What makes us happy

Some years back I read a book by two researchers in search of what makes people happy.  Beyond general curiosity, my motives were somewhat selfish: I wanted to find out what the secret to happiness so to apply it to myself and be happy.

Finding the “happy people”

I still remember the researchers approach.  It was different from what I expected and has stuck with me since then:  they did not come from a nerdy angle that started with lengthy definition for “happiness” along with complex parameters and complicated metrics as you may expect.  These two researchers went out to find “happy” people by hearsay and then interview them to identify commonalities or factors leading to their happiness – and the very secret to happiness I was after.

Looking back, the researchers used the power of crowd sourcing (long before it became a household buzzword) to find those happy people.  In this practical yet somewhat fuzzy approach, they asked broadly who knew people that were “happy”.  Then zeroed in on those reportedly happy individuals that several others pointed to.  It may not be the most “scientific” approach I ever heard but intuitively it made sense enough for me to accept it and read on.

Smiley face in a crowd
What happy people have in common

The researchers found and interviewed, asking if these people felt truly happy and to found out what exactly made them so happy.

The responses surprised me.  Most of them, as I recall, did not consider themselves “happier” than others in a particular way despite the many people around them believing otherwise.  Of these presumable happy people, most appeared modest and content with their lives.  Their happiness came from within and somehow ‘radiated’ out to others.

Overall, they were happy with what they had and not driven by the longing for things they did not have.  It seemed they were more resilient or less tempted in what is advertised and suggest making us more beautiful, happy, smart, sophisticated, loved, needed, sexy, admired, or whatever once we buy this or that.

Sales Guru

No problems in life?

It got even more interesting for me when the researchers got to the real ‘meat’ probing the million-dollar question:  where does this inner happiness come from?  Was there an event, experience, or cause?  Were these people luckier in life than others, did they win the lottery?  Did they not face the same obstacles that most of us encounter; did they not experience pain or feel despair as much?

The answer was a surprise, again, from what I had expected and consistent across responders.  What these reportedly happy people had in common were traumatic life experiences, some of the saddest I have ever heard.  They had suffered the most painful challenges a human can ever go through; heart-wrenching life stories full of grief with loss and pain on every level imaginable.  They had faced certain death, lost loved ones or their health, survived war, crime, assault or terrible disasters.  They had lost everyone and everything important to them, everything that they had considered the center of their life at that time.


What they also had in common was a deep gratitude for having overcome these major losses and crises.  They were grateful for what they had today starting with their own life.  Their happiness truly came from within.  They did not crave getting the newest gadget first or show off status symbols of sorts.  They were happy being with their friends and family, and going about a simple life they enjoyed every minute.  They found beauty again in a flower and took the time to sniff it when others rushed by.

As a learning from these ‘happy’ people for myself, their happiness resulted from enduring a deep and meaningful suffering, overcoming a life-changing trauma and then to truly appreciate that you survived or made it through in the end to live another day.

It even reminds of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, where to protagonist need to descend to Hell (suffering) and work its way up through Purgatory (transformation) to reach Paradise (happiness).

To this day, it serves me as a reminder to value and cherish what I have and can do, and not to become obsessed with what I do not have.

Looking into the abyss

Now we could leave it here to sit back, smile, and cozily reflecting on our lives feeling good for a little while.  But why not take it further and ask the ultimate question:  looking back when I die, what would I have done different, what would have made me happier?


Obviously, we do not want to wait to find an answer before it is too late.  So, let’s crowd-source again and learn from other people at the end of their lives looking back.  Thankfully, an Australian nurse recorded the regrets of the dying she worked with over a 12-year period.  (The Guardian, Top five regrets of the dying, February 1, 2013)

Here are their top five regrets:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Read the list again.  Take a minute and think about it.  – Do any of these regrets resonate with you?  What would be your greatest regret?

Now that you know what these soon-to-die people wished they had done differently in their lives, what will you do in the time you still have?


