When we are five, we laugh 113 times a day. By the age of 44, that number shrinks to 11 times a day.
Those statistics, which I came across in Voice of the Innovator, made me feel sad for my adult self who, now in her early 60s and pretty much isolated due to the pandemic, often laughs even less than that.
A few days after reading that statistic, I emailed a long-time friend I haven’t seen in years, ending my message with these words: “I hope you are doing well…healthy and happy.”
He responded immediately with one sentence: “Yes, insanely busy and insanely happy!”
That simple reply gave me pause.
Despite having read at least a dozen books on happiness and taken several happiness classes, including Berkeley’s the Science of Happiness and Yale’s The Science of Well-Being, the idea of being insanely happy had never even crossed my mind.
In fact, happiness, even at a basic level, often felt elusive. And the busier I was, the harder it was to be happy. Instead, I was stressed and anxious, and often heard myself saying, “I don’t have time to be happy now. I just need to get this done.”
Then my friend Laurie sent me a video clip of an orangutan’s reaction—one might say insanely happy reaction—to a simple magic trick in which a man makes a chestnut disappear. Watching the video made me laugh and provided me with a jolt of jolly. The first time I watched it, the 13th time and even the 21st time.
And while I’m still not laughing as often as a five-year-old, I’m definitely ha-ha-ing more often in pursuit of my new “insanely happy” goal.
Just thinking about the video makes me laugh. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
Two years ago a friend introduced me to Clutter Chronicles, a podcast that features a woman named Mary and her “unusual relationship with stuff.” Ever since, I’ve been working hard to rid myself of my clutter, as well as all sorts of other stuff I no longer need or use.
I’ve made good progress. I’ve tossed reams and reams of client files from a four-drawer, 48-inch-wide file cabinet. I’ve donated hundreds of books, a dozen bags of clothes, several sets of linens and my favorite china.
Parting with most of that stuff turned out to be easier than I thought thanks to another friend who encouraged me to stop dragging my anchor behind me and instead toss it out in front of me.
But I’ve since come to realize that there’s a category of clutter I’m still having trouble letting go of: aspirational clutter.
I’d never even heard of aspirational clutter until a third friend introduced me to Apartment Therapy, a home and décor site that defines aspirational clutter as “anything you’re keeping for a future version of yourself.”
As a lifelong goal-setter with all sorts of imagined future selves and plenty of storage space, I’ve accumulated a great deal of aspirational clutter, most of which revolves around hopes and dreams related to creative pursuits such as writing, drawing, painting, sewing and knitting, all things I used to love doing as a kid but gave up decades ago.
Some of my aspirational clutter is electronic, like the list of words I keep on my computer, words I aspire to one day not only remember the meaning of but also use in a short story. The list includes noctilucent, opsimath, sere and wheedle.
There’s also a list of clever headlines, as well as lists of books to read, movies to watch and podcasts to listen to, all in line with my aspirations to develop compelling creative content in a variety of forms.
But what about the things that do take up physical space? A shoebox filled with recipes. A plastic bin of yarn. An untouched set of oil paints I received for my 40th birthday. A six-inch high pile of pages I’ve torn out of magazines in preparation for making collages.
Despite the fact that some of these things have sat dormant for decades, tossing or giving them away is harder than I would have imagined. And that’s exactly how my more creative future self would want it to be.
I’m no Oprah or Bill Gates, but like them, I create a yearend list of books that have impacted me. Most years, doing so is easy. Not this year.
Thanks to the pandemic, instead of reading a book a week, I read more than twice that. These are a few that I found particularly absorbing, entertaining, thought-provoking or behavior-changing.
The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins. Despite the fact that she has a huge social media following and regularly appears on CNN, I’d never heard of Robbins until one of my friends sent me this book. The premise is simple: You need a get-started ritual to overcome your inertia. For Robbins, that ritual is simple: just count 5-4-3-2-1 and then act … get out of bed, send that email, clean the dirty sink. I’m amazed at how often the ritual has transformed my to-dos into ta-dones.
Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg. I was familiar with Fogg because I write a lot about behavior change, but I had no idea how powerful his approach could be. Essentially it’s a simple recipe: After I _________, I will __________. After I brush my teeth, I will do five pushups. After I get into bed, I will name three things I’m grateful for.
