I was sitting cross-legged in the grass on top of a bald in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, surrounded by blue, hazy vistas on all sides. Kate and I relished in the satisfaction of the 4-mile hike it took to get there, and in each other. We were together for the first time in 3 months. I bit into a crisp apple, and let the crunch, the sweetness, the wind envelop me in a profound snapshot of self-actualization. I was completely happy, burdened by nothing in the moment.
It seems like some people can access moments like these on the fly, while the rest of us struggle for that obscure and elusive notion that is happiness for our entire lives. Are some people just naturally more happy? Yes, actually. Happiness is in our genes. A staggering 50% of our happiness levels are determined by genetics. On top of that, outside circumstances that are mostly beyond our control determine another 10%. Well, shit, if you’re naturally not a very happy person, where does that leave you?
Fear not, we still have another 40% to play around with that comes from our intentional activities. We’re indeed the masters of our own destinies. Along my personal journey down the minimalist path over the years I’ve been trying to pin down some of these intentional activities so that I may be more mindful of life’s journey and, of course, happier along the way. These are a few things that I’ve been doing lately to maximize my happiness level.
Count your blessings.
Okay, cheesy advice, I know. But whenever I get stressed out about some complete first-world problem, after a little bit of reflection on what I have and just how easily my situation could be much worse…I feel better. A couple of images out of Syria are enough to make that annoying thing at work you have to do a task to be embraced. A lot of us really don’t know how well we’ve got it, and taking a step back and actually looking at all the positives relative to the rest of the world really make the not so great parts of life seem trivial and almost shameful to dwell on.
Don’t let happiness be determined by benchmarks.
Even up until very recently, I let my happiness be dependent on how much progress I was making at any given moment with my massive to-do list. While I love making lists, this is one of their drawbacks. They create a sense of urgency if there’s many items yet to be checked off, even if you have all the time in the world to complete them. Then you just feel guilty if you’re trying to catch up on Game of Thrones when you could be writing a blog post. Use the list as a tool and nothing more. There’s no point in rooting your happiness in achieving some huge benchmark far off into the future because our grand to-do lists will always be changing, and you will find more happiness living in the moment anyway.
Draw a firm line between work and leisure.
This is so important! As soon as I leave my job on Friday, I sign out of the school’s Gmail account on all of my devices. I do not bring work home with me. Even my writing, which I love to do, takes a backseat to cracking open a few cold ones on at least one day during the weekend. Establish one day of the week that’s full of things you love to do. Knock back some beers, go out with friends, hike up a mountain, or stay in and read a book. Just don’t work, and try to avoid errands if it can be helped. It’s your sanity day, and a leap forward to achieving an ideal work-life balance, something that’s sure to make us all a lot happier.
Go for a run.
I try to go running as much as possible. Apart from the obvious health benefits, it does actually get you high. Running, as well as sex, food, and pain, send a rush of endorphins to your brain. Endorphins are basically a natural drug in your body that trigger the brain’s opioid receptors to ease pain or reward you for things like eating ice cream and getting laid. Also for running. I feel much happier after an hour-long run. Endorphins aside, it gives me time to think. I’ve probably worked out some of life’s biggest problems on long runs while falling inadvertently into deep pits of meditation. The inner-peace and free Vicodin from my body both make me happier.
Sit and meditate for a spell.
Speaking of meditation, this is another action we can take to increase our happiness. In fact, it’s actually been proven to rewire our brains to experience more positive emotion. Now, there are several different types, from simple meditation of just focusing on your breathing or specific area of the body, to more complex states of analyzing your thoughts and emotions. Ironically, hardcore meditators get worked up over what is and isn’t meditation. Some say if you think too much, you’re doing it wrong, but I disagree. I could write a whole post on meditation, and you know what? I think I will next week. Right now, just know that it will make you happier.
Rationalize life’s problems.
