A visit to Hamlet’s castle

This has been my summer of Shakespeare, particularly of “Hamlet.”

Kronborg Castle (Elsinore), courtesy of Wikipedia

My obsession with the play began when I learned that our June tour of Scandinavia would take us to Kronborg Castle in Denmark, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Elsinore in “Hamlet.” Shortly before we left the U.S., I’d picked up the book, “Hamlet Globe to Globe,” subtitled, “Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play” from my public library. It tells the story of a small group of actors from London’s famous Globe Theatre who performed “Hamlet” in nearly every country of the world, even in refugee camps. I was immediately hooked on the powerful prose of author Dominic Dromgoole, the way he connected the play to the histories of the countries where the actors were performing (for example, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Hamlet’s attitude toward murder), and the reactions of different audiences to the performances. I made a promise to read “Hamlet” as soon as we returned home.

We were to tour the castle on a dreary day. The wet weather made the walk from the bus to Kronborg seem long. Hamlet was less on my mind than finding refuge from the rain.

It wasn’t our first Danish castle nor our first European castle. After you wander through a few castles they start to look the same: mile-long hallways, too many rooms to count and too few windows in them, enough spare bedrooms to accommodate my entire high school graduating class of 526, and no central heating.

Seeing this niche at the entrance pleased me; still it was just another castle. That is, until I began to pay attention to other people strolling through the halls and popping up in various rooms. They were clearly not tourists. Nor were they locals, unless locals were fond of late 16th century dress. They were actors.

I nudged my husband.  “Look.  Do you think that woman is Ophelia?”

She was. And we were no longer in an ordinary castle. We wandered into another room. Soon, the actors were not just hanging around, but acting.

I took the next three photos while watching this exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia.

H: “I did love you once.”
O. “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.”
H. “You should not have believ’d me…I loved you not.”
O. “I was the more deceiv’d.”
H. “Get thee to a nunn’ry…”

Since Denmark, I have read Hamlet once, though it merits multiple readings, attended a “Shakespeare in the Park” performance, ordered another Hamlet-related book by Dromgoole, and watched a summer TV series called “Will,” about Shakespeare’s early entry into the world of London theatre. I own two other books about Shakespeare’s life and soon will move them from the bookshelf to my nightstand.

If you must have an obsession, even if just for the summer, it might as well be about the man considered by many the greatest writer in the English language.

For “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” and spur our own interest in Shakespeare.

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Work habits of creative people, unusual and otherwise

When people find out I’m working on my second novel they often ask about my writing schedule. “Do you have a particular time you write every day?” “Do you start writing as soon as you get up?” “Do you prefer mornings to afternoons?” I’ve never understood the point of the question. Why would anyone care?

After reading “Daily Rituals, How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work,” I realized I was wrong. I’m fascinated with this examination of creative people’s schedules and their rituals around the schedules. Here are a few examples.

Study in contrasts:Poet W.H. Auden maintained a schedule during the day that was ideal for anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, timing his activities “to the minute,” then let loose at night imbibing several strong vodka martinis followed by “copious amounts of wine.”

Bare bones approach: Founding father Benjamin Franklin created a tight schedule, but sometimes had trouble organizing his materials. He began his day early by reading or writing without any clothes, what he called his “air bath.”

Unusual warm up: Composer Ludwig van Beethoven rose early and got right to work. He started many a morning standing naked in front of a mirror and poured “pitchers of water over his hands” while singing scales.

Stripped down schedule: Psychotherapist Sigmund Freud got help in maintaining his work schedule. To spare him time handling mundane tasks his wife chose his clothing and went so far as to put toothpaste on his toothbrush every morning.

Working away from home: Toulouse-Lautrec painted in brothels.

Most everyone observed a regular schedule, whether they worked in the morning, afternoon, evening or all night.

I confess to people who ask me about my schedule that mine is irregular, and I admit to writing fully clothed.

