that being at COP means a whole lot of meetings and running around and eating overpriced conference food. Nevertheless, there was a certain excitement in the air.

The past couple of COPs have been unsuccessful in the sense that countries failed to agree on targets, language, goals…basically everything you need to come up with an agreement. But there was a glimpse of hope in the air as many expected this to be the “now or never” COP. Many effects of climate change are already being felt around the world and for too long it seemed that the international community was sacrificing the needs of the poorest (and of future generations) whilst pushing the regenerative capacity of the environment to its limits. The last time the international community attempted to come up with an agreement at  COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was a complete failure and there were fears that this COP would follow suit.

But why was COP15 such a failure?

First of all, there were heightened expectations for the international community to come up with a plan to curb emissions and protect ecosystems around the globe. These hopes were sadly disappointed when China and the US came in at the last minute and wanted most of the targets and binding agreements that country delegations had been working on for 2 weeks to be taken out or re-written. The result was that there was no unanimous agreement, meaning that there was a general agreement that climate change was dangerous and should be prevented, but this ‘agreement’ was only ‘noted’ not ‘adopted’. On a slightly cynical note, one could say that this is something that most sane people agree on and that there is no need to fly people around the globe and sit together in a room for 2 weeks to come up with that. Moreover, there was no binding agreement to reduce emissions in order to keep temperatures from rising to above 2°C degrees.

What was different about this COP?

Most of the people who had so-called ‘COP-fatigue’, e.g., NGOs, civil society organisations, environmentalists and members of delegations, all felt that for too long there had been a too much talk and not enough action, as well as endless repetitions of stating the issues without coming up with solutions. Meanwhile, many rural communities in developing countries have already suffered the impact of climate change – changing precipitation patterns, frequent and elongated periods of droughts, sea level rise, heat waves, declining biodiversity, reduced water availability, etc. For many communities who rely on agriculture for subsistence this has life-threatening consequences. All the while, the global population is increasing together with its demand for food. Although poverty is declining in many emerging economies, especially in China and India, and many people have broken into the middle class, the rising demand for goods and food, especially grains, meat and dairy, has created more pressure on our natural resources. This, on the other hand, has contributed to further environmental degradation (deforestation, establishments of large-scale industrial plantations, large-scale livestock rearing…). Not to single out developing countries here, obviously developed countries have contributed far more to global warming over the last fifty years.

But, a few things happened last year which bode well for things to come.

In September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, also called SDGs or Global Goals, were announced. The SDGs form a continuation of the MDGs (the Millennium Development Goals) which ‘came to an end’ in 2015 as they were only designed to run from 2000 – 2015. We shall delve into this topic more thoroughly in a future blog post, but the reason why it is important to note that the SDGs were announced is that the global community adopted and showed commitment to achieving 17 VERY AMBITIOUS sustainable development goals which range from ending poverty, to improving food security and gender equality, to ensuring peace on earth (a though list can be found here). Another thing that was ‘new’ about the SDGs was that it stressed the participation of all levels of society, public, private and civil, instead of leaving sustainable development up to governments and development aid. Check out this nice video from IIED, to find out more:

So, why does this matter? This is of course a slightly subjective interpretation but it should be noted that the SDGs have set the scene for countries to be more ambitious. Building up to COP21, there was a massive, global announcement to commit to 17 difficult, intertwined global goals and to tackle global issues that affect us as a global community and therefore require the global community to work together. Many organisations, including public, private and non-profit entities have since announced that they have decided to align their organisational goals with the SDGs (‘Aligning’ with the SDGs in this case means that organisations actively attempt to contribute and report against achievements in the context of the SDGs). Almost at the same time, the US and China announced they were going to support an ‘ambitious’ agreement at the Paris Climate Conference (aka COP21).  This created a certain momentum which filled many people with that wonderful lets-roll-our-sleeves-up-and-get-s**t-done-son-motivation.

What was agreed at this COP21?

The Paris agreement has been dubbed the ‘world’s greatest diplomatic success’, an agreement signed by 193 countries all committing to reducing GHG emissions and combating global warming. That is a pretty great achievement and a huge success. But of course success doesn’t come overnight. The international community seemed to have been determined not to repeat the failures of COP15. This meant, not bringing in country leaders at the last minute to review progress but to involve them right from the start and then again at the end.

Moreover, countries were asked to do their homework. COP19 and COP20 ‘invited’ countries to work on their ‘INDCs’ (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions)

*I think ‘invited’ in this context is bureaucratic speak for ‘get your butt in gear’.

This invitation extended from developed and developing countries and shifted away from the previous attitude that preventing climate change should be mainly the work of the heaviest polluters, i.e. industrialised nations. By designing the INDCs, countries had to come up with their own plans on how they were going to cut emissions and, perhaps most importantly, how much this is going to cost.  They also had to indicate whether targets were unconditional and could be achieved without external funding, or conditional, meaning dependent on further funding. Needless to say, we are (probably) talking about whatever-comes-after-trillions of $ here.

For many years, the target that had been kicking around was to limit global warming to 2°C degrees. However, in the build-up to COP, many countries started stressing thtat a more ambitious target would be to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C degrees. This was something that especially Pacific island states, which are severely threatened by sea level rise, had been lobbying for relentlessly.

In fact, it recently emerged that there had been a ‘secret’ coalition of 100 countries, including 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, as well as the US and the EU member states, that had been formed 6 months before COP to ensure that there was an agreement that was (1) legally binding; (2) included a long-term goal in line with scientific advice, (3) which ruled to review countries’ emissions reduction commitments every five years and (4) paved the way for a unified system for tracking progress.

