There were periods in my life when I didn't have much, and I was unhappy because I wanted more.
There were times when I had plenty, but I was unhappy because I felt empty.
Now I have much less by choice, and I'm happier than I've ever been.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that making a good income and having nice things automatically makes you feel empty or unhappy. Nor am I suggesting that being poor and struggling to make ends meet isn't good cause for feeling unhappy.
But I do believe that learning to live with less and simplify your life DOES improve your overall well-being. I also think that clarifying what is most important to you in life helps you recognize where and how you want to spent your time, energy, and money.
Here's a great story to reinforce what I'm saying about priorities. Bronnie Ware, a palliative care worker in a hospice, began interviewing her dying patients to find out what they most regretted in life. She's written a book about her interviews and the answers she received called, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.
The book goes into more detail about the regrets, but here they are in summation:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
As you see, not one of the regrets included, “I wish I'd made more money,” or “I wish I'd had more stuff,” or “I wish I'd spent more time becoming powerful, famous, or hard-working.” When it comes down to your dying days, you want to look back and feel you lived authentically, spent quality time with the people you love, were able to express your true feelings, and that you were generally happy during your life. Pretty simple stuff, right?
Unfortunately, not many people really “get” the power of these regrets until they actually become, well, regrets. Not many people anticipate those regrets during their younger years and think, “Damn. I'm going to shift my priorities because I refuse to have those regrets on my deathbed.”
It's far too tempting to think, “I can deal with that later. Right now I need to make money and buy stuff.” But what is the cost of focusing a disproportionate amount of time pursuing things that don't afford an authentic, happy, love-filled life? What is the cost of the worry, stress, and anxiety produced if you don't reach the golden ring — whatever that ring happens to be for you?
Here's what I've finally discovered for myself (although it took me nearly 50 years to figure it out):
- You can be happy in a small, minimally furnished home.
- You can be happy without designer clothes, an expensive car, or fancy jewelry.
- Your kids don't need to have everything everyone else is giving their kids.
- Finding your “tribe” of people who love and support you dramatically improves your happiness.
- Finding a city or community that reflects your values and lifestyle choices dramatically improves your happiness.
- Finding work you're passionate about dramatically improves your happiness, even if it pays you less.
- Getting rid of excessive stuff in your life gives you more freedom than you can imagine.
- Eating simple, healthy meals is more satisfying than spending money on elaborate gourmet dinners.
- Living below your means gives you tons of wiggle room to do something meaningful with your money.
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- Putting experiences before things fosters long-term feelings of happiness rather than brief bursts of excitement.
Maybe you intuitively know these things for yourself, but you're having a hard time putting them into action. I get it. It's hard to make a conscious, voluntary decision to live more frugally and simply, especially since our culture extols materialism, power, and money. Shifting your values and letting go of your stuff and complications feels daunting. But you don't have to jump into a minimalist life cold turkey. It's a process that takes time and self-awareness.
If frugal living intrigues you, here are 10 ways to become a happy minimalist:
1. Reassess your values and priorities.
At one point in my life, my values and priorities revolved around having a nice home and raising a family. In my mind, this meant spending time furnishing the home, cleaning it regularly, tending to the big yard, and living in a community that reinforced these things. Raising a family, in my value system, included getting my kids involved in various after school activities and spending time driving them from place to place. My values were home and family, but in reality, my time was spent cleaning and driving. My actions didn't really match my values.
Looking back, I see that I could have lived in a smaller, less maintenance-demanding home, and my kids didn't need to spend so much time in extracurricular activities. That would have freed up more time to spend together as a family talking and doing fun and interesting things.
My values and priorities have since changed as I'm in a different phase of life. But now I know that having values and priorities and actually living those values are two separate things. Not only am I clear on my values, but I'm much more clear on how I want to live them. This brings me to my second point.
2. Get real about your time and expenses.
Maybe you know your life values and priorities, but like me, you've lost them in the complications of day-to-day life. You may be operating on autopilot, doing things a certain way because that's the way you've always done it. You work long hours, get wrapped up in home projects, spend hours carpooling the kids, and relax by zoning out in front of the TV or computer.
Or you might think you're focused on your values and priorities, but you haven't really examined how much time you've given to them in your life. Is it enough to give your kids a quick hug in the morning without sitting down to breakfast with them? Is it enough to squeeze in a date night with your spouse once a month between work obligations? Is it enjoyable to spend every weekend cleaning the house, doing yard work, or going over financial statements?
Also be real about where your money is going. You might think, “I can't afford to give up my job,” or “My kids must have the latest smartphone,” but is that really true? Are you spending money on things that aren't really part of your value system?
3. Make sure you really know yourself.
One of the top regrets of the dying was wishing they had been true to themselves and not living up to the expectations of others. We often look to others to define our lives because we don't know ourselves very well. We have no idea who the “authentic self” really is.
Getting to really know yourself requires a little bit of time and effort. You aren't just an amalgamation of your roles in life, nor are you the person you pretend to be in order to fit in or impress people. The real you is in there, but you have to dig beneath the surface and explore the various facets of your personality, inclinations, and motivations to become a self-actualized, happy, emotionally healthy person.
