Lunch at Louis’ in San Francisco with a view of Sutro Baths — one of my favorite simple pleasures

5 Things to Enjoy Without Guilt in 2018

a happiness-boosting alternative to New Year’s resolutions

Instead of making a heady set of major new year’s resolutions I might abandon by the end of the January, I decided to begin the year with a reasonable, do-able, optimistic list of fives. If we want to be truly present for the people we love, if we want to make each day count for something, we need to set aside guilt about what we should or should not be doing, and we need to actively cultivate joy.

2017 has been a difficult year for many of us. There has been so much uncertainty, so much ugliness, so much natural disaster. Here is what I know: I can do nothing about nuclear crisis, and while I can consume less and be a responsible citizen, I cannot stop the melting of the polar ice caps. This is simply a fact. I can and will choose activism in my way, I can and will donate to the causes I care about, I can and will make my voice heard. But the last year has taught me that there is so much I can’t change, and obsessing over it only brings unhappiness. Because I want joy to be one of the major organizing principles of this year, I begin 2018 with a list of Five Things to Enjoy Without Guilt.

I’ve also posed five questions that I hope will inspire you to create your own list of 5 Things to Enjoy Without Guilt in 2018. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

1. A simple pleasure: Creamy & light sweet coffee from Philz

image courtesy of Andrew Spencer via unsplash

I love Philz Coffee, and I especially love it made creamy (that’s the highest level of cream) and light sweet (just a hint of sugar). I only go in to Philz to order coffee about once every two weeks, when I’ve run out of coffee at home. I’ll drive to the Philz near my son’s school after dropping him off, buy a bag of beans, and order a large Dancing Water or Silken Splendor, creamy and light sweet. Because I only get my coffee in store about once every two weeks, I never feel guilty about the heavy cream.

But at home, I only drink it black, partially because I love black coffee (for years after writing my third novel, No One You Know, in which the main character is a coffee buyer, I only drank it black, because in my research I discovered that’s the way true coffee connoisseurs drink good coffee — black, with nothing to muddy or alter the taste). This morning, the first morning of 2018, we happened to have my favorite cream in the fridge, heavy cream from Straus Family Creamery. (Straus is so small and exquisite, every single cow has a name, and they graze in a beautiful, roomy pasture overlooking Tomales Bay). I thought, hmmm, that cream would be delicious in my coffee. So I ground my Philz beans as usual, then added a generous pour of Straus heavy cream, along with a hint of sugar in the raw. Soooo delicious.

Pleasure doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to be accompanied by guilt. Obsessively denying yourself the pleasure of certain foods may make you a few pounds thinner, but it’s unlikely to make you happier. In 2018, when the mood strikes, and when I have the right ingredients (I wouldn’t add plain milk or white sugar to my coffee, because it just wouldn’t taste the same), I’ll make a first cup of coffee at home in the morning creamy and light sweet. I’ll enjoy it just as much as I enjoy the one from the store. And I won’t feel an ounce of guilt.

What is a small indulgence or simple pleasure that you can enjoy this year without guilt?

2. A healthy daily practice: Long walks with audiobooks

Sutro Baths — one of my favorite walks

In 2017, I discovered a new pleasure: listening to audiobooks through Audible on my phone. Although I rarely listen to fiction — I feel I need to sit with a novel, with my eyes on the page, no matter the genre, to truly enjoy it — I love listening to memoir, psychology, and science and business books with my Audible account. (I’m currently listening to Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler, and Hunger, by Roxane Gay). I listen while cooking, while cleaning, while folding laundry, and while walking.

The way I enjoy audiobooks most is when I’m walking on the six-mile trail (12 miles roundtrip) near my home. It only takes five minutes to drive there, and the trail winds past a beautiful body of water, with picturesque foggy ridges and small mountains in various shades of green and blue in the distance. I tend to keep my walks to 3 miles round trip, which takes me 45–50 minutes, four miles at the most, because I always feel I need to get back home and back to work. In reality, when I end my walk and get back home, I more often end up dealing with email, housekeeping, or purely unproductive things like reading the news online (which either saddens or angers me), glancing at facebook, or browsing online sale sites (my no-shopping for 6 months rule for 2018 will cure that).

