Underground, Overground and The Science Of Happiness
Another week of summer has passed in SW France and as usual, things have occurred.
The most surprising was probably the wet stuff that fell from the sky on Friday morning. Not a lot of it mind you, but enough to moist the ground and recall a long-forgotten aroma of grass and earth. They were the first drops we’d seen all month, and the culmination of the driest July on French record, two records we’re not really keen to repeat.
We also managed a little adventure of our own.
While the world continued to bake we decided to go underground, through a forest rabbit hole and into a SW French fairytale land. We’ve done this before of course, but not quite like this and I have to admit it was a fascinating little trip.
Finally I’ve spent the last 5 weeks in a discovery of my own, a journey that is taking me on a path which I hope and believe will lead to more authentic happiness down the line. Sounds pretty darn fou-fou I know, but it’s actually science-based and I’ve decided it’s something I just have to share.
Overground, underground and new discoveries of the mind. That’s the pulse of this week on the Wheelingit blog. Get comfy and read on, my friends….
It’s All So Dry, So Very Dry
France is in a state of drought, as is much of Europe right now and it’s likely to continue for a while.
It’s all happened through a cascade of events, each of which has had knock-on effects with longer tails. It started with a dry winter which meant groundwater levels didn’t get sufficiently replenished. Then there was the early heatwave in June, another massive heatwave in July, and finally a drier-than-usual June and July. The result is a prolonged sécheresse that has impacted water levels throughout the country.
As of today 93 departments are in a state of alert (pretty much all of France!), with 46 departments declared “en crise” (highest level) and water restrictions in place almost everywhere. It’s insane!
We feel the effects of course, but we also see them rather dramatically in the landscape.
Our lawn is brown (and has been for a while), but so are many of our trees and perhaps even more shockingly so are large portions of the forests that border the Pyrénées. Driving round this week I caught myself reflecting on the pretty colors of fall, only to realize that what I was actually seeing were stressed and dead trees. Quite a sobering sight.
Farmers fields are also struggling. The sunflowers are languishing, their heads (and thus the yields) far smaller than they should be. Corn fields are bone dry and struggling. And bee keepers are starting to worry about food and moisture for their hives.
Literally everyone is feeling the hurt.
The rain we got this week was nice, but it was a smidgen of a drop and certainly not enough to make any real difference. And next week another big heat wave (our third of the year) is forecasted to hit. Ugh! We can only hope the following weeks of August will bring some relief.
An Underground Adventure
While the world above cracked and burned, the world below flowed with cool water through rooms of mythical sculptures crafted by Gaia herself. I know that sounds a bit like the beginning of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but our underground adventure this week truly did take us somewhere else. And we didn’t even have to eat any dubious mushrooms to get there.
The Rivière Souterraine de Labouiche is a local attraction just about 40 mins from our house that I’ve always wanted to see, but (like all locals everywhere) just never seemed to get there. This week I finally decided to change that, booking our tickets the evening before for a morning tour.
It’s an unassuming spot, deep in a rural landscape that borders the Pyrénées which looks like not-much-of-anything until you get underground. Hidden 60m beneath forest and earth is the longest navigable underground river in Europe and it’s quite a sight to see. Discovered in 1908 by a local doctor with his two sons, it contains over 3800m of caves around 1500m of which can comfortably be explored by boat.
It’s a fascinating little microcosm, a world that has never seen sunlight, water that is clear as crystal (no sun = no algae and no fish), temperatures that never vary (a sweet, cool 12 degrees all year) and caves that are covered in intricate stalagmites and stalactites, flowstones, drapes, columns and all kinds of other gorgeous speleothems.
There’s not much life here, apart from bats (of course), a type of salamander and interestingly enough a sand worm that was only recently discovered and may not exist anywhere else on earth!
You get to this underground wonderland by walking down one of two entrances (either the natural one, or a man-made one) and then taking three separate metal boats that are pulled by a guide along ropes through the cave. The whole thing takes around an hour and a half and the only sounds you hear are the occasional small waterfall and the metal boats clanging along the sides of the cave. It’s a whole other world.
