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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Back to Basics Minimalism

Once upon a time, in another career, I led a campaign to get “back to basics” in the way we provided service to our clients. As our company grew from 80 to 800 employees we lost sight of some of the fundamentals of good business and made some simple processes way too complicated. I won’t bore you with the details of this little campaign (which involved a lot of flowcharts), but I will say that I never forgot the lesson learned from it: Simpler is always better.

We’ve lived in TN for almost 2 years now and in that time we’ve strayed from some of the fundamentals of minimalism. I know it wasn’t intentional. We didn’t go out and buy a whole bunch of stuff. We didn’t set out to fill our calendar with things to do. But over time, things happen. We adapted somewhat to the culture around us, a culture that values gift-giving at every occasion and likes to fill their days with more to do than can possible be done.

In short, life has grown a little bit too complicated lately and so it is time for our own back to basics campaign. Which is going something like this –

Basic #1: Declutter. On Friday, we launched a major decluttering effort in our shed. This project has been on our to-do list since January, when we decided not to keep the camping and kayaking gear that we haven’t used in 2 years. (Note- we still actively engage in both activities but we have enough gear to outfit a small group excursion and well, there are only 2 of us.) After an awful experience with Letgo a few weeks ago and no luck on Craigslist in finding real buyers, we decided to try an app called OfferUp. BINGO! This was just the boost we needed – everything we listed from the shed – EVERYTHING – sold that very day. We made $155.

On Saturday, we continued decluttering, cleaning out the bedroom closet and drawers. T-shirts we’d held on to for sentimental reasons – gone. “Good” socks that we absolutely hated to wear – gone. The broken $20 sewing machine that was going to cost more to fix than we paid for it – gone. It felt good! In total, we got rid of 61 items.

Basic #2: Unplug. On Sunday morning we turned off our phones. We made ourselves an amazing brunch – frittatas, fresh fruit, and a mixed berry muffin. We talked, we laughed, we read books, we planned meals for the week, and made a big pot of soup. As we continued our decluttering efforts, going through the kitchen cabinets, we found an unopened box of Borax. “Remember when we made our own laundry soap?” I asked. We reminisced for a moment about simpler times and decided to make a few jars of soap. This was a fun and easy project that did more than just give us a usable result – it reconnected us with some of our core values: frugality, resourcefulness, and sustainability.

Basic #3: Waste Nothing. Building on that momentum, Angie put a new compost bucket on the patio. We had stopped composting a few months back (in the winter) when my mom had declared it too muddy to trek to the compost bin. We recently ordered a new bin that could be kept closer to the house and on Sunday, we resumed our composting efforts.

Basic #4: Stop Buying (or in our case, stop accepting) Stuff. Thankfully we were both born without a shopping gene. On occasion we like to browse the thrift stores or REI but for the most part, we don’t have a problem with wanting “stuff”. We do have a problem with saying no. Just this week, my niece gave us a box of clothes to keep at our house for the baby and a high chair. My mom gave me 3 new shirts and Angie a pair of shorts. And we found a box of discarded items by the dumpster that contained 2 brand new blankets, still in their packaging, and a lot of nearly new picture frames. I’m happy to say that we only kept one blanket. We gave the rest of the box to Goodwill. The high chair and clothes went to my mom’s house, where they are needed, and we got rid of one item of clothing for each new item brought in. It’s one small success today while we continue to work on “no, thank you” for the future.

Minimalism is not a very common practice here in our area and definitely not one that is embraced by my family. I never imagined when we moved back to help out, that our choice to live simply would be such a bone of contention. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been questioned or teased about wearing the same pants I wore the day before, for using a towel more than once, for not buying Angie a birthday card (let alone a present), for having only two sets of sheets for our bed, for being a cheapskate, and more. In fact, just the other day, I had to justify why I was getting rid of “perfectly good clothing”. I’m not criticizing my family. They are who they are, just like we are who we are. Which leads me to the following…

Basic #5: Be True to Yourself. I believe that this is the most important principle, not just of minimalism, but of life. You have to live on your own terms, doing things your own way, regardless of what others think or say, in order to be truly happy. Minimalism is no different. It is an individual journey toward one goal – creating more out of less. More time from less obligation. More money from less spending. More happiness from less stress. Being true to ourselves means remembering (and sometimes simply reconnecting) with the one principle that has guided us in our minimalist journey for the past 5 years – simpler is always better.