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.
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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