Our guide was awesome, both informative and funny, and it was super-relaxing to explore the caves this way, not to mention wonderfully cool in every way. By the time we got back out to the heat, we were well-entrenched in our underground fairytale and had almost forgotten what the outside was like.
A superb outing that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone of any age!
Extra Info: The visit costs 14,80€/adult, 12,80€/child. Open Tues-Sun, July through Sept. More HERE.
Why Aren’t We (As Humans) Happier?
Happiness is something I think about…A LOT.
I’ve always had an odd brain, specifically when it comes to this aspect of life, and those of you who’ve been following me a long time know that I’ve written about it before. I’m prone to depression, a life-long demon that I’ve carried since my childhood days, and it’s a battle that I have to fight (to some extent) almost every day. It’s just the way I’m made.
But recently I’ve learned something rather profound, which applies to more than just me.
Overcoming depression does not mean achieving happiness. In fact the first is more like “getting back to a zero-sum state”, whereas the second requires quite a bit more and can be just as elusive. Even more interesting is that our brains actively battle us on this thanks to some rather annoying (and universally human) traits. And it’s the reason many of us (even those of us that don’t suffer from depression) aren’t truly happy.
One of these traits is our wonderful ability to adapt to things. This means we’re great at getting through stressful/difficult circumstances (all of us are actually way better at this than we think, in fact), but it also means we easily get “used to” things that once made us excited or happy.
So for example, the burst of happiness you might feel when you buy a new car will fade after you’ve been driving it for a few months. Or the crazy excitement you might feel your first night in a motorhome/RVing won’t be as intense after you’ve been doing fulltime for 10 years or so. In fact after 10 years you might even feel bored with it…uninterested…blah.
In science this is called “hedonic adaptation”, and it turns out we all do it. We are also terrible judges of what we think will make us happy (we really are), and we can’t help but compare everything we do (one of the many reasons social media is so bad for our mental health). Plus very few of us understand and use our actual, individual (signature) strengths.
All of these are normal human brain features which thwart our happiness. In fact if we want to live truly happy lives science says we have to re-wire the way we think, ignore much of what our “brain instincts” tell us, work actively against our natural adaptation skills and learn to seek out the things that have been proven (through extensive experimentation) to actually make us happy.
How do I know all this?
Well around 5 weeks ago I signed-up to a free Yale University course on Happiness, specifically called The Science of Well-Being, and it’s been one of the most interesting and productive things I’ve done in some time (my Camino pilgrimage not withstanding…although I now understand, scientifically-speaking, why that experience made me so darn happy). It’s explained a lot and has put me on a path which I really believe will lead to more sustained happiness down the line, assuming I keep up with the homework! It’s been a really cool experience, and if any of this resonates with you I think you might find it a cool experience too.
Coursera: The Science of Well-Being
Who doesn’t want free happiness, eh? I’ll certainly let you know how it goes for me.
A Warm End To An Interesting Week
It’s a warm day today, the first hint of the next big heatwave which is starting tomorrow.
It’s going to be brutal so I’m trying to prepare for it mentally, but I know that stubborn brain of mine will probably give me some pushback (maybe I should name my brain a bit like I did with Olaf? Or is that too weird?). It’ll also mean more indoors time hidden away from the heat, and more hardship and stress for the garden and farmers fields.
As the sun beats, the sunflowers will soon bow their heads in defeat.
We are now in the last act of summer, and it’s a cycle that flows much like a verse in a play. The saddening and browning of the sunflower fields are a sure sign that August is upon us and we have one more month of heat before (hopefully) a fresher September looms.
There will be harvests soon, harvest mites (not my favorite admittedly) and perhaps even more of that moist stuff from the sky (?). But there will also be more walks with Polly, perhaps a few more outings and more time with friends, all of which I now know will truly make me happy.
Let’s see what other discoveries we make between now and then.
How are you all doing, my dear readers? Any of you interested in the happiness course? Or maybe you’ve already taken it? How are things in your corner of the world. DO comment and share below!SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Kathy Hoover says
I discovered Dr. Santos’ course as I was preparing materials for a personal financial literacy course for high school students, searching for another take on financial well-being. She is warm, funny and engaging, and I learned a great deal from the course, and thought that it was a good adjunct to credit scores and interest rates. I hope you find it as useful as we did.
