What $1,120 per month buys you in Bali

When I tell people I travel the world, a lot of them assume I have some secret stash of money funding my adventures. But I definitely don’t. Instead, I’ve become an expert in “going where it’s cheap.”

As a caveat, you will need some negotiating skills. At the Pertiwi Bisma 2 hotel in Ubud, the official price is $80 per night but they were offering a discounted $1,250 per month. Fred, ever the negotiator, hatched a plan. He told the manager that preferred a different, cheaper hotel, and that he and I were arguing over where to stay. Could they lower the price and make us all happy? Yes, it turns out, they could.

If spending over a month in Bali sounds luxurious, check out what $1,120 – less than the price of your typical big-city apartment – can buy you.

We were greeted with some pretty impressive towel artistry:

Pertiwi Bisma

The bed was made up every day (despite our protests), often with real flowers:


There was an infinity pool, warmed by the sun:


The room was large, with two desks, a refrigerator, and big windows opening up onto a balcony:Pertiwi BIsma

Our balcony had a view of the surrounding ricefields, which grew from seedlings into lush greenery within a month:

Pertiwi Bisma


Breakfast was included, with your choice of Indonesian or American:


The whole street was pretty quiet, with ricefields on both sides and a soundtrack of frogs and geckos at night. All in all, peaceful:


A blogging challenge for July: #30DaysofVulnerability 

30 days of vulnerability

Brené Brown, get out of my head!

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection was custom-written for me. The chapter headings read like a perfectionist’s how-to manual: controlling everything, doing what you “should” be doing, defining yourself by your productivity. Except those are the things you’re supposed to let go of.

I’ve done month-long experiments in gratitude, optimism, and honesty, and I knew I wanted to do one in vulnerability, Brown’s concept of embracing the inherent uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of life. She actually hosted a six-week course with Oprah, but it’s not available anymore. So I had to improvise.

As I understand Brown’s books, becoming more vulnerable is not a set of to-do’s, but really requires some deep soul-searching. So instead of a daily exercise, this experiment is a series of questions to reflect on – and if you’re like me, blog about. In the end, the goal is to move toward what Brown calls Wholeheartedness: living life with courage, compassion, and the feeling that you’re worthy of love and belonging – without shame. 

Does anyone want to join me in blogging #30DaysofVulnerability in July? I’ve created five prompts per week, but you don’t have to do all of them. If you’re interested, just tag your posts on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #30DaysofVulnerability. 

Week 1: Worthiness/self-acceptance

  • What are your imperfections? What are you ashamed of? Fill in the blank: I am not _____ enough.
  • When do you “hustle for worthiness,” or act energetically to prove that you’re worthy?
  • Whom or what do you feel you’re “supposed to” be?
  • What are the benefits of feeling worthiness, that you are “enough” just as you are?
  • What would you say to yourself about your struggles if you were your best friend?

Week 2: Letting go of control

  • Why do you want to control things?
  • What things in life are you afraid of losing? Instead of feeling fear, can you feel gratitude?
  • Who is there for you when things don’t work out? Share one of your answers to these questions with them.
  • What happens when you try to control things?
  • What would happen if you stopped trying to control things?

Week 3: Normalizing discomfort

  • How do you run away from discomfort?
  • Ask your friends, or post on Facebook or Twitter: When do you feel stress and anxiety (or whatever your typical discomfort is)? See what people say. 
  • What discomforts are a normal part of your life?
  • Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?
  • If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?

Week 4: Changing priorities 

  • Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?
  • Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.
  • What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?
  • What does it mean to be authentic?
  • How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?

Every day

  • When you wake up, say: “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
  • Before you go to sleep, say: “Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Photo by Flickr user  paolo di tommaso

Weekly research roundup: For a happiness boost, create some art, get some respect, or move to California

happiness Research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

Indulge your right brain – According to a report by the Brookings Institution, people who participate in the arts – creating or viewing – may be happier. Other studies have found that creating art may increase your self-image, reduce anxiety, and increase open-mindedness. One study even quantified the happiness boost: participating in the arts makes you as happy as an extra $150 per month would.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T -Researchers discovered the “local-ladder effect,” whereby having more respect in your social community increases happiness.