I operate somewhere between those who put in six or seven hours at a time and contemporary writer Marilynne Robinson, who says, “I really am incapable of discipline. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times…”

Of course not all the creative people described in the book were quirky. The women tended to find a regular time and place to work and combine this with house cleaning, cooking, gardening, and caring for children. Gertrude Stein was one exception among the women. She liked cows, and with Alice B. Toklas took evening drives in the countryside to be inspired by these creatures. If a particular cow didn’t strike her fancy, they’d drive on in search of a different cow.

One thing I noted was that since famous creative people from the past had no television, iPhones, or Facebook they had, theoretically, more time than present-day artists to pursue their craft. I see a possible strategy here for finishing my novel sooner not later.

As far as the rituals these artists pursued, the nudists above stand out. George Sand did keep a chunk of chocolate on her desk to nibble on. I keep mine in the refrigerator, but I could always move it closer.











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The garden as therapy

The best thing about retirement is that you can slow down and enjoy the simpler things in life. Except that I keep forgetting to slow down. No. That’s not entirely true.  I devote my early mornings to reading the news, walking and drinking tea on the couch with the cat on my lap. After that, my days fill.

The one thing that can make me stop everything and stand still is the view from the kitchen windows into my backyard garden. From there I step out on the patio. Starting in the spring and extending until November, my plants bring me joy. As do the dragonflies, bees and hummingbirds. Friends of ours have a garden that produces the same effect.

My reactions made me curious as to whether anyone had researched the subject of gardens and mental health.

I found reassurance from Michigan State University Extension program that I am not alone. “Nature has long been known for its relaxing qualities, as a place for humans to find tranquility and healing.”

Psychology Today shares “10 ways horticulture helps us heal, overcome anxiety, and overcome low mood.”  Apparently spending time in nature “releases happy hormones,” and who could say no to the triggering of “happy hormones.” Also, “being amongst plants and flowers reminds us to live in the present moment.”

I found many on-line sources on the benefits of gardening, but didn’t focus on them because I’m not a serious gardener. Beyond pulling weeds, watering, and assembling pots of annuals every spring, my efforts are limited. Flowers and bushes are mostly what I see from my patio, and someone else planted them. So I take no credit, except for keeping them alive.

However, I’ve included one of the many references to the health benefits of getting outside and getting your hands dirty.   An article in Nursing Times says, “Gardening is a source of mental clarity,” something I know I can benefit from. And that working in a garden engenders hope.  You plant a seed and put your hopes that one day soon it will sprout and grow. Your hopes aren’t always fulfilled, but by the following spring you’re expecting that this year you’ll have success. If you don’t, you can always recycle them and find something better. That’s how it goes with this year’s failed strawberry crop.  Next year, with more water, fertilizer, all-around attention, they’ll thrive. If not, I’ll be ready to plant daisies.








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Poverty chic: stigma or style?

Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo “Migrant Mother,” Wikimedia Commons

I just listened to a humorous song called “Problems” by the Seattle-based trio, Uncle Bonsai. The title is short for “We’ve got problems in the first world too.”

What are these problems? Per the song, they include having too much mayonnaise on a sandwich, missing out on a buffet lunch, living with slow wifi, and sleeping on a pillow stuffed with duck down, not goose down.

It’s become a joke now that when someone shares a trivial concern, he or she will say, “That’s my first world problem.

I’m using this blog to offer up mine: I really dislike seeing people in shredded jeans.

My recent trip to Scandinavia confirms that Europeans are as in love with having their knees and thighs exposed as Americans. A friend who just vacationed in Hong Kong says this fashion statement also is the rage there.

So what’s my problem? I guess it’s my age. I associate holes in clothing with abject poverty.

I compare my life with the lives of my grandparents, dirt-poor farmers who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars I and II.

As a result of a life of shortages, my grandparents saved mounds of rubber bands and string long past the time these goods were scarce. During the Depression, my husband’s grandparents were migrant workers who moved from orchard to orchard in Eastern Washington to pick apples. But that generation would patch the tears in their clothes. They had too much pride to walk around in tatters like characters in a Dickensian workhouse.

