The path to happiness – Part I: Why bad news is stronger than good news

Let’s look at some facts about happiness(1): Over the last half century, purchasing power has doubled for people in the wealthy nations like the USA or Europe. This means, there are more people in the world than ever before that are as rich as never before in history. At the same time, health care has advanced to an awe-inspiring standard, and Psychology claims to be able to treat more disorders than ever before.

However, studies show that the the level of life satisfaction has stayed flat for people in those countries, while objective physical health is barely connected to happiness, and depression is now ten times more prevalent than in 1960.

Why that is so?

Positive Psychology tries to provide answers to this issue, which I will write about in a little series of which this is the first one. This blog post gives an introduction to a basic biological principle that leads back to our early days as human beings, and shows how we often hold ourselves back from happiness unconsciously.

Let’s start with a question: Take a moment and think of an experience in which you failed badly at something. And then of a comparable one in which you succeeded beautifully. 

When we look at different aspects of society, it appears that those things in life that can be characterised as “bad” appear to hold greater power in human lives than the those that are “good”. For the majority of people, negative experiences feel more intense than positive ones, and they come back to mind as a memory more often. You can also take a look at what we report as news. Newspapers are filled with reports of events which are threatening and bad.

On top of that, it has also be shown that bad news get processed more completely and people are more likely to form bad impressions than good ones. Think of stereotypes you know about different cultures. You will most probably find that you know more negative prejudices than positive ones. We form them more quickly and they are also more resistant to being dis-confirmed than positive beliefs.

The reason for this lies in our brain. The brain works according to an organising principle, which is to classify the world around us into things that will either hurt us or help us to stay alive. Everything we do in life is based on our brain’s determination to minimize danger or maximise reward. When it detects a threat that could endanger our life, for example a lion, feeling hungry or angry people around us, we feel negative emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear, and prepare ourselves to flee, fight, or conserve.

When the brain detects something that could help us survive, we experience a sense of reward. Examples are food, money, sex, or a familiar person. The emotions we feel then are curiosity, happiness or contentment.

Everything we experience is scanned by the limbic system in the brain, specifically by a structure called the Amygdala. It becomes aroused by what happens and gives either an away or a towards response. It is constantly making these decisions based on our emotions, about half a second before we are aware and often also subconsciously. A study(2) showed that we even do that with none-sense words, for example based on how they sound.

Thinking about our evolution, we we lived out in the wild for much longer than in today’s civilized and sheltered environment. Our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to every little hint for possible dangers, like a rustle that could have been a lion. In a dangerous world, it was the hypervigilant people who survived. In fact, our early survival as a species may have depended more on passing on fear-based thoughts (away response) to offspring than future-directed thinking (towards response). Therefore, the Amygdala fires fare more intensely when it detects possible danger in comparison to possible reward. The arousal from a danger also happens faster, lasts longer and gets burned deeper into our memory. This is the reason why we often remember negative experiences together with the emotions of those situations. The brain warns us so that we can stay alive and protect what we have.

However, what does this mean for us today?

In simple words, we overestimate how often negative events happen and how bad they really are. It strengthens our tendency to avoid risks.

When we make decisions and set goals in life, we have the choice to set toward or away goals. Away goals are based on fear, they make us visualise what can go wrong and activate negative emotions. Future-directed thinking entails positive visualizations and expectations, and the emotions that flow from that make us feel good. The problem is that because of how our brain works, problems come to mind so much easier than unknown solutions, and positive thinking requires more effort too. Thus, toward goals are rare and setting them might sometimes require the help from someone else, like a mentor or coach.

The truth is, fear has become less essential, perhaps often even irrational in today’s society. Our progress as human beings has always depended on us moving into an unknown future with hope instead of being ruled by fear. In our days, future-directed thinking offers the greatest advantages over fear because most of the things that we perceive as threats are actually opportunities within a pretty safe system. Think of public speaking, starting a business or new career, travelling to less developed countries, approaching unknown people or leaving those behind that are not good for us. Whatever you want to think of for yourself. All of this can seem daunting and we might feel safe and relieved at first just keeping everything the way it is. However, it is not going to make us happy (not) to act based on fear. There are actually very few real lions out there that threaten our life. In fact, most of the things we fear offer incredible rewards in the form of authentic happiness after we’ve approached them.

And this change starts with our thoughts and the realization of the power we have, knowing the above.

So ask yourself, what do you want in life, and why don’t you do it?

Is it a real lion, or does it just feel like that?


(1)The individual studies providing this data can be found in: Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

(2)Nacchache, L. et al. (2005). A direct intracranial record of emotions evoked by subliminal words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 102, 7713-7717.

More about the theory of “bad being stronger than good”:

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenhaur, C. & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. New York: Harper Business.

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Would you benefit from coaching? – A simple checklist

There are a lot of misunderstandings around coaching, what it is and which benefits it can provide. If you consider getting a coach, this simple list can help you with your decision.

8 indications that you will benefit from coaching

  1. You have goals you want to achieve. You are not sure on how to tackle them or look for support in order to get there (e. g. starting a new career, a project at work, writing a book, expanding your business…).
  2. You want to understand yourself better or learn a better way of thinking (read my blog on how I use Metathoughts in coaching).
  3. You want to increase your potential in a specific area of life (e. g. career performance, public speaking…).
  4. You want to change in some way (e. g. the way you live your life, communication, feel more satisfied…).
  5. You seek insight or clarity around a situation you find yourself in (e. g. on a relationship, your life situation…).
  6. You want to discover new possibilities and ways of doing things (e. g. living a healthy lifestyle, making friends…).
  7. You are stuck in a situation and don’t know how to get out of it (e. g. finding a new job).
  8. You are looking for an unbiased, professional conversation partner.

8 indications that coaching is not the right thing for you (and what you can do instead)

  1. You are suffering from a current crisis like a case of death (then counseling is probably the best solution).
  2. You are looking for advice on a specific topic based on someone’s personal experience (that would be mentoring).
  3. You would like to learn a specific professional skill (that would be training).
  4. You suffer from emotional pain and feel unable to approach your life’s challenges (then psychotherapy will be the right choice. Read my blog on the difference between psychotherapy and coaching).
  5. You want someone who will take all responsibility and instruct you on what to do (a teacher, personal (fitness) trainer or drill instructor might do that).
  6. Someone else wants you to be coached (for successful coaching, you should want to be there by yourself. It could help to find out why someone else would want you to do it).
  7. You mainly want to explore and understand your past (while not all therapy focuses on the past, coaching is always future-oriented).
  8. You are not willing to change (coaching is all about achieving desired change).

If you find your current situation reflected in one of the points of the first half, contact me for a free meeting or Skype session in order to find out how I can help you as a coach. The same offer applies even if you are not sure. I can refer you to excellent colleagues of mine who do counseling, psychotherapy and training in case coaching is not the right approach for your situation.

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What are Metathoughts?

Ordinary Thoughts

Thoughts are the driving force in our lives; every idea, action and creation originates in thought. However, most of the time we experience thoughts as automatic and accept our inner voice without reflection. The result are thought processes that are often dysfunctional for our well-being and happiness, as expressed in the saying “the devil whispered in my ear”.


The Greek prefix ‘meta‘ is often used to indicate that something is ‘about’ or ‘beyond’ something, for example its own category. For instance, a Meta-Analysis is the summary of the results of many other studies.

I have established Metathoughtsas a concept that guides my work. According to this definition, Metathoughts are thoughts about thoughts, one can think of them as thoughts on a higher level. They are more conscious, clear and reflective than the ordinary regiment of thoughts that pass our mind all day. They stand out, provide awareness and move us forward.

Sometimes we get Metathoughts automatically, they almost ‘pop out’; perhaps after doing excercise or when we wake up in the middle of the night with a new insight. Other times we get them through a learning experience that provides a key understanding, or by talking things through with someone. However, we can also learn to apply Metathoughts intentionally in order to make better decisions, gain clarity, direction and a better state of mind.