Choose your home wisely – According to reviews of over 500,000 workers in the 50 largest US metro areas, the happiest employees are in San Jose, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Norfork (VA), Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle, Oklahoma, San Antonio, and Austin, respectively.

Influential dads – Feeling loved by our fathers may be more important to our later happiness than feeling loved by our mothers. Even with a loving mother, rejection or hostility from our fathers can increase the likelihood of depression and behavioral problems. One study suggested that we tend to learn persistence and tenacity from our fathers, not our mothers.

Stay at home, mom – In a study of 28 countries, married women who stayed at home were slightly happier than women who worked full-time.

Photo by Flickr user cleansurf2


Pursuing happiness: You’re doing it wrong

Martin Seligman - FlourishIn Flourish, Martin Seligman announced the big goal of positive psychology, the science of happiness: to have 51% of people “flourishing” by 2051.

But what does it mean to flourish?

In the book, Seligman explains just that – and debunks the be-all-end-all concept of happiness that he and so many of us have been subscribing to. Happiness is not the goal we’re all seeking.

How come people have children, even though studies show that having children doesn’t bring more happiness? How come we love the feeling of flow, even though we lose track of time and don’t feel much of anything? Are all introverts less happy because our moods are generally lower? Why do so many people achieve great success and find they aren’t happy?

Seligman’s framework explains these and many other questions. Instead of pursuing the single goal of happiness, he says, we pursue these five things:

  • Positive emotion: Momentary feelings of pleasure, glee, satisfaction, etc.
  • Engagement: Flow, or being fully immersed in what we’re doing.
  • Accomplishment: Mastery and success.
  • Relationships
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.

He selected these five criteria because we choose them for their own sake, and they all contribute to well-being. In this new framework, our 24 character strengths can play a role in all these areas.

Seligman explains that this list isn’t meant to be a guide for achieving happiness; it’s simply an observation of the goals people do pursue. But I can’t help but see it that way.

If you had to rank these five areas of your life in order of satisfaction, what order would you put them in? Mine would be achievement, relationships, engagement, positive emotion, and meaning. What areas are you neglecting or putting off?

Some people say that trying to be happy is making us miserable. If that’s true, maybe it’s because “happy” is too generic. It’s hard to wake up and say, “I’m going to be happier today,” but it’s easier to wake up and say, “I’m going to have more positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, or accomplishment today.” As Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

Weekly research roundup: Millennial dads are less happy and more selfish

happiness Research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

Happy Father’s Day – Millennial dads may be less satisfied than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts. According to the 2014 DDB Life Style Study, millennial dads are less likely to say raising a child brings them a lot of happiness (82%, vs. 87% of Gen Xers and 92% of Boomers) and more likely to say parenting is a real burden (41%, vs. 25% and 16%). Also, more millennial dads admit to not enjoying spending time with their kids (29%, vs. 22% and 14%) and preferring to spend time with friends (35%, vs. 20% and 12%). Finally, millennial dads are more likely to say their own happiness is more important than the happiness of others (49%, vs. 33% and 20%).

Rise and shine – Ikea’s “Life at Work” survey found that we’re happier if we wake up quickly, or take the time to cuddle, have sex with, hug, or kiss someone in the morning. Ikea surveyed over 80,000 people in eight cities.

Let’s hit the sack – According to a study presented at SLEEP 2014, the more in sync a couple’s sleep schedule is, the happier the wife is.

Photo by Flickr user Gwenaël Piase

Weekly research roundup: Women breadwinning isn’t so bad – for the men

Happiness research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

Breadwinners win some, lose some – A MONEY survey of over 1,000 married adults found that when women make the same or more as men, couples are more in love, happier, and had significantly happier husbands. They speculated that these arrangements are more egalitarian. But overall, women who earn more than their husbands are less likely to say they’re very in love and they worry more about finances.

Avoid the haters – According to a study out of the University of Colorado-Boulder, obesity has a big effect on happiness only when you live in an area where it’s uncommon. If obesity is the norm – and, presumably, you aren’t being judged for your weight – it doesn’t make you much unhappier. Overall, the judgment of others has a greater unhappiness effect on women than on men.

