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 well-being. 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.

Taking Time to Make Time

Last week I wrote a bit about being busy. At the time, it seemed like I was paddling upstream in an inner-tube using a broom for an oar. After my post, I decided to step back and take a hard look at all of the things on my “to do list” that just weren’t getting done. There were several sewing and gardening projects, a language class I had purchased last year that was set to expire this month, items to be posted to Ebay for our decluttering project, and items already posted on Craigslist that needed to be dealt with.

As I sat with my list in hand, I channeled my inner Marie Kondo and asked myself if there was anything on the list that I even wanted to do – things that would actually bring me joy. That’s when a lot of the list fell apart.

I wanted to make an insulated bottle holder for those quick walks in the park where carrying a backpack for the sake of one water bottle was just too cumbersome. I, however, did not want to make curtains for the kids’ new house. I definitely wanted to work in the garden but I absolutely had no interest in taking the language class. I wanted to declutter, just maybe not now. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with crazy Craigslist buyers making appointments and never showing up or packing up things for Ebay.

With my now scratched out list, I began to take action. I cancelled all of the ads on Craigslist. I put the Ebay box back in the closet. I jotted down the curtain sizes and put them in my purse so that I could search Goodwill or Big Lots this weekend for something on sale. And I decided to let the course expire (I had purchased it through Groupon for $5 last March so it wasn’t a huge loss).

When I said last week that we were going to put busyness out of business, I meant it. I don’t like the overwhelmed feeling that comes with having too many things to do and not enough time to do them (or more aptly, the perception of having too much to do and too little time to do it). There’s always time when you make time.

So Angie and I sat down on Sunday to take time to make time. At the top of our brainstorming list I wrote – if we weren’t busy doing things we don’t want to do, what would we do instead? The ensuing list took up an entire page in my bullet journal! We surmised that we would:

  • Go outside more often,
  • Work in the garden,
  • Have planned play dates with our little niece, and
  • Simply relax!

As minimalists, we had already spent years paring down our possessions and responsibilities so that we could do just those things that were now on our list. So what was the problem? Why weren’t we doing them then?

We spent a little time talking this out and concluded that we had inadvertently adopted (or adapted to) the ways of the culture we were living in. You see, in Florida, we were surrounded by laid back retirees of all ages whose to-do lists consisted mostly of…well, those items on our list. Folks didn’t stress over a whole lot and they certainly didn’t keep score of accomplishments the way our family and friends here in Tennessee do. Busyness, you might say, is the state pastime here. Just yesterday morning, one of my neighbors posted this on Facebook:

You can’t see the comments but they all contain lists from other people of what they had done that day. It’s almost like a competition!

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a productive day, the glorification of busyness is what I find bothersome. The fact that so many people that we know and love equate taking time out to simply do nothing with being lazy (or worse, doing something for yourself with being selfish!) is absolutely sad. This is something that, as a culture, we need to change.

Being idle is perfectly okay. Taking care of yourself and fulfilling your own needs first, is more than just perfectly okay. It is necessary.

“If you aren’t good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you’ll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren’t even giving to yourself.” – Barbara De Angelis

We decided that the biggest change we need to make to be content while living here is to exit the busyness highway. We don’t need to compete with our neighbors to see who did the most with their day off and most importantly, we don’t need to feel guilty for doing things for ourselves. To facilitate this change, we took the list of things we really wanted to do with our time and wrote them down on our April calendar. We planned them into our life. We made them our highest priority.

You can take a peek at our calendar at the top of this post. Note how we didn’t put any activities down for Work-Free Wednesday. We left those open to be spontaneous – to do absolutely nothing if we so desire 🙂

What are some of the ways you make time for yourself?

If you want to read a fun article about the joys of being idle, check out 10 Ways to Enjoy Doing Nothing

PS – the calendar we used in the photo was among a stack of freebie calendars given to us by a friend and wasn’t intentionally selected to promote the particular charity listed on it. We chose it because the monthly photos are all of birds.