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I was recently looking at the painting, Children’s Games, which was painted by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1560. The artwork is a veritable encyclopedia of more than 70 games that were played in the 16th Century. The canvas is crawling with miniature people enjoying all sorts of games. Little figures are playing blind man’s bluff, leap frog and horsey. Others walk on stilts, climb trees or play with a bird. You can also see tiny people doing somersaults, spinning tops, riding a broom. All in all, it’s a cheerful and idyllic sight. Some art historians argue that the painting depicts adults, not children. It was this notion that I couldn’t shake as I studied the figures. If these really are adults playing this way, what was Bruegel trying to say? Was it a response to John Calvin, the Protestant leader who said that children’s games were nonsense, and who wanted to forbid them all? Was Bruegel trying to show that playfulness is for people of all ages? Or did he think that adults should follow the example set by children? That they should surrender to the spirit of artless play more often? IT’S ONLY NATURAL

Playfulness is in our nature, in our roots. Like animals, we’re born with an instinct to play, writes psychiatrist and play expert Stuart Brown in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Even hippopotami do handstands under water, monkeys enjoy rolling snowballs down mountainsides, and adult ravens have been seen sliding down snowy slopes on their backs, flying back up the hill and then doing it again.

Play has even been observed in lower life forms. Some fish have been spotted blowing bubbles in a playful manner, and ants entertain themselves with mock fights. It’s only when they reach the adult stage that most animals stop playing. But some species continue playing their whole lives. Take dogs, who endlessly retrieve sticks for you, hoping you’ll throw them again. Just for fun. It’s hard to define “play” because it takes so many forms. And yet Brown tries. He says it is play when we are doing something for fun. It’s the state of mind that defines play, not the activity itself. For one person a game of chess is sheer fun; for another it’s competition. Some people love to paint; others love to flirt. Play is as diverse as humans are. “You’re playing when you lose yourself in what you are doing, forgetting your self and forgetting time for a moment,” writes Brown. “You’re not playing for a reward; the game itself is the reward. It’s so much fun that you want to do it over and over again.” When the goal is more important than the activity itself, it stops being play, according to Brown. If you feel any stress or angst, it’s not play either. Play gives you a means to get rid of bottled up feelings. You feel energetic, relaxed and satisfied, he writes.



When we were kids, we didn’t need anyone to tell us how to play. We tried out stuff to see if we liked it, or would learn a new game from a friend. But as we get older, we tend to lose that sense of spontaneity. Playing is viewed as immature, nonproductive and, worse, a waste of time. First you must get your

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Feel con nected


The Art of

RECEIVING Are you good at receiving a compliment? Are you comfortable when you get a spontaneous gift? Journalist Liddie Austin isn’t, and she knows she’s not the only one. But being good at receiving is in fact important, not only for you but for the giver, too. Many people have a problem with getting something “out of the blue,” whether it’s an unprompted compliment, a nice gift or an offer of help. And people find asking for help just as difficult— sometimes even more so. It’s said that women, especially, have trouble with these things, and to a certain extent that’s true for me. I think I manage to be graceful when I’m on the receiving end of a gift, but handling compliments, especially when they’re about things that make me insecure, is difficult for me. Praise for my cooking or my home makes me feel suspicious rather than pleased. How can someone find anything praiseworthy in an area in which I’m so obviously lacking? I may not reject these types of compliments out loud, but I do in my mind. NAGGING LITTLE VOICE It’s really too bad that something that’s offered with the best of intentions can be received so negatively. Surely there is a better way. Because who doesn’t long to be given a compliment now and then? A friendly word, a well-chosen gift or a helping hand at an opportune moment can give you a boost—as long as you feel comfortable receiving it. And many research studies show that gifts enhance performance, too. A friend of mine in a high-powered job tells me that the most important part of her work consists of telling her employees what a good job they’re doing. She spends her whole day putting the message out, and in the evening she is exhausted from all that effort. But it’s paying off; her people feel so confident that their performance levels are continually rising. But being able to receive is not only in your own interest; you also make the bestower of the gift happy. The joy of giving is only