In 2018, I’m going to walk and listen as long as I like. This comes with the caveat, of course, that I have to leave early enough to finish with my walk in time to pick up my son from school. I have more than a dozen audiobooks on my phone, not to mention several podcasts I love to listen to (I’ll include the podcasts in my 5 Favorite Things list). Walking is healthy for the mind and body, and given the extremely flexible structure of my workday, there is no reason for me to limit my walks to an hour. My primary work is writing, and I like to write early in the morning — the earlier the better — 5:30 a.m. is ideal. So I can legitimately get in two solid hours of writing before taking my son to school, take a long walk, and still get home in time to do more writing. I also teach an online novel writing class, and my students know I log on at least once each weekday to participate in discussions and answer their questions. The beauty of teaching online is that I can check in any time of day. Longer walks will not interfere with my teaching. In fact, I think they will be helpful for both my writing and my teaching, because long walks both calm and enliven the mind. Also, I always learn something from my audiobooks, often something that sparks an idea for a new scene in the novel I’m writing or a new lecture to share with my students.

I commit to enjoying long walks while listening to great books, without feeling guilty about the length of my walks.

What is a healthy daily practice that you want to enjoy this year without guilt?

3. A beautiful sound: My son’s laughter

Okay, there’s never been any guilt associated with listening to my son’s laughter. It always makes me happy, but I don’t always stop to listen. There is something so musical and delightful about hearing him cackling with utter abandon. This often happens while he’s watching The Office. Or when I say something completely ill-informed about computer technology or gaming (which I say quite often, because I know almost nothing about computer technology or gaming). Or when his father does his Guy Westmoland impression.

Guy Westmoland was a news anchor in the small Arkansas town where my husband and I met 23 years ago, and my husband’s hilarious impression is probably one of the things that first drew me in. He was without question the funniest man I’d ever met, and he holds that distinction to this day. He is naturally funny, at all times of the day. Back then, when he broke out with his Guy Westmoland impression, I’d laugh so hard I cried. So does our son, even though our son never heard or saw the original Guy Westmoland on whom his father’s best comedy routine is based. Our son will double over at the dinner table laughing. Sometimes he laughs so hard he starts spewing water or has to get up from the table to catch his breath. There is nothing not wonderful about genuine, pure, from-the-gut laughter, especially when it’s your happy child who is laughing.

In 2018, I’m going to stop to listen to my son’s laughter, and I’m also going to relax more often, and find more reasons to laugh.

What is something that is free and already present in your life that you want to enjoy with mindfulness this year?

4. A frivolous purchase you made in 2017: that Emma & Chloe subscription

In a moment of shopping fervor two months ago, during a “you can’t miss this sale,” I ordered a six month Emma and Chloe Subscription. Emma & Chloe is like Birchbox or Stitchfix, but for jewelry. They send one item of jewelry by a French designer each month. I actually love the jewelry and have worn every piece, but if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t order a six-month subscription, no matter how good a “deal” it is. I tried to cancel it in the second month, but I had paid up front and the company refused to cancel (for this reason, if you’re considering an Emma & Chloe subscription, I recommend you subscribe month by month so you can cancel whenever you like).

Each time the jewelry comes, I’m reminded that I ordered a subscription I can’t cancel, and it makes me feel a little guilty. There are 4 months left on my subscription, it’s done and paid for, so: no more guilt. Also, I do get a little lift each month when the box comes in the mail with the surprise piece of jewelry, and I do wear them all. What I won’t be doing this year is browsing the tiny catalog that comes with each box, featuring more items by the month’s featured designer. As part of my six-month shopping diet (no shopping at all for six months expect groceries, gifts, books, and things my son needs), I won’t be purchasing anything from the mini-catalog. I’ll enjoy my monthly piece of jewelry, throw away the box, add the new item guiltlessly to my existing jewelry collection, and not give it another thought.