I agree…she is definitely warm and engaging (and down to earth). I like that she openly admits she struggles with all this as much as the rest of us.
Your underground experience looks WAY cool, in all ways! I’d not heard of it before but it certainly looks like a one of a kind experience…..now, if you could do it without all the “others” it would be perfect!
I’m basically a “content” type of person so I look forward to reading about your journey to happiness in the coming blogs!
I’m happy to have you as a content friend. I sometimes feel so old-fashioned blogging and writing…but it’s what I enjoy. And thankfully there’s a few like you who enjoy it too.
Installing a window air conditioner in my home made me happy :0
That is a sentiment I completely understand :))
Mary Dunbar says
When we made the decision to stop full timing, I struggled to find happiness. 2 things happened, I began volunteering once a week at Mayo Clinic, and I began to read weekly articles on happiness in The Atlantic by Arthur Brooks. Highly recommend him. He wrote about practicing gratitude…the beginning of the year write down 5 things you are grateful for, and every week add 2 more. Then reflect on what you have written on a regular basis.
I have often thought about The Camino, thanks for sharing your story.
Thanks for the tip! I’m going to look him up. By the way practicing gratitude is one of the techniques they teach in the course I’ve been taking. I’m doing my best to learn to do it better.
Linda Sand says
My doctor doesn’t seem to see a difference between content and depressed. How can I be depressed if I’m laughing multiple times each day? No, I don’t want to do new, challenging things; I am content not being stressed by new.
Certainly nothing wrong with being content.
Jim Streeter says
Wow, what a great blog. It is certainly human nature that we do not take in the sights right at our doorstep until we have company or make an effort to go see something. The cave sounded very interesting and a great place to cool off. The Pleasure Course sounds interesting and I hope that you will keep including the progress in your weekly blog. Thanks for sharing and I hope that you recognize that there are people that like to here about your life. The real friends are interested in the good times and bad times. keep Cool, Jim
Thanks for the lovely comments, Jim. Always good to know people are out there for me 🙂
I love Coursera! Just yesterday I said to someone that comparing our lives to others is usually destructive. There will always be people who have more and others who have less of everything we think we want. Training our brain to be grateful is very helpful in discovering our own abundance of gifts. Happiness is fleeting but there is true joy to be found in gratitude for “The Fruits of His Creation.” Google it.
Absolute truths!! Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I would say I’m a content, happy person most of the time. I’ve struggled a bit lately with our politics being what they are but remind myself there is nothing I can do except vote. That river adventure looked amazing and I bet the coolness was so refreshing!
I would peg you as a fundamentally happy and content person too. Definitely one of the first impressions I got of you and the Cowboy.
I really enjoy reading your blog. I appreciated your honesty when doing the Camino trail, the good, bad and ugly. It’s human nature to look back and think of it only as positive. I especially liked how you shared about depression. Just today I said to my husband that it seems like ages since I’ve laughed really hard. Covid and politics unleashed a lot of things to deal with emotionally. I hate to see the imbalance of the weather and what we’re doing to the earth. It all seems “off” to me.
COVID impacted so many peoples mental health, in ways we don’t even fully understand yet. And constant, difficult news articles has not made it easier.
I understand completely what you said about laughter…I felt that way before I went on the Camino. My pilgrimage was the jolt I needed to bring me back to my humanity, and my inner joy. And I didn’t even really know I had lost it, until I found it again.
I hope you find that jolt for you. Go seek it, and don’t give up. It is still there.
Loving the way this blog is going, Nina! Thank you for sharing your life with us. And regarding happiness, I was lucky to take a long course on this subject a year or two ago and what a game changer! While not the one you took, it sounds like the concepts are great. Using the free happiness tests and other related tools to find your strengths and virtues was super helpful. And reminding myself to live in each of them, each week or in any given day. Makes a huge difference!
I think the concepts are very similar indeed. So glad the course you took helped you.