Now, there are two things here that kind of blow my mind:

  1. To see the US amongst this list of countries (Don’t they think climate change is all a hoax..? Could there be…progress???! *glimmer of hope in her eyes*
  2. Why do you need a secret coalition when it comes to pretty straightforward things like “hey guys maybe let’s not f—k up the planet?!”

Side note: In my head, this ambitious, environmentally friendly coalition met on a secret secret island and uploaded their secret plants on a secret USB which could only be guarded by James Bond himself who was hunted and chased by the bad guys but got  away in his super tuned Prius – ethanol from certified sustainable corn only! Although, I think we all know, it was probably just a boring email chain with someone going “Oh hey, so…big idea, guys! Since we can’t actually really predict how much temperatures will rise and we have no idea how to mobilise the trillions needed to finance emission reductions and this is a totally arbitrarily chosen target anyway, shall we just go for the one that sounds better?”

Anyway, judging from reports by the Guardian, the Secret Coalition swept in at the last minute, 3 days before the conference came to a close, and successfully lobbied other delegations to adopt the 1.5°C target and include the aforementioned points into the agreement. Other key aspects of the agreement include:

  • The inclusion of the term ‘human rights’ in the preamble
  • Countries are now allowed to link their carbon markets and to establish a ‘net mitigation mechanism’ (carbon markets and market-based approaches shall be discussed in a future blog posts)
  • Non-market approached to sustainable development
  • Encouragement to actively involve forests as a means to cut carbon emissions
  • National strategies on lowering GHG emissions until 2050
  • Requirements for developed countries to take the lead on mobilising climate finance
  • Continues review of emission reduction targets on a 5-year rolling basis

Great stuff – so, everything’s fine, right? The world is fixed. Woo – let’s p–

Not so fast.

Like any agreement, this one is not perfect. And, as usual, the most interesting question is: What happens now?

Here are the sticking points that are still not entirely clear post-Paris:

  • The agreement mentions new, flexible market and non-market mechanisms to lower carbon emissions. Does that  we have to throw everything we have (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol) out of the window and come up with something new?
  • What’s the role of forest protection in this agreement and how can forest protection be incentivised (Next post will be on REDD+)
  • Is it possible to mitigate and adapt to climate change at the same time, and is adaptation to climate change perhaps more important given that many countries already struggle with the impacts of climate change? And most importantly, who will pay for all this?
  • How do we generate the funds to come up with technologies and financing to provide the solutions and/or incentives for countries to meet emission targets?
  • It seems like we will have an ‘interim’ period of 5 years (2015-2010) in which the parties will negotiate on how to implement the Paris agreement in which a lot of previous mechanisms and instruments, like the Kyoto Protocol, the EU ETS and other compliance carbon markets, seem to be a bit limbo.

I will attempt to look at these questions in more depth over the next couple of months on this very blog, and hopefully also discuss some of the concepts and policies that matter in this context. More to come in the next few weeks – stay tuned.

Until then, I’d like to get on my moral high horse for a second and remind everyone that climate change should not be seen as an abstract thing that can or should be left to politicians. If you want to actively contribute to reducing GHG emissions, there are many things you can do. Question your lifestyle! Walk/bike/car-share to work, simply turn the lights off when you leave a room, cut out or reduce meat intake, eat and buy local, stop eating strawberries in December, stop eating avocados or other imported food altogether, buy second-hand, recycle, fly less, grow your own food…there are so many things each and everyone of us can do to minimise our own carbon footprint. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to do everything (unless you are a really selfless person that wants to make us all look bad), just do what you can.

(High horse called me a hypocrite and ran away).

Millennials, let’s talk about Failure

Today, I’m very proud to share one of my articles featured on HelloGiggles.

Instead of copying and pasting the article on here, I’d like to encourage you to go to the following link and check it out.

The article is all about how Gen Y needs to be more open in talking about failures and sacrifices, rather than just focusing on success and image-crafting.



Are we natural-born grumps?


Let’s start this post with a little experiment.

Think about yesterday (or last week. Or even last year, if you wish).

Before you read on, make a list of three events that you remember clearly about yesterday, or whichever time-frame you have chosen.

(are you thinking and listing?)


Ok, here goes my list:

Yesterday, …

1. I couldn’t go running after work because I forgot to bring socks (Panama -> hot -> running without socks -> blisters…and also it’s kinda euw to sweat in your shoes). By the time I got home, it was already too late and I was hungry. I’m not going to lie – it pissed me off. (Luckily there was a crappy talent show on TV about Ricky Martin giving a poor schmuck song writer “the chance of his lifetime” by stealing recording his song and making it the official world cup single. The song went something like this “La vida buena…Buena Vida…oooaahh…eh eh eh…”. They spent about half an hour of the one-hour TV show trying to re-write a line in the song that went “Everyone around the world, every boy and every girl” because Ricky Martin felt it was “too simple”. Mind you, the chorus line “vida buena – buena vida..ooaah…eh eh…” is at such a high level of eloquence, how could you ever hope to match it… After hours of deliberation they changed it to “Everyone across the world: man and woman, boy and girl”. Much better, Ricky Martin)

…I’m rambling…

2. I got a lovely packed lunch from this little organic shop, but I didn’t check the price tag and ended up paying $12 for it – it was rice, tofu and vegetables. Delicious, but overpriced. I’m not going to lie – it pissed me off. Let’s hope it was some kind of super-nutritious-omega-3-superfood-organic rice.