But how does this all come together?  What is the change within us that in the end made the ‘happy people’ happy?  I was still looking for answers, for a pattern and an explanation to this phenomenon.

Let’s take just one step back to look at the bigger picture and combine the path of hardship to happiness by the ‘happy people’ with the regrets of the dying.  Is there a general formula that we can apply to ourselves to be happy?

Attempting an explanation 

I don’t claim to have scientific evidence, nor did I mull through endless scientific literature, or study medicine or psychology; to me the answer I found appears quite apparent and not new either.  It is known as “post-traumatic growth” in the medical world and defined as “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”


A change takes place in individuals during post-traumatic growth that transforms mind, attitude, and behavior:

  • Priorities change – they are not afraid to do what makes them happy
  • Feeling close to others – they seek and value closeness with people that are important in their lives
  • Knowing oneself better – they are awareness of their own needs and limitations
  • Living with meaning and purpose – they enjoy each day to the fullest, carpe diem!
  • Better focus on goals and dreams – actively seeking to making changes

This transformation changed the ‘happy people’ consciously or unconsciously, and it is this behavior and mindset that others see or sense, which leads them to the conclusion they are happy.

Smiley row

How to be happy

Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could replicate this this transformation and become happy without having to go through the hardship and suffering these happy-after-tragedy people all had to go through?  – The good news is you can!

From what I learned from Jane McDonigal, a famous game designer, the favorable result of post-traumatic growth can build four specific individual changes:

  1. Physical resilience – to not give in to sedentary behavior, meaning to get up and active, physically move!
  2. Mental resilience – build up your willpower to persist in reaching for your goals
  3. Emotional resilience – provoke your positive emotions to offset negativity (ideally in a ratio of 3:1, no kidding!)
  4. Social resilience – draw strength from other people; as a practical approach, genuinely thank one person a day or touch another person for at least 6 seconds.

Everyone can benefit for this simply by choosing to do so.  It gets even better:  over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies confirm that applying these changes can prolong your life by up to 10 years!  Amazingly, not only are the ‘happy people’ obviously happy, they also live longer!

So if you are in search for your happiness, as I was, chose to make these personal choices and start your transformation to happiness today!

Holding smiley face


A Splash of Innovation!

A Splash of Innovation!

Gamification became a simple solution for a long-standing sanitation problem… observations of innovative toilet technology from around the world – or how an innovative fly solves the plaguing problem.

The Problem

When you travel to different countries, you can learn a lot.  For example, how other cultures deal with common problems we share as humans and what solutions they find.  One of these all-time problems  is, for example, the cleanliness of urinals in men rest-rooms in high-traffic public restrooms (toilets) such as in airports and train stations.

Urinal row

Without diving deeper into the real mess that meets the eye, let’s just say that men sometimes seem to lack aim causing spatter and leading to an unpleasant sanitary situation in the surrounding area – you get the idea.  This mess needs to be cleaned up several times a day.  It is a job nobody likes at a cost that operators of restrooms would prefer not to spend.

So, how can the mess and the resulting cost be avoided in the first place?

Some background information

Did you know that urinals are actually designed to minimize unwanted splashing?  Now, this works best if the stream is aimed to a certain area of the urinal bowl.  While the designers go through great length to create this feature, their best effort does not seem to be communicated to the users effectively (or have you ever seen a user manual…?)

It is also hard to tell where exactly this ‘sweet spot’ is located since urinals come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes.  Therefore, even with the best intention the user lacks the necessary information to use the urinal in an as clean way as possible.

In summary, there are many aspects to consider in tackling the resulting problem.  Think about it for a moment, how would you approach solving the problem?  What ideas do you have?

A solution on the fly

Here is a solution that used gamification to reduce cost and favorably cleaner facilities as a by-product to the approach.

Instead of launching an educational campaign, print user manuals, enforce fines, or negotiate lower salaries of cleaning staff, the Dutch came up with an ingeniously simple idea: they put the picture of a common housefly right on the sweet spot in the urinal bowls in male restrooms at the busy Schiphol airport in Amsterdam/Netherlands!