My goal in my work as a coach is to empower people to think Metathoughts, as the following examples illustrate:

1. The devil’s voice in our head: Sometimes thoughts reflect the influence other people had in our lives. These can be repressive, like the voice of our parents as we think to ourselves “I can not wear something like this, it is not acceptable!”. At times we follow these beliefs or instructions without recognising where they come from or questioning whether they are helpful to us.
Applying Metathoughts would mean to recognize that those thoughts don’t reflect our inner convictions, but have been taken over from others. Once we have that awareness, we can free ourselves from them and shape or replace them according to our own beliefs, like: “I know my parents would not allow me to dress like this, but I feel good in these clothes and don’t care what other people could think”.

2. Incomplete/one-dimensional thoughts: Sometimes we feel stuck in our own thoughts, for example when we try hard to find a solution for a problem. Thoughts then often go in circles, contradict themselves, are incomplete or head towards a dead end. In these situations we are unable to gain more perspective.
For the use of Metathoughts in this context I like to envision a bird’s eye view; this means to mentally step out of the situation and to look at it from above, like a bird that glides over it or as seen from an aeroplane. Suddenly things are not so confusing and overwhelming any more and we are able to see the shortcomings in our thinking.

3. Emotions: Feelings and thoughts are so closely linked that most thoughts are caused and driven by emotion. But the influence goes both ways: what and how we think when we feel something, can either heighten or change those feelings. If we for instance feel threatened in our self-worth by someone, we might develop negative, reactive thoughts such as “This person is against me and arrogant, I don’t like him/her”. These thoughts will strengthen the negative emotions and can turn into beliefs and actions that are harmful to ourselves and others.
To think on a Metalevel in this instance means to step away from negative thoughts that were caused by the emotion and to ask why we are thinking that way. We could think “I got defensive because I am scared person X could be better than me. (S)he did not do anything against me, so I should treat him/her fairly and stay calm”.

4. Self-Handicapping: With whatever activity or performance we are concerned with, it is not rarely our own inner voice that is our biggest enemy on the road to success. A lack of self-confidence, the fear of losing, embarrassment or the wish to impress and be perfect can lead to thoughts that prevent us from reaching our potential. An example could be that we hold a speech or presentation and get distracted by thoughts like “My boss looks so critical, did I say something wrong? Is this good enough?”. In this way, thoughts can sabotage our intentions as we get diverted or tense.
Thinking on a Metalevel means to become aware that we have these thoughts and to stop them during the performance. This absence of interfering thoughts means to be present or mindful, in a state of relaxed concentration. In the example, we could recognise that our boss looks grim, but would be self-confident and in the flow of the presentation, and therefore not lose the plot.

How I work with Metathoughts in Coaching

  • Coaches get trained in the formulation of powerful questions that lead to growth within the client. For example, questions that I would often ask when a client gets lost in the details of their story, are: “What is this really about?” or “Could there be another possibility?”. This will lead to Metathoughts in the client, opening up possibilities.
  • Often in life, people don’t have the time or willingness to listen to our problems without getting distracted or providing unsolicited advice or evaluation. As a coach I apply a deep kind of non-judgemental listening which allows my clients to “unlayer” their story, to get to a deeper or different understanding of where they are at, simply by feeling safe to talk it out to themselves and a witness.
  • As described above, thoughts often feel disorganized or incomplete. As a coach, I help my clients to bring order into their thoughts, for example by reflecting back to them what they have said with clarity. This process allows for the mental space in the client that lets new (Meta)thoughts arise.
  • One of my strongest intentions as a coach is to facilitate the growth of positive, healthy self-beliefs in my clients. I challenge dysfunctional thoughts in the coaching process and help the client to shape them into a better, more constructive form. Metathoughts as I use them, are always focused on the best we can be in the future.

I hope these examples help to provide some insight into the mechanisms behind ‘the devil and the angel talking to us’ and how we are not only able to decide which voice we want to listen to, but are actually in control of them.


1 The concept of Metathoughts came to my mind in the middle of the night on an endless bus trip through Bolivia when I realised that it was exactly the application of a higher level of thoughts that moved my life forward. I decided to write a blog about it in order to share my thoughts with others. Later I started to use the term Metathoughts in my work as a facilitator and coach, in order to help people to understand how they can improve their thinking.

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Coaching versus Psychotherapy: What you need to know

Recently I met an older lady who got a bit upset when she heard I am a psychologist. She told me a story which was similar to others I have heard before: being unhappy with her role towards her grown up children and their communication style, she had recently gone to a psychotherapist. After eight weeks she ‘had enough‘ and stopped the intervention. She complained the therapy didn’t help her at all as it was ‘only talking about the past‘ while she still didn’t have any tools or ideas on how to change the situation. She was disappointed that she had invested her time and resources into seeing an expert who did not move her forward.

What is the problem here?
Not having been there, I can of course not be sure. What I can say though, is that many people seem to be confused when it comes to the question what Psychotherapy is and can do, and also what it isn’t suitable for. This confusion has even grown since the popularization of another, younger discipline which is still widely unknown and even more misunderstood: the practice of Coaching.

If you consider working with a professional to achieve personal growth, this article can help you to make the right choices.

1. What is Psychotherapy?

One of the main attributes of Psychotherapy is that it begins with the diagnosis of a psychological disorder or problem. The objective is to reduce the suffering caused by the disorder or to cure it completely. Some of the most common psychological problems being treated through Psychotherapy are anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality or eating disorders, stress-related disorders, psychosomatic troubles, life crises or trauma.

There are many different forms of therapy and some are more suitable for specific disorders and personality types than others. Most of the time, Psychotherapy happens through conversation with the psychotherapist, while specific kinds of therapy also use methods like role playing, behavioral and mental exercises or relaxation techniques. Psychoanalytic based forms of therapy place more emphasis on the exploration of how problems in the past may have caused troubles in the present. Other forms like Behaviour Therapy focus more on the current situation, exploring thoughts and actions the patient must change in order to overcome his troubles.

Most patients find it essential to connect on a personal level with a therapist before they engage in the process. However, most psychotherapists are specialized in a specific therapy system, making it just as crucial to get informed about about the advantages and limitations of the method being used.

2. What is Coaching?

Coaching” is a term first used and commonly known from professional sports. It implies training, motivation, accountability and partnering with an athlete for his or her best performance. It later became obvious that the coaching methodology could also be a vital tool in the corporate world. This movement was partly created by a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis” (Gallwey, 1974). The core idea is that there will always be a gap between a person’s potential and their actual performance. The reason for this is often an interference based on fear and doubt: fear of losing or embarrassment, lack of self-confidence, trying too hard or to be perfect, trying to impress, a busy mind, anger or frustration. To illustrate it in the paradigm of tennis, it could be the little voice in our heads saying ‘Im an idiot, I should have played this ball backhand!‘ Gallwey concluded that if we are able to reduce this interference we will increase our performance.

This is where the coach comes in, by empowering a person to reach their full potential. However, performance coaching does not rely on the experience, wisdom, advice or insight of the coach even though we traditionally think of a coach transferring knowledge to the player(s). Coaching is mainly non-directive and instead builds on people’s capacity to learn and think for themselves.
The coach’s primary responsibility is therefore not to teach, but to facilitate learning through skills that raise awareness and help clients to understand themselves better in order to achieve goals they identified themselves. This in turn means that the coach is forced to give up on the idea that he has the right answers and respects the client doing things in his own way. This makes the learning process intrinsic, releasing more energy, creativity and imagination. Moreover, the reward is bigger when goals are being met and achievements will most likely be sustainable because they are not dependent on the presence of a “great teacher”.
Some people limit coaching to performance coaching in the workplace. However, the field  grew vastly in the last years and encompasses other categories such as Life Coaching and Career Coaching.

3. Summary of the main differences between Coaching and Psychotherapy1




Therapist and patient Coach and coachee/client


Medical/clinical model, based on diagnosis and pathology. Learning/developmental model, focusing on attainable goals.