Stress can definitely eat away at our happiness, and we should keep it in check before it snowballs into something that creates frequent tension headaches. Like most things, I prefer to use logic and reason to acknowledge the stuff I can control and the stuff I can’t. I put my problems in their appropriate boxes. Make a list. One side has negative things (relationships, projects at work, diet, anything) that you can change, the other has things you can’t change. Jot down ideas for how you will change the things you can, and how you can at least improve the situations that you can’t. Systematically snipe away your stress in this way and become happier.
You Are in Control
So maybe we’re somewhat at the mercy of our genes when it comes to happiness. But there are still so many things we can do to augment that 40% we have control over. Think about what you have, even if you don’t have much, odds are you have more than you think. Get out of your planning books for a while and worry only about the present day. Learn how to separate your work from your downtime. Chill hard when you can. Running gets you high and meditation gets you enlightened. Rationalize what stresses you out instead of letting it rule your world. Try working some of these things into your life slowly and perhaps the filter you perceive life through will begin to gradually brighten.
For more on the science and different factors behind happiness, check out the super interesting documentary Happy on Netflix.
I’m concluding Minimalist Month with a post that is going to seem really cutthroat and make me look like a cold dude, but I promise there is virtue in it. What’s left to cut out of our lives after excessive material things and unnecessary, time-consuming obligations?
Unnecessary, unproductive, unfulfilling, time-consuming, toxic relationships.
We’re social creatures, and Maslow argues that one of our core needs is love. Friendship, a sense of belonging, sexual intimacy; stuff I would never say is a bad thing. They’re all great things. Which is precisely the reason we go rushing in, head down, into relationships without thinking. We crave them to get us over the next ladder rung on the way to self-actualization.
The result is a few great relationships, several moderate meh’s, and some outliers that provide little reward in exchange for a lot of work. The minimalist should be mindful of who he or she decides to give his or her time to. The aim is to clear the chaff until we’re left with great relationships, and to continue to pursue relationships that have the potential to be great.
Do not enter into or continue a relationship with an individual (friend, buddy, bro, significant other or otherwise) if…
…they create or facilitate drama.
Drama. A lot of people secretly love and crave it. I personally hate it. It’s a time-waster, especially if it arises out of some pseudo-problem that is commonly generated to satiate someone’s need for drama in the first place to make their life interesting. Every time I have offered to listen to what sort of drama a friend has gotten themselves into, a pattern emerges that breaches all genders and age groups. It’s all self-inflicted. Sure, we all have our problems, but going on about the juicy details, developing a cast of characters without even hearing their side of the story and subsequently praising them or demonizing them is far from a productive solution. Find some friends that value more in life than this petty he-said, she-said shit.
…you need them to be a source of validation.
Basing your actions on the approval or disapproval of others is a great way to limit yourself. If you told your entire network of friends that you were moving to China to teach English for a year, how would they react? Hopefully, regardless of how crazy they thought you had become, they would encourage you, because that’s what a true friend would do. Asking for advice is one thing, but letting your big decisions and goals in life depend on the weight of someone’s words is not healthy. Requiring their approval for whatever reason will crush your potential and hold you back from major achievements in life. If you can’t break your dependence on their opinion, it’s best to sever the relationship.
…they’re a black hole of negativity.
This type of person can take on many shapes and forms. It could be the average Debbie downer, negative Nancy, or Dolorous Ed, or they could be as hostile as a black hole of negativity that strives to hold everyone around them down their level. These sorts of people are the embodiment of the old adage, misery loves company. Stay away from them. Negativity and minimalism simply do not go together.
…it’s just out of habit.
I can’t think of many worse reasons to continue a relationship that has ran its course. Different people experience personal growth and evolution at a varying rates, and it’s only natural that we sometimes outgrow our friends. It can be a painful thing to realize, but it happens. Pursuing continuity in stagnated relationships will burn your time as you try to feign interest in interests that have diverged from your own over the years. Luckily, these things usually come to a natural termination as you lose touch over time because of your growing apart, but it may be up to you to end your association and seek out more like-minded individuals.
