Positive Strive

It is said that when Adlai Stevenson II died in 1965, he had near his bedside the prose poem Desiderata. The famously erudite U.S. statesman had intended to use in his Christmas cards the then largely unknown poem that Max Ehrman wrote in 1927. Desiderata had been included in the devotional materials at Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore since around 1959. Desiderata would also become a personal favorite after my Psychology 101 professor required our class to memorize the poem.

Desiderata turned out to be a timeless prescription for happiness, predating the research-based advice from the likes of Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (Crown Business, 2010), and whose article, “Positive Intelligence” was featured in the recent Harvard Business Review issue.

As Desiderata counsels “Strive to be happy,” so does Shawn Achor imply that gaining a happy, productive, and positive state of mind requires individual purposive action. Achor argues that while environmental and genetic factors may influence an individual’s general sense of well-being, the brain can be trained to be positive. Based on research and case studies he conducted, and which were corroborated by other scholars’ studies, Achor recommended three strategies for improving one’s chances of happiness:

1. Develop new habits. From a 2008 experiment that involved participants’ engaging in a brief positive exercise every day for three weeks, Achor found that the experimental group scored significantly higher in optimism and life satisfaction metrics, compared to the control group’s scores. Participants in the experimental group performed exercises in gratitude, engaging positively with those in their social network, meditating, exercising, and documenting meaningful experiences in a journal.

2. Nurture co-workers. A March 2011 research by Achor revealed that social support providers were 10 times more likely to be engaged at work, and 40% more likely to get a promotion – as compared to those who kept to themselves. In adopting social support as a strategy for enhancing happiness, Achor cited Ochsner Health System’s “10/5 Way” as an effective practice. Employees are asked to make eye contact when within 10 feet of another person, and to say hello when within 5 feet.

3. Develop a positive relationship with stress. When stress is seen as enhancing to the human brain and body, rather than as a factor to diminishing performance, participants in Achor’s undated study were positively correlated with a drop in health problems incidence, and increased happiness in the workplace.

In asking his students to put to memory, Desiderata, which is Latin for “desired things,” my Psychology 101 professor nailed his message down, even without citing relevant studies. So one more time, let’s …

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.



  1. Shawn Achor (2012), “Positive Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review, January-February issue.
  2. Wikipedia, “Desiderata” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderata, accessed February 12, 2012.
  3. Wikipedia, “Adlai Stevenson II at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adlai_Stevenson_II, accessed on February 12, 2o12.
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Thriving at Work

Happy employees make for a consistently high-performing workforce. This is the gist of a research that took over seven years, and involved over 1200 white and blue-collar employees from a broad range of industries, including manufacturing, financial services, health care, and higher education.

The January-February 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review featured the study by University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business assistant professor, Christine Porath. The study found that employees fitting the researchers’ definition of thriving demonstrated the following:
• 16 % better overall performance (as reported their managers)
• 125% less burnout than peers (self reported)
• 46% more satisfied with their jobs
• 32% more committed to the organization

In addition, these happy employees logged in less absences from work and fewer doctor’s visits, saving their employers health care costs and lost times.

The concept of thriving, according to Spreitzer and Porath, consists of two elements: vitality or the sense of being energized and alive; and learning or the gaining of knowledge and skills. Leaders who have the combined attributes – i.e., with high energy and high learning – were found to be 21% more effective than those who were only high energy. Having high energy but with low learning appear to be bad for employee health; 54% fared worse in terms of health, compared to those employees who were high-energy and high-learning types.

In offering insights for managers, the authors identified four reinforcing mechanisms that must all be in place for employees to thrive at work:
1. Providing decision-making discretion.
2. Sharing information.
3. Minimizing incivility.
4. Offering performance feedback.

Linking employee happiness with empowering them to make decisions is pretty intuitive. This is about giving employees autonomy and allowing them ownership of what their company is trying to accomplish. Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” motto embodies this empowerment mechanism, says the study.

In acknowledging the need for transparency – i.e., sharing information at the workplace, the study appears to eschew the “need to know basis” policy of many companies, which leads to communication silos. Instead, companies are encouraged to build trust and to build capacity for decision-making among their employees through a conscious effort to let their employees focus on the big picture – e.g., the company’s mission and strategy – and showing these employees how their respective work fits in the broader scheme of things. Whole Foods, and YRC Worldwide were the companies the study mentioned as having used the open book policy to their best advantage.

The study further reminds managers that incivility and rude behavior have costs to the company, including intentional decrease in effort (50% of employees studied); intentional decrease in quality of work (30% +); and decreased performance (75% +). Apparently, this research skipped the workplace at the most famously productive company in Cupertino, California. At Apple, Steve Jobs was supposed to have given free rein to his emotional outbursts. I would surmise that Apple was/is strong in other mechanisms, compensating for its weakness on the “civility” dimension.

In Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon and Schuster, 2011), performance feedback from Mr. Jobs could be swift and brutal, yet the company under him has become an icon of innovation, productivity, and financial success. It could be that Apple is an exception, and the insights of Spreitzer and Porath may still apply to most companies. In advising performance feedback, the authors argue that it lends to learning opportunities and boosts energy levels, rather than overwhelm employees.

The authors caution that the four mechanisms reinforce each other and will not lead to thriving if only one or two are present. They offered that employees are least likely to be comfortable about making decisions when kept in the dark about information that matters, or when subjected to rude behavior. Providing an enabling environment for employees to thrive is not just a matter of organizational ethics; thriving employees lend to sustainable performance for the company.

An addendum article in the same Harvard Business Review issue reminds readers that even without additional organizational support, individual employees have ways of thriving on their own. Suggested strategies include the following:
1. Taking a break for creating positive energy.
2. Crafting one’s own work to be more meaningful – i.e., watching for opportunities to make the job more meaningful.
3. Looking  for opportunities to innovate and learn.
4. Investing in relationships that energize; spending less time with those that deplete energy.
5. Recognizing that thriving can spill over outside the office.

May we all work and thrive. 

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Revisiting Happiness

As Asia celebrates the Chinese New Year with greetings of “Kung hei fat cho!” (Congratulations and be prosperous!) , I find myself enjoying the “happiness issue” of the Harvard Business Review (January-February, 2012). It is so apt a reading for people like me who are in a reset mode at this time of the year. The magazine devotes five extensively researched articles on happiness:
1. The History of Happiness by Peter N. Stearns
2. The Economics of Well-Being by Justin Fox
3. The Science Behind the Smile – an interview with Daniel Gilbert by Gardiner Morse
4. Creating Sustainable Performance by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath
5. Positive Intelligence by Shawn Achor

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is a 15th century painting of Lisa del Giacondo, wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. An unnamed historian had, according to the author, surmised that the tentative smile in Mona Lisa's portrait was probably due to tooth decay.

Let us start with the History of Happiness.
According to Professor Peter N. Stearns of George Mason University, the happiness culture is relatively a modern concept in Western culture, tracing its origins to the Enlightenment period in the 18th century. It was during this period when Christians began embracing the idea of cheerfulness as something pleasing to God. Along with this shift in religious perspective were the technological advances of this period, including better home heating, umbrellas, and improved dentistry, which enhanced comfort for the middle class. By the end of the 18th century, the notion of happiness as a worthy life goal would transcend into the political dimension, with the American founding revolutionaries formally recognizing in the declaration of independence the “pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right.

By the 19th century, the happiness value had become part of many facets of daily life, including the workplace and family life. Workplace standards would also embrace the happiness culture, in the same manner that businesses would see happiness of its employees as an advantage. The increasing cultural commitment to happiness translated into new emotional responsibilities and downsides, including the pressure to avoid unhappiness in family life and in workplaces, even diagnosing unhappy states as pathology. While the problems with the happiness culture may be outweighed by what he calls “cheerful artifacts”, the author sees such problems as a way to facilitate changes in such culture, moving forward.

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Happy Christmas!

Christmas is almost over, even as holiday lights cast a properly cheerful air in the neighborhood. “Proper” is the operative term; after all this is a neighborhood that takes comfort in conformity when it comes to exterior paint colors. Bright colors, especially yellows, easily cause an Orwellian fit among many neighbors, leading them to summon the colors police in order to make sure the bright colors you have in mind stay in your mind.

Okay, I can’t spoil the season with my colors issue. After all, the generosity of the homeowners association’s Architectural Committee has allowed us to paint a “sundried tomato” trim on a golden brown palette that’s subdued enough to pass their  harmony test. The house actually looks delightful now, especially with the holiday decor of purple, red, and cobalt blue spheres we hung on our porch.

Kids made our Christmas merry today, even if  they seemed to have had only a flitting interest in the presents we had wrapped for them. They had more fun playing with the Roomba than with the toys they got.  The three year old was a hard taskmaster. “Clean up!” he ordered the vacuum cleaner that obliged to be a toy for a day.

The adults got by without imposing on anyone their sense of generosity. It was liberating to limit carbon footprint to kids this season, even making the store-bought turkey meal taste better than usual. Cleaning up  after all guests had left was still a chore, but hey, having some momentary tidiness after the party is over is reward enough.