Therapy patient usually has difficulty functioning and/or feels emotional pain. Coaching client feels stable and desires to move to a better level of functioning.


Relieving pain and symptoms. Reaching of self-defined goals.


Doctor-patient relationship (the therapist has answers) Co-creative partnership (the client discovers his/her own answers)


Emotional Clarification and Improvement Action and Practical Outcomes


The therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise and guidelines to provide a path to healing. The Coach helps the client to identify goals and challenges, facilitates learning while holding the client accountable to reach desired goals.
Progress Takes time as process goes deeper. Can be rapid as process stays more superficial.
Responsibility Therapist is being perceived as responsible for process and outcome Coach is responsible for process; Client is responsible for results
Costs Can be covered by health insurance Not covered by health insurance.
Qualification Therapist has standardized qualification and many years of training, different regulations from country to country. Coaches have varying levels of expertise and different backgrounds, not standardised. International Coaching Federation (ICF) seeks to provide accreditation.
History First schools established in the early 20th century. Psychological theories and scientific framework given. Established as an independent discipline in the mid 1990’s. Developed out of practical developments and needs, influenced by psychological theories.

4. What you need to know

The truth is, Coaching and Psychotherapy do often look and sound similar, and depending on the school of thought, the boundaries can blur. Both approaches aim to bring about behavioural change and help people to understand how their thoughts and actions can interfere with their performance and well-being. Nevertheless, that does not make coaching the same as psychotherapy and many health professionals are rightly concerned that the unstandardised state of coaching will result in people taking over tasks that they are not sufficiently trained for.

Therefore, two points appear essential:

  1. It is crucial to know the differences between the two disciplines. Psychological disorders require psychotherapeutic or psychiatric treatment while goal-orientated endeavours might be best met within a coaching paradigm. The right choice depends on the topic being brought to the sessions. Thinking back to the old lady, this distinction could provide an answer to her disappointment.

  2. Traditionally, learning happened through someone instructing others as a function of expertise, knowledge or status. This is what happens in most classrooms, offices and medical practices all over the world up to today. Many people don’t know any other approach and consequently expect a doctor or psychotherapist to provide them with the ‘right’ instructions and solutions. Coaching evolved out of a paradigm shift that challenges this tradition and therefore contains a lot of potential to help us realise that the responsibility for sustainable health and well-being lies in our own hands; in all settings.


Table adapted from Bluckert (2005). The boundaries between Coaching and Psychotherapy are not always clear and vary according to the framework and theories used in both approaches.

Bluckert, P. (2005). The similarities and differences between coaching and therapy. Industrial and Commercial Training, 37 (2), 91-96.

Downey, M. (2003) Effective Coaching. Lesson’s from the coach’s coach. Cengage Learning: United States.

Gallwey, W. T. (1974) The Inner Game of Tennis. New York, Random House.

Williams, P. (2003). The Potential Perils of Personal Issues in Coaching – The Continuing Debate: Therapy or Coaching? What Every Coach Must Know! International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2, 2, 21-30.

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Nurture your strength or fix your weakness?

I would like to ask you to go back in time for a moment to when you were in school. Imagine you brought your school report back home and had received a bunch of A’s and B’s next to one or two unsatisfactory grades.

Now imagine the reaction of your parents and answer the following question:

My own experience looked like (b) “Well, it looks great, but what is wrong with maths? If you could just turn it into a B…”

But my maths did never really get better. I tried and failed throughout the years. When the time came closer to my matriculation, I finally let go of attempting to become good at every subject and instead focused my energy towards my best subjects. Those were strong enough so that I achieved a result that was overall still very good.

However, I’ve had countless recurring dreams in which I have to write a maths exam and fail. This failure is burnt into my brain while my academic successes, tests in which I shined greatly because they drew on my strengths, are blurred.

Keep your own story of handling weaknesses in mind as you read further.

One of the must-read books in the field of Positive Psychology has shed a different light on these experiences and opened a new framework on how to think about strength and weakness for me.

The core theory of the book “Now, discover your strengths”, can be summed up as follows:

  1. Because of the way our brain develops in early childhood, every person has a certain set of unique, natural talents. They correspond with strong pathways in our brain and are stable throughout our lives.
  2. If we gain knowledge and skills in an area of talent, we will develop a strength. An ability is defined as a strength if we enjoy performing this activity and consistently reach near perfect performance in it.
  3. People can attempt to gain a strength through excessive training and the attainment of knowledge, but improvements will be modest if there is no natural talent in this area. Therefore each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest talent.

What are the implications of this?

Research showed that people who are successful and fulfilled know their talents and cultivate them into strengths. We encounter them in roles and jobs whose core activities allow them to draw on those strengths every day. They deal with their weaknesses by finding ways of getting around them. They do not try to be good at everything, but outsource where they lack talent, for example by finding (business) partners that will take those unloved tasks over.

This makes sense as we have only a limited amount of time and resources available to invest in our own growth. If you are not extroverted, if you do not like talking to people, then the best sales training and knowledge about a product might help to to make some sales, but you will never excel in this role.

Of course, sometimes we can not get around certain activities for which we lack talent and some training effort might help with damage control. But trying to build a career around a weakness will never get us far.

This might sound logical and known, but is in fact contradictory to many assumptions in society where it is generally believed that a person can learn to be competent on almost anything and the greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness. Here two examples:

  1. Organizations spend most of their training money on trying to plug the gaps in employees’ skills and competencies. The myth that excellent performers are well rounded people being good at everything, makes managers take their employee’s strengths for granted and encourage them to identify, analyse and correct their weaknesses. This is a waist of resources as it would be better to place people in jobs that suit their specific strengths pattern and then develop those to mastery.

  2. Within traditional careers, demands often change completely as we climb the corporate ladder. For example, an excellent software developer will often not be an excellent project or people’s manager because these roles draw on completely different strengths. Yet, the classic reward for great accomplishment in the workplace is in most companies the promotion into a different role connected with more status.

The conclusion of the book is that we will excel only by maximising our strengths, not by fixing our weaknesses. We must look inside ourselves to find out what our strengths are, reinforce them with practice and learning and then find or create a role that makes use of them every day.

This process should start in school, where the foundation for our future successes are being laid. An overall final mark is not the best indicator whether someone has the right qualities to study in a certain field, but instead the areas of greatest potential which often stay undiscovered. Not surprisingly, surveys show that only 20% of employees agree that they have the daily opportunity at work to do what they do best.

The book is a great assistance for anyone interested in finding his or her  individual pattern of talents or on how to manage people accordingly. It contains an access code that enables one to do do the strengths finder test on the Internet.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” Robert Louis Stevenson


Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover your Strengths – How to develop your talents and those of the people you manage. Published by Pocket Books.

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Inspiring Stories – Chapter 1 – Reflections on Positive Thinking

The following is a true story of a 25 year old Chinese seaman called Poon Lim.

Poon Lim left Cape Town harbour in 1942 as a merchant on a British ship. Shortly after, the ship was torpedoed by the German Nazis and sank. Poon Lim swam away from the currents and reached a life raft that was 2,4 m2 big and provided some tins of biscuits, a water jug and an electric torch. Being all alone on the sea, he made a plan for survival. He allowed himself only a few swallows of water and two biscuits in the morning and evening. He waited for the sea to calm down daily, so that he could swim to keep his body in shape when no sharks where around. He calculated that in this way, he would be able to stay alive for a month.

During these weeks, he was passed by ships three times. Full of hope he waved and screamed for help, but each time he was left to his fate. When his food supply ran low,  his situation seemed hopeless.

Poon Lim however found new possibilities in an environment apparently deprived of such. He used the canvas covering of the life jacket as a receptacle to catch rainwater and took apart the electric torch to get a wire to be used as a fish hook. He spent days shaping the metal, using the water jug as a hammer. The hemp rope that held his almost exhausted supplies of food and water served as a fishing line. A piece of biscuit served as bait. When he finally caught a fish, he cut it in half with the edge of the biscuit tin and ate the raw flesh, using the remains as bait to catch his next meal.