The iconic photo above by Dorothea Lange of a woman and her children during the Great Depression symbolizes what shredded jeans mean to me and it’s hard to shed that association. It’s not only my issue. It belongs to others in my generation. “I was ashamed to have a hole in my jeans” said a friend, “because it meant we were poor.”

I realize that these days, no one associates shredded jeans with poverty, because they cost twice as much as jeans without holes.

Oh well. Holey jeans are not famine, a plague of locusts or war. And from an article I read recently, it seems I’ll soon get to re-direct my annoyance toward a new fashion trend: jeans with mud worked into the denim. After a few days kneeling in the garden pulling out weeds, perhaps I’ll qualify as a trendsetter.





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Meet the modern Norwegian troll

It’s not only sports teams that have mascots. Cities and countries do too. Last time I was in Washington DC — many years ago — panda statues inhabited many city streets. These were large creations produced from the same mold. A different artist painted each one, which guaranteed that no two pandas looked alike.  At one time, Vancouver B.C. had whales and Seattle featured pigs. My own town decorated with stags. Somewhere I’ve seen cows, but I can’t remember where.

But Norway is the only country I’ve visited that has its own mascot. While it’s true that moose designs appear on nearly every t-shirt and trinket sold to the tourists there, it’s unlikely a tourist will ever run in to a moose on the street, although two fellow travelers did eat a mooseburger at one of our lunch stops.  (As an aside, our guide translated the menu for us and insisted the mooseburger was on it, though my husband and I kept hearing her say elk. We wondered how she could not know the difference between a moose and an elk until she later spelled out the Norwegian word for moose: elg.) Anyway, a moose hardly counts as a Norwegian mascot. It’s better left to Alaska to claim that one.

No. The real symbol for Norway is the troll.  My on-line dictionary says a troll is “a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance.” They live in caves and rocks, and for all of us who read the folktale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” as children, we know they also live under bridges. 

Seattle has its own troll of the under-the-bridge type. This is fitting because it’s located not far from a part of town to which many Scandinavians immigrated in the late 1800s.

our troll prize

Although we had no plans to buy a souvenir troll, we won a troll in a contest created by our tour guide to name as many famous Scandinavians as we could.  We managed a fourth-place win despite butchering the spelling of several names and forgetting a few important ones we remembered later.

Another reason trolls are more fit candidates for mascothood than moose is that they are everywhere and they don’t move, so you can take pictures.  I’ve included only part of my collection here. The troll story has been Disneyfied over time.  The troll the three billy goats met threatened to eat them up.  The ones pictured here are all smiles…though on second thought their bellies do look full.







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Escaping brand names while you travel

Country living, Norway

With a global economy and a growing number of people from developed countries traveling to other countries, sometimes the modern world looks the same no matter where you are. With widespread immigration, residents of many European countries and the U.S. are sometimes indistinguishable. Just as people from every world ca live in our city, they also live in every city in Europe. Everywhere we’ve traveled, people have been friendly and helpful. So even courtesy is a common attribute, not that I’m hoping to find a corner of the world filled with snarky citizens just for the sake of a having different experience. And everyone speaks English, many better than we do.

There’s also the widespread popularization of many food items — pizza, caesar salad, pasta, and hamburgers for example. And Starbucks, McDonalds and other global corporations born in the U.S. are found in many parts of the world.

Fashion designers also rule the planet, at least that’s how it seems when you’re visiting large cities anywhere.  Go to Madrid, Paris, Stockholm, Honolulu, Bruges, Tokyo and Shanghai and you’ll likely see streets or shopping malls infested with stores belonging to the big names in clothing, shoes, handbags and jewelry: Coach, Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Nike, and many more. The most ubiquitous brand I’ve seen is “The Body Shop.” Is there a metropolitan area anywhere that doesn’t have at least one of these stores? When I’m abroad, I’m on a quest for Old World Charm, not skin care products that I can buy a few blocks from home.