3. (happened this morning not yesterday) Woke up at 5.30 am and couldn’t go back to sleep. How cruel is it that I wake up half an hour before my usual wake-up time on a Saturday. Ugh! Guess what – it pissed me off.

So yeah…to summarize my list: WHINE, WHINGE, MOAN.

What does your list look like? If yours is all “Had a picnic up a hill; Enjoyed a lovely meal; Managed to meet up with my wonderful friends” – Congrats! You seem to be a nice person.

If your list looks more like mine: Hello there, fellow grump!

But hey, don’t feel bad. Embrace the grump-hood. Because, guess what, it is actually more common for people to remember negative rather than positive events.

Why? Well, our brains are just built that way.

In 1998, John Cacioppo, Ph.D, set out to study how the human brain processes negative and positive stimuli. He did this by showing a test group different types of pictures: ones that are known to evoke positive feelings (food, landscapes, etc…), ones that are known to produce neutral feelings (furniture, objects…), and lastly pictures that were known to provoke negative feelings (roadkill, injuries, death, etc). The results showed that activity in the cerebral cortex (that’s somewhere in your brain) was much more stimulated by negative emotions.

And if you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, it only makes sense. Back when our ancestors inhabited caves, we had to learn fast. Survival meant learning from your mistakes and processing information connected to negative experiences. I’m sure when poppa caveman sat down with his kids, he wasn’t  like “Hey kids, I ate some wonderful leaves today…they sure did give me explosive diarrhoea but who cares the world is a beautiful place, so you should all try them”.

Baumeister at al (2001) go on to say:

…it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes. A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad out- come) even once may end up maimed or dead.

So actually, our brain is actually trying to protect us from ending up getting eaten or injured. Nevertheless, the days of being chased by saber-toothed tigers are done and dusted. Instead you’re probably just trying to go about your day, maybe at a boring desk job, living a pretty safe adult-life. Thanks, brain. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In fact, there’s a whole region in your brain constantly anticipating crap to happen. The amygdala (humans have two of these almond-shaped regions in their brains) uses about two-thirds of its neurones just to look for bad news. Once it finds the slightest, little bad thing it rejoices about having done its job, and stores it immediately in your memory. Interestingly enough, it’s much harder for us to remember positive things. You need to be aware of positive feelings or events for at least 12 seconds or more to transfer them to your long-term memory (Hanson, 2010). I guess, that’s why it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the little things in life.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called “negativity bias”, according to which people are more likely to make decisions based on avoiding negative experiences (Baumeister et al).

Thinking about our little experiment at the beginning of this post, it now makes sense that I only recalled negative events (apart from the Ricky-Martin-show which did last longer than 12 seconds…). Since we spend so much energy on processing negative feelings, it’s only logical that we dwell on our mistakes and frustrations. However, there is a danger of internalizing negativity.

But, can we get around this?

Well, there are two approaches here.

1) The “Think Positive” approach: YES, WE CAN.

2) The “Embrace your Negativity” approach: JUST DEAL WITH IT.

The “Think Positive” approach says that if you practice mindfulness and highlight positives, you may be able to re-wire your brain, especially by focusing on optimism and gratitude.

And, being positive isn’t all bad. Barbara Fredrickson, a happiness researcher at the University of North Carolina, argues that positive feelings and emotion help us to reduce stress (duh), as well as broaden our scope of attention, cognition and action.

Moreover, positive thinking can enhance our happiness and satisfaction with life (another duh, I guess). This is because positive emotions, although fleeting, can lead to upward spirals in mood and behaviour. Positive psychology, a nascent field in psychology, is contributing research into what makes people happy, and how to make communities and individuals more resilient through positivity.

Approach #2, which I’ve dubbed “Embrace Your Negativity”, raises some concerns over whether it’s actually good to force yourself to think positively because it is not natural. We don’t “need” positive thinking for survival, and we apparently make bad decisions if we don’t get scared by all the stuff that could possibly go wrong. In a nutshell, this approach says that “faking it” can make things a lot worse. We are all grumpy, miserable gits – get on with it.

But, there is a way to bridge these two approaches: As humans, we tend to overanalyse and over-think. So, while there may be a kernel of truth to negative feelings (“I’m unhappy in my job”), our brains tend to blow things way out of proportion. What’s more, we tend to construct our individual realities around negative experiences (“I will never get my dream job”). Are things perfect? Probably not. Are you worthless/sad/crappy (insert whichever adjective of doom and gloom is most fitting in your situation)? Probably not.

If positive thinking doesn’t do it for you, maybe realist thinking does.

In one of my favourite  video productions of last year, This is Water, the late (and great) David Foster Wallace argues that negativity bias often comes down to an inherent and unconscious belief that the world revolves around our individual selves and our own frustrations. But, he also points out that it is entirely your own choice of how you look at things if you practice self-awareness.

“…If I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable…most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose … what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down…Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

If you haven’t seen “This is Water” yet, check it out here. It is one of those videos that instantly puts me in a good mood. Besides Ricky Martin’s Vida, obviously.

Do we have Comparitis?

comparing yourself

Before I start off, it’s time for a quick announcement/apology/random news: These lines are reaching you from my shiny new laptop! Since my laptop broke back in January, I’ve done pretty much 0 writing – obviously much to the disappointment of all of you, my loyal reader(s) (hi mum!). But here’s the good news: Now that I have a new laptop I made a deal with myself to blog at least once a week. And I’m sure I will keep this great resolution for at least a week. If not two.