At the end of the second month on the raft, he spotted sea gulls. Hoping to catch one, he gathered seaweed from the bottom of the raft, matted it in bunches and molded it into a form that resembled a bird’s nest. By this time he had caught several fish, which he baked in the sun to improve their taste. Some he ate and some he left next to the nest, so that they would rot and attract the gulls. When he finally saw a gull flying towards him, he lay still so it would land. As the gull attacked the fish, Poon Lim grabbed it by its neck. A fight ensued, which he won, but only after he was the victim of deep cuts from the  bird’s beak and claws. He pried a loose nail from the raft’s planking and used it to tear up the empty ration tin to make a knife. He used his shoe as a hammer to pound the metal. He quartered the bird, chewed its flesh, and sucked out the organs. He cut the rest of the bird into strips, which he chewed on until he caught the next bird or fish. 

When it hadn’t rained for a few days, he suffered from terrible thirst. Was there anything that he could he do? – Poon Lim decided to use the remnants of the next bird he caught as bait for a shark. The first shark to pick up the taste was not too big. He gulped the bait and hit the line with full force, but in preparation Poon Lim had braided the line so it would have double thickness. He also had wrapped his hands in canvas to enable him to make the catch. But the shark attacked him after he brought it aboard the raft. He used the water jug half-filled with seawater as a weapon. After his victory, Poon Lim cut open the shark, sucked its blood for the thirst and sliced the fins end in the sun for a meal.

Poon Lim counted the days with notches on the side of the raft. On the morning of the 133rd day, he saw a small sail on the horizon. He waved his shirt and jumped up and down. The craft changed direction and headed for him. Three Portuguese speaking men took him aboard. He had crossed the Atlantic and went on land in Brazil, able to walk unaided. He spent four weeks in a hospital where he found out that he was the only survivor of his crew of 55 men.

Without any doubt, Poon Lim’s story illustrates the brilliant resourcefulness and aptitude of a man who came up with smart survivor techniques that were not only unusual and creative but also showed he had some practical skills. That is why his name, if at all, is probably best known amongst outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travellers.

However, I do not think that this is all to it.
What about a thought experiment: If one would imagine 100 people in the exact same situation, young people of the same physical constitution and general thinking ability as Poon Lim. Would you believe they would have all survived?

I don’t believe so.
I believe most people would have died on the sea at different stages of this journey.
However, not because they would have been too stupid or weak to do the things Poon Lim did, but for another reason. In a situation in which there was no contact to the outside world, no glimmer of hope from anywhere and his food reserves were almost gone, he didn’t lie down to suffer and cry in despair, awaiting his death. Instead, he exercised consequent, imperturbable control over the mind to use goal-orientated, positive thinking that will hardly ever be matched by the average person. For this to happen, he must have had an unbreakable will to survive and the belief that it was actually possible. And this is what positive thinking means.

Positive Thinking is a mental attitude that focuses on thoughts, images, words and actions that lead to growth and success, expecting favorable results. People who think positively anticipate a successful outcome of every situation they find themselves in.

We have probably all heard a friend’s voice at some time, encouraging us to “think positively!” when we were down. And we have all in some way experienced which difference it can make to start the day with a heartfelt smile, triggered by optimistic and positive thoughts. But how much influence can the mind have on the body?

The truth is that the power of the psyche is so strong that it can let you die or live.
It is for example a well established finding of Psychology that widowers are much more likely to die  after the death of their life partner than at any other later stage. A study1 from 1969 for example followed about 4500 widowers over 9 years after their spouses’ death. During the 6 months of bereavement, the death rate was 40% above the expected rate for married people of the same age. Thereafter the mortality rate fell gradually to that of married people and remained there. Interestingly, the greatest increase in mortality was found in widowers dying from heart disease.

A newly emerging field in the intersection of Psychology and Medicine, called Behavioral Medicine2,  has questions exactly like these at its core. Why can some people survive extreme situations while others die and how do psychological factors contribute to the breakout and course of illnesses?
The science therefore examines the interaction of psychological processes like thoughts and the behavior they cause on the one hand with physical processes on the other. It seeks to abolish the reduction of illness and health to physical conditions and applies psychological concepts and methods in treatment strategies.

Of course, all this is much more complex than I might make it sound and there are countless complex factors that play a role in health, sickness, life and death. So to come  back to the simple, to the practical: I would like to see Poon Lim’s story as an inspiration and reminder to never underestimate the power of thoughts and our psyche on all our outcomes in life. If the psyche can play a role for survival, how far can it take us in our pampered first world lives?

So whatever you are striving for at this moment and you are maybe alone on the sea. Don’t give up, don’t say “there is no chance”. Use the power of the mind and see what you will reach.


1 Murray Parkes, B., Benjamin, B., Fitzgerald, R. G. (1969). Broken Heart: A statistical study of increased mortality among widowers. British Medical Journal, 1, 740-743.

Rees, W. D., Lutkins, S. G. (1967). Mortality of Bereavement, British Medical Journal, 4, 13-16.

2 There is no English article yet on Wikipedia that refers to Behavioral Medicine, but here are two scientific text books on the topic: click here for an English textbook or click here for a German textbook (Amazon links).

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Hiking the Fish River Canyon in Namibia – Lessons Learned

This is an account of my personal experience hiking the Fish River Canyon, as well as a collection of tips and suggestions collected by our hiking group that will hopefully help others in preparing for this once in a life-time experience.

Part I – The experience

The Fish River Canyon is one of the major natural wonders of Namibia, offering its visitors a range of superlatives. Located in the South of Namibia, it is with 160 km of length and 27 km width the second largest canyon in the world. The Fish River, being itself the longest of Namibia’s scarce rivers, flows as far as 550 meters below the canyon’s cliffs. Summer rains turn awinter’s stream into a raging mass of water which floods the canyon every year. This cycle, in combination with the heat, makes it impossible to explore the canyon beyond the viewpoints far above for most of the year.

However, when I heard that one can hike through the canyon during winter and some friends were planning to do this 5-day trip, I immediately committed – to an experience that promised to broaden my horizons, to push my limits and to bring me closer to nature. I have to admit though that I was more excited about the hiking experience than seeing the Fish River Canyon. Description of size means little if you can’t see it with your own eyes and photos of the canyon taken from the viewpoints merely showed a miniature scene of vast, dry and monotonously brown land and cliffs, usually serving as background for someone smiling in its right corner. So I was curious, but sceptical at the same time whether the Fish River Canyon could be a place I would enjoy.

For this journey we turned out to be a patchy group of 18 people from South Africa, united in knowing Hannelie, who organized the trip itself. We met at the camping ground of the Namibian Wildlife Resort in Ai-Ais, enjoying for a last time the “luxuries of camping”: with blow-up mattresses, tents, hot showers and fresh food. Other conveniences like cellphone reception, tar roads and ATMs we had already given up at the boarder.

When we left the next morning for the hike, we did not only leave most of our stuff in the cars, but also our normal lives and any thoughts of it. From now on, there was no connection any more with the outside world. No thoughts of money, taxes, work and emails, no news and bills and traffic. We traded almost all acquisitions of civilisation together with the freedom and responsibilities that come with them for a light-hearted, simpler version of it and a backpack each. As we descended into the gorge and disappeared from society, the canyon became all that really mattered.

The way down already had its effect on me. When we saw different rock layers and fossilisations, I didn’t know yet that the canyon’s initial formation dates back 650 million years ago (!) However, one could sense the timelessness of this magical monument of nature. At our lunch time arrival at the canyon’s living bottom, where a turquoise water pool was formed by the river, the canyon had already surpassed my expectations. It returned to my mind how it is always worth to overcome your own doubts and laziness to go out and discover the beautiful world we live in.

