Category Archives: Personal

My Life is Good for You

Next year I am going to be studying at the University of Pennsylvania in an episode of “Missionary Kid Meets Ivy League.”  I am very excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is the topic itself: positive psychology.

You probably have never heard of it.  That’s fine.  Positive psychology is a very new field which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s.  He is widely seen as the father of the movement, but there are a number of other significant figures.  The Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP program) that I am in is the brainchild of Seligman.  Throughout the curriculum he brings in other leading positive psychologists from around the country.  Students come from everywhere, from all disciplines, and so there is great cross-discplinary discussion of application and theory.  Also, most of the students are already well into their professional careers.  At 27, I expect to be on the younger side (and possibly the poorer side too).  Finally, the books I am reading in preparation for my studies are already changing my life and making me happier.  This is because positive psychology is fun to learn about—and it’s powerful shit.

I have heard it explained in many ways, but I think this is best: positive psychology is the  neglected half of psychology.  Since psychology’s inception with Freud, psychology has been mostly about psychosis—how to get mentally sick people tolerably functional and how to identify disease and understand how and why it arises.  In truth, I suppose you could call conventional psychology “negative psychology,” because it focuses on the negative aspects of mental health.  In contrast, positive psychology is the study of how to make mentally sick people, as well as normal, even high-functioning people, thrive and acheive optimal well-being, contentment, and meaning.  Additionally, it aims to identify the symptoms of strengths and look at how and why they arise, and how they can be built on and expanded.  Strengths might include resilience (the art of bouncing back), patience (why some people are more patient than others), positivity, gratefulness, etc.

You might say positive psychology is trying to put some science in the world of self-help books, or more accurately the vast world of self-help books is a response to a felt need that academia has, until recently, been neglecting.  Not anymore.  Positive psychologists are making progress and getting loads of funding for lots of studies.  More and more, there are emerging simple strategies and exercises one can use to bolster and maintain high-levels of well-being.  These strategies have been tested scientifically, with double-blinds, placebo-controlled groups, and all the rest.

Science is finally looking at joy and it is about damn time.  I think it is quickly going to become a very very big deal globally.

Today, if I came up to you and said, “Holy nut buckets, I hate this toothache!  I seem to have cavities all the time now,” you might ask me if I brushed my teeth regularly.  If I said “no,” you would rightfully ostracize me a bit.

Brushing your teeth is an intervention that we have all come to accept as part of our routines and completely necessary for staving off important problems.  Similarly, I predict that some interventions that positive psychology is identifying will someday become as normal for society as brushing our teeth.  If someone is depressed, but is not “brushing their teeth” as positive psychologists would have us do, then rightly or wrongly it just won’t be culturally acceptable.

Over the next year, I will be describing some of those strategies and interventions.  Perhaps even more interesting to me, I will be struggling with enormous ethical, political, economic, philosophical, and even theological implications of positive psychology.  What is happiness?  What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being?  What happens when rich people, who previously have not been much happier despite their wealth, now have access to education which can make them happier?  How do we apply positive psychology to my work in economic development and strategic planning?  What does positive psychology mean for inner-city streets and community organizing?

As I ask these questions, I hope to post about them, and maybe you can help me sort them out and benefit from what I am learning too.  I think you will find that my life is good for you.   I know it will be good for me.

This is going to be a great year!


From Alicia, With Cardamom

I am commandeering Jeremy’s blog today for a truly noble and upright purpose:

Sri Lankan Rice Pudding

Why rice pudding, you ask?  Well, when all you eat is rice every day for every meal, you will get around to it eventually.  By Sri Lankan, I in no way claim to know anything about making actual, traditional Sri Lankan food.  But trying to make rice pudding in Sri Lanka requires a fair bit of thinking around the typical lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and heavy cream routine.  Instead, all the ingredients are very local.  The result: best damn rice pudding I’ve ever tasted.  Enjoy.


