How can you make yourself happy?

How Can You Make Yourself Happy?

Having long been interested in life in the Scandinavian countries, who consistently rate highly in global happiness tables, I was keen to read The Little Book of Lykke: The World’s search for the world’s happiest people by Meik Wiking when I spotted it on a supermarket shelf recently.

Wiking is also the author of The Little Book of Hygge which I had previously enjoyed very much, so I expected to enjoy this one, too.

Experiences versus things?

One of the most salient points that Wiking makes is that buying experiences, rather than things, results in a greater sense of happiness. He quotes a study carried out by Dunn and Norton, who found that ‘study after study [shows that] people are in a better mood when they reflect on their experiential purchases which they describe as “money well spent”‘.

When people are asked to review how happy a purchase made them (such as a mobile phone) compared to spending money on a holiday or concert ticket, far more people will claim that the experience made them happier than the tangible item.

Spending money on experiences will make you happier still if those experiences involve spending time with other people and make you build a closer bond to them, and if they are linked with who you see yourself as being. For example, if you are a history buff you would gain greater happiness from visiting historical sites such as Pompeii if you were on holiday in Italy. Therefore investing in experiences in this way can be perceived as an investment in happy memories and in your personal story and development.

Preserving your memories

Taking photographs whilst you are enjoying the experiences can help to prolong the sense of pleasure, as you are able to look back and prompt your memory to recall details you may otherwise have forgotten. I often create photobooks of our family holidays and the kids enjoy looking back at these with us. I hope they will enjoy doing this for many years to come, as it evokes a shared sense of history and wellbeing and strengthens the bond between us as a family.

It’s similar when I reminisce with close friends about holidays and other experiences that we shared together in years gone by. We often end up laughing so hard we are almost in tears and our sides ache (in a good way!).

I’m a little wary of taking too many photographs, though. There is a danger that we can become so focused on taking countless pictures and striving for the perfect one that we miss actually being present in the moment and enjoying the experience for what it is. That seems a real shame, especially when you have spent so much money on a special experience in the first place.

Not everything is an item in a tick-list

I will never forget the retired couple who sat in the adjacent seats to my husband and I on the William Tell (now known as the Gotthard Panorama Express) train ride in Switzerland. In case you aren’t aware, this very scenic journey takes you through stunning lake and mountain scenery and the trains have extra large, panoramic windows to afford a better view. It’s not a cheap ride, either. When we boarded the train, the pleasant couple were friendly to us and during conversation mentioned that this train trip had featured high up on their to-do list of things to experience in Switzerland. We heartily agreed with them.

However…about fifteen minutes into the ride, both of them fell sound asleep! Shortly after the train departed, they both sat back from the window, reclined into the comfortable seats and seemed to be anticipating a nap. They didn’t wake up until we reached the final destination and I couldn’t help but think what a waste of money it was for them. Perhaps there is a danger of regarding some experiences as mere items to be ticked off in a list, rather than a special time to be savoured and relished?

Fortunately my husband and I gained maximum enjoyment out of the journey and remained glued to the expansive windows for most of it, taking in every little bit of the incredible alpine view as it unfolded before us.

Anticipation

Another point that Wiking makes is that where possible, it is better to plan ahead for your experiences and even book them well in advance. The key benefit to doing this is the sense of anticipation it brings. I have to say that I am rather the queen of doing just this. I usually plan and book holidays well in advance, usually twelve months ahead. We are going on a cruise in August and I booked it a whopping twenty one months in advance. Admittedly, that felt a little crazy at the time even for me, but I love the fact that it gives us extra time to research which shore excursions to do, chat excitedly to the kids about it (many times!) and feel, well, happy just at the thought of knowing it is definitely booked and looking forward to it so much.

I tend to book tickets for shows and concerts as far ahead as possible, too. There is the added bonus of being more likely to secure the best seats by doing so.

It has crossed my mind on occasions that if we cut right back on spending on holidays, weekend trips, concerts and show tickets, we could afford to move to a larger and more impressive home. Admittedly, we are very fortunate that we live in a home that is sufficiently large enough for our family, although it lacks rooms that others may not wish to go without, such as a utility (laundry) room and an extra bathroom. In some ways, the larger home would bring us pleasure. But I’m not convinced that having the additional rooms would compensate for the loss of life-affirming experiences we would miss out on and Wiking’s book has confirmed that we are making the right decision to stay in our current home.

How about you? Do you agree that spending money on experiences rather than things brings more happiness? Which types of experiences do you most enjoy spending money on? I would love to hear from you.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please add your email to the box on the right-hand side to be notified when new posts are added 🙂

 

Be inspired to enjoy your meals with Italian style!

Be Inspired to Enjoy Your Daily Mealtimes… Italian Style!

When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.

Restaurant Dining Every Day

During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.

The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.

Italian style mealtimes

From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.

There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.

About the Courses…

The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.

There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves. 

The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.

Sweet Treats

With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians  clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).

What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.

When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.

Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England

When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).

Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.