The ‘fly’ from the Netherlands

The ‘fly’ started out as a low-cost peel-and-paste decal and is now also available already etched right into new bowls by the manufacturer.

Gamify it!

This little fly turns the ‘aiming’ handicap into an engaging little game challenge:  It seems to appeal to a man’s inner child as well as waking deep-rooted hunter instincts.  It also becomes a welcome pastime during an otherwise boring routine.  It becomes a very personal and fun activity ‘shooting the fly’!

Fly-in-the-Toilet as Game design

We discussed “Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds”, i.e. gamification from a crowd-sourcing perspective and that a well-designed game works by combining a basic set of ‘game genomes’ (strategy, staffing, structure/process, and rewards) successfully.

Interestingly, these same genomes can also be applied to this very personal ‘fly shooting’ game.  Strategy relates to the aiming challenge and pastime as a goal.  One person alone decides and does the ‘work’ of aiming with an immaterial reward that remains known only to the player.

University of Illinois’ Professor Mary Berenbaum confirms that men apparently have “a deep-seated instinct to aim at targets” that the fly satisfies and catches their attention.

Did it work?  It does, according to Aad Keiboom, the manager at Schiphol Airport:  the “spillage” reduced by 80% after applying ‘the fly’.  The spreading and commercial success of urinals with etched-in flies is solid proof.

80% less spillage at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport

Does it have to be a fly?

Reportedly, the idea to use a fly to reduce “misdirected flow” is not new.  It was traced back to maintenance man Jos Van Bedoff during his time with the Dutch Army in the 1960s.  He noticed a similar result after red dots were applied in the barracks urinals.

Yet, neither Schiphol Airport nor the Dutch Army was the first to use ‘special targets’ in this sanitary context.  The idea originated in Britain over a century ago.  Back then, the picture of a honeybee was used in toilet bowls; however, we don’t see them anymore.  It seems a ‘target’ with a stinger is less appealing a fly… and if only, perhaps, for the imaginary fear of being stung back…

What is new in one industry or setting may be an innovation in another (“Imitators beat Innovators!“).  This principal also applies for “lost innovations” that get re-invented at a later time, like the bee that vanished and then re-emerged as a fly in a different country over a century later.

As a variation of the ‘fly target’, I recently found a candle with a flame that serves the same purpose as the fly in Germany – perhaps, the Germans have more empathy for insects?

The 'candle' in Germany
Putting out the ‘candle’ in Germany

Why not everywhere?

I noticed this gamified innovation in three countries: the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan.
– Why don’t we see the fly more in densely populated Asian countries or the USA?

While it is safe to assume that the sanitary issue is rather universal, what these three countries have in common is high labor cost.  Therefore, they prefer solutions that build on automation technology and process over having a squad of cleaners attend to the mess several times a day.

Perhaps, airports help to spread this innovation internationally ‑ the ‘fly’ made it to Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.  Let’s see where it lands next…

Not an arcade game but sparking the challenge: I recently found this “target pad” in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Gamification with a competitive edge
Gamification with a competitive edge – the target pad I saw in Argentina

If you want to try it out and start a low-cost experiment of your own, just get some ‘fly’ stickers!

Do-it-yourself toilet ‘marksman’ stickers

More gamification in restrooms…?

So far, I found most advanced restroom technology in Japan at  Tokyo’s Haneda airport.  Aside from being as clean and inviting as a restroom can ever be, a number of buttons on the wall next to the toilet bowl allow a person to regulate not only warm water showers for different body areas built right into the toilet bowl.

To me, one particular function ranks somewhere between functional and entertainment.  There is a button to generate flushing noises without actually flushing water!  You can even regulate the volume of the flushing soundscapes!  I am not sure what the practical need is for having this unique feature, but it’s fun to play with anyway.

Japanese toilet “flushing sound” button?

I can’t wait to see what the next generation of gamification and innovation brings to what was a boring and messier place in the past…

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