3/4 cup rice (cup measurements are eyeballed using a drinking glass…)

4 cups milk

2-3 eggs (some recipes call for only yolks, in which case you’ll need more)

Some vanilla extract (no measuring spoons on hand…)

1-2 cups sugar/honey/kitul syrup (depending on your sweet tooth)

Zest of one lime (little, like a key lime)

Some whole cloves

Some whole cardamom pods

1 400ml (~14oz) can of heavy coconut milk (is there any other kind??  Actually, here they use it so much they have “light” coconut milk too 😀 )

1/2 cup sultanas/raisins (optional)


Mix the milk, rice, cardamom, cloves, and lime zest.  Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees (I’m working on a celsius oven, so, you know, take the times and heat with a grain of salt… or sugar).  Take out of the oven.  Mix up the eggs and add them, coconut milk, sweetener, vanilla extract, and raisins, if using, to the dish.  Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees, take it out and stir it a bit, so the rice doesn’t fall to the bottom of the custard. You should also take out the chunky spices at this time.  Bake 30 more minutes at 350 or until it’s the consistency you would like and/or has a nice, golden skin.

Sri Lankan Adventures: Trincomalee

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Alicia got to Sri Lanka last weekend.  We were together for two days, and then she took a trip to the field while I stayed in Colombo for a bit.  We met up in Trincomalee, but only after I took an 8 hour night train.

Eventually my train pulled in, and after rushing around frantically, I was shown by a beetle-nut red-mouthed man my first class cabin. The description said that it would be air-conditioned.  This was a lie from the pit of hell, which makes sense I suppose when tickets for such a long train ride are only $6.  There were two bunks, with a shared bathroom (see the door on the right in pictures), with a hole for a toilet through which I could see the railroad ties.  Fortunately I did not have to share the room, but as I laid down a massive cockroach (they come in sizes) scuttled down the wall and over my pillow.  I tore off my sandal to kill it but it was too late, so, after staring out the window for a bit, I laid down on the oily sheets and tried to sleep with my roomate.

I woke up with calls for Trincomalee at 6:10AM.  Meandeared over to my hotel, and slept for a few hours before my wife joined me.  That day we went to the local fort, which has changed hands between the Dutch, Portuguese, British, and French maybe a dozen times.  Admiral Nelson called the Trincomalee harbor the best natural harbor in the world.  We also went to a hindu Temple.

We then took a walk along the beach, which as beautiful, but growling slum dogs kept popping out from behind beached fishing boats to push us into the ocean, where there were millions of sharp fishing bones in the sand, especially vertebrae that seemed like tiny invisible sea urchins, and they got into our sandals—a strangely stressful experience, but an interesting one.   These slums were right next to beach resorts.

We then made friends with a local man who could explain to us what foods were good to eat, I swam to a rock outcropping, and it was beautiful.  But those pictures are on another camera.

The next day, we went up North to Nilavelli, Sir Lanka’s most famous beach and was often visited before the war.  Now it is starting to come back.  After eating lunch on the beach, we took a trip over to Pigeon Island, which as beautiful and

Alicia and I on Pigeon Island

has, we are told, some of the best snorkelling in Sri Lanka.  It was Alicia’s first time snorkeling and it was a success.  We saw corals, sea urchins, dozens of different types of fish, but probably the highlight was the sharks.  We saw several blacktip sharks, one just over a meter long, that came right at us before veering off at the last second.  I was clutching Alicia so she would keep me safe!

Afterwards we took a bus home for $3.60 each.  It came up as I was buying some local treat, and the folks outside yelled at us “Colombo!  Come!  Colombo! Come!”  We jumped on board and were crammed together for 8 hours, perhaps 2 of which Alicia had a man leaning over her with his crotch more or less in her face, but besides that it was fairly good, though we were glad we brought ear plugs.  They like their Sri Lankan jams!

Now we are back in Colombo.

BTW, thanks for all the feedback all over facebook on my civil war post.  It has been very interesting reading.

My Wife is a Master of…

…Development Practice.  Hell yeah!  Emory University says so, “the Harvard of the South.”   She graduated a few weeks ago and I neglected to post about it.  At first it was raining, and there were about 3,000 people in suits and dresses frowning and upset out on the quad, straining to see what was going on, and getting wet.  It made me happy.  I love weather!  But then the sun came up and everyone was happy.   Us too.