So, please hold me to it.

Seriously. Hold me to it, Mum.

Ok, moving on.

The other day I met up with a friend for coffee. She had signed off Facebook a few weeks earlier and was kind of out of the loop on upcoming events, people’s whereabouts etc. I asked her why she had decided to quit Facebook and she told me that she constantly felt like she had to measure up to other people.

I see where she’s coming from. It’s no secret that there’s a fair bit of image crafting going on across social networks. People carefully select which news or photos to share, and often create a better version of their lives online. “Hey there, here’s my ultra-healthy, locally sourced meal that I made from scratch. I also run marathons and have abs as hard as rock. I would also like you to know that I volunteer and recycle and help poor children in Africa. I am a free spirit and butterfly farts are all I need to be happy, but I also still have enough money to go on really cool vacations 3 times a year. Beach selfieeeee!”

Now, I’m not pointing any fingers here. I’m guilty of this too. In fact, most of you are probably only reading this article because I posted it on Facebook. While some of you might roll your eyes “oh great, another person with a blog, how original”, others will (hopefully) enjoy reading it. But there may also be people who’ll think “why do I never have time to blog, I wish I had as much time as Eva” (I am obviously in the mood to flatter myself).

Well, fret not! Apparently, it’s all too common for people of my generation to suffer from…Comparitis (dun-dun-duuuuuuuun).

What’s Comparitis, you may ask?

Compartis is a fancy way of referring to the concept social comparison, a theory originally developed by Leon Festinger in 1954. Social comparison theory says that we determine our own self-worth based on how we compare to other people, leading us to constantly evaluate ourselves across various aspects of personal and social life (looks, wealth, success, etc) (Psychology Today, 2014)

So,1954 – obviously that’s waaaay before Facebook and Twitter. Although many people attribute comparitis to social networks and Generation Y, social comparison has existed for a long time. Social networks just make comparison much easier because we put our lives on display.

Festinger (1954) developed nine hypotheses to show that humans compare themselves to others in order to inform their circumstances, reduce uncertainties and define themselves (For brevity’s sake, I have listed only five of the hypotheses below, but feel free to do some further reading here)

1. Humans have a need to evaluate their needs and abilities objectively.

2. If there are no objective means available, people evaluate themselves in comparison to other people and their surroundings.

3. We tend to compare ourselves with people who have similar opinions and abilities.

4. Humans tend to place value on improving their abilities, i.e. getting better at things, whereas we don’t put as much emphasis on having “better” opinions.

5. Nevertheless there are restraints that make it impossible for some people to improve their abilities. You can (in theory) always change your opinion though.

He also argues that communication between people primarily serves to reach agreements within groups. This uniformity of opinion is caused by (1) group dynamics and (2) the human need for confirmation of having an “accurate” opinion and preference. Moreover, when people in our social groups agree on certain things, it helps us shape and validate our social reality. Nevertheless, Festinger interprets social comparison as a means of self-enhancement.

So, enough about the why. How do we compare ourselves? Most people usually compare themselves by looking at people who they consider to be either below or above their skill set/circumstances. This is called downward and upward comparison. What is downward comparison? Ever had a really shite day and then suddenly thought “At least my life doesn’t suck as bad as John’s”?! (…and did it make you feel better)? Well, this is a downward comparison. Great for you, but sucks for John!

Upward comparisons are not as straight-forward. It can go both ways. They can make you feel better or worse. We usually use upward comparisons with people that we consider better than ourselves at something – a skill, ability, social standing, looks, you name it. This type of comparison can make us feel terrible when we feel we don’t measure up, but it can also make us feel better. How? For one, it can make you want to improve and actually get better. In an experiment, Taylor and Lobel (1989) showed that breast cancer patient’s self-esteem was increased when they learned about breast cancer survivors, mainly because it gave them hope.

To sum up, most researchers agree that social comparison is based on the need to evaluate ourselves, but also to reinforce or maintain positive self-images.

So, comparing yourself isn’t all bad then.

Except of course when comparison overrides objective self-assessment. And this unfortunately happens all too often. The study Neighbours as Negatives: Relative Earnings showed that most of our income satisfaction depends on comparison. For example, if I make 35k a year and my friends make 30k, I’m more likely to be content with my income than compared to a situation in which I make 40k but my friends make 50k.

And then of course, there’s competition.

Sigh. I don’t know about you but I certainly know a fair share of ultra-competitive people who just need to be better at everything. But why compete?

If we agree with Festinger’s theory that one central process of social comparison is comparing ourselves upward in order to improve our abilities and decrease differences between ourselves and others who we deem superior in certain/all aspects of life,  this push to be better can lead to us having better abilities. Competitive behaviour then is a means to protect one’s own superiority (in comparison to others).

Fellow runners, or other people who play sports, understand this concept perfectly. If someone is ahead of you in a race, you try to catch up, and when you do, you try to put as much distance between you and the other person. Because you want to win.

The question is of course – can you win at life? And if so, what’s the prize?

So, let’s look at social networks again. For people suffering from comparitis they can be very frustrating. Why? Because no one will post anything that will allow downward comparison. “Oh, shucks, I’m going to jail” or “oooh damn, another unwanted pregnancy” is rarely something I read in my newsfeed. Instead I only read about great stuff happening to people. And when I have great stuff going on in my life too, I’m genuinely happy for people. But if I’m in a dark place mentally or emotionally, I tend to feel like a waste of space. And what’s more – I feel envy.