Stave church, Norway

In the current era, what sets one city apart from another? Architecture is one element. Gothic cathedrals, residences, city halls, and museums in Europe; pagodas and temples and country houses in Japan; emperors’ palaces and a great wall in China; interesting bridges in many cities; and private residences everywhere.

It’s embarrassing to remember that when traveling to Europe soon after college graduation, three of us landed in the central square in Brussels — the Grand Place — on a Sunday. In those days nothing was open on Sundays but churches. Back then, I wandered past the 14th and 15th century structures and thought this had to be the most boring setting in the world, nothing to look at but old buildings.

Residences – Stockholm

These days, old buildings have tremendous appeal. Their exteriors are ornate. They are not temples of glass and steel, and have interesting shapes, rooftops and other features, such as a gargoyle here and a grotesque there.

It’s likely that my impressions that all cities are the same come from staying where the tourists normally stay – in the heart of town.  And tourists generally only spend a few days in each place they visit, so they rarely get anything but a glimpse of what life there is like. Spending several weeks in one place away from the tourist centers of a particular city wouldn’t offer an in-depth experience, but would supplement the judgements and pictures that form in our minds when passing quickly through town. That sounds like a plan for the future: visit a large city, stay for more than a week in a neighborhood outside the central part of town and hope not to encounter The Body Shop.

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Tourists, tourists, tourists, when will they stop coming?

This past month is the longest I’ve gone in 10 years without producing a blog.  I have a good excuse for June, namely, that my husband and I took a three-week trip and returned tired and jet-lagged, sneezing and coughing. But for much of May, I stayed away because I’d run out of ideas, one pitfall of choosing early on to write on somewhat random topics instead of focusing on one, such as fitness, fast cars, or cute pets.  But since I’m not an expert on anything in particular, I’ve enjoyed reading and writing on subjects that caught my eye in newspapers, magazines and books, or ones inspired by conversations, lectures and new experiences.

I’m thankful I have come up with a topic, maybe two or three, but taking the first step to restart is daunting. So far this week, I’ve managed to avoid it by ironing the washed clothes I wore on the trip, weeding much of my yard, and taking naps. However, as of today I’m closing my eyes to any more avenues of escape…except maybe to the kitchen where five chocolate bars, the Sirens of Finland, are calling.

Cruise ship, Oslo

Our trip took us through parts of Denmark and much of central Norway and ended in Stockholm, Sweden. The room in our first hotel in Copenhagen had a tiny wastebasket with dividers that cut it into thirds, one part for paper, one for compostable materials, and one for garbage. This got me thinking about the implications of tourism for many countries and for the environment. I thought about it every time we entered a port city or fjord in which large cruise ships (carrying as many as 4,000 passengers) belched out so many tourists that popular sites were almost inaccessible to them and to anyone else. Tour guides have apps on their phones to tell them how many ships and how many passengers are in town, so they can stay away from the most favored places at certain times of the day.

Little Mermaid from the back

We were part of a group of 25 that traveled mostly by bus (and ferry and train), which also means we affected the environments we passed through, but on a much smaller scale. One of our first stops in Copenhagen was at the site of the Little Mermaid, the bronze statue inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. (You can see her without tourists at the link above.) Bus parking lots overflowed, traffic jams abounded and the throng made it difficult to even see the statue (which our guide said is a disappointment to many, because at 4.1 feet tall the Little Mermaid was just that, little). And surely the Viking Ships Museum had more visitors on the day we stopped in than the number of Vikings who inhabited the area over the course of several centuries.

Still, no matter where I travel I imagine that organizations like our local Chambers of Commerce and politicians all want tourist dollars for their cities.  As it turns out, some do and some don’t. Of the 20 places most reliant on tourist dollars for their continued existence, all but a few are islands, including Bermuda, Aruba, St. Lucia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The countries of Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Mexico and parts of Central America, are among those locales that earn up to 45 percent of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) from tourism.