One more thought on jewelry: my reasonably modest jewelry collection consists mostly of things given to me by my husband for anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays over the 23 years we have been together. My jewelry gets daily use, and it brings me daily joy. Most of the pieces are a reminder of a place my husband and I traveled together, or of the simple fact that he took the time to select it for me. Also, jewelry (as long as it isn’t “statement jewelry,” which I dislike immensely and don’t own), takes up very little space.

What’s something you already paid for that you can commit to enjoying without feeling guilty about the purchase?

5. An experience that makes your life better: Travel & day trips

My family and I travel whenever we get the chance. We travel well but within reason (for example, we stay in nice hotels but fly coach unless we get a free upgrade), and I don’t regret a single trip we’ve taken over the years. When my son was younger, we went to Disneyland every year for his birthday (from Northern California, it’s a quick one-hour flight plus a half hour drive to Anaheim), but we also take a bigger trip each year. Hawaii is our go-to total relaxation vacation, as it’s just a quick five-hour flight from San Francisco International Airport. We also take mini trips up or down the California Coast. This year we went to Iceland (on WOW Air, which was about half the price of flying to Alabama) and Canada. We’ve also traveled over the years to a few European and Scandinavian countries with our son. Before we had him, we traveled all over the world, and there are places we loved — like Argentina and Uruguay — that we hope to visit again one day.

I learned to love travel when I was small. Despite constant financial struggles, my parents found a way to take us on a trip every year. Usually, we’d go somewhere like Gatlinburg, TN, or Disneyworld, or Bush Gardens. My mother used to say, “If you have but two pennies, use one to buy a loaf of bread, the other to buy a hyacinth for your soul.” It’s a lesson I still believe in.

I’ve never regretted a trip with my family. We love seeing the world, but we also enjoy the closeness of being on a trip together as a family, seeing new things together, eating every meal together, staying in close quarters instead of in our sprawling house. You don’t have to stay in five-star hotels to have a good time (although, fortunately, I don’t imagine ever staying in dirty hostels again — they served me well in my twenties, but one thing I feel zero guilt about is spending what it takes to stay in a clean, well-appointed hotel with comfortable beds).

That said, I’m resisting the urge to feel like we should travel when everyone else travels. In the community where we live, many families take big trips for Christmas break, spring break, and in the summer, in addition to smaller trips to Tahoe and the like throughout the year. I used to feel guilty when it seemed all of my son’s friends were spending their Christmas vacation somewhere amazing, while we spend it at home. But my husband’s family and my younger sister are all in the Bay Area, and we always do a short trip for our son’s birthday in early December, so a big trip during Christmas break doesn’t make sense for us financially or logistically. Also, our son has made it clear that, unless we’re going to Hawaii (because who doesn’t love Hawaii?), he actually usually prefers staying home. So this year, I’m letting go of the guilt of not traveling “enough.” What’s enough for us would seem like too much for some and too little for others. This year, I’m accepting and relaxing more with our own version of “enough.”

That said, this will actually be a big travel year for us. We’ll be moving to France this summer, which will give us the opportunity to take short trips around Europe. We’re really looking forward to traveling Europe the way we’re used to traveling California — for just a few days at a time, without having to fly across the ocean or do too much planning. We are casual travelers, and we tend to schedule very little on our trips, simply going with the flow, so having a home base close to so many countries and cities we want to explore will be ideal.

What is your “enough”? And what is something you can splurge on and enjoy without guilt in 2018?

Thanks for reading my Medium post. I’m the author of seven books, including most recently the psychological suspense novel The Marriage Pact. Visit my website to see my books, or sign up to receive The Caffeinated Writer, my newsletter for writers. If you enjoyed this piece, please follow me on Medium to see more like it. Happy New Year!

Originally published at Sans Serif.