possible, after all, if there is someone to receive your gift. “The greatest gift you can give is to receive,” says Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. And yet, all too often we hear that nagging little voice inside our heads after receiving a compliment, telling us that the giver probably didn’t really mean it, or that it’s conceited to accept the compliment without protest. When we receive a gift we tend to wonder how it should be reciprocated; and receiving help, we think, is a sign of weakness. That’s why being on the receiving end can in fact be so uncomfortable. LETTING GO OF CONTROL Maybe we can silence that little voice by arming ourselves with etiquette. What is the best way to accept a gift? “Even if you don’t agree with the compliment or already have three of the same gift, you still simply say thank you,” advises Beatrijs Ritsema, a social psychologist and writer who is often asked about the etiquette of giving and receiving in her column for Dutch newspaper Trouw and online at “Giving and receiving are very important traditions in human society,” she says. “Guests have been welcomed into homes since the earliest days of humankind, but they almost never came empty-handed. Even missionaries brought mirrors and beads. If the receiver refused the gift, it meant war. And this still holds true—you should not refuse a gift. I would label that action as social aggression.” Ritsema says that if you have trouble receiving, it means you have trouble with dependency and intimacy. “The person giving is the one with the power—the receiver is giving up power,”

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Live mindfully


Don’t Try So Hard Let things go—don’t force them to be right, advises journalist Irene Ras. You might be surprised: things often turn out better when you don’t over-think them. That’s the Toaist concept of wu wei.


started writing when I was about eight, filling pages with poems, little notes and fantasies, not thinking that anyone would ever read them. Writing was just a hobby, like building huts, crafting and playing football, the other things I liked doing. But unlike those other activities, writing stuck with me as I became a teenager. I knew other kids who went through the same thing with drawing, or playing tennis or knitting sweaters. It was something I did without having an audience in mind, not even myself. When my mother accidentally threw away most of my writing during a move, it didn’t bother me for long. Those notebooks had given me something at the time of writing: pleasure, an outlet for self-expression and perhaps a way to organize my ideas and emotions—perhaps not much different from crafts, playing football or building huts. The notion that I could ever earn something like a monthly salary just from writing simply didn’t exist in my world. Writing was like playing outside. How different it is now, years later, when e-mails from editors regularly drop into my mailbox, asking me if I want to write an article for them on this or that. Not long before that started happening, it had occurred to me that it might be nice to write the odd article, in the evenings, alongside my regular job. Through the grapevine, I began getting freelance work. It was easy; new clients seemed to come along naturally. Then, I said good-bye to my full-time job and began earning my entire monthly salary, just by writing articles.

Writing for the clients I really wanted to impress, though, made writing well a lot harder. In fact, the more I was writing articles for them, the harder I found it. Now that there was something at stake, I didn’t want to lose those clients. I couldn’t afford to have my editors return my texts filled with red scribbles and lots of questions. I felt I had to be better than that now that I was no longer just playing around, enjoying myself at the computer. So I sealed off my office hermetically, bought a good chair and desk and the fastest laptop, thinking maybe things would go better then. But the fun was gone, and so was the sense of relief when I finished a story—never mind the feeling that my own personal experiences mattered. My brain was a mess. I was trying too hard. CONSCIOUS EFFORT

Psychologist Daniel Wegner (1948-2013) devoted much of his career to studying the paradoxical effect of conscious effort. He found that we can often undermine many of our goals if we consciously try to achieve them. Wegner believed that conscious effort creates exactly the opposite of the intended effect. As a researcher, he concluded that we get depressed when we consciously try to be happy, and get distracted when we try hard to concentrate. Also, actively trying to forget something makes us remember it even more, he found. It’s just like diving into bed early and trying to force yourself to go to sleep. You’ll see, it just doesn’t work. I read about Wegner’s research in Edward Slingerland’s

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“The significance of a man is not in what he attains, but rather what he longs to attain,” wrote Kahlil Gibran. In other words, it’s important to have goals, whether or not we reach all of them. Once you’ve filled (and colored) in these pages, keep them to look at again in three months. It’ll be fun to see what has changed.