My nieces called, thanking me profusely for their Nooks. The other day, the nine year old  also announced that her dad would have a “real job” after the New Year. She had not been comfortable telling her friends that she had a “stay-at-home dad”.  Neither was she so enthused about the fact that her dad’s long awaited job will mean that they will miss him during weekdays. However, she understands at her tender age that compromises and adaptation are key to survival. My niece has a more realistic worldview compared to what many members of the current U.S. Congress have, judging from their reckless stubbornness to stick to their partisan scripts.

I must say I had a beautiful Christmas, filled with hope for an economic and political turnaround where leaders make decisions like sensible adults. There’s optimism that they will focus on win-win solutions, keeping in mind the best interest of their constituents.  I hope you had a great holiday too.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Celebrating Marine Affairs in Halifax

Going Haligonian

All things Halifax fascinated me – its rituals, its farmers’ market, its tree-lined and generous sidewalks and walkable streets, its well-preserved wooden homes and Victorian buildings, its abundant seafood, and its pleasantly genteel people. I would soon proclaim myself a Haligonian. The 25th Anniversary celebration for the Marine Affairs Program (MAP) brought me home.

Learning Marine Affairs

At Dalhousie University, beloved for “inspiring minds,” we MAPers dared to dream. We trained to become “marine managers” that pursue sustainability of the world’s coasts and oceans. Like Halifax, the MAP community continues to stride with a sense of purpose, recognizing that much work remains to be done.

As a professional and interdisciplinary degree program, the Marine Affairs Program demands full academic engagement. However, it abounds with opportunities for intellectually stimulating social interactions among the students through group projects, late night study sessions, and memorable potlucks.


At a MAP forum with former students

Through funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, students from various developing countries were able to participate in the program from 1992 to 2005. CIDA support enabled capacity building in developing countries towards implementing the commitments their respective states made at the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development.

Budgetary constraints and change in priorities at CIDA have made recent MAP classes relatively less diverse than those in the previous years. However, MAP’s research initiatives remain noteworthy for their interdisciplinary, transboundary, and international perspectives. Its Piracy Project, for example takes a look into the “impacts and costs of piracy on seafarers, coastal states, and communities where piracy has become a major industry, ” says Lucia Fanning, the current Program Director.

MAP’s study on piracy issues brings to mind the privateering industry which, as local historians would have it, was a significant aspect of the history of Halifax and the rest of Nova Scotia. However, where piracy was/is illegal, privateering consisted of pirates doing legitimate business – essentially a public-private partnership, where governments outsourced their naval pursuits. Whether or not the privateering industry enhanced the sociocultural development of Halifax is a question that may be worth pursuing.

Halifax Today

The Halifax of today with about 300,000 people may be more crowded and hectic, compared to the city that captivated me years ago. However, it has retained much of its charm and character.



At the mass for heroes

My visit to the St. Mary’s Cathedral on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road did not disappoint. The Basilica, a grand neo-Gothic style structure that the Irish Catholics built in 1820 with the help of the Mi’kmaq people, devoted its 10:30 A.M. mass that day in remembrance of peace officers all over Canada who died in line of duty. How many Sunday masses do you attend in your lifetime that start with a bagpipe concert performed by men in full kilt regalia?


Free hugs at Occupy Nova Scotia

Walking further up Barrington Street and towards George Street, I found myself in the midst of the globalizing “Occupy” movement. The “Occupy Nova Scotia” participants were on their second day of their occupation at the historic Grand Parade Square.



A Pipa meal

Then it was time for lunch. On Argyle Street I found Pipa, a nice, homey restaurant offering Brazilian and Portuguese cuisine. My meal of grilled sardines was fresh and just as nourishing as I expected. Finishing off with the warm, chewy cassava and cheese rolls (Pao de Queijo), and a bottle of Stutz, a Nova Scotia hard cider, I would soon declare myself satiated. It was a meal made more memorable by the warm attention from the amiable lady owner, and by the touches of quaint art pieces and architectural details in the décor.


BeaverTails - this sugared nostalgia costs a lot.

The hilly walk towards the Halifax Harbour switched on my sugar craving. Beaver tails had to be it, a Canadian fried pastry that used to return me to Halifax wherever I’d savor it. This time, however, this piece of nostalgia cost me three Loonies more than what it used to cost me during my student days. I promised to just make these pastries at home next time.

On my walk back to the hotel, after the sun had set, I decided to cap my day with a lobster dinner. The one I had at the MAP Anniversary dinner the previous night was juicy and as ocean-y as I wanted it to be. I thought I could use another lobster meal before I would head back to the Rocky Mountains the next day. The one I had at Bluenoose II was rather dry and disappointing.

