Posted in Life & Happiness

Approval Voting

Let’s say you have to organise a group dinner. With so many preferences, dietary restrictions and non-specifically fussy eaters, what is the best method to decide where to eat without starving to death while deciding?

The classic method relies on old-fashioned democracy, where people vote on their most desired place. However, the smaller the group size, the less reliable this method becomes as the results become more split. Furthermore, this method can make the minority unhappy as the majority choice may not even be the minority’s second or third choice. Lastly, it runs the risk of the wolf and sheep” problem, where two wolves vote to eat the sheep and the sheep has no say because it is the minority.

A much better method is the approval voting system. Here, all you have to ask is for everyone to vote on every place that they are okay with going to. For example, let us say that 6 people have to vote between three potential options: burgers, dumplings and fried chicken.

In the old system, it could have been that 2 people voted on each option, making the vote useless. Or, 3 people may have voted dumplings when the other 3 hate it (but voted 2 burgers, 1 chicken), meaning half the group is unhappy with the final result.

With the new system, 3 people are okay with burgers, 3 people are okay with dumplings and 5 people are okay with fried chicken. Fried chicken wins the vote and a much greater majority of the participants are okay with the result, because the vote reflects some of their preference, even if it wasn’t what they most wanted.

The approval voting system also has the strength of accounting for people who are indecisive and vote on everything, or nothing. Voting on all the options essentially cancels out the ratio, so it counts as a null vote. This means that people have less power to swing the votes one way or another.

All in all, it is a simple but powerful tool to help decision-making in a group setting, which can be painfully frustrating when you are just trying to have fun together and relax.



Posted in Life & Happiness

Avocado Pasta

Pasta with homemade sauce is one of the best meals to cook at home, because it is often easy, makes a large portion and tastes delicious despite its simple recipe. It is also easily adaptable, such as this avocado pasta recipe which is an alternative to pesto, if avocados are in season and cheap.

When cooking pasta, remember to heavily salt the water (“as salty as the Adriatic Sea” as Italians might say) for extra flavourful pasta and to save 1-2 cups of pasta water for additional starchiness to the sauce.

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 avocados
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup basil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes
100-150g bacon/pancetta/chicken (optional)
350-400g pasta (any, but recommend fusilli or penne)

  1. Cook pasta to preference (suggest 12-13 minutes in salted boiling water)
  2. Chop avocados into medium-sized chunks to make it easy to process
  3. Add avocados, peeled garlic, basil and lemon juice to the food processor
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  5. Start blending all of the ingredients in the food processor and add olive oil in a slow stream (or intermittently and pulse)
  6. Blend until all ingredients have fully emulsified with no pools of oil
  7. Cut cherry tomatoes in half
  8. If using bacon or pancetta, pan fry until lightly crisp
  9. Tomatoes can be cooked in the bacon/pancetta oil if you prefer
  10. If using chicken, cut into strips or cubes, season with salt and pepper, then pan fry until fully cooked
  11. Combine pasta, avocado sauce, cherry tomatoes, meat and splash of pasta water (avoid making the mix too liquid)
  12. Garnish with basil leaves and serve
Posted in Life & Happiness

Silver Medal Effect

Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. You have performed admirably and are stepping up to the podium to receive a medal for being one of the top three athletes at the game. Question: would you rather receive the silver or the bronze medal?

The logical answer would be that the silver medal is better, as second place is better than third. It is clear that the person who came second performed better and will also receive a more valuable prize. However, the opposite is true in reality.

In 1995, psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich studied video recordings and interviews of athletes from the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. They studied facial expressions of medalists and noted a stark contrast between those who won gold, silver and bronze.

Obviously, the gold medalists were ecstatic and were not afraid to show this. By contrast, silver medalists rarely smiled immediately after their achievement, often showing flashes of sadness or contempt instead. They would usually smile on the podium as they received the medal, but compared to bronze and gold medalists, they were far more likely to show a fake smile rather than a Duchenne smile – a true, involuntary smile associated with happiness.
Interestingly, those who won bronze looked far happier than the silver medalists.