I am very proud of her.

Also, before I left the States some classmates and friends rafted 5 miles on Class III and IV rapids on the Ocoee River, the same river that was used for the slalom kayack races for the 1996 summer Olympics. Cool!  It was my first time to raft so they let me ride up front.  It was quite possibly the best thing ever.

I do apologize for all these obnoxiously personal posts.  Very soon I will get back to my intellectual adventures.  There is much to discuss!

Comfortable Estrangement on my Birthday

I have not lived in a very foreign country since I left Taiwan nine years ago (England doesn’t count as “very foreign”).  But walking down the street yesterday in Dehiwala, Sri Lanka I felt that I was home.  I did not fit in, I was white, I was wearing weird clothes, and I walked down the street completely chillax as people stared at me a little more than normal.  Here I ask stupid questions.  I constantly try new things.  I do not know what I am doing.  This was my life for years, and, after 9 years, the rediscovered feeling of estrangement was comforting.

In America, nobody stares at me, at least not usually.  I usually know what is going on, but not as much as people think.  I don’t like asking dumb questions.  I don’t stick out, even though I sometimes feel like I do.  Here, even though Sri Lanka is very different than Taiwan, I feel the way that I look: I am a foreigner.  There is no pretending.

So I felt very much at peace yesterday, even though it was my birthday, and nobody knew it within about 1,000 miles, my wife was in Houston, Texas, scared she might not make it to Sri Lanka this summer, and we are both worried about how to pay for grad school, finding jobs, getting my book published, and I am sad that Elinor Ostrom died that morning.  (My online community was very lavish in birthday affection though.  Thanks!)

In my newfound comfort, I enjoyed going to Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park).  It is a public park next to the National Museum in Sri Lanka. It is the oldest and largest park in Colombo and situated in front of the colonial-style Town Hall building.  A caretaker gave me an impromptu tour.  He then asked for money, and I gave him less than a dollar.  He was not pleased with me : )

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I also had some videos, but apparently I have to upgrade my wordpress account to post those :  (

Sex in Sri Lanka

According to local sources, extra-marital affairs, and PDA, is acceptable in Colombo, but not the rest of the country.  Homosexuality is not acceptable anywhere, though there are plenty of secret gays–at least that is what Anuhas tells me.  I thanked him for this information on behalf of my blog readers.

Unrelated to that, here’s some pics from a trip downtown the other day.

Musings in Sri Lanka

Naturally, I am not the type who likes travelling alone, but I also love doing my own thing.  So I suppose the only solutions is to have companions and be perpetually annoyed with them.

I woke up today at 4:45AM, which is fairly good for falling asleep at 6:15Pm.  I had spent the day buying toilet paper, exchanging money, etc.  I got to walk down to the beach, which is a block away.  I ate a lunch packet, which consisted of a bag of lightly seasoned rice and a bag of curry.  It was quite tasty.

I’ve been taking some pictures, but alas, Alicia has the camera cord with her.  So I have nothing to post.  Maybe I’ll take some with my ipod : (

I came across these two quotes right before I left, and they have been welcome companions on the journey so far.

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste, that they hurry past it. –Kierkegaard

If we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time. —Edith Wharton


50% of Cliftons Head to Sri Lanka

…the other 50% head to Texas.

Yesterday was my last day at Habitat for Humanity International HQ in Atlanta, GA.  Last night Alicia and I packed for Sri Lanka.  We’ve been camping out in our apartment for about 2 weeks on an inflatable bed, eating on folding porch chairs, washing the same dishes over and over, and making meals out of frozen edamamme we’ve had in the back of the freezer for possibly 2 years (Alicia is a genius with random foods). We went to the airport together, and now I am sitting here waiting to board for Chicago, Abu Dahbi, then Colombo, Sri Lanka while Alicia is somewhere else in the airport getting on a plane to Texas.