From now on, it was our mission to follow the course of the river. Shielded from the world by massive walls of rock, we balanced over thousands of stones. We traced footprints on sandy ground, waded through the river or jumped over currents. We climbed up cliffs and sometimes we rambled through wast and open plains, steadily disappearing into the next section of the canyon, like small ants. This magnitude of the canyon along with the seclusion we found ourselves in, had the biggest effect on me. When we are used to being limited to a couple of square meters in our homes, in traffic, at the supermarket, in offices or clubs, then space can feel like therapy and walking becomes like meditation. Namibia is the second most sparsely populated country in the world and this becomes obvious while hiking the Fish River Canyon. Nobody besides ourselves was there claiming any space or setting rules and there wasn’t even one sign along the way.

Omnipresent however were signs of the animals that live in the canyon. Some parts of the canyon looked like the Wild West, and everywhere we found traces of the wild horses that have been living in the canyon ever since the German colonists had left them there. It was a little girl’s dream that came true for me to follow the tracks and to look for the horses behind hills and turns. We also enjoyed the insect life, made encounters with snakes and scorpions and saw the tracks of leopard and deer. Nourished by the last flood, countless flowers had come to live, gently adorning and colouring the canyon.

On the fourth evening we continued walking until later than usual in order to find a good camp-site and to bring a few more kilometres behind us before complete darkness. We were tired that day after walking more than 20 km when we climbed up a small mountain. But we knew we had to move on if we wanted to arrive back at the camp during sunlight the next day. While we crossed the plain that opened up in front of us, the sun went down. It touched the mountain slopes surrounding us into the red light of Southern African sunset. The scene was of such beauty that it felt as if we were walking above the world. As we moved on, three horses came into sight, grazing above the slopes of the canyon – a scene as surreal and magical as cut out of a dream. It was a scenery of peace and beauty to keep in mind forever, and the best reward we could get for all the preparation and endeavours. The effect was even stronger when we sat around the fire later, connecting with each other under something that is probably the brightest night sky men can possible enjoy. Simply impossible to comprehend from a desk at home, these experiences can only be felt.

The other part of the journey happened within our group. Spending five days together and sharing much more than most acquaintances normally would do, we became attuned to one another and everybody found their role within the group. We started to resemble a tribe over the days, specialising our techniques for finding the best route and camp sites and learning how to survive as a group. Most importantly, it was made clear from the beginning that we would always stay together. Each of us was on a different fitness level and without regular breaks of the people at the front and middle, we would have been at risk of losing each other, a dangerous and demoralising approach.

Mike Fisher turned out to march in the front ranks: with a map in his hand and a fishing rod on his back, he managed to indulge in two of his favourite hobbies at once, either hiking ahead or fly fishing on the side. The group further featured three star photographers. Karel Papparazi surely ran some extra miles to be ahead, aside or behind the group, documenting everything from insects to people at 5 am. He was accompanied by Madmoiselle Marie and his wife Mia who turned into Mia-Yster Malan those days. Hanna, the mother hen was moving within the group, always concerned about her brood and constantly conversing and laughing. More entertainment was provided by Gerrie Gesegdes who supplied the group with funny stories, worldly wisdoms and Afrikaans tradition at its best. A lesson of another kind was taught by Matthys Liggepak with the most pragmatic approach to packing bags. And so he danced over rivers and climbed ahead to be the scout for horses and short cuts. At the back one could find Wyhan Agterwagter whose experience and patience paired with his advanced equipment including the group’s only tent and proper wine glasses.

From day 3, crossing the river became one of our major tasks and everybody developed their own technique for doing so: An engineer’s approach was invented by Johan van Waterskoene, who sealed his shoes in plastic bags before each crossing. Others, like Jean Clipspringer and Jacobus Verwoor tried to save some time playing a game, looking for their way by hopping from stone to stone. Liezl Navorsing did a test for the South African Crocs brand, proving it is possible to cross the country without hiking shoes.  The most straightforward approach was by Samuel Waterlooper: without a second of hesitation, he crossed every river wearing his (water)shoes as if it was a tar road. And at last, the slowest but safest approach of crossing the river was surely taking on and off the shoes each time, a technique that all of us had to come back to in the end.

Believe me, I could write more about this amazing experience. I fear though I might lose my readers who have been promised a “short blog” 🙂 So these are my last words: I don’t want to imply it was all always beautiful and great on the trip. I actually struggled sometimes with the sand in my face and on all my things, the cold nights on hard ground, the dirty socks and the fact that I wasn’t clean either and looked horrible the whole time. But certain experiences simply have their price and I believe we were all so happy to pay it. It is like watching movies or being part of them.

And the inspiration lasted. After coming home, we caught up on news. Amy Winehouse was dead and a crazy Norwegian had killed more than 70 people in an assassination. “Big” news we missed. But I realized, it actually meant nothing to me. What mattered, was that I valued my life, the world around me and the luxuries I enjoy in a whole different way… things were put in perspective again.


Part II – What you need to prepare: Tips and lessons learned

The essentials: Don’t forget!

  • Sleeping bag
  • Mini gas stove – 400 ml will be sufficient for 2 people for 5 days if you don’t use it for every meal
  • Lightweight aluminum kitchenware
  • Toilet paper + small spade – some of us had plastic spades for children, which are very light and cheap. But sometimes the sand is too hard to dig deep enough with them, therefore a small garden spade is better if you don’t want to leave traces.
  • Biodegradable soap and shampoo – use small containers.
  • Water purifying pills or drops – make sure they work quickly.
  • Quick-dry travel towel
  • Walking stick -you can do without, but it helps immensely for crossing the river as well as rock climbing. My stick became like my third leg.
  • Some kind of mattress -cheap ones made of foam are disappointing, but better than nothing if you’re on a budget.
  • Headlamp -plus spare batteries if you’ve been using it for a while.
  • Fleece/down jackets are light and warm, a winter cap will protect your head from the wind – do not underestimate the nights, it gets cold.
  • First aid kit
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat!
  • The obvious things: 1 short pants, 1 long pants, 2 T-Shirts, swim-wear, nightwear, socks, underwear, hygiene products.
  • Game energy drink sachets – dilutes the chlorine taste of the water and provides energy – I could actually feel it!

Here none-essential gadgets/tools that were voted “greatest tool to have” by their owners:

  • Espresso/coffee pot – some of us had a coffee (craving) in the morning, afternoon and evening.
  • Wet wipes – they can be used for cleaning anything! 😉 Also available in biodegradable form at baby departments (e. g. Clicks).
  • Fly fishing kit – yes, there are fish in the fish river and you can catch your own for dinner! A great idea of Mike was to bring the almost weightless grill of a “one time grill”.
  • Ziplock plastic bags – very useful to separate all the stuff in your backpack.
  • Foldable mug
  • Lightweight tent – protects you from the wind that can blow sand into your face in the night. But face the fact – you ll miss out on the rare opportunity to fall asleep after looking at one of the most amazing night skies above you.
  • Emergency bag or thin blanket to sit on and to put underneath your sleeping bags – keeps the sand away.
  • MP3 player – it made me very happy to listen to my favorite songs for a while during some of the long walking stretches and made me enjoy nature more intensely.
  • Lip ice and a moisture face lotion – your skin will get dry.
  • Liezl recommends: a husband like Wyhan 😉

Here some of the odd stuff that we forgot and missed by hindsight:

  • Sponge to clean the dishes – washing dishes by hands got a whole new meaning 🙂
  • A pillow or something to use as such.
  • A few of us realized during the trip that their sleeping bags were too heavy.
  • Many of us enjoyed a sip of alcohol in the nights at the fire – if you don’t want to be jealous, bring your own! Strong stuff is of advantage if you think about the weight.
  • Most of us mentioned a craving for sweet stuff: you can’t have enough sweeties and snacks for small stops. Also because there isn’t always enough time to make something warm during the day.
  • Pack an extra bag with luxuries and food for the last night after the hike when you’re back in Ai-Ais. You will enjoy clean clothes, nice shampoo, conditioner etc. like never before! 🙂

Stuff you don’t need:

  • Too many clothes – you can wash in the river.
  • Too much food – you might eat less than you think for lunch because it is hot!
  • Flip Flops – not practical to cross the river and unsuitable for hiking.
  • An extra bottle of sunscreen – half a bottle was enough for two people.
  • Too many kitchen utensils.
  • Insect repellent – there were no mosquitoes.
  • Don’t buy the freeze-dried food from outdoor stores like Cape Union Mart – they are expensive (R90-R100) and don’t taste good.