Faster food! – A study from the University of Toronto found that living in an area with lots of fast-food restaurants makes you more impatient and less able to savor pleasurable experiences, like a beautiful hike. And even making people think of fast food in the lab – by showing them a photo – causes them to make impatient decisions, like hurrying through a task, desiring time-saving tools more, and saving less for the future.


Control, or how to stop squeezing the life out of life 


When I used to play violin, my bow grip was too tight. It worked most of the time, and I managed to get into some elite orchestras and play some solos. But when those light, bouncy spiccato passages came up, I stumbled. I was supposed to nearly let go of my bow and let it do the bouncing itself, naturally, but I couldn’t. I wanted to control it, which slowed me down and threw off my rhythm.

I think I approach life like I approached that violin bow. 

A recovering perfectionist, I want control. I want to control my health, my career, my relationships. But at some point, it’s too much. My heart aches like my fingers used to ache from violin. I feel rigid, tight, tense, gripping, pressured. I just want to breathe and let it go and soften – or do I? 

Brené Brown says life is full of vulnerability, full of uncertainty, risk, and raw emotion. Much as we’d like to control it, we simply cannot. I simply cannot

I might lose a job, or have my money stolen. I might get cancer through no fault of my own. I might have to say goodbye to a loved one sooner than I expect. I might get a cavity, the flu, or a hangnail. I might feel anxious, sleepless, or apathetic. I might say something embarrassing, do something mean, or write something dumb. 

On the other hand, I might get a job from a random tweet. I might ask a second-degree connection out for coffee and gain a lifelong friend. I might try a different hobby and then meet the love of my life while practicing it. Oh wait – all of those things have happened already. 

I can’t have it both ways. I can’t control all the bad things while letting the good luck happen. I have to just embrace that fact that life is darn unpredictable, and sometimes that leads to blissful accidents, and sometimes it leads to plain old accidents. If you grip life too tightly, you can’t make beautiful, bouncy, playful music.  

Photo by Flickr user Lif…

Weekly research roundup: We’re more stressed at home than at work

Happiness research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

Home is where the stress is – A study from Pennsylvania State University found that people were more stressed at home than at work. Not only that, but women (but not men) were happier at work than at home. The researchers suggested that the difficulty of balancing work and family may come out at home, particularly for women juggling lots of chores and domestic responsibilities.

Ditch the pint of ice cream – According to a study out of the University of Minnesota, comfort foods might not actually be comforting us. After watching a disturbing video, people’s moods improved equally after eating a comfort food, a food they liked, a granola bar, and nothing at all.

Strap on your helmet – A Clemson study compared people’s emotions on different types of transportation, and found that we are happiest when biking – followed by riding in a car, driving a car, and taking the train or bus. This included commuting and non-commuting travel, so that could explain some of the findings.

Go Greek – The Gallup-Purdue Index, a survey of 30,000 university graduates, found that graduates who belonged to sororities or fraternities were happier after college. They were more engaged at work (43% vs. 38%), had higher well-being, had more supportive social lives, were healthier, and felt less stressed about money (possibly because they took out fewer student loans, 42% vs. 49%).

Photo by Flickr user JD Hancock 


Positive psychology lists 24 character strengths. What are yours? 

Martin Seligman - Authentic HappinessWhat are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? Which question is easier to answer?

For me at least, weaknesses are easy to identify – in-your-face failings that confront us every day. I am too anxious, perfectionistic, and rigid. I can be stubborn, cranky, and detached. 

The whole field of positive psychology was created on the idea that this is a larger pattern: as a society, we knew how to make people less unhappy but not happier. As part of the solution, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson devised a complete categorization of the 24 character strengths. Together, they fall into six categories – six virtues – that are nearly universal across cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, and transcendence. 

Assessing your strengths isn’t just a fun personality test – although it is absolutely a fun personality test. The whole focus on strengths comes from their connection to happiness: for Seligman, exercising your strengths makes you feel happy and authentic, closer to the “ideal you” you always imagined. A bar of 80% dark chocolate may be pleasurable, but strengths are the stuff of long-lasting gratification. 

If you’re curious, you can take a test of your strengths here. But the machine doesn’t know you best: according to Seligman, your top strengths also have to feel authentic and powerful to you. You have to delight in exercising them, and feel energized afterward. Being prudent was one of my strengths, but exercising caution and carefulness usually makes me feel nervous. 