The Great Facebook Cull
The easiest way to start untethering from toxic or simply outdated relationships is to thin your herd of Facebook “friends.” First of all, how many of these people are actually your friends? The last time I had a Facebook culling, I even found people I rather disliked on my friends list. Social media is great, but it has begun to redefine friendship and reduce it’s meaning down to a very disingenuous level. It’s a great tool to keep in touch with friends abroad, as well as friends back home, but our friends lists should reflect our attitude towards relationships in the real world. Simply pare it down to meaningful relationships, even ones that exist solely online. A great time to do this is during any major election. Keep Facebook open; the ones that fell through the cracks will slowly reveal themselves.
Less People More Enrichment
The crux of minimalism is less is more. This concept works with virtually everything, including the amount of people we spread our time across at a given moment. If we strive for a concentrated network of people who value us as much as we value them, support us, encourage us, and hold us accountable, all the while engaging us in stimulating, thought-provoking conversation, then we are on the right track.
But I guess I could just be a cold bastard that doesn’t have time for petty bullshit. I’m going back to my cave now. Have a nice day!
Remember Myspace? Say what you will about it now, but when it first debuted, teenage Seth was all over that. Fast-forward only a few years into the future and no one uses Myspace anymore, but social media sites are a dime a dozen. They’re making the world smaller, revolutionizing professional relationships, and even changing how we define friendship.
It’s almost dizzying how quickly social media has risen from an instrument of teenage drama on the web to a tool so powerful that it can spearhead movements like the Arab Spring. In addition to their prominence in our daily lives, they seem to have multiplied in number on a massive scale. Perhaps I’m not speaking for myself alone when I say it can be overwhelming at times.
That’s why I decided to take a moment (more like days) to declutter my digital self this week. To achieve social media zen, if you will (omg that’s the title). I set a few standards for myself before taking this on, frankly because I didn’t really know where to begin. Let me be clear that this was pretty time-consuming, and I’m still not completely finished, so good luck if you decide to take this on as well!
1. Be Friends with Friends - For all of the utility of social networking sites, I really hate the way they have basically redefined friendship. That’s not just my opinion either; friend as a verb is now listed in Merriam-Webster. The first standard I set for myself was to be friends with people I actually care about on Facebook, only follow interesting people on Google+, and connect only with people that share my professional interests on LinkedIn.
I went from about 360 friends to about 230. It was amazing to find people that I actually rather disliked in my friend list. If you go through your friends, I’m sure you’ll find the same, along with complete strangers, people from high school that you’ll never see again, and the sources of all those annoying status updates and app requests that you could really give a flying blue truck about. Clear out the chaff and enjoy a more entertaining, relevant, and interesting feed.
2. Bury Lewd Photos - There are some nights out that we frankly feel proud of the amount of debauchery we’ve achieved. The next morning, you see an ominous notification, “So And So tagged you in a photo.” You click your mouse with fingers full of dread. I have had such photos pop up from my time in Sweden and Iceland, photos with an assortment of drinks in front of me and an expression of unrestrained joy on my face. I downloaded them for a nice memory and promptly removed the tags.
We live in an age where some Joe at a company you may be planning to work for is paid to check out your digital self. Freelancers, we are not immune. Partying is fun, and is awesome when done in moderation. Unfortunately, there are a lot of buzz kills out there that don’t feel the same way, so these photos have a high potential to damage your professional appearance. I think I hold future employment in higher regard than cred.
3. Digital Facelift - Someone once told me that they only filled out the bare minimum when it came to forms on social media sites. She said that if someone important was looking at her digital self, then she wanted as little room for strikes against her as possible. First, I think this is lazy. Second, I think the opposite is true. Completing your profiles essentially provides future employers with more information, information you may not have been able to fit on your resumé. You never know, the fact that you like Sígur Rós might give you a competitive advantage.