Actions I plan to implement:

  • Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
  • Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
  • Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
  • Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.

I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂

If you enjoyed this post, please add your email to the box on the right –> to be notified by email when new posts are added 🙂

Reasons to embrace the arts

Reasons Why You Should Embrace the Arts

The older I’ve become, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the value of the arts and realise the significant effects they have on me.

Annual trip to the Ballet

For the last fifteen years, the Russian State ballet of Siberia has included our town in its extensive tour every February. The first year that I noticed an advert for it, I mentioned it to my sister suggesting it as a possible birthday present for our mother. She agreed so we booked tickets, not really sure what to expect as we had never attended a ballet before and we weren’t sure if we would really enjoy it.

We were pleasantly surprised. By chance, our tickets were down in the stalls close to the front, where the large orchestra is positioned. Sitting so close to the orchestra and their moving Tchaichovsky instrumentals, while we watched the incredibly graceful, expressive ballet dancers acting out their story on stage was mesmerising. Since then, my mother and I haven’t missed one and they all have a similar impact on us.

Other shows on offer locally…

The same local theatre offers a good range of visiting performers and we have been fortunate to have enjoyed shows ranging from the west end Cats show, Irish Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, The Sound of Music, as well as Abba and Queen tribute bands. Varied, but all thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

The benefits of attending live theatre

Somehow, opening the mind to different types of performances has a mind-broadening effect and gives a sense of fulfilment. Sure, that’s just my subjective opinion, but interestingly Science Daily reported a few years ago that attending live theatre increased tolerance and empathy as found in a group of students who took part in the research. Tolerance and empathy are attributes that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days, so perhaps all schools should aim to take students to watch plays or ballets from a young age.

The benefits of listening to classical music

Certain types of music move me in a similar way. All through my childhood and adolescence, I grew up in a home hearing classical music several times a week as both my parents were fans of it. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it at the time, finding it dull compared to my preferred pop and rock music.

Yet now, I can’t deny that it somehow has a profound effect on me. I don’t listen to it all the time, but if in need of a little inspiration then classical music helps me find it. I find it awe-inspiring that some of the complex pieces were composed hundreds of years ago. I also find it has a calming effect on me and it seems I am not alone in feeling this way. The Readers Digest published an article featuring 10 Wondrous things that happen to your body when you listen to classical music. Amongst those were feeling more relaxed and productive. More than enough reasons to persuade anyone to give it a try. For a complete beginner’s introduction, I recommend either tuning in to a classical radio station such as Classic FM, or search YouTube for ‘best classical music mix’ or similar.

A classical Italian experience

Some years ago, my husband and I toured Italy one summer, visiting several of the major cities. While we were staying in Rome, we were taking a stroll after dinner one evening and soon after tossing the obligatory coin into the beautiful Trevi fountains, happened to stumble across a large piazza where a classical music concert was about to be performed. Chairs had been set up in rows, many of them already taken but there were still some free seats, and after a friendly lady explained that it was a free performance for the public, we sat down. It’s difficult to fully describe the atmosphere as we sat there in the moonlit, balmy July evening, with the loud, passionate sounds of of Vivaldi and Verdi echoing all around us in that historic piazza. A romantic, special evening to remember for ever.

Foreign Language Films

World cinema is another way of broadening the mind. Through my local library (as well as a small independent cinema that shows many foreign films) I have been able to access many foreign films in different languages. The ones in French and Italian have the additional bonus of helping me brush up my language skills but I have enjoyed subtitled films and series in many different languages. It’s surprising just how many countries have thriving film industries, even if they are relatively small-scale compared to Hollywood. Watching foreign language films, even if they are fictional, gives a fascinating glimpse into life in different countries.

Do you spend much time seeking out the arts in your life? I would be interested to hear which ones appeal to you the most.

A day out in London

As part of our recent weekend away spending quality time together, my husband and I took the train into London as it was only twenty minutes away from where we stayed. We still try to visit our capital city at least a couple of times a year, but used to go far more often before we had children. Even though I’ve been countless times over the years, I never get bored and enjoy discovering new museums, tours, shows and even little courtyards and pretty streets in unexpected places.

In the morning, we went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Neither of us had ever been before, and it was reminiscent of a German Christmas market in some ways with a significant number of wooden huts selling festive wares ranging from gifts to Christmas decorations to traditional German foods such as pretzels and bratwurst hot dogs.There were loads of rides, more than I expected, and we couldn’t help but speak of how our kids would have loved them. There was also an ice skating ring and Santa’s grotto amongst other attractions.

One of my favourite things to do is watch a show in the west end, which is ‘theatreland’ in London. We have seen a lot of shows over the years and have yet to sit through a disappointing one. Call me childish if you like, but I’ve always particularly enjoyed the shows based on classic musical films (Oliver!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music) and children’s books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). So this time we booked tickets to see Matilda based on the Roald Dahl story. As usual, the show was excellent. The girl who played Matilda was incredible, she had so many lines to speak and sing as well as the dance choreography and didn’t appear to be much older than ten years old, yet she delivered it so professionally.