As my favourite philosopher Alain de Botton says:

“…if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here…to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she’s much richer than any of you are. And she’s got a large house. The reason we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird…We can’t relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place…And when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them…The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy — which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion — because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody’s the same. And yet, they’re not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities.”

And there you have it. The reason why our generation seems to be especially plagued by comparitis is because we live in a world where we can connect so easily with peers who all present carefully crafted versions of themselves. So of course it is normal to feel frustrated when you think yourself equal to your friends, yet feel like you don’t have the same access to all the awesome things or experiences that they have.

What’s the solution? Social comparison seems to be ingrained in our behaviour, so perhaps there is no solution but to be aware that comparitis is ‘normal’. Whenever I feel envy creeping up, I try to use my friends as inspiration. Everyone likes to get inspired, and if you have a friend who’ve already been there and done that, they can give you lots of tips. So…




What is Happiness?

To begin with: Have you seen Pharrell Williams’s ’24-hour’ music video ‘Happy’ yet? Basically, it’s a loop of his new song “happy” with 24-hours worth of footage of people dancing and singing in the streets.

Go ahead, check it out here (Come back though!!). There might still be 5 or 6 hours worth of “happy” left by the time I post this.

Aww, now you have a soundtrack to tap your feet to while reading this. How wonderful…Of course, if you are a grumpy git like myself, this song will just annoy you and you’re probably unable to listen to the dull, unimaginative, endless repetition of “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof” (what does that even mean?!) – “Clap along if you feel that happiness is a truth” (more like clap along and drink the kool-aid)

And anyway, has anyone forgiven Pharrell for the atrocity of “Blurred Lines” yet? – Oh, decidedly not.

On a side note: Personally, I am convinced this is not *just* a “creative”, “fresh” way to promote a stupid song, but a secret government project to test if we’ll forget about the NSA, Typhoon Hayan or climate change by voluntarily listening to a brain-numbing, repetitive song *in a loop!* about forgetting all your problems. Is anyone thinking what I’m thinking??? Hypnosis!!!

“Clap along if you think happiness is a truth”

“Happy, happy, happy, happy…”

Ah, screw this post, I feel so high on Pharrell’s soothing, mood-lifting voice, I’m gonna go have an orange mocha frapuccino. Woo, the world is a great place.

Ok, I took off my headphones. I can see clearly now. The world is still terrible. Good.

I don’t think there is any other subject that gets as much attention as happiness these days. Every day, my Twitter and Facebook feeds are flooded with new advice on “How to live a Happy Life”, “10 Things that Happy People do”, “The Habits of Supremely Happy People”…It obviously is a topic that many people are SUPREMELY interested in.

In fact, in 2008 4,000 books were published on happiness, while a mere 50 books on the topic were released in 2000 (Flora, 2009). In Bhutan, the Gross National Happiness (GNH) is measured to give an insight into people’s well-being, rather than just the nation’s economic well-being in the form of the GDP. Universally, happiness is seen as a beneficial good.

People are OBSESSED with happiness and achievieng this perpetual state of being happy.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many of my friends have been a lot more interested in happiness and what it means to be happy. I’m not quite sure why, but I assume that it has something to do with age. Most of my friends are in their late twenties or early thirties which seems like a quite mellow phase in life. You’ve sort of done the university/partying-thing, you probably have a good group of friends, maybe a steady relationship and probably some kind of a job. Rather than asking “What am I going to do with my life”, a question which haunts many people in their early or mid-twenties, people have chosen a certain path (even if it’s just a temporary one) and are more likely to ask themselves “Do I like what I’m doing with my life?”.

And this is where “happiness” comes in which, let’s face it, is really a rather elusive concept. I have tons of friends who read all those BS articles on how to be more happy, telling them to “be more mindful” and “practice spirituality” and “cultivate optimism” and “practice gratitude” and other great gems of pseudophilosophy. Ok, thank you, I’ll just change my whole personality, that sounds like a surefire way to be happier. I’ll go meditate about that.

I’ve never really understood obsession with happiness. Although I am aware that every person has their own definition of what happiness means, it has always been clear to me that happiness, or *being happy*, is made up of moments that induce the emotion of happiness. So, my personal concept of happiness is very much tied to the view that it is a temporary and fleeting emotion. I think you can’t be happy all the time, just like you can’t be angry, sad or enthusiastic all the time.

Therefore, I feel happy when I have time to watch Hello Ladies or eat good food or have a really good conversation with a friend. But I’ve never really felt the pressure of having to be happy every moment of my life and reaching this stage of perpetual happiness. I do realize though, that this comes down to a general misuse of the word happiness. Or perhaps my very black-and-white view on the subject.

What happiness should be called is: General Well-Being. Being Satisfied with life. referred to as a general satisfaction with life. Which, to me, is an entirely different concept.

As you can tell, I am a big fan of definitions. So, let’s look at some.

The author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, psychologist Ed Diener simply describes happiness as “subjective well-being”: A combination of general satisfaction with life and having more positive than negative emotions.

One of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman defines happiness as a three-fold concept: It depends on pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The pleasure part is pretty self-explanatory, but what’s interesting is that he emphasizes engagement, in the form of work, family, friends, and hobbies. He also believes that giving meaning to our lives, i.e. using our skills to contributing to a cause or larger purpose, also plays a crucial part in being happy. Seligman also insists that engagement and meaning influence your happiness the most.