One item on my ‘makes me happy list’ is reading your blog. Have been for close to 10 years, when I flirted with going full time (never got there). You have taught me a lot over the years and – here again – have presented something else to consider, but instead of something to DO, something to help me BE – which ultimately will add ‘depth’ to my life. I’m going to check out that class. Thank you!
Here’s an idea for you – – I’ve been using an ap called 10% Happier for daily meditation, based on Dan Harris’s experience and books. I really enjoy it when I allow myself that 15 minute window for meditation.
Thank you for persisting with the Blog. I’d miss it if you stopped.
Thank you for that meditation app tip!! Would you believe this weeks homework in my class is meditation? Now I’m set, thanks to you 🙂
Hope you enjoy the class as much as I have.
Sue Malone says
Looking forward to hearing how your Science of Well Being affects your life going forward. Somehow I didn’t know that you dealt with depression as often as you talked about this time. I did know that you are often introspective, and so very thoughtful…and I do know that thoughtful, introspective people might tend toward depression. You seem to have lived with this very well, and know how to take care of yourself. Your light always shines through your writing and in person, and somehow the depression stays hidden in the darker places that you don’t often talk about. Thanks for sharing this, Nina, it helps a lot to understand that even the cheeriest of us have possible issues hidden inside that we deal with more than others realize. Funny, writing that word reminds me of something I read recently about the z and the s in similar words. Britain likes and s and the US likes the z. Where is France on this? Oh wait…they probably have a very different word in French anyway so it doesn’t matter. How is that for a rambling comment??!!
Yeah my depression is an interesting beast. In many ways I write as a form of self-therapy. The act of writing helps clarify things sometimes when I can’t seem to get them right in my head.
And as for that s vs a thing, I think you answered it yourself lol.
Cynthia Huff says
Thanks Nina! Good information for all of us to think about. I highly recommend taking a nearby class if you can… adult education in pottery, jewelry or printmAking.
I take one pottery class each semester and we have a great group of repeaters who have become friends. It’s fun but also a practice— everyone helps each other and we all enjoy it…. Even if complaining.
Finally in NM we are having rains daily— such a relief after months of drought. The humidity is strange.
I hope you have moisture soon.
We are coming to Europe in October—and thru winter- everything reads that it is a rainy time. We will see.
Love reading your blog!
Pottery is such a wonderful (and therapeutic) art form. I did it in my teenage years, but have never taken it up again. Thanks for mentioning that!! I think it’s time I hit my hands dirty and threw some clay again. I’ll be off looking for adult classes.
Oh and Oct should be lovely here. One of my fav months in France actually.
Diane Borcyckowski says
I so love your authentic sharing. Your RVing journeys were my introduction to you and Paul and Polly, then your move to France, the Camino… and now an inner journey toward happiness. Just thank you… Diane
PS How are Paul and Polly?❤️
Paul and Polly are well. Polly is an old gal now, and mostly just enjoys shorter walks and resting in the shade, but she’s still happy and active.
Kristin Lambert says
One more student for the Science of Well Being course. Thanks for urging readers to try it. Even after years of grad school, at 75 years old I miss the academic world and need to stretch my brain.
Judy Butterfield says
Just thought you’d like to know I’ve joined you on this happiness journey. I’ve finished up week one and am looking forward to next week. (Maybe I’ll even peek ahead). It’ll be interesting to hear your thoughts and compare notes a bit as we wend our way through this adventure.
That’s wonderful! So happy to hear that.
Thanks Nina for your insights… my state of being tends to go toward the light and positive. Joy is usually in my soul, but have had periods of sadness where my heart breaks. I find that since my default goes to being ‘Up” I am often hard on myself for the down and that is my current learning curve. To allow my feelings to be what they are. I always find that your blog brings me insights at just the right time. I am definitely going to explore the Happiness course, thanks for sharing about it. And speaking of Happiness, we are headed back to Oregon next week and will be hosting at your beloved (ours too) Lighthouse in the Fall.
On another note, yes, I think it is fun to name your brain – OhLaugh!!! Imkelina
Love your thoughts Imkelina! Thanks so much for sharing them. And happiness to you at the lighthouse!!! I so miss that.