This effect has been reported through other observational studies, such as a 2006 study that looked at athletes in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
In fact, almost everyone will have had similar experiences where coming second place somehow feels worse than not doing well in a tournament at all. This is because of counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactuals are essentially “What if?” scenarios that we dream up in our heads. Being imaginative creatures, we are prone to thinking of what could have been, then proceed to have regrets or be disappointed by something that never even happened. The closer we get to our goals, the bigger the disappointment we have when we fail to achieve it.

We all fall victim to counterfactual thinking. We often wonder what would have happened had we taken action earlier, or did something slightly differently, then lament that the best case scenario did not happen. We compare our reality to a hypothetical situation and become frustrated.

Many studies have confirmed this in various settings, showing that objective achievement means nothing in the face of the subjective perception of the achievement. Even if you work hard and get an A- in an assignment, you could be sad and stressed that you did not get an A+.

A simple antidote to counterfactual thinking is turning it on its head. Instead of thinking that it is a shame that you didn’t achieve gold, be glad that you achieved such a high result. Instead of fretting that you did not get the best mark, imagine how bad it would had been if you had failed. Instead of lamenting that you had a bad day, be grateful that you did not have an ill fortune such as being hit by a bus or suffering a brain aneurysm rupture.

At the end of the day, the problem with counterfactual thinking is that it is based on our own imagination. We are creating stress in our own heads, actively choosing to be unhappy.

Because of our high expectations, we fail to enjoy the pleasures of life or appreciate the absolute value of our achievements. We forget that we don’t have to be the best or that we don’t have to win every game.

We forget to be content.

Posted in Life & Happiness

New Experiences

A theory on how the brain processes and remembers time is that it counts time by the number of experiences. For example, if you attend a party and meet many new people and have an exciting, fun time, then your brain will remember that day as feeling longer and with much more detail. In contrast, a normal, boring work day may not even register as a memory, because there is nothing new to remember.

This sounds obvious, but the theory has relevant implications.
Look back on your past week and try to remember what you did. Do you remember the weather three days ago, what you talked about with your friend over coffee five days ago, or what song was playing while you were doing paperwork?

It is not uncommon for our brain to go into autopilot and forget menial, daily routines. In other words, the more standardised and automated your daily life is, your brain will remember those times as “less time”. Ergo, the life you look back on is shorter than what it could have been if you stop having new experiences. Is that not such a waste?

Compare this to when you travel or start a new relationship. You are exposed to so many new stimuli and experiences that your brain light ups and frantically records every detail (the heightened emotions play a role also). This is why we can remember the scent of our partner, the conversations we had with a stranger we met in a French bookshop, and what movie was playing in the background when you had your first kiss. These are moments that you can remember in better detail than you can remember entire years.

The bottom line is that a boring life a short life. A way to make the most of the short time we have in life would be to continue having new experiences as we grow old. Travel the world, meet new people, try things you normally wouldn’t, fall in love and push your horizons.

Otherwise, you may end up on your deathbed looking back on your life, regretting that your highlight reel is much shorter than you expected.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Work-Life Balance

An important part of most of our lives as an adult is work.
We need money to pay for food and housing, but also to fulfil our wants and realising our dreams, such as indulging in gourmet foods and beautiful clothes, going on trips, funding a hobby or buying a nice house.
Careers can be an important source of personal pride and sense of purpose, challenging us and stimulating our growth.
Workplaces are also a valuable source of social interaction, as we meet people we might not have met in other settings.

But as important as work is, it is perhaps overemphasised in our society.
Money is great, but above a certain line, there is a diminishing return on how much happiness it brings, because it promotes greed rather than contentness.
Our pride in our job may lead to us making it too large a part of our identity, resulting in a crisis when we feel we are not good at our jobs or cannot keep working anymore.
Our colleagues and superiors may be the greatest source of stress and annoyance, leading to burnout at work.

Overall, work can be a source of great stress and misery in our lives.