Sounds simple enough, right? Happiness = pleasure, positive emotions, engagement, meaning. So, if you want to be happy, experience pleasure, surround yourself with nice people and do something good for society. Done. That’s all there is to happiness, right? Case closed.


It’s much more complex than that. I will highlight this by an example given by Daniel Kahneman (2010): He tells the story of a man who went to a classical concert and listened to a wonderful 20-minute-long symphony which he greatly enjoyed. At the end of the piece, he heard a very loud screech. He told Kahneman: “This ruined my whole experience”.

Kahneman’s response: No, it didn’t. He says the man still had a wonderful, happy experience for a whole 20 minutes, until the very last minute. What the screech ruined was the memory of his experience. Kahneman, who by the way won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for economics and is famous for his work on “happiness economics,  points out with this example that happiness really is a two-dimensional experience.

Let’s explain this with a theoretical scenario:  You just lost your job. Every application you write is rejected. Are you a happy person?

You see, here is where the tricky part is. Of course the person above is not happy in the sense that he/she is missing a major puzzle piece to complete his/her satisfaction with life.

Different scenario: You are in a good relationship. You love your parents. You are healthy. You hate your job. Are you a happy person?

You should be, shouldn’t you? Or not?

Well, there is a very BIG difference on how we judge our own happiness based on our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves”.

Your experiencing self is you at any given moment of the day. You reading this right now. This is your experiencing self.

Your remembering self is the part of you which tells the story of your life, which keeps score. It’s the part of you that, at the end of this, will remember and judge this blog post as a “brilliant insightful piece of writing that made me happy” or a “waste of 20 minutes of my life that I will never get back, and that made me very unhappy”.

So, what’s the point of this remembering self? Think about your last holiday. Do you remember every single experience you lived, every moment that you felt annoyed or happy? Of course you don’t. Otherwise your brain would be filled with useless data. Instead you probably remember an overall feeling of “Hey, what a nice holiday” and a few memories of certain memorable instances. All the individual moments you experienced are largely ignored by your remembering self. This is why Kahneman points out endings play a big role in our experiences. If there is a happy ending, there is probably a happy memory.

That is why happiness is experienced very differently depending on whether you look at your experiencing self or your remembering self. In other words, your experiencing self will give you information on any pleasure that you feel in the very moment. Your remembering self will give you information about how happy you think you are when you think about how happy you are 😉 That is why Kahneman says that you can’t really know how happy you are because it is so relative. It’s relative to your current experiences, it’s relative to how you remember experiences and it’s relative to singling out reference points which you think made you happy (relationships? life expectancy? health? money?).  You might say “I have really great relationships, but I’m not earning enough money” – so how much does the dissatisfaction of not having enough money outweigh your satisfaction with having great relationships?

Complicated, huh?

Good, let’s add to the confusion by adding more complexities to this topic. I like making people unhappy.

Many researchers make a distinction between hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being, which sort of ties in with the concept of the experiencing self and the remembering self. Hedonic well-being is tied to pleasure-seeking and is based on so-called subjective well-being (SWB). This type of happiness says that an individual is happy when experienced positive emotions and overall satisfaction with life are high, and negative emotions are absent or minor (Carruthers & Hood, 2004).

Eudaimonic well-being on the other hand, is strongly tied to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It says that once people experience have covered all their basic needs,  their need for satisfaction will relatively increase to what they have already achieved. Well-being will then also include psychological needs, such as purpose, meaning, autonomy, self-acceptance, etc (Keyes et al., 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2000).

So clearly there are lots of different ways to look at happiness/well-being. The question is – why do researchers even care about defining something so subjective? Well, because in science everything has to be measured and quantified. And you can measure and quantify without knowing what to include. Nevertheless, measuring happiness continues to be quite a subjective field since it largely depends on self-reporting.

Ed Diener (mentioned above) developed the Consider the Satisfaction with Life Scale survey. It asks people to rate from 1 to 7 the following five statements

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Obviously the higher the score, the greater your measured happiness. Nevertheless, the validity of this questionnaire has been questioned because it doesn’t take into account how timely events influence people’s perception of their own well-being. There are other surveys dealing with happiness, such as the Oxford Happiness Survey, the World Values Survey, the Wellbeing study by the Gallup organization and others.

And, of course, happiness isn’t a static mood either, so researchers have found tools to look at the transiency of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi (what a name) has carried out a survey where he contacts study subjects with handheld computers and beepers at random intervals with questions regarding their happiness (Wallis, 2005). This has largely been deemed a very intrusive method to obtain data.

Good old Kahneman has developed a tool to make the perception of happiness less reliant on current moods by introducing a day-reconstruction method which includes a long diary and questionnaire about everything they did the previous day and how they rated their feelings on a seven-point-scale. He used this method on 900 women in Texas which revealed that the activities this group of women rated most positive were: Sex, socializing, relaxing, praying and eating. Somewhere way down the list under cooking was “taking care of my children”, ranked a little above housework. Children – the greatest joy in life.

At least that’s what you would believe if you read the results of a TIME poll on happiness in 2005 in which 35% of respondents that the one thing that brought them the greatest happiness was children.(Wallis, 2005).

So, clearly there is a big discrepancy between things that make us happy in the long-term, compared to things that makes us happy right now. The question is, which matters most?

For anyone interested in the topic, I recommend the following TED talk by Daniel Kahneman, as well as this article.

Halloween Special: Do we like being scared?