Please read this post on self-awareness which details 30 steps to help you find your authentic self. This is a really important step toward a more simple life.
4. Pinpoint the sources of unhappiness.
Areas of unhappiness in our lives are clues to how we're living out of alignment with our values and priorities. Our unhappiness also reveals how negative thoughts of lack or inadequacy are skewing our reality. If you believe life is terrible because you don't have something you think you need, then the belief creates your experience.
What is creating unhappiness in your life? Is it worry or negative thoughts, or is there something really happening in the moment that makes you unhappy? If it's the latter, ask yourself if the situation is in conflict with your values and life priorities. Maybe you highly value family, but your job requires you to travel frequently. Maybe you value emotional intimacy in your relationship, but your spouse is controlling or detached.
Is there anything you can do now to address your negative thoughts or your reality to get back on track with your values? Any small action you take will improve your feelings and give you more time and energy to devote to what's important to you.
5. Find like-minded people.
When you surround yourself with people whose values and priorities differ from yours, you will feel pressured to abandon your own. If frugal, minimalist living appeals to you, then living around or engaging with people who prioritize consumerism isn't in your best interest.
We all have felt compelled to “keep up with the Joneses,” but find a group of Joneses whom you admire and want to emulate. Find people who also value living simply and prioritizing relationships and experiences over money and stuff. This may require making some life changes, but begin small. Simply define for yourself who your ideal “tribe” of people are. Where would you find them? How could you connect with them?
6. Reconsider where you live.
One of the life changes I made when searching for my tribe of like-minded people was moving from Atlanta to Asheville, North Carolina. I grew up in Atlanta, and I had many personal and emotional ties to the city. But I realized the lifestyle I was living there and the busyness and intensity of the city no longer appealed to who I am now.
The city or community you live in can have a huge influence on your attitudes and choices. Decide what kind of lifestyle matches your vision of simple, frugal living, and then do your research on cities offer that. For me, it was being in a smaller city with interesting, progressive people, and access to natural beauty and outdoor activities. Asheville fit the bill perfectly.
7. Declutter your home.
A great place to kickstart a more minimalist life is in your own home. Clutter creates psychological and emotional agitation. It also requires your time and attention to store, maintain, and organize it. If you think about what you actually use or wear on a day-to-day basis, you'll realize how very little you need.
Imagine having a home that is streamlined, organized, and clutter-free. It feels liberating to live in a tidy space unburdened by unnecessary stuff.
Decluttering your entire home can feel overwhelming, but you can work on it for just a few minutes a day. Start with a cabinet or closet, or pick a few big items you can give away or sell. Check out my book (with co-author Steve Scott) called 10-Minute Declutter: The Stress-Free Habit for Simplifying Your Home, if you want a step-by-step guide for decluttering your home in 10 minute chunks. (BTW, the book is on sale for just $.99 for the next few days.)
8. Be proactive with your friendships.
One of the top regrets of the dying was not maintaining friendships. We get so busy with our lives, that we often neglect to connect with our friends or maintain friendships that are important to us. Sometimes we sit back and wait for others to initiate time together or to make a phone call to chat.
Maintaining close relationships requires more than reading a friend's Facebook posts or a quick text now and then. You need to have real life interactions with time to really talk and enjoy experiences together.
Close friendships have a powerfully positive affect on your life. Many studies show that authentic friendships actually foster better health. They help lower blood pressure; reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease; protect against depression; and make us less susceptible to the ravages of old age. If having close friendships and spending regular time with these friends isn't one of your life priorities, then consider making it one.
9. Save more money, use it mindfully, be satisfied with less.
You've probably read about the study a few years ago from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School which found that emotional well being rose with income, but not much beyond $75,000 a year. In other words, you can be pretty darned happy at a $75K lifestyle if you're living within your means.
It appears the super wealthy ($25 million or more net worth) are burdened with more stress and anxiety than average. According to a study by the Bill Gates Foundation as reported in The Atlantic, “the respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes. Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess.”
Other studies have shown wealth impedes empathy and compassion, clouds moral judgment, is linked with addictions, and negatively impacts the children of the wealthy (who deal with more depression, anxiety, and addiction than the average).
If having a lot of money is a goal, find ways to use it productively and mindfully. Rather than buying more things that require your time and energy, use it to help others, go back to school, or go on an adventure. If you're living beyond your means, stop overspending and start saving toward something meaningful. Debt creates anxiety and unhappiness that can't be erased by the big house or new car it purchased. Be a good role model for your children on life priorities related to spending, saving, and giving.
10. Work toward your life passion.
Your work can create tremendous unhappiness and complications in your life if you don't like your job or the work you're doing. You might feel stuck because you've reached a certain level of income, or you have obligations that feel overwhelming. You may think you have to stay where you are because your entire life would unravel if you don't.
Those feelings are understandable. No one wants the feelings of insecurity and fear of letting go of their job. But I'd like to suggest you start looking for your life passion, even if you don't think you can change jobs. It's amazing how finding your passion gives you the motivation and courage to make the changes necessary to live it.
Once you really embrace the truth that you don't need as much as you once believed, and that you'd rather be happy in a job that might pay less than miserable in one that pays more, you'll find it's far easier to let go of your old lifestyle.
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