 General tips for the hike:

  • Try to stay on the left side of the river for the first two days – this will save you time and effort.
  • It is great to overnight at the hot sulfur springs on the second evening, giving you the opportunity to take a bath and to wash your things in really warm water!
  • Decide which method you want to use to cross the river. There are different options that I described above, meaning that you should either pack (1) only normal hiking boots, (2) normal hiking boots and some kind of sandals/Crocs or (3) aqua shoes.
  • Try not to start walking after 8 am in the morning but rather take a longer lunch break – the morning hikes were beautiful, the afternoon heat though will make you suffer! 🙂
  • It turns out, the weight of your backpack does matter. If you are in doubt whether you should take something with you or not – rather leave it! Most of us did not miss anything actually.
  • It was a challenge to find fire wood for the first two nights, some of us started collecting it in the afternoon to carry it to the camp. From day 3 though you will find plenty.
  • When the river makes a big turn, cut the corners. It saves a lot of time!
  • Get a map of the canyon – it helps to identify where you are, in which direction the canyon will turn and some maps also have the short-cuts marked.

The best recipes for culinary pleasures in the wild:
Here are some suggestions for meals that are easy to make, cheap, light and delicious!

Pizza (by Mike and Stefni)
Make a basic bread dough (2cups cake flour, bit of salt and sugar, 2 tablespoons oil, 1 packet yeast and half a cup lukewarm water) and let it raise.
Put it on a lightweight grid on the fire (you can also cover the grid with tin foil).
Add toppings: tomato paste, salami, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese (processed or whatever can last long). Finish it off with avo and bake it over the fire!

Chinese noodles speciale (by Mia and Karel)
Get the real chinese noodle soups (the ones with the 3 sachets). Add chopped up pieces of droëwors, pine nuts and sundried tomatoes. Very cool combination.  😉

Flop-proof recipe for maccaroni and cheese (by Wyhan and Liezl)
Ingredients (for 4-6 people): 500g Macaroni, 250g packet streaky bacon (chopped), 3 tablespoons cake flour, 1 cube vegetable or onion stock, 2 cups (500ml) water, 2 cups (500g) grated Cheddar cheese, salt and pepper.
Instructions: Cook the Macaroni and drain them. Fry the bacon until crisp (5-10 minutes), then stir in the flour and blend well. Mix the vegetable or onion stock with the water, add it to the bacon and flour mixture, stirring constantly. Add the grated cheese and simmer over low heat until the sauce is smooth and thick, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper.

Daily recommendation for superior performance both on and off the field    (by Gerrie)
Morning: 3in1 coffee and oats pap made with the Fish River water
Snacks: Droewors nibbles and chockstiks
Lunch: 6-8 provita with smoked salmon spread and some Fish River water too swallow down.
Sundowner: 200ml tomato cocktail juice and for extra enjoyment the hot & spicy flavour.
Supper: Soyamince with chopped beesbiltong stirred briskly (alternatively, add a packet of potato mash).
Desert: Whoffi (coffee and a shot of whisky) with mini tennis biscuits.

Mince Meat Pasta al Forno (by Hanna)
Before the trip, cook the mince meat as one would normally do it, but don’t use any other spices than salt…the preservatives can cause problems after a few days. When it is cooked, place it on an oven tray and dry it at 180 degrees Celsius until it looks like sand…mine took about 30 minutes. Let it cool down, and vacuum pack it…and then you are ready to go!
To “meat” up the mince again, you put it in boiling water until it is fluffy again – throw some noodles, smash or couscous in, a packet of sauce and some sun dried tomatoes, and then you have one happy camper with a full stomach.

“Stockbread” for the fire (by Jacobus)                                                                                You need 1kg self raising flour or cake flour, salt and pepper, 1 packet instant yeast, 1 packet brown onion soup powder. Mix all together in a mixing bowl and divide it between 5 zip lock bags. Use 2 cleaned tins as baking tins (sweat corn or baked bean tins). After lunch, if possible, mix some lukewarm water with the bread mix and make sure the water is mixed all the way through, close the bags and let them proof. Just before dividing the dough in the tins make sure you grease the tins as well. Place the tins close to the fire with very small coals around them. Be careful not to burn them and turn them regularly so that they bake evenly. Once baked, knock with your finger on top, if it sounds hollow, it is ready.
Tap the tin all around to loosen the bread, remove and enjoy your master piece!

And finally: What were our highlights and what did we learn? Quotes from the group

“Life outside the canyon pales in insignificance compared to the majestic scenery”

“The river: I loved the river, the life in it and the peace it brings to me”

“I learned to push through the hard parts – the reward is worth it”

“I learned that I complain too much and that I should not take things too seriously”

“I learned that we are actually fine without everything we think we need”

“The Fish River canyon has its own unreal magic”

“The experience, nature and company was enough. Amazing how little you actually need to survive and to be happy.”


Most photos of the gallery below are taken by Mia and Karel Malan. Thank you guys for allowing me to upload them!

Posted in Travel Thoughts | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

What is Positive Psychology?

Time and again the reactions of people make me smile when they ask me what I am doing and I reply I am a psychologist. Not infrequently will the answer, in a slight, distancing tone, be something along the lines of “Oh, so I must be careful of what I’m saying”. The hidden implication in this statement is that many people believe psychologists are constantly looking for problems, maladjustments, faults and disturbances in “normal” people, with the intention of bringing them up and fixing them. Even though this societal archetype sometimes makes me want to roll my eyes, looking at the history of Psychology, this opinion is actually not that far fetched.

The most famous representative of Psychology still remains the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud who invented the method of Psychoanalysis. His approach to the therapy of mental disorders was revolutionary: for the first time in history, intra-psychic effects obtained attention. Disorders with painful symptoms were explained by psychological factors like childhood trauma, and the psychoanalyst would interpret the patient’s reports in order to understand the conflicts that were unconscious to him.

In the meantime, Psychology advanced and has brought about many more approaches of therapy. The academic field encompasses various scientific branches that are concerned with the exploration of normal human behaviour and functioning, studied within different paradigms, such as Biological, Cognitive, Evolutionary, Developmental or Social Psychology.

Nevertheless, looking at the application of the science, the question “What is wrong with people?” has guided most psychologists during the last 100 years. Applied psychology became the science of mental illnesses, their classification, the exploration of causes and the development of interventions. And we are proud to claim that clinical psychologists, counselors and psychiatrists can treat many disorders successfully these days. We can help people who suffer and enable many to live more dignified, untroubled lives.

However, after my studies and having gone through all the major disciplines of Psychology, I felt as if something had been missing. When I later took some time to explore the literature beyond the limits of my German University curriculum, I was more than happy to find the unknown missing piece. It was the field of Positive Psychology, the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their wellbeing. [1]

In this new paradigm, established by Dr. Martin Seligman at the end of the last century, human beings are seen as self-organizing, self-directed, adaptive entities who have the power to make choices that lead them to become healthy, happy people (Seligman, 2004). Seligman was the first to realize and to pronounce that Psychology, thus far busy with the disease model of human functioning, mostly neglected the flip side of pathology: the human strengths.

