When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.

On traveling and writing

I’ve now been traveling for nearly five months and yet I still haven’t figured out how to convey what I’m experiencing in words or pictures on this blog. But now I’m sitting by the lazy green Mekong river in Laos with a nutella sandwich, cold passionfruit juice and an afternoon’s break from my bike so there’s no good excuse not to just write. So here goes…

Since there are several reasons why I’m out traveling there are several ways I might write about it. This blog started as a way for me to write freely about conservation so I’m trying to find a meaningful (and practical considering poor internet connections) way of writing about this adventure in a way that keeps it connected to conservation.

“All adventure is a vessel for getting to the more important things in life.” – Alastair Humphreys, 2011

What are the important things in life to me at this moment? The environmental lessons that don’t make their way to my desk in Europe. The human connections that happen only when you are miles and miles from ‘civilisation’, sanity and the safety of the known. The nature of your own edge. The nature of nature’s edge – and society’s. The serenity and satisfaction of reaching an ‘ah-HA!’ moment at the most unexpected points in your life.

Even if I’m not working in conservation right now I’m living slowly and sustainably, and I’m getting closer to discovering a way to lead a life that brings conservation and outdoor adventures together.

Bike touring
Bike touring

Two inspirational women who recently cycled for ten months visiting transboundary protected areas (national parks that straddle national boundaries) summed up what I’m trying to say just perfectly:

“There are places you can get to by road, and there are places you can only get to by being on the road, a state of mind you can carry, with concerted effort, to almost any context.” – Cycling Silk, 2011

The seed for my own expedition or adventure was planted about a year ago in the second half of my masters when I got to attend a few talks by expedition leaders (including Sir Ranulph Fiennes). The craving was only further fuelled by the extreme sports videos I would watch online while putting off the essays I should have been writing. I wasn’t interested in being a backpacker or in moving ‘to the field’ for a gritty but noble conservation job. I wanted to do something physically demanding outdoors. I wanted to learn about the world and myself through the total sensory experience of life outdoors every day. I didn’t know it then, but I do now: I needed to be on the road in every possible sense.

Being on the road is both a lifestyle and a state of mind. The route we are drawing on the map with our bikes is a transect through time, through my life and others’, and through social and environmental landscapes. It’s just one of many possibilities, but whatever path I’m on is the way it is and a chance for me to learn something along the way.

To give you a taste of Laos, here are a few observations in the time I’ve been sitting here writing:

{A woman in a typical conical woven hat guides a small canoe over the river carving a rippling V into its smooth surface.}
{A man fires up a longtail boat below the deck I’m sitting on and the whap-whap-whap cuts through the thick, hot air, disrupting the near silence.}
{A monkey in a cage at the hotel across the sandy lane starts whooping out a high pitched warning cry as tourists walk by laughing.}