Most importantly, life is a zero-sum game. If we devote time to work, it takes away time from other aspects of our life. We often overlook the “little things“, such as spending time with our loved ones, enjoying hobbies and interests, and taking care of our health.

But things such as relationships and health are what we do need to devote time to, as they can be irreparably damaged without proper care and maintenance.

So if you don’t have time for these “little things”, ask yourself what you are making time for. Is what you get out of your job really worth it all? Is it worth the stress and sacrificing the “little things” for?

Sometimes, it is necessary to work hard and make sacrifices to earn enough for survival or to achieve a certain goals. But more often than not, we are failing to be content and losing what we already have in the pursuit of something bigger (and out of reach).

To prevent work from taking over your life, we must balance it by making time for various outlets.

An effective way to balance the stress and burnout from work is by having a creative outlet. Having a hobby such as playing an instrument, writing (e.g. creative writing, journaling, blogging), drawing or some other activity that challenges you to grow outside of work helps you to feel engaged and active. Life is so much more interesting with a passion, especially when work fails to provide it.

Improving physical health through exercise gives you more energy so you can do more with your free time than just lie down and watch TV after work.
Meditation gives us tools to be resilient against various forms of stress by teaching us to let go of things we cannot change and to be mindful of the good things in life.

The last important outlet is connection. Friends and family provide love, support and compassion when we are going through tough times. Even being able to co-miserate about a mild annoyance over a coffee with a colleague can make work more bearable. Sharing a laughter and enjoying moments of simple pleasure together with a loved one helps remind us of how important happiness and contentness is in life.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is too deep of a topic to cover in one article, especially because it varies from person to person.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking yourself whether you are truly happy with the balance between work and your personal life, and how you may live a happier life by restoring said balance.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Photography

When the camera was first invented, it revolutionised the practise of capturing the moment. In the past, people would have to write or draw descriptively to portray something that happened. Nowadays, we can capture the essence of a moment with the click of a button.

But of course, photos are not a perfect representation of reality. What you see on a photo depends on numerous settings (such as the exposure, aperture, shutter speed), the photographer’s artistic direction (composition, lighting) and also the use of technology for post-processing. By tweaking these elements, a photographer can exert some creative license over how the photo represents its subject.

For instance, a photographer may decide to crop a photo to make a scene look more chaotic by removing negative space. They may choose to reduce the exposure to make the atmosphere seem more moody and grim. The shutter speed may be slowed to better represent movement and the passage of time. In short, a photo can easily be “manipulated” to distort the reality it is attempting to capture.

However, another interpretation would be that photos show the reality that the photographer really experienced. Reality is not purely objective because we all experience the world differently. Our perception of reality is affected by our emotions, our other senses and our past experiences, such as nostalgia and trauma.

The person with whom we are in love with appear brighter and more radiant than in reality, because our emotions affect our senses. Food may appear more colourful and richer when they smell amazing. Pain and suffering can make it feel as if the colours in the world are more washed out.

To better represent how we felt at that moment, we could increase the exposure to give the subject a “glow”, we can adjust the contrast to make the food look more appetising and we can reduce the saturation to make a picture seem more faded and sombre.

Photography is more than just a recording, but a way to capture intangible moments that we see with our minds and our hearts.

So look back on photos that you have taken and photos that have been taken of you: what emotional filter has been applied to those photos?

Posted in Life & Happiness

No Regrets

You will never regret being kind.
You will never regret having hope.
You will never regret prioritising happiness.
You will never regret being yourself.
You will never regret taking chances.

People think regret is born out of bad choices, but more often than not, regret is the result of not making a choice. Taking a chance may come with consequences, but that is a risk we have to take. Because if you’re too afraid of consequences or being hurt and refuse to take action on the important things, life will pass you by in the blink of an eye and you might miss it. On your deathbed, it won’t be the decisions you made that you regret, but the bites you didn’t take.

Happiness is an active process, not something that will come to you passively. So choose to be kind and choose to be hopeful. Choose to laugh and choose to love. Choose to be the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Identity Crisis

A common set of questions we get asked are: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “What do you do?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. These questions are essentially asking how we identify ourselves and what kind of identity do we want in the future.