It is indeed comprehensible that the reduction of pain had and still has to be the first objective of applied Psychology. Up until the early 20th century, there was no treatment available for mental disorders at all, and the lives of countless patients were ruined under frightful circumstances. Nevertheless, socio-economic advancements have improved people’s quality of life in many parts of the world to an extent which is staggering.      More and more people strive for higher ideals beyond mere survival, such as emotional fulfillment, psychological well-being and general happiness. This means an unrivalled opportunity which allows us to heighten our existence, by using Psychology as a tool to understand and realise our potential for long lasting fulfillment.

Another important goal of Positive Psychology is to raise questions with regards to psychological resilience, the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. If we see people as self-determined, what decisions then enable us to live mentally healthy lives? By focusing mainly on the disorders and their treatment, questions with regards to our capacity for prevention got neglected.

Positive Psychology has the potential to explore the conditions that constitute and build thriving families, work settings, communities and societies. Seligman (2004) therefore sums up the main goals of Positive Psychology as follows:

1. Psychology should be bothered with human strengths as much as it is with weaknesses.

2. Psychology should be about building the best things in life just as we repair the worst.

3. Psychology should be as concerned about making normal people’s lives happier as with healing pathology.

Psychology can become an inclusive approach of both our weaknesses and strengths, and this is also about optimism. To look at what is and what could be.

I believe Psychology can be more than it currently is: it can include happiness, aspirations, love, growth and play without losing its significance. And I am looking forward to seeing the reactions after this transformation will have reached the general public consciousness and someone asks me what I am doing :)


[1]  Positive Psychology is being taught in Universities in the United States already, clearly proving that the times in which Psychology was advanced from Germany and Austria are long gone.


M. E. P. Seligman, M. Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Positive Psychology – An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 1, 5-14. Click to download  (first link from the top)

C. R. Snyder, S. J. Lopez and J.T. Pedrotti (2011). Positive Psychology – The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage Publications.

Video: Martin Seligman’s TED talk on Positive Psychology  (February 2004)

Posted in Positive Psychology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Trophy Hunting in the 21st Century

Learning to leave the camera at home and be in the moment

A few days ago I joined what tourists call a “Safari” while South Africans refer to a “game drive”. Both mean cruising around in an open off-road vehicle, looking to see wildlife. As the only person not carrying a camera and having been on game rides before, I unintentionally spent a significant amount of time doing what psychologists like to do: Thinking about people and what they are doing.

The other 16 people in our enormous vehicle were tourists excited to see for the first time “the Big Five” freely roaming the plains, the five most difficult animals to hunt in Africa.

I sat behind a group of nine middle-aged Turkish men, referring to themselves as sales representatives, behind me were some Austrians and next to me my family, on a visit from Germany. Every person in the truck was armed with a present-day weapon and when we approached an animal, everybody got nervous, moving back and forth on the benches, raising up their arms to start shooting. In front of me only heads and arms reaching for their targets. Enormous Nikon cameras with huge lenses, an iPad, cellphones and small consumer cameras, making all kinds of sounds from clicks to melodies, accompanied by nervous whispers. Everybody on the jeep was excited and took as many pictures as possible. Machine gun photography, striving for the perfect shot as the animal would move.

Well, nothing abnormal about this, is there?

Everybody is a tourist at some time and we all like to capture our nicest holiday moments by taking photos. Before we were blessed with digital cameras, we had a maximum of 36 photos per film. New technology allows us to take as many pictures as we please. It doesn’t cost anything to take them, we can see them immediately and we delete the ones we don’t like.

What bothered me about the tourists that day and about all of us in the digital era, is the flip-side of this gratifying advancement:

The safari: What happens to our experience while we are taking photos?

At the safari tour I remember, whenever we passed a species for a second time, how only a few people in the truck still bothered. A quick look was enough for some to recognize “Oooh, we saw these already”, no reason for excitement. The interest in any of the animals dropped as soon as there were a sufficient amount of photos on the memory card. Of ongoing significance were only the ones we hadn’t seen yet. When we then actually spotted the missing ones, some people were so focused on getting their best shot that they seemed to forget that the real animal was in front of the camera lens. Some completely missed the opportunity to observe directly with their eyes, without a camera between them and the target. It is such a pleasure to study the giraffe’s long legged walk, to see the details on its coat or to watch as it eats. But people want to reduce what could be an engrossing experience to a single snapshot. They spend precious time looking through the screen waiting for the perfect moment to snap or change settings hectically, zoom in and out, swap different lenses, get a different angle, play with the flash.
The subtle beauty of the moment and the environment stays undetected, concealed by the very technology that we believe will bring it closer to ourselves.

For some people on the safari tour, the main purpose seemed to be the set up of a photo compilation, comprising of the widest possible range of species. The way we take photos like this sometimes reminds me of the process of collecting something. As if we could actually make something “ours” by taking a photo of it and become more by attaining more. One could see it as a hunt for trophies. No longer are these trophies deer heads, antlers or stuffed falcons in our living room with which we hope to impress our visitors.

The representative entrance hall to our contemporary lives is located on the web and the exhibition is open to all our online contacts. This includes family, true friends, acquaintances, colleagues and a few people we actually never really liked, but know for the one or other reason. Social networks portray a kind of enduring and immense class reunion between all these contacts. It is an opportunity to present the limited, but often more ideal and shiny version of ourselves we have created on the web.

At the safari, we had gotten off the truck and walked to the lion’s camp. At the end of the tour, the guide offered a photo shoot of each person standing close to two encamped lions. Someone looked at his photo and exclaimed happily: “This is for Facebook!” I had to smile, anticipating his new profile picture and the envious comments below it. The photo will never tell the truth about these lions though, being too dangerous to roam with the other animals. Instead, they spend their lives lying bored in a small camp within a densely populated area in which the last free lion was shot in the seventeen hundreds. Photomodel is their job, a few times a day. But we as tourists don’t care. We will take the photo and upload it, just need to cut the fence off in the background. We were in Africa after all, and we saw the lions, everybody should see that. We will keep up the stereotype which we have been taught by television: people go into the “African bush” and meet the lion, like Robert Redford. That’s after all what we bought the olive-green safari-hat for.

Metathoughts to think about

I don’t think there is anything wrong in general with taking photos. We do so, because we want to hold on to the present that will never come back and we are afraid to forget who we once were. We wish to treasure our experiences for the future when our lives will be more ordinary again or for “one day”, when we’ll be old and needy to recall our most beloved memories. And there is nothing wrong either with sharing photos online or posting special pictures that we are proud of. In this way, we can keep people far away from us updated and enable them to participate in our lives. We want to illustrate our experiences, because what we do and who we are is special, our photos just prove it. But here are some thoughts to think about:

  • How often have you experienced a situation similar to this: You were sitting at a wonderful spot in nature, waited romantically for the sun to go down, to then, during these precious minutes, be busy with your camera, losing out on the actual experience?
  • How often do you take photos to fulfill expectations or please an imagined audience?
  • Have you ever been focused on preconceptions about a certain place when you traveled? This can lead us to miss out on the small things that characterize a country, a city or its people much better than the typical candidates. We might wear an arty hat in Paris to take a photo of ourselves in an apparently romantic street café despite the fact that the coffee may cost 7 Euros. Or we will exert ourselves to get a photo that simulates us being alone at a spotless beach last holiday.
  • Have you ever put pressure on yourself because you believed that you had to complete a list of things to see during a holiday and felt then, it was only a “real experience” if you also took a photo of it? Think of a time when your batteries went flat in the middle of an excursion.
  • And how often do we take too many photos? Will a sixth photo of the sunset from a slightly different angle add value to your memory? How often have you then actually gone through your photos in hindsight, enjoying them, separating the worse ones, keeping the better ones? Continuing as I have, I will have about 220 000 photos of myself and where I was when reaching the age of 70. If I wanted to go through all of them and looked at every single one for only two seconds each, I would sit there for almost three weeks, given that I would spend a standard 40 hours working week. And this although I spent the first 20 years of my life without a digital camera.