My top strengths that felt most authentic were perseverance, honesty, and judgment. If I have a job to do, I’m going to do it well and on time – no question. I strive for honesty in my relationships and delight in one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversations about ideas and feelings. And I love to take in new information, weigh it and synthesize it, and come up with my own opinions. 

What are your character strengths?


Curiosity: You are open to new experiences and thrive in situations of uncertainty. You aren’t easily bored. 

Love of learning: You are the type of person who loves school, reading, and museums. You’re probably an expert in something, just because you love it. 

Judgment: You think critically and are open-minded to different perspectives. You can weigh facts objectively, without your feelings getting in the way. 

Ingenuity: You are creative and street smart. If you want something, you’ll find unique and original ways to get it. 

Perspective: You are wise, and people come to you for advice. 


Valor: Despite fear, you can face difficult physical and emotional challenges. 

Perseverance: You’re industrious, finishing what you start. You meet or exceed expectations, but don’t give yourself unattainable goals. 

Integrity: You are honest and transparent in word and in deed. 

Zest: You feel passion, inspiration, and energy when embarking on a new day or new activity. 

Humanity and Love 

Kindness: You enjoy making others happy, even if you don’t know them well. 

Loving and being loved: You have strong relationships, where you can accept and give love.

Social intelligence: You are aware of the feelings and motivations of others and of yourself, and you can use that information to handle social situations well.


Citizenship: You work well in a group and respect your team members and leaders. 

Fairness: You have a strong sense of morality and believe in treating people the same, without regard for your feelings or prejudices.

Leadership: You successfully organize activities and treat group members equally. 


Self-control: You can regulate not only your actions but also your emotions. 

Prudence: You think long-term, weigh your options, and exercise caution. 

Humility: You’re modest and don’t seek attention. You don’t see your accomplishments as special. 

Forgiveness: You forgive and give people second chances. You aren’t vengeful and don’t hold a grudge.


Appreciation of beauty: You recognize beauty and excellence, and it awes you. 

Gratitude: You’re thankful for other people and circumstances. You don’t take things for granted.

Optimism: You have hope and expect good things, so you plan for a happy future.

Spirituality: You have strong beliefs and a sense of purpose. You understand your place in something larger, whether it’s religious or not. 

Humor: You’re funny, and you enjoy making others laugh. 

Is the point of using your strengths just to achieve happiness? At the end of Authentic Happiness, Seligman makes a intriguing suggestion. He personally doesn’t believe in God the creator, but he can envision a world where we are (in essence) creating God. The march of society is a march toward perfect knowledge, perfect power, and perfect goodness. To find meaning, he believes, each of us can see ourselves as contributing to one of those three domains.

I feel strongly drawn toward the goal of wisdom, as I read, write blog posts, and get lost in conversations. Engineers or programmers, he says, may be drawn to create products and services that give us more control over our environment. Priests and nonprofits, I imagine, strive to make the world better. Once you know your strengths and your purpose, the next step is to take an honest look at your life to see if you’re living as powerfully, authentically, and meaningfully as possible. 

Weekly research roundup: Positive emotions are highest in Latin America

Research roundup

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

It’s been a slow week for happiness news, but luckily Gallup swooped in (on my birthday, no less) with a comprehensive report on positive emotion in the world.

In 2013, Gallup asked about 1,000 adults in 138 countries about their positive experiences the day before. Did they experience lots of enjoyment? Laugh or smile a lot? Feel well-rested? Get treated with respect? Learn or do something interesting?

Those results were compiled into a Positive Experience Index. Latin America came out shining, taking 9 of the top 10 spots alongside Denmark. Latin American has a “cultural tendency . . . to focus on the positives in life,” Gallup explained. 

Syria scored the lowest for any country ever recorded, with 31% of people feeling well-rested or experiencing enjoyment, and only 25% learning or doing something interesting.  

Overall, over 7/10 people worldwide experienced lots of enjoyment, laughed or smiled a lot, felt well-rested, and got treated with respect. 51% learned or did something interesting. 

Here are the scores (not percentages). The average index landed at 71, putting the United States above average: 

Countries with highest positive emotion

Photo by Flickr user Wha’ppen