If you were asked “who are you?”, how would you reply? Many people would identify with their occupation, such as a doctor, musician, software developer or actor. Some people define themselves by their relationship, such as a mother of two. Another common source of identity is your accomplishments and success, such as celebrities, a popular author or world-class athlete.

But what happens when our identity is shaken? For example, what if you identify as an author who published an immensely popular, critically-acclaimed book, but you can’t write a book good enough to follow it up? What if you are the best swordsman in the realm and you lose your hand? What if you identify as a mother, but your children are now grown up and have left you in an empty nest?

The problem with hinging our identity on one thing is that it makes us vulnerable to having an identity crisis when that thing will inevitably change.

Life has a tendency to be unpredictable and can easily throw the rug from under our feet at any minute. If this happens and all of our proverbial eggs are in one basket, it leads to a devastating blow to our sense of self-worth. Focussing our identity around one factor of our life would be as silly as investing all of our money in a single stock.

To solve this issue, we should treat our identity like any other investment: diversify your identity.

You are not “just a(n)” anything, because you are so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. You can be a lawyer who also makes pottery and is a loving wife. You can be a mother who is also an amateur pianist that cooks well and is passionate about photography. You can be a successful internet celebrity who also happens to be an avid member of a board game community and loves playing tennis with his flatmates in the weekends.

The trick here is to find different sources for your identity. Identify yourself not only with your job and success, but also with your relationships and passions. Be mindful that most things in life are transient, whether by choice or not. That way, when we are forced to give up a part of who we are, our identity will still hold its shape so that it can heal with time, to form an even more complex and interesting identity.

(Image source: https://thegorgonist.tumblr.com/image/169169068294)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Sausage Stew

This is a recipe for a simple, but hearty and delicious sausage stew. Because of its short ingredient list and the fact that you can store most of the ingredients for a long time (canned or frozen), it makes for an ideal back-up meal option. Furthermore, the amount of each ingredient can be varied quite a bit and substituted depending on your preference. It is also quick to make.

All in all, it is an ideal recipe if you are learning how to cook.

Ingredients (serves 3-4):
6 fresh sausages (ideally chorizo or pork & fennel, but any uncooked fresh ones will do)
400g canned chickpeas
400g canned crushed tomatoes
3-4 mushrooms (button or Swiss)
0.5-1 bag of spinach
Italian spices (suggest any mix of smoked paprika, oregano, rosemary, thyme)
Grated cheese (optional)

  1. Peel the sausages and dice or tear the meat into very small pieces
  2. Heat pan (preferably a deep one like a wok or broad pot) to medium-high and start cooking the sausages
  3. Break up the sausage meat as it cooks with a spatula or wooden spoon
  4. When the sausages are browning, add thickly sliced mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes
  5. Add smoked paprika and spinach, then toss for just under a minute to let the spinach wilt slightly
  6. Add canned chickpeas, tomatoes and rest of the spices
  7. Mix everything together and cook until liquids start to bubble
  8. Turn heat down to low and simmer the stew, add in rest of spices, season with salt and pepper
  9. Mix in handful of grated cheese and let it melt in as the stew simmers
  10. Serve

Other than the sausages, chickpeas and tomatoes, almost every other ingredient is optional. You can take the cheese, mushrooms and spinach out, and add other vegetables you would like, such as onions or capsicums. If the stew is too meaty, you can reduce the number of sausages to 3-4 instead.

You can even take the chickpeas out and instead crack two or three eggs into the stew when it is simmering, then bake for 7-10 minutes in the oven to make baked eggs.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Encouragement

Perhaps the encouragement you need to hear is not:

“You can do it!”

but:

“You’ve done the best you can”.

Sometimes it’s okay not to hang in there, or to keep trying, or to give more of yourself.

You are not a roly-poly toy; you are a person. You are allowed to rest and recharge for a while, so that you have the energy to get up again when you are ready. There is no point burning out by running on fumes.
It’s okay to suffer, to be tired and to feel down.

It’s okay to be human.