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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October Recap

Seriously, where did October go?? It seems like only yesterday we were packing for our trip to Canada and now, Halloween is over and we’re sitting smack dab in the middle of November 2nd!

When I looked at my bullet journal last night, the month of October was pretty sparse. We didn’t track much of anything during our vacation, except for miles walked. We went “off leash” on our eating…meaning, we enjoyed a bit of bacon with our oatmeal breakfast every now and then, sank our teeth into a lobster roll in Maine, and had a real soda…a blueberry soda at that. We also gave ourselves permission to enjoy afternoon froyos from the ice cream machine on the cruise ship. I suppose, we might have gained a few pounds this trip if it weren’t for all the walking. We walked 196.2 miles this month, bringing our total for the year to 797.8 miles.

A few other milestones for October include:

Having dinner with Angie’s grandma and aunt in Toledo, OH. This was the first time she had seen either of them in more than 20 years!

Taking Ticky (and her parents) to Trunk or Treat at Bledsoe Creek State Park. This was our first family outing since my niece moved back in with Ticky’s father. Everyone had a great time, though it was hard to keep the little one in costume.

We made 1.5 year’s worth of laundry soap. That’s 320 loads of laundry. At 4 loads a week (which is generous around our house – we usually average 2-3), that’s enough soap to last 80 weeks or more.

We had our first frost, but not before harvesting our last eggplants. My mom planted two eggplants in late June just to “see if they would grow” and lo and behold, they did. We ended up with 6 late season eggplants.

I finally started writing about our trip in our experience journal. The first entry is called Glamping in Niagara Falls. I always mean to write about our trips in real time but I’m usually too tired at the end of a fun day (or too far removed from the Internet) to do that. And besides, it’s probably better to focus on enjoying the experience rather than worrying about chronicling the journey anyway. There are plenty of cloudy days (like today) for writing. Or reading.

Speaking of which, the craziest thing happened last week with our library. I’ve been on a waiting list since July for Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and since September for At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe. When I checked the queue, I was still weeks away from checkout for either one so I checked out two other books I wanted to read and started both of them. Somehow, the very next day, both of my books on hold automatically checked out to me. I have 4 books to finish (now 3) in the next 2 weeks! Challenge accepted! I suppose this means I won’t have time for other people’s drama…I mean requests for my time…this month. Oh well 🙂

Ah, drama! Avoiding drama was the key reason why we wanted to do a happiness project this year anyway. The goals we set were specifically geared toward sharing experiences with one another; experiences that nourish our souls. And for the most part, we’ve done well with our project .

  • We’ve already read 54 books, exceeding our goal of 26 each.
  • We’ve cut back on eating meat, averaging 13.5 completely meatless days per month.
  • We’ve gone outside a lot more than last year to camp, hike, paddle, letterbox, garden, or just relax.
  • We’ve traveled to new places and experienced new things.

Though the year is not over, I can’t help but start to reflect on what all of this has meant so far. Has it decreased the amount of drama in our lives? Not at all. In fact, the drama is worse than ever. The holidays are approaching, after all. What it has done though is to help us better respond to the drama…and even that is still a work in progress. I’ll talk more about this in the remaining months of this year but in the meantime, we’re thinking about and planning for a new project in 2018. Stay tuned for more on that front too!

How was your October? Are you still on track with your goals for the year?