In contrast, there are also countries that are re-considering the consequences of boosting tourism any further. According to Conde Nast Traveler, among those destinations that “have proposed—or put into place—measures restricting the annual number of visitors” are Santorini, Cinque Terre, Norway, Venice, Zion National Park, Barcelona, Iceland, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Mt. Everest, and Antarctica, some because the locals are getting fed up, but many because building new infrastructure to accommodate more tourists would threaten the natural environment.

Also, there are countries that don’t have to worry about setting limits on tourists because no one wants to go there. Some lack amenities, others are hard to get to and others are too dangerous.  This list of 25 includes North Korea, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Somalia. Another reason the remaining 21 countries on the list might lack visitors is that no one who has not made a career of studying an atlas has ever heard of them.

I’ve done it.  Blog complete. Now I hear the chocolate in the kitchen calling my name.





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Did you hear about the latest phobia?

You would think that a list of the top 100 phobias, which includes fear of bridges, feet, zombies, buttons, ducks and long words, would have covered the entire spectrum.  But this past weekend I read about a new one not on the list, one fitting for the age of social media. It goes by the acronym FOMO and stands for Fear Of Missing Out.

The problem of FOMO was reported on a psychology website as early as 2015, and made it into “Time” magazine a full year ago. Talk about missing out. I didn’t hear about it until this week. Ironically, just a few days ago a friend sent an email saying that a painting by Jean-Michele Basquiat set an auction sale record for a work by a U.S. artist, and she’d never heard of him. A clear case of missing out. But before learning about FOMO, who knew?

This case would be a good addition to the May 21 “Seattle Times” column by Nicole Brodeur, “Cultural FOMO: the never-ending struggle to keep up,” who identified the latest Netflix TV series, hottest new books on the bestseller list, news coming out of Washington DC, and brilliant moments from late night talk shows as a few of the events that are impossible for her to keep up with.

The big question here should be, “Do we need to keep up?” and the answer often lies in the minds of those hooked on social media. From World of Psychology website, “On social media, everyone’s flaunting what they’re doing, with whom they’re doing it and posts are loaded with exclamation marks!!! With such pressure, it’s no surprise that teens are checking their phone every two minutes to make sure they’re not missing out on anything “’important.’”

But this article doesn’t give adults a free pass.  On Facebook we see our friends vacationing all over the globe, sharing photos of foods from the hottest new restaurants, and attending concerts with the latest and greatest stars. I don’t think the urgency to know what our Facebook friends are doing every minute is there with adults, but if we’ve never been to the places where the fabulous photos comes from, doesn’t it feel –even if just for a moment — like we’re missing out?

If you’re working, your job may require you to keep up with the latest research, news coverage, laws passed, and much more.  The beauty of retirement is that we don’t have to keep up if we don’t want to, though some volunteer jobs challenge that assumption. But where I find retirees susceptible to FOMO comes from reading their friends’ Facebook travel posts.

For anyone on Facebook who feels travel envy, grandchild envy, outdoor adventure envy, or pet envy, advice from the website above may help.
*”Don’t miss out on what’s in front of you.”
*Let go of comparisons. They rarely help.
*Cut back on the time you spend on social media. In most cases, less is better than more.

And don’t worry about being left out.  After a certain age it’s a guarantee you will be. The good news is that it won’t bother you!!! Or will it?



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Alternative medicine?

cannabis leaves drawing created before 1923 and in public domain

Marijuana is so sixties and seventies, we said a few years ago, after voters in our state passed an initiative to permit the sale of it in authorized stores. Who in our generation would be interested at this point in our lives?

A good question, which we tried to answer a few weeks ago. Our story started with my husband and leg pain.  A friend of his offered him a chance to try his marijuana cream, which came from California.  “I felt a nice buzz after I rubbed it in.”

“Hey, I have shoulder pain,” I said. “I could use some of that too. Let’s investigate.”

We decided against visiting the nearby weed store with a Charles Manson-lookalike swinging a sign out front.  We were curious about why anyone would think using him would be a good way to help their brand, but thought that perhaps he brought in just the customers they’re looking for, which would not be senior citizens like us.