Hah-hah-hah-(this is supposed to be the sound of creepy laughter)-ppy Halloween!

Or Happy Samhuinn/Samhain if you’re a pagan.

I personally experienced the best Halloween ever during my time in Scotland. But saying “the best Halloween ever” probably sounds misleading because it suggests I’ve actually celebrated lots of Halloweens in my lifetime. So I should probably mention that I have only really celebrated Halloween once or twice in my life. You see, Halloween was never a big deal in Germany when I was growing up and I only really knew of this holiday because of the Halloween specials of some American TV shows. And even these specials were almost never broadcast on October 31, so as a kid Halloween was just a bit of an obscure American tradition that didn’t seem to be bound to a specific date.


You may ask yourself: “Hang on. When do Germans dress up like policemen/slutty nurses?” (These are literally the only two costumes that came to my mind right now…) Well, I’m happy you ask, dear reader. We have something called “Fasching/Karneval” (depending on where you live in Germany) which is usually celebrated in February. Or for a total of 6 months (if you’re from the Rhineland). So yes, we do have a holiday dedicated to fancy dress, but the only reason why it is spooky is because you have to tolerate drunks in pirate costumes. Nevertheless, I should mention that Halloween seems to have been adopted in Germany. I’ve even seen some kids in costumes today going trick-or-treating, so there you go. It was just before my time. I’m getting old, hooray.

Anyway, so I kind of started to grasp the concept of Halloween when I moved to the UK in 2005. But back then I was a fresher and everyday could have been Halloween with all the fancy dress parties happening on Sussex campus. Either way, it didn’t do much for me. I’m not a big fan of fancy dress (heresy in the UK, it seems). Fast forward to 2010 when I moved to Scotland where I saw the annual Halloween, or Samhuinn, parade on the Royal Mile. And this is where I became a fan.

It really gave me an impulse to look into this holiday which has its origins in Celtic/pagan legends and is originally called Samhain (pronounced Sow-inn), or Samhuinn in Scotland. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s spelled Samhuinn in other places too or if that’s just the Gaelic spelling. If anyone knows – let me know.

For the Celts, Samhain marked the Feast of the Dead, as well as the Celtic New Year which began on the 1st of November. That’s why Samhain kind of has two dimensions. One is the celebration of the eternal cycle of seasons, while the other is about honoring the dead. In a way, you could say that these two dimensions are intertwined because with winter came the cold and with it the “death” of many crops and, potentially, people.

The good old Celts believed that on Samhain the dead were able to mingle with the living because they were “due” to travel to the underworld on that particular day. So the Celtic priests, so called druids, built and lit large bonfires where people gathered to sacrifice animals and food to help the dead get on with their journey. The Celts also believed that the presence of the dead would make it easier to make predictions about the future. According to custom, they also dressed up in costumes or wore masks ( =animal carcasses….yumm) (BBC, Samhain, 2011).

The fire show I saw back in 2010 in Edinbugh more or less acted out the pagan legend of Samhain: Queen Mother Earth was stolen from King Summer by King Winter. Lots of stuff happened and there were lots of half-naked people spitting fire. In the end Kind Winter actually kills King Summer (GASP), buuuuut some very clever druid gave King Summer a mysterious potion allowing him to return from the dead and fight Winter to get back Mother Earth. But just not now. Later in the year. You know, after we’ve had some snow and did some skiing. Just in time when hot wine, mead and punch starts to get old and you’re like “I feel like having an ice cold corona now and this weather just doesn’t go with it. Screw you, winter.”

So, how did Samhain become Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve? Well, by 43 AD most Celtic territory, namely Ireland, many parts of the UK and northern France were conquered by the Roman Empire. Although Christianity was originally considered to be a pagan religion, it later established itself as the main religion of the Roman Empire. By then, Samhain had been integrated into two Roman celebrations: Feralia, a day in late October to commemorate the dead, and Pomona, a holiday on the 31st of October to celebrate the Roman goddess of trees and fruit (History, 2013: Halloween). But after Christianity established itself as the main religion, everyone started to get obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar and more and more missionaries tried to “kindly convince” pagans to stop worshiping butterflies, rainbows and trees and to convert to Christianity.  Then Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD) had a brilliant idea when he said: “Hang on a minute…I know! We should stop trying to convince people that their rituals are bs ans let them celebrate their funny holidays… but, like, make it about Jesus. So then they still celebrate, but they like, celebrate what we want them to celebrate.” And everyone went “Oh Greg, you’re so brilliant.”

So under Pope Gregory, All Martyr’s Day, a previously established holiday for Christian Martyrs, was moved from May 13 to November 1. The evening before All Martyr’s Day was celebrated with bonfires and parades and became All Saints Day, or All-hallows, and eventually Halloween.

Interesting stuff, eh. But actually not my question. Halloween is all about ghosts, witches, demons, you name it…all kinds of scary creatures. I often wonder why we indulge in a holiday that celebrates scary stuff or being scared? And if you think about it, it’s not just Halloween. People seem to be attracted, even fascinated, by being scared and seem to voluntarily seek out the thrill of being scared. Why?

Well. Let’s take a look at what actually happens to your brain and body when you are scared. Like most emotions, experiencing fear is triggered by an entirely unconscious chemical process in the brain.