One day I spent a few hours in antique shops in Buenos Aires, where they sold loads of photos of people who weren’t alive anymore. Boxes and boxes full of people’s most personal memories, wedding photos, holiday experiences. Some of them had personal messages on them. They represented the treasured moments of other people’s lives and nobody cared anymore. They were empty. It made me think of the fact that it is mainly us caring about ourselves and the memories we make. Two generations down the line they will be irrelevant. It is ultimately an illusion to think that we can ever treasure or keep anything. The beauty of a moment can not be captured on a photo and the time to feel and enjoy it is always in the moment.


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South Africa’s Hostile Online Communication

Sometimes the world wide web seems fraught with dangerous undercurrents that might just draw the unsuspecting surfer down into its murky depths. South African websites are no exception, and sooner or later when frequenting these sites, one will encounter a specific communication pattern in the comments section.

In the early stages of these debates, there will be a statement that is, or at least could be interpreted as racist. Often a commenter’s name is being used as an indicator of the race, culture or group that person belongs to, and in the absence of other cues, this easily evokes someone’s prejudices.

   “@KayiZA, the way you responded to peters post exactly shows us that you r a racist.”
   BothaCT: “You are the racist here, for automatically assuming …”

Pretty soon the temperature rises and the discussion escalates into something far worse. Now we are at the stage of personal insults. What we read is not anymore adding any value to the topic in question, sometimes not even bearing a relation to it. And all too often it ends with threats of violence. Evoking all manners of atrocities seems to be a good enough tactic to regain the upper hand.

   “Samuel, I hope you have a daughter and she gets raped!”
   “They should be slaughtered like animals”.
   “Time to kill!”
   “I say stick a pole up his @ss and parade his lifeless sack of meat for his mates.”

This disgraceful verbal clash will in its classical form also be intermingled with wrongly comprehended faith. “Gods will” will be exploited or politicized:

   “The bastard must rot in jail, then burn in hell”
   “You’re a Darwinian ass, go fuck your gay lover!”

A last, cheerless characteristic of these kinds of disputes is the aggression against liberalism and integration. By way of example, in comments below an article that reported the death of a young woman from Cape Town, raped by two men and then murdered, several users stated that the “bitch” deserved to die like that, as she had decided to live in an area where black and white citizens live next to one another.
Reconciliatory comments, rarely raised from time to time, will be knocked down immediately.

Personally, I have to think of the middle ages reading these degraded, dead-hearted arguments. It is black against white, no Rainbow-Nation in sight and belies frustration about government, circumstances, injustice, the past and the present. It makes me wonder, who these people are, sitting in front of their screens, spewing virtual hate towards others they have never seen or known? What kind of country is this where there seems to be so much hatred around? Eventually I will stop reading and leave the house to do something else, disgusted and with a shadow hanging over me.

After stepping into the real world, it takes a few minutes to recognize that the situation outside is rather different. The sun is shining and people are smiling. My everyday life in South Africa is being characterized by positive interactions and friendly, warm-hearted people. I see and meet them every day. And this even though I belong to a small percentage of advantaged people from the first world. Many here could easily dislike me for what they perceive I stand for.

Instead, people of all backgrounds have welcomed me as a foreigner in their country.
I know coloured, black and white community workers, teachers, artists, engineers and students who spend their free time and some of them a lot of effort to help uplift people of poor communities. I encounter and observe a great deal of genuine kindness in this country and have seen a significant amount of huggings between people of different races. Not in an awkward, fake way, as if it was a big deal, but genuine.

These experiences just don’t fit to the discussions that I have read online.

And yes, I can hear the critic’s voice already… Therefore I state, I don’t want to deny that there are serious problems in South Africa. We are not in the Smurf’s fairyland. There is a lot of crime and huge social challenges. But this is besides my point.
All this made me think, and raises the question: why do people insult each other so harshly when they are online?

The psychological side of it: Inappropriate behavior on the Internet is not a new phenomenon

It was already in the 1980’s when psychologists found that email communication is more hostile than face-to-face conversations (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986). By now we know that the so-called computer mediated communication (“CMC”), which includes chats and forums, generally differs from direct conversations.

Under normal, real-life conditions, verbal interaction is governed by a multitude of social norms and rules. People are, for the most part, kind and considerate towards each other, heated conflict is unusual and hateful verbal abuse is very rare. Online, different rules apply. Psychologists call the inappropriate behavior described above “flaming” or “disinhibited behaviour”. It has been shown that flaming occurs four times as often in CMC than in face-to-face situations (Dyer, Green, Pitts & Millward, 1995). Experimental results prove that this applies to everyone, which means it is not only a certain type of “bad people” that goes nuts on the web (Atkinson, 2002).

One of the obvious reasons for this is the reduction in accountability. In real-life, the fear of punishment by society or the counterpart we’re facing, often holds us back. Contrary to this, we don’t have to personally account for our online postings.
Nevertheless, anonymity isn’t an adequate explanation for the described effects.

Another reason lies in the communication medium itself. The narrow bandwidth of CMC leads to depersonalization through reduced “social presence”. We lack social cues and have only a limited amount of information available. Misunderstandings, disagreements and frustration follow.

And lastly, disinhibited behavior online can be better understood by means of a theory already developed in the 1970’s (“Social Norm Theory”, Turner, 1974). This theory states that people tend to look at the behavior of others for guidance as to what is appropriate when they are in unfamiliar or socially ambiguous situations (such as entering an online forum). We then tend to follow behaviour that stands out in some way, like someone being aggressive. In this way anti-social behaviour can become the norm, even if it is only one deviant crossing the line.

The Social Norm Theory also explains how inappropriate behavior on the Internet can be reinforced. Look for anything on the web, and you will find plenty of advocates on countless websites who will confirm your beliefs. Not only does the web give us access to desired information and content, it also implies that our (potentially deviant) opinion or behaviour is “normal” or “right”. This may allow someone to justify to himself what (s)he would previously have not found appropriate (“many people agree with me”).

So what?

Well, as a cynic one could conclude that the kind of online disputes one finds on South Africa’s websites, do actually reflect back onto South African citizens. And just because you don’t hear racist comments by people on the street, it doesn’t mean that they are not racists.

It might also be relieving to know that most of the users showing disrespectful behavior online will be more reasonable when seeing other people in person. One could even say, it might be helpful to let off some steam from time to time in a place where it is safe to do so.

And still, I believe, the way we communicate with each other online impacts a society’s psyche and becomes increasingly important the more the web becomes entwined into our lives and CMC replaces real-life meetings. Especially when there are big social problems in a country, it is crucial to be concerned about the kind of info and communication its citizens are confronted with.

It could therefore be helpful to encourage and reward people to sign up on websites with a profile that is more real, for example with a photo or an account that is connected to a social network. In accordance to the Social Norm Theory it might be desirable to change the norms of websites that allow comments. Providing buttons to report abusive comments should be a standard for all websites and would probably be more useful than up- or downvote buttons which often promote fighting between opposing parties.

Furthermore, we can all watch our online behaviour and ask ourselves whether we would actually stand up for our entries with our real names. And when we are bothered by the comments of others, why not consider posting a respectful counterargument or positive thought instead of surfing away? It could help everybody who is engaged in these discussions, as well as future readers and the ungracious users in question, to recognize that disrespectful behaviour is not the norm.


The comments in this blog are taken from a major South African news website. 


Atkinson, Q. (2002) Disinhibition on the Internet: Implications and Intervention. Department of Psychology, University of Auckland.

Dyer, Green, Pitts & Millward (1995). What’s the flaming problem? CMC: deindividuating or disinhibiting? In M.A.R. Kirby, A.J. Dix, and J.E. Finlay (Eds.), People and Computers X. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postmes, T., Spears, R. & Lea, M. (2000) The Formation of Group Norms in Computer-Mediated Communication. Human Communication Research, 26(3), 341-72.

Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1986) Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32, 1492-1512.

Turner, R. H. (1974) Collective Behaviour in R.E.L. Farris (ed.), Handbook of modern sociology (pp. 382-425). Chicago, IL: Rand-McNally.

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