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Live mindfully


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This painting of the goddess of the hunt by the French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau is called “Diana at her Bath� (1715-1716).

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Spoil yourself

Inspiring Images

THE BEAUTY OF BATHING Bathing is a ritual that, over the centuries, seems to have hardly changed at all. It is also one that many artists have captured in images.

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EugĂŠnie Collet, Olivier Rouxhet, Jeanne and Georges from the book Belgium Family Style.

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Spoil yourself


Whether we can read them or not makes no difference: those Japanese books that let you peek into creative European interiors are a sheer delight to flip through. Journalist Caroline Buijs possesses a growing stack of these little books, published by éditions Paumes in Japan. But what makes them so irresistible? And who are the creators behind them?

Japanese for “Looking at Interiors Through Japanese Eyes”

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“Physical exercise makes the brain more flexible in finding creative solutions�

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wwSimplify your life



HELPS YOUR MIND That desire to stay in bed and lounge under the covers: we’ve all been there. But if you pull yourself up and ride your bike across town, take a walk on the beach or go for a run around the park, odds are ten to one that you’ll feel better afterward. Here are five ways how exercise has an effect on us.


MEDICINE AGAINST THE BLUES “When you get moving, your body creates hormones called endorphins that make you feel happy,” says psychologist Merel Hovestad, who is what’s known as a “walking psychologist.” She gives walk-and-talk therapy sessions while going for a stroll on the beach or in the woods. Many people find it an enjoyable way to do therapy, she explains, because you don’t have to look into the therapist’s eyes, and there are no awkward silences, thanks to the birds twittering or the waves breaking on the beach. She recommends that everyone get moving as often as possible, especially if they’ve had a lousy day. “You can get stuck in a negative frame of mind if you don’t do anything,” she says. “When you’re feeling down, moving helps improve your mood.” And think about what kind of movement or exercise best suits you and makes you

happiest. “For some people, it’s boxing; for others, it’s running or playing tennis,” she says. “But whatever you like doing, move.” Hovestad knows full well that it’s easier said than done: “Suppress any chance to not go. Don’t let that be an option.” It’s simply a matter of your body working for itself, she says. “Once you begin and the happiness hormones are released, you’ll feel much better and will be glad that you did it.”


CREATIVE BOOST Physical exercise works wonderfully to clear the mind. It even allows you to learn better, says Esther Hartman, a researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. “When you’re physically active, hormones are released, such as dopamine and adrenaline, that make your brain kick into a higher gear,” she says. “You feel better and more lucid, and it

becomes easier to focus your attention.” Hartman conducted a study that shows that after twenty minutes of exercise, most people can already focus better and can absorb new information more easily. But the effect is short lived, so she recommends you keep on moving. According to Hartman, some sports are even good for your overall cognitive skills. When you’re making complex moves with your body, you’re using parts of the brain that are also used when studying intricate subjects or solving a complicated puzzle. “Take the game of soccer,” she says. “There is a lot of technique involved, and you have to anticipate the moves of your teammates and opponents. You’re making split-second decisions while in full motion, so that your motor system and your brain have to communicate with each other. If you make your running session more complicated by

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FLOW WEEKLY in English

Last year, from our home base in the Netherlands, we launched a new publication, Flow Weekly, a mini version of our magazine in Dutch that is also a weekly planner, a notebook and a source of inspiration, with great art by our favorite illustrators. What You Get When You Give

We got so many positive responses via social media from all across the globe—and so many requests for an English edition—that we went ahead and made one, just for you. So, here it is. Want more Flow Weekly? You can always order the Dutch Flow Weekly online via the Flow Shop: And who knows? Perhaps we’ll publish more editions of Flow Weekly in English soon. We’ll keep you informed.

We’re curious to hear what you think. Do you like it? Would you like us to make more? If we get enough positive responses from our English-language readers, we’ll consider making one for international publication. Let us know at


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Simplify your life

Flow International issue 9