Alicia still does not have her VISA, but we expect it to likely get to DC at the end of next week.  She will then fly to DC, get her visa at the Sri Lankan embassy, and then fly to straight to Sri Lanka, with us only being apart for a 10 days.  Worst case scenario: Alicia’s visa never comes, I live in Sri Lanka for the summer, and she fullfills her internship requirement in Bolivia or somewhere…hmmm.  Please pray that Alicia gets her VISA soon.  We just had a very sad goodbye.  The emotion kinda surprised us both.

Otherwise, we are very excited.  We will be staying with a young lady named “Ha” in an apartment 2 minutes from the beach.  I will be chillin at the beach and exploring Colombo, Sri Lanka’s major city.  I’ll try to post some pics when I get there.

Cliftons Head to Sri Lanka!

My job with Habitat for Humanity International ends late May and at nearly the same time Alicia will be starting an internship with Oxfam in Sri Lanka.  Last summer she went to Rwanda without me, which was horrible, and stupid, and 10 weeks long.  So Alicia and I decided, “What the heck!  Let’s pack up our apartment, put it in storage, and both go!”  Afterwards, maybe we can get to Hong Kong and see my Dad, brother, sister-in-law, and nephews, maybe I will get a Masters in Positive Psych at Penn, maybe we can get jobs in Sri Lanka, maybe my book will get published, maybe we will sail…who knows.

So, for the past couple of weeks while this decision process has been more realized, I have been learning about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is personally interesting to me because of three very strong similarities with Taiwan: they are both substantial islands off the coast of emerging superpowers, they both have booming economies (Sri Lanka had Asia’s fastest growing stock exchange in 2009 and 2010), and they both have a bit over 20 million people (Sri Lanka has 21, Taiwan 23).

They have plenty of differences.  Taiwan’s mountains are about 50% taller than Sri Lanka’s though Sri Lanka’s landmass is twice as large (12,966ft to 8,200ft and 36,000 to 66,000 square kilometers).

One of the big differences is that instead of tensions with its emerging super-power neighbor, Sri Lanka has struggled with ethnic strife internally for the past 30 years in a conflict which has killed about 90,000 people.   The conflict has been between the Tamils in the North and East concentrated around Jaffna and the Singhalese that cover the rest of the island.  The tactics which the Tamil Tigers or LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil-Eelam), a political party, has used has led to them becoming officially recognized as a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including the United States, India, Canada, Australia, and the EU nations.

After numerous ceasefires and resuming of the conflict, the war seems to have ended in 2009 when the LTTE admitted defeat after a coordinated strong offensive by the Sri Lankan government.  Today, a separate state for the Tamils on Sri Lanka looks unlikely.

I’m so excited to learn more about the conflict and the country!  We will be staying in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s biggest city.  Alicia will work during the week while I write and plan weekend trips. : )  I will probably spend some time with Habitat Sri Lanka too.  

In other news, I have been devouring more lecture series lately:

  • “Naval Battles that Changed History,” –There have been surprisingly few very important naval battles but they were nevertheless very very important.
  • “Fueling the Planet, the past, present, and future of energy “– Where I was told that carbon emissions are a big problem.  He seemed to think that wind power was especially promising.
  • “Wars that Made the Western World” — Professor Shutt is always solid.  He discussed the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars and the Punic wars, and I learned even more about Alcibiades, likely the best-looking, most conniving, most brilliant man ever.
  • And now I’m working through a history of the Papacy and another one on the Crusades.

I’m looking forward to sharing with my readers all this cool stuff I’m learning about and keeping you updated on our trip to Sri Lanka.   My posts will likely become more frequent now (1-2 times a week).  Thanks for reading!

He was Me (Dad’s Story)

After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story.  It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it!  Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times.  Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise.  Of course!  I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too).  I hope you enjoy it!   

I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.

There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.

On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was.  And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.

I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war.  And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.

A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.

And then I saw him.

He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.

It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.

This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee.  And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:

There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest.  I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).

I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.

Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield.   He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.

Only the middle child, Rich, remained.  Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.

Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.

And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.

So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.

By Cary Clifton