Our lives aren’t our lives anymore. We distract ourselves with social media. We stress about negative news and discourse. We avoid the tough problems.
Over the last eight years, I’ve made a sea change in my levels of stress and happiness. I’m sharing my discoveries in the hopes that it can help you in your own journey to contentment.
Let’s be honest, this is a work in progress. No magical cures for stress or pathways to happiness exist. It makes a catchy title, but it also takes a lot of work. Yet, the rewards are worth it.
No phones (or TVs) in the bedroom
The light from device screens disrupt our sleeping patterns. The distraction of social media or games pull us away from reality. Since banning my phone from the bedroom, I’ve rediscovered the joy of reading. Another benefit I did not expect was a better night’s sleep. My body and mind came back to equilibrium. Level 1 stress reduction unlocked by keeping the bedroom sacred.
Write morning pages
Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way to help people discover their creative selves. One big pillar of the process is writing morning pages. Think of these like journal writing, but in the morning when you’ve first woken up. You have to write three whole pages which are only for your own consumption (i.e., not creative writing).
Writing my morning pages gives me the opportunity to get all my worries out. Then I move on with the rest of my day without them holding me back. The pages also give me an opportunity to contemplate issues more deeply. I often come up with more creative solutions to my problems on that final page. The length is important — the first page and a half are easy. It’s the final page and a half where both the real work and the real benefit come in.
Because I’m an organizational freak, writing also helps me organize my day and prioritize tasks before I get caught up in email and social media. The back of my notebook has all sorts of to-do lists and notes (including my notes for this article).
List 3 joys daily
Practicing gratitude for special moments has made me a more positive and happier person. When I’m finished writing my morning pages, I list out three things that gave me joy in the last 24 hours. I got this idea from Sheryl Sandberg in her book on grief, Option B. For me, these are indispensable. They remind me daily to pause and enjoy the little things. I’ve learned so much about the things that make me happy, and now I actively seek them out.
Just say no to social media
Let’s be honest. Most social media platforms are cesspools of unhappiness. From the unrealistic portrayals to the negative discourse, we don’t need that in our lives.
Unfortunately, I have to stay active on Twitter for work reasons. I’m a freelance developer and conference speaker. Twitter is my best source of networking and learning what’s new. Sarah Drasner helped me make my timeline loads more positive and relevant with this suggestion:
Luckily, I can stay far away from Facebook. I haven’t deleted my account because I have so many relatives around the world on it. I reassure them that I am still alive by cross-posting to Facebook whenever I post to Instagram. And, I’ve curated my Instagram feed to show the things that bring me joy — great photography and creative inspiration.
Trade in social media for real social interactions.
Call that college friend you haven’t spoken to for three years. Go for high tea with your old work colleagues. Schedule a monthly wine and cheese Google hangout with your sisters.
PSA: Please don’t post your fun events only on Facebook. Many of us have cut the cord on it, but we still love you and want to come to your parties.
No screen Sunday
Rediscover what life was like before we were perennially distracted by our devices and binge-worthy TV. You’ll find yourself cooking poulet au porto, cleaning your ceiling fan, reaching out to an old friend to grab a coffee, or inviting friends over for European-style strategy games.
It used to be difficult to fill our time. Without the distraction of screens, we do the things we missed doing for so long. Depending on your addiction level, you may experience a brief withdrawal process. Yes, even cleaning my ceiling fan was rewarding. My next goal: apply this to some of my work evenings as well.
Declutter your possessions
Yes, you’ve already heard of the KonMari method of decluttering and organizing your life. I’m here to say it really works, and I haven’t even finished the process. Start with your clothes. Dump them all out in your living room or on your bed. Every last piece. Then pick up each item and ask yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” If it does, put it back. If not, put it in a giant black trash bag to donate.
The obvious benefit is drawers that open and close again and a closet where you can actually find your favorite clothes. What you might not notice until later is that your stress levels decrease. You no longer wear the things that you didn’t like. Also, you start buying fewer clothes because you finally realize you should only buy the things you love. So consumption and waste go down, and money goes up! WIN + WIN
After reaching clothes nirvana, applying KonMari to the rest of your possessions becomes easier. I no longer want “stuff”. I’d love a great dinner and wine with my sisters over a sweater or new kitchen gadget.
Call family regularly
My parents divorced when I was a baby, and my dad was mostly absent from my life. Yet, as he got older, this amazing thing happened — he started calling me regularly. Unbelievably, we got closer.
For a brief moment, I resented my mom because she didn’t do this. But then I realized that the problem was with me. I needed to make that change if I wanted to be closer to her. That simple task of starting to call her at least weekly changed our relationship. I’m grateful.
As a corollary to this rule, make your peace with your loved ones now. A few years ago, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, and we lost him only four harrowing months later. To this day I am still grateful to the counselor at MD Anderson who told us not to wait to say our last words. So, we had “the talk” while he was still healthy enough and responsive. I cannot imagine how much regret I would have today if I hadn’t taken her advice. You can read more about our story here.
Walk twice a day
The Japanese have a practice called shinrin-yoku which loosely translates as “forest bathing”. Being in nature, breathing in the fresh air, and connecting to our senses brings us peace. I walk my dogs twice a day, and New Orleans explodes with nature from every piece of dirt. So our walk is almost like being in a forest. Even if I don’t get the full forest benefit, I find myself happier and more centered after each walk.
Let’s be real — the doggos also help. Yes, they make life a bit more complicated, but they are always so happy to see you. I can’t imagine my life without the multiple moments daily they make me laugh or smile. They helpfully remind me when it is time for a walk. Just don’t let Harry kiss you. He likes to eat poop. Also, read this awesome comic by the Oatmeal.
Pro tip: A dry dish glove is the best way to remove pet hair from clothes.
I will never forget the class in business school when we had the case study Profiles of the Class of 1976. Six classmates wrote about their lives before their 10th and 20th business school reunions. In the early years, they started happy and hopeful about their careers. In the later years, they were full of regret with spouses that left them and children that didn’t speak to them. I was horrified that the same thing might happen to me.
Since then, I’ve re-evaluated my life every few years. I make sure I’m doing the things that will make me happy and have the fewest regrets. This has meant some tough choices in terms of career and income. I’ve chosen a path with less income but increased happiness. I’m definitely lucky, and not everyone has the same privileges. But some of these choices cost nothing.
When you are on your deathbed, will you regret not spending more time on Facebook? Not earning more money?
What will you regret?
Stop what you’re doing and do that now.