Imagine this scene: You’re home alone trying to go to sleep. It’s dark and quiet. Then you hear a creaking noise next door…It’s strange because nobody’s home and you can’t imagine where the creaking noise is coming from. While you start listening more intently, your heartbeat gets faster and your blood pressure is rising. Your muscles are tightening. You feel a sudden rush of adrenaline. You hear the creaking noise again. It’s dark, so no one can tell, but your pupils are dilating, and non-essential systems start shutting down. This includes your digestive system. So, perhaps it may be a good time to empty your bladder? … This, my friend, is the fight-or-flight-response, a life-saving response that saved many of your forefathers lives.

But how do we get to the fight-or-flight-response? Well, this is a bit technical, biologically speaking, so bear with me. As you all know, we have different areas in our brains that are responsible for certain emotions, tasks or reactions. Inducing fear is one of the most amazing things our brain can do because the reaction it triggers in your body readies you to run away as fast as you can (flight) or confront the cause of your fear (fight) (Layton, 2013).

Before we go on, let me introduce the 5 main protagonists in your brain here (and their names do suggest it could be a Greek tragedy):

1. Thalamus (gets sensory data, decides where to send it)

“A noise!! Hm!…What could it be? I’ll better send this over to SC, they’ll know what to do”

2. Sensory Cortex (interprets sensory data)

“Hmm…this noise…is creaking…a Creaking Noise! From Next Door! A burglar?? The wind?? A mouse?? A ghost??? A ZOMBIE????”

3. Hippocampus (connects stimuli to memories)

“What’s going on here? A creaking noise, you say? Just like 2 days ago…it was just then wind back then. Anyways, there was a bit of a storm earlier today, so it’s probably just the wind. Simmer down.”

4. Amygdala (decides on what emotion to attach to sensory information)

“Meh. What he said. The wind.”

5. Hypothalamus (decides on fight or flight)

“Ok, so you guys are saying – no running, no fighting, no sh++ing my pants?! Party poopers!! Ok body, back to sleep it is..”

Well, actually the way the process unfolded as described above was the so-called “high road” process. This means that your reaction may have taken a little bit more time, because your brain actively tried to figure out where the noise was coming from. This kind of process gives you a more precise interpretation of a certain stimulus. This also means that the stimulus wasn’t that immediately life-threatening that you had to react instantly.

Instant reactions are mostly a result of the messy “low road” in which stimuli go straight from Thalamus to Amygalda and Hypothalamus, and skip the “voices of reason” (aka sensory cortex and Hippocampus). This would look more like this.

(creaking noise)

Thalamus: “There’s a noise!!! It’s creaking!! Hmm…”


Hypothalamus: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH! PAAAAAANIC! Run for your life!! Remember there’s a knife in the drawer…Why are my pants wet?? AAAAHHHH”

Either way Hypothalamus is the one who decides what we do fight, flight or just calm the eff down.

But still – why be afraid. We’re not exposed to the same threats as our forefathers. There are no more sabre-toothed tigers that could eat us and we don’t share caves with grizzly bears anymore. So, what are people scared of today?

Many people are afraid of certain things because they actually connect a specific fear-inducing event or negative emotion with a certain situation, object or animal. This is often called fear conditioning. Although not all dogs are dangerous, some people who were bitten once may fear all dogs for the rest of their lives.

Often, fear is rather shaped by anticipation than actual experiences or memories. Many people are scared of plane crashes even though they’ve never been in one. Other people are afraid of heights, even though they’re never experienced a tragic fall. The mere potential of potentially falling or crashing instills enough feelings of dread and horror in people that they experience real fear (Layton, 2013).

Often, fear can manifest itself as excessive or irrational in proportion to the imagined or actual danger of a situation. This is what we usually describe as phobias. Phobias are categorized into three classes: Agoraphobia (fear of not being able to escape or getting help), Social Phobia (fears of being in public, being watched or interacting socially), and Specific Phobias. Specific phobias are again categorized into four different areas: situational phobia, fear of the natural environment, animal phobia, and blood-injection-injury phobia. Between those four, there are another 350 phobias (Wood, 1999). Clearly, there’s a lot to be afraid of.

But, back to Halloween. The popularity of this holiday suggests that many people like being confronted with creatures we assume to be horrifying (I say assume because most of us have probably seen Monsters Inc which provides clear evidence that monsters are also just human). Similarly, people like watching scary movies. So do we like monsters, ghosts, killers and witches deep down inside? Why expose ourselves to creatures and situations that are frightening?

Well, because fear is exciting. Experiencing the fight-or-flight response in a controlled environment where we know nothing can actually happen to us, let’s us feel an excitement or thrill without having to actually flee or fight. In other words: Pure adrenaline rush! (LiveScience, 2013). Hypothalamus is all like: “Whooooooooooo sooooo muuuuch excitement, no running!” BUT, as Psychologist David Rudd (LiveScience, 2013) explains, being able to enjoy the thrill of fear means being able to gauge the level of harm we are exposed to. In other words, scary movies may seem much more scary to children or adult because they don’t have the same experiences or knowledge as adults to gauge the level of reality in films. This theory would also explain why many people enjoy extreme sports, such as skydiving or bungee-jumping. If the level of danger or the probability of experiencing harm is actually quite low, the sensation of experiencing fear is actually rather thrilling.

Another theory suggests that people like to sit through horror movies or go to haunted houses because the extreme relief they feel at the end of a negative experience causes immense pleasure and positive emotions (ScienceDaily, 2007).

In any case, I wish you all a very Happy Halloween/Samhain and hope you get to spend it as scared as you wish to be. I am off now to watch the very scary film ParaNorman (that’s the most scare I can handle) and eat my bat-shaped candy.