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.
- 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.