I’m usually pretty good about this, being a little neurotic about putting everything in its right place occasionally. Things do get stale, however, and I’m working on updating everything, especially my personal statement on just about every site and my portfolio on Behance. There are some sites I don’t even use anymore, and I’m working towards getting those accounts deleted. I prefer not having a part of my self floating around in the information super-highway if it’s not being used.
Social media has rooted itself into our lives, whether we like it or not. Checking Facebook and email in the morning is not far off from brushing your teeth or putting the coffee on. While self-control is a topic for another day and a battle I still fight myself, cutting out the digital chaff is important now, and something we should all focus on. Cleanliness is next to godliness after all. Who says that can’t apply to our digital space as well?
NOTE: To clarify, in this post social media includes networking sites, email, and content-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo, as well as music sites such as Pandora, lastfm, and Spotify.
Cycling through Lund at night (4pm) is nothing short of bewitching. Maybe it’s the sound of friction as my tires bounce over the cobblestones, or being transported back in time as I pass the imposing cathedral. I jolt back to the present when a SJ-2000 screeches along the tracks of the bridge I am currently gliding under. Probably coming back from Malmö or Copenhagen. Surely it will be picking up revelers eager to celebrate lilla fredag. I’m craving a drink myself, but not one containing ethanol compounds, no, not tonight.
Tonight I’m after a different compound, one that has been near and dear to me since before alcohol had passed my lips: glorious caffeine. Tonight is my regular social fika. I think I’ve only missed one since I’ve been in Lund. And why would I? Coffee, sweets, good company and music are to be had, and on a bitterly cold night with icy rain in the forecast, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.
The sheer novelty that this particular fika is hosted by a metal band only improves the atmosphere. There is slew of international students here, comprising an eclectic group of Chinese, Germans, Austrians, Slovenians, Americans, and of course, Swedes.
Everyone brings something to contribute. Dark Times impresses by pouring darkness, death, destruction, and love into a different Swedish baked good every week. The coffee is as black as the music they play, but as sweet as their hearts.
The iPod is passed around, but only after the inaugural playing of “Rockin’ in the Free World” at 17:30 sharp, every week. We swap different tastes in music as we talk about our days and study each other’s differences.
The coffee, the sweets, music, stories, languages, and laughter come together to fuel an amazing microcosm of cultural exchange I have come to love and enjoy every Thursday. The Facebook event gives the night a 2-hour time slot, but everyone always stays late.
I don’t know if Dark Times intended to create such an institution to further international understanding, unity, and friendship, or if they simply wanted to be the most unique metal band in the world. One thing is certain: x number of years from now when they’re famous, every face-melting note I hear will remind me of kaffe, kanelbullar, and kompanionship. See what I did there?
But Seth, What is Fika?
I can brag on Sweden all day. Rather, I have, if you’ve been reading at all. What’s not to like about free healthcare, zippy public transportation, and the joy of actually seeing your tax dollars go to work?
However, the enigmatic Scandinavian atmosphere would be lost without the coffee culture. Sweden trails behind only the other Nordic countries when it comes to coffee consumption per capita. I’ve never consumed caffeine at such a rate as when I was living in Lund. This is mostly due to an awesome social institution known as fika, or kafferep in some circles.
Similar to the Spanish siesta with opposing results, the goal is the same: take some time in the day to decompress, get your shit together, and start the latter half of the day with a clear mind.
Between 1 and 4pm, the coffee houses are packed and Swedes are chilling in the park with the sweet, caffeinated goodness. This is in addition to your lunch break, I should add.
Lazy Europeans, right? Oh contraire. While Sweden has its fair share of companies that are doing poorly in these crazy economic times, they are doing so well right now that economists and entire nations are studying them as a model to figure some way out of the Eurozone crisis.
Everyone needs a sanity hour, and it seems to work for the Swedes. Maybe if more employers recognized the perfectly human need to power down for a bit, we could be more productive as well. HINT, HINT.