I must also warn that looking for a decent breakfast on a Sunday morning in downtown Halifax is a futile exercise. Most restaurants do not open until 4:00 P.M., and those that do will have a long queue. Brunch at the Lord Nelson Hotel’s Victory Arms Restaurant may fill you up with a good dose of old world charm, but the pork crepe I had was unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, though. I always enjoy my stay at the Lord Nelson.

One of my missions on this Halifax trip was to get 10 kilograms of pickled mackerel. I like this mackerel fried, and savored with steamed rice. This meal never fails to take me back to my coastal roots. Unfortunately, the only store selling it did not have the pickled mackerel in stock. I had to settle for a few packages of smoked mackerel that I found at Sobeys.



Farmers' Market at the Brewery - a Saturday treat for over two centuries now.

At 15%, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in Nova Scotia takes the fun out of shopping.  Items on sale could give a shopper sticker shock. I limited my retail therapy at the Dalhousie Student Union for a beer mug, and at the Seaport Farmers’ Market for a print of the Brewery Farmers’ Market painting by artist Jin Chen. I didn’t have a chance to visit this old farmers market, which is the longest-running farmers’ market in North America, now on its 261st year of operation.


Brewery Farmers' Market Mural

Touring on Foot

Walking around Halifax is always a joy. The sidewalks are wide, the places I want to go to are not more than 30 minutes apart, and when my feet get tired, taxi rides are just a call away. Taxi drivers are very pleasant; they would tell you their stories without much prodding. And when you lose your way, trust a true Haligonian to put you back on track.

HMC Planner 2005 8.qxd

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Catching a NASA Live Launch – a GRAIL Weekend

The GRAIL is launched! Photo taken by Peter Noerdlinger, 9/10/2011

It sounded pretty straightforward – get an invitation or buy a Kennedy Space Center launch ticket, show up, and watch a spectacular liftoff. Actually, it’s a bit more exciting than that: one needs sustained enthusiasm, optimism, and tolerance for uncertainties and … mosquitoes.

Our GRAIL liftoff watch took three days of waking up at around a 5:00 A.M. and driving to KSC to catch a bus, that would then take us to the NASA Causeway viewing site.

Day 1: Upper level winds caused the launch on September 8 to be postponed, initially to the next day, and finally to September 10.  It turns out that rocket engineers have yet to make weather-proof  rockets and spacecraft.

Day 2:  After driving through torrential rains without any major incident, we were resigned to leaving Cape Canaveral without the live launch experience. We told ourselves that we had a wonderful trip: the KSC tour was great, we had dinner with our dear friends in the area, and MIT Professor Maria Zuber, the mission’s principal investigator, had answered our questions.

Day 3: The 60% chance of favorable weather conditions encouraged us to head back to the launch site. There was a festive air and a much smaller crowd, which was no less enthusiastic and interesting than the crowd two days ago. A British gentleman read off from his Kindle a minute by minute update of the launch status; A NASA employee went around with a moon rock we could touch; a young couple, with whom we shared a picnic table while shooting the breeze, gave an inspiring account of their graduate school life in Germany  and of many other stories and ideas.

Finally, at 9:08 EDT, the Delta II 7920-10 rocket launched GRAIL from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission managers allocated 42 days from September 8 to October 19, 2011 for the launch period. Interestingly, the distance travelled by GRAIL from launch to the lunar orbit insertion will have been considerably shorter by ~ 0.6 billion kilometers had the liftoff occurred in October 19, 2011.

GRAIL or  Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory consists of a twin spacecraft – GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, each the size and shape of a washing machine. GRAIL-A is expected to reach the Moon’s orbit on December 31, 2011 – a day before GRAIL-B reaches lunar orbit on New Year’s day. Through its capabilities to create a highly precise gravitational map of the Moon,  GRAIL will allow scientists to deduce the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core, as well as gain better understanding of the thermal evolution of the Moon. (See MIT website and launch press kit. ) With an enhanced understanding of the Moon’s gravity, scientists expect to gain better knowledge of the evolution of the other rocky planets in the inner solar system – i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Engineers are also expected to benefit from the mission, particularly in creating better navigational aids for future lunar spacecraft.

Fifth to 8th grade students in the U.S. have the chance to participate in lunar exploration activities of GRAIL through MoonKam as part of the mission’s education and public outreach. This exciting interactive web-based feature will be available by February 2012 for ~80 days of MoonKam mission.

The GRAIL mission has a lifecycle price tag of $496.2 M . This budget covers spacecraft development, science instruments, launch services, mission operations, and science processing and relay support. Over 300 scientists, engineers, and other experienced professionals from various disciplines participate in this program. In addition to Dr. Maria Zuber of MIT, other major players of GRAIL include Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colorado, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, United Launch Alliance, and Sally Ride Science.

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