We checked on-line and found another store also close to home with a classy website. We couldn’t find the exact product that came from California, but it looked like there were several options. The “menu” included categories of “flower,” topical,” “concentrate” and “edible.” I’d seen many an ad for the store in the weekly community newspaper but the ad never mentioned what the store sold. “Let’s try that one,” I said. “The owners are way more subtle.”

We went straight there. We weren’t the only clients that afternoon.  The others were our age or older.

That day was the store’s first of selling medical and recreational marijuana in two separate spaces on the property, each with its own entrance. Picture a pharmacy countertop with dividers that allow the pharmacist to have semi-private conversations with the patient, and you’ll be able to envision the space.  We showed our “consultant” a photo of the product from California. He said they were only allowed to carry products grown in Washington, but had items with similar ingredients.  He began with a lecture on THC and CBD (I figure if you’re really interested you can look into it yourself) and ended by showing us two gels that were allegedly effective in reducing muscle pain, inflammation, and some other ailments.

We bought two — cash only accepted — for about $50 and rushed home to apply our new medicine to our sore spots.

Next day’s conversation:  “Did you notice any improvement?” “No.”  “Did you?” No.” “How about the buzz you felt yesterday?” “No.”

That’s when my husband remembered one teeny difference between the first and second times he tried the product.  “My friend gave me a coffee beer right after I applied the lotion.”

Coffee beer?  Yep. It’s a new craft brew.

“You don’t suppose the caffeine, which you don’t normally drink, had anything to do with the buzz you felt?”

We’ve returned to using arnica gel. It’s cheaper.

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Happiness eludes most Americans

Ever since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and declared that the pursuit of happiness was our inalienable right, many Americans have felt the need to make this pursuit their number one priority. So that must make us a happy lot. Right?

Wrong. In 2016, residents of Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland ranked highest in the happiness poll. In the U.S., we’ve dropped from third place in 2007 to nineteenth in 2016. And only about a third of us say we’re happy. Among the reasons given by American respondents were lack of social support and the perception of corruption in business and government.

What is happiness?  Do we all agree on a definition? Not likely. But from the “Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” website we have this definition: Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

One reason the editors at The Greater Good liked this definition was that “it captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness.”  I believe that “fleeting positive emotions” is part of the definition. We can’t experience joy 24/7, nor should we want to. Experiencing the contrast between happy and sad makes happy moments even better.

There are almost as many ideas on how to achieve happiness as there are raindrops in Seattle these days. Dr. Amit Sood, author of the Mayo Clinic’s “Handbook for Happiness,” lays out a daily schedule of emotional responses starting with “gratitude” on Mondays and “forgiveness” on Fridays, with compassion, acceptance and meaning (as in a focus on what gives your life meaning) on the days in between.

In “Real Simple” magazine, writer Gretchen Rubin offers her own list of ten practical tips for achieving happiness. Among my favorites: “Realize that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness,” she says. “The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction. People who do new things―learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places―are happier than people who stick to familiar activities that they already do well.”

Another one worth mentioning: “Don’t insist on the best.” Rubin says those who struggle to make the best decision, “expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

Finally, it’s comforting to know the quest for happiness is not as strong in all cultures as it is in ours.  British writer Ruth Whippman says her countrymen are not nearly as obsessed with finding happiness as we are. Since the quest isn’t producing the results here we’d like, maybe we should emulate the British and pursue some other goal.

Whippman shares a World Health Organization report that says while Americans are not the happiest, we are the most anxious. Well, at least we get a first place in something.

If happiness is our goal but only a third of us are happy, perhaps we’re aiming for the wrong target. Whippman cites University of California, Berkeley studies showing “the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.”

Whippman’s article is both telling and laugh-out-loud funny, but she’s also been biased by her setting.  She calls Silicon Valley her home in the U.S. and spends perhaps too much time with techie’s wives obsessed about whether they’re enjoying the lives they could/should live.

PS. I recommend checking out each of the links above. All have useful and/or interesting information and ideas about happiness.

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