Part of the pleasure of seeing west end shows for me is taking time to admire the insides of the beautiful old theatres dating back to Victorian times (of which there are numerous in London). Often there are rows of seating in the stalls at ground/stage level, then the dress/royal circle higher up and then a grand/upper circle. The grand circle balcony really does look to be ‘up in the gods’ and on the one occasion I sat up there couldn’t believe quite how many steps there were to climb to reach it! I love the website Theatre Monkey to look up the best seats and ones to avoid when booking show tickets. I generally prefer to sit in the stalls (our seats here today were pretty good ones) and before the show starts I love gazing up above at the intricate architectural details the Victorian builders loved to add.

Before the show we enjoyed  a quick lunch  in a chain restaurant. I chose an avocado and goats cheese wrap with roasted red peppers and the flavour of those ingredients combined was delicious.

We didn’t have that much time to spend in the city as our dinner was included at the hotel so we caught the train back for that.

We used to always stay in London itself for weekends away, but it worked out pretty well staying just outside in Hertfordshire, as the railway station was only 10 minutes drive away (if that) and the train only took 20 minutes to reach Kings Cross station in central London. We would definitely do it again. Also, the money we saved on central London accommodation covered our meals in the Hertfordshire hotel.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and I hope to return to the capital again soon. Do you enjoy going on weekend breaks, whether with a partner, friends or as a family? I always enjoy hearing details of other people’s trips so feel free to add a comment about it.

Please add your email in the box to the right to follow my blog if you’ve enjoy this posts. New posts are usually added twice weekly. It’s always great to see comments from readers, too 🙂

A weekend away, childfree!

As lovely as our little ones are, I can’t deny that they can be quite demanding, both physically and emotionally. My husband works mega hard and is away for bedtime most week nights so it can feel an uphill struggle getting all three kids ready for bed when they are often overtired and whiny. So, every few months or so we aim to spend a night or two away while the grandparents very kindly look after the kids, which makes it a mini holiday for them, too.

It’s good for our relationship, too. Due to Paul’s aforementioned long hours, we can end up feeling like the proverbial passing ships in the night at times, sometimes I am already asleep by the time he gets home if he has been driving a long way. When we make the effort to go away we speak properly and discuss things that really matter that there doesn’t seem to be time for day-to-day.

We stayed in a hotel in Hertfordshire on an all-inclusive package so had lunch soon after arriving and unpacking.  We were given a lovely, spacious executive room with a comfortable sofa and huge walk-in shower.

Then we drove to the small city of St Albans on the day we arrived. We had been there before and really like it. It is a historical city with lots of lovely old buildings, including a cathedral (see pic below). We enjoyed a drink at the traditional old pub pictured above. There are quite a lot of shops, a mixture of both chain stores to be found everywhere and one-off independent shops. We bought a few Christmas presents for people, including in one lovely gift shop called Raindrops on Roses which amazingly donates all its profits to a cancer charity. Whilst I was waiting to be served, an elderly lady was paying for her goods and I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation with the shopkeeper. She was saying how she was impressed by the charitable cause the shop supported and that she had bought several Christmas presents for her children, grand-children and great-grand-children, which she has quite a lot of because she was eighty-six! I noticed that she was impeccably well dressed, wore a string of pearls around her neck and her hair was neatly coiffed. I only hope I am like her at the same age, she was quite an inspiration.

st-albans cathedral-2125588_640 copy

There seemed to be quite a lot of little alleyways with independent shops dotted around St Albans and we enjoyed exploring them, often ending up in a quaint little courtyard or park.

We parked the car at the top of a multi storey car park and enjoyed quite an impressive view of the cathedral and rest of the city from there.

That evening, back at the hotel, we enjoyed dinner as part of our all inclusive package. I went for a starter of mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, which always takes me back to my days of living in Italy as an au pair. Then for main I had wild mushroom risotto, mainly because I am a fan of mushrooms but Paul cannot stand them, so when we eat out is an ideal time for me to get my fix of them. We also imbibed in a few glasses of red wine as it was included in the deal and was a pleasantly drinkable one, too.

There were other tables with parents struggling to deal with tired, whiny children in the restaurant, which didn’t bother us at all, we were only thinking what a relief it was for us not to be in their shoes for a change! Of course, we spent a lot of the time talking about our own kids anyway, can’t seem to help it. It was so nice to have some time just the two of us, though.

Do you often go away for weekends, whether or not you have children? It often feels as though you have been away for more than just a night or two, I think.

Please add your email address to the box on the right hand side to follow my blog and be notified of new posts 🙂

 

Life in Italy and the Bella Figura concept

Living in Italy and my Introduction to the ‘Bella Figura’ Concept

A Gap Year in Italy

As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.

It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.

An Unusual Home

The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure  that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!

Gregarious, Welcoming Italians

It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.

Fare la Passeggiata– more than just a stroll

The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.

The start of my education on La Bella Figura

I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!

This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.

There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>