Lessons from our 2017 Happiness Project

2017 was the year of the “Happiness Project”. When we conceived this idea more than a year ago, we were at a place in our lives where we were struggling to stay true to our own wants and needs. We were surrounded by new people, in a new place, and it seemed that everywhere we turned someone wanted something from us. All. The. Time. It was more than a little bit overwhelming.

Our goal for 2017 was to reconnect with the things that made us happy and find balance in how we dealt with our new responsibilities to family. The first thing that I did to kickstart the project was to cut my work schedule by one day a week. This allowed for some much-needed space in my schedule to focus on what really mattered.

Our second step was to make a list of all the things that made us happy. That list looked something like this:

  • Travel
  • Enjoying quiet time together reading, writing, coloring, or watching TV
  • Being outdoors
  • Letterboxing
  • Being resourceful – figuring out how to do things for ourselves
  • Saving money and finding bargains/freebies
  • Cooking and/or trying new foods

Around this list, we crafted goals and set about the mission of finding our happiness again. For the most part, it worked. We spent a lot of time outdoors this year – camping, hiking, letterboxing, swimming, gardening, and hanging out in our hammocks. We traveled. We read (64 books between the two of us). We watched a lot of documentaries, learning new and fascinating ideas around the things we were already interested in (like plant-based eating, food waste, and living with less). We even began entertaining the idea of sticking around Tennessee for a while, perhaps reconsidering the notion of a tiny house. And don’t even get me started on freebies! I swear, our list of found foods has grown to the point that I may have to take a full day off just to categorize and tally it all. Who would have thought that we’d find so much food?? Then again, who would have thought at the beginning of 2017 that scouring the dumpster of the grocery store next door would be something that would make both of us really happy.

But happiness is like that. It comes in the most unexpected forms. When you chase it, you are likely not to find it at all. When you just do your own thing without regard to where it is, well…that’s when happiness likes to sneak up on you most.

Though we did not accomplish everything on our Happiness Project Bucket List, we certainly learned a lot along the way, including:

1) Happiness is…minding your own business.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in other people’s problems, especially when those people are your family. It’s natural to want to protect them from hurt and heartbreak and share your “sage advice” about the way out of the bad situation they are in. Don’t do it! We learned very quickly this year that trying to solve other people’s problems doesn’t help. Staying out of it, on the other hand, works perfectly every time. They get to practice independence and resourcefulness and you get to remain stress free.

2) Happiness has very little to do with money.

We cut our household income by nearly $8,000 this year to buy back 416 hours of our time. We never missed a single cent of that income. During the whole year, we never felt like we had less than anyone else. In fact, I always felt that we had more – more time, more freedom, and more options. And though it may sound cliché, the best things in life really are free.

3) Being present is the greatest gift you can give someone…including yourself.

You will never truly know someone if you don’t take the time to listen to them – the good, the bad, and yes, sometimes the completely inane things that they may want to share with you. Trust me, I understand how very easy it is to get distracted, especially when the subject is the latest episode of some obscure reality TV show (like 90 Day Fiancé). But…for me, giving my family members my full attention has made for stronger relationships and a deeper understanding of both them and myself. If we listen attentively to the small stuff in each other’s lives, we build trust in the fact that we’ll also be there to hear the big things.

4) It’s not possible to maintain happiness when your mind and body are scattered in all directions. 

There were times during the year when I needed to be at work but instead we were dealing with a family problem. There were times when we both wanted to be in the garden but instead I was catching up on work or tied up on the phone. The stress of not being where we needed (or wanted) to be when we needed (or wanted) to be there was rough. I wish I could say that we came up with a solution, but this remains a struggle. We try to tackle one thing at a time and say no more often to things that don’t align with our priority. Speaking of which…

5) There’s only one priority.

By definition, a priority is the single most important thing in the group. We can’t have multiple priorities. We can have multiple ideas, multiple things to do, or multiple choices…but only one can be the priority. When we try to make everything a priority, we live our lives as if we are on fire – constantly trying to accomplish some arbitrary something. When we establish our one priority – that one area of our life that brings us the most joy – then we no longer feel scattered and stressed. For some folks, the priority is family. For others, it’s a career. For us, the priority is simplicity. Pursing greater happiness this year served to highlight that for us. We are most happy when we can live each day in the simplest of ways.

A few final thoughts:

Within our happiness project, we tried multiple ways to improve our wellbeing. We tried eating better. We tried reading more and learning more new things. We tried new hobbies. We tried going places. We tried decluttering (again). Our attention was scattered in a lot of different directions and sometimes it seemed as if we were working on absolutely nothing because of it. I think the project would have been better if we had focused on one aspect of happiness instead. Perhaps our focus should have been improving happiness by saying no more often or reconnecting with one another through 52 weekly dates. With that in mind, our project for 2018 will be much more defined.

Wondering what that project will be? Stay tuned to find out.

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Celebrating a Year of Work-free Wednesdays

One year ago this month, I reduced my work schedule to part-time. For an entire year, I’ve had every weekend and every Wednesday off and I have to say, it has been great. Want to know the crazy part? We didn’t tell a soul (in our family, that is). We did tell all of you but as far as I know, none of you spilled the beans, did you??

A few times, I thought they might have gotten wise to my work-free Wednesday routine but since nothing else in our lives changed, I think they dismissed the idea as quickly as it came. By nothing else, I mean, we didn’t change our spending habits, our travel actual increased, we pretty much paid cash for a car, and we saved money like mad – all of which might indicate we worked more, not less this year.

By cutting back to part time, we reduced our income by close to $8,000 this year. So you’re probably thinking that we side-hustled to make up the difference, right? Nope. There have been times throughout the year that we’ve hustled our way to a bit of extra income but in comparison to years past, even that was less this year. Thankfully, we didn’t need to compensate for the reduction. Our 2016 experiment of living on 50% of our income was great training and it put us in the perfect position to employ those same frugal principles going forward.

Aside from practice at living incognito, our year of part-time employment brought a few other notable changes. We were able to enjoy:

More walks in the park.

More picnic lunches (and breakfasts).

More impromptu adventures.

More family time.

More homegrown food!

There were also more books read. More freebies found in the dumpster. More experiments in the kitchen. More practice at cutting our own hair. More documentaries watched. More visits to the library. More time to help others. More creativity. More movie nights at home. More pictures taken. And more money saved. I think I could go on all day!

In other words, what seemed like it might be a difficult endeavor a year ago has turned into one of the best decisions we ever made. Though, I should probably point out that living successfully on one part-time income is not always fun and games. It requires a whole lot of budgeting and planning and there are some sacrifices to be made along the way. Simply put, you have to have your mind set to simple, otherwise it just won’t work.

If you’re wondering why we didn’t tell anyone outside of this blog that I was going part-time, here’s the unashamedly selfish answer – we wanted a day for ourselves. When you live a life of less, sometimes other people tend to see your free time as their opportunity to plan something for you to do. “Oh you’re just hanging out at home today? Reading a book? In that case, can you go to the grocery store for me, take these curtains to the dry cleaner, pick up my package at UPS, drop off the little one at day care, and if you have time, I’ve really been craving your homemade spaghetti sauce. Let’s have that for dinner. Say 6 PM?” You probably already know all too well how often that really does happen.

Throughout the year there were many Wednesdays that we spent in service to others – taking my Mom to a doctor’s appointment, babysitting for my niece, or doing yard chores – but the choice to do those things was ours. And that, I believe, really was the best part of having Wednesdays off; knowing that we could get up and choose for ourselves just how to spend our day.