Die with Zero: Getting All You Can From Your Money and Your Life by Bill Perkins. As a lifelong saver who has often put my future self ahead of my present self, this book opened my eyes to maximizing the value of my life experiences now, not at some distant point in the future when I may no longer have my health. And while I used to think that running out of money would be awful, I now think that having piles of it that I never got to enjoy would be even worse.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. A fast-paced romp that made me slightly uncomfortable yet kept me laughing, this debut novel brought me face to face with inequities I, as a white woman in my 60s, barely have reason to notice. I enjoyed the flashbacks to high school and could relate to both the anger and embarrassment main character Alix experiences after having sex for the first time, and I walked away with newfound appreciation for all the nuances of discrimination.
Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven.The first in a series of three, this book, which I listened to rather than read, captured my heart as Velva Jean follows her mother’s dying wish that she “live out there in the great wide world.” In doing so, Velva Jean travels from an abusive marriage in Appalachia (the audiobook narrator does a great job of bringing the area’s accents to life) to the Grand Ole Opry. Along the way, she teaches herself to drive the bright yellow truck gifted to her by her brother Johnny Clay, who is also featured in the two subsequent books in which Velva Jean learns to fly and becomes a World War II spy.
Stars Over Clear Lake by Loretta Ellsworth. Another historical novel, this book is set in the 1940s in Clear Lake, Iowa, where I used to gather with girlfriends each summer for an annual “no guys, no kids, no dogs” weekend that included a Saturday night dinner at the Surf Ballroom where much of the book takes place. The book—half love story, half mystery—explores the impact of buried secrets and the courage it takes to follow one’s heart.
What books are on your best of 2020 list? I and my fellow Word Sisters would love to hear. Please share.
Hosted by entrepreneur Twila Dang and Minnesota Public Radio economics reporter Chris Farrell, the podcast disrupts the notion that people with low or unstable incomes don’t know how to manage money. To the contrary, they are often the most creative and collaborative when it comes to doing so.
I’ve listened to all seven episodes that have been released so far, but one in particular got me thinking about the smart money lessons I learned from my parents, both of whom were born into the Great Depression and grew up on modest family farms, my dad in western Minnesota and my mom near St. Cloud.
Their philosophy was “live off what you have.” This, combined with the fact that my dad supported our family of seven on not much more than $20,000 a year, led me to learn important money lessons that have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing. Here are a few:
Lesson No. 1: If you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. I never saw my parents use a credit card. Other than the utility bills my dad paid by check every month, my parents paid cash for everything from groceries to Catholic school tuition to an occasional new car. They kept meticulous track of how much money they had via their Midwest Federal Savings Passbook.
Lesson No. 2: If you want more money, ask for it. I learned and was reminded of this lesson just about every week when my stay-at-home mom asked my dad for money for groceries. No matter how much he gave her, she always asked—and often lobbied vigorously—for more. Sometimes she got it, sometimes she didn’t. So, midcareer, when I was offered a job with a consulting firm, I took a deep breath and asked for—and eventually received—a pay increase, a signing bonus and an additional week of vacation.
Lesson No. 3: Don’t be afraid to haggle. I can’t recall the exact amount the seller of my house was asking, but I was do know I was prepared to pay that amount. That is, until I talked to my dad. He advised me to offer considerably less, so I did. The realtor told me the buyer would be insulted by such a low offer. He was. But he eventually agreed to sell me the house for considerably less than his original asking price and only $3,000 more than my original offer.
Lesson No. 4: Always get three estimates. Now that the pandemic has me hunkered down at home, I’ve been getting estimates for long overdue home chores, including painting the exterior of my home as well as the upstairs. In soliciting the estimates, I’m doing just what my parents taught me to do: calling three contractors. Their estimates range from roughly $5,000 to $20,000+, reminding me once again of the value of my parents’ advice.
Lesson No. 5: Save for retirement. Thanks to my parents’ urging, I started saving for retirement in my early 20s, when I got my first full-time job. It was at Honeywell. While I’m unsure how much I saved in the two years I worked there, I still have a 1984 Retirement Savings Plan statement showing that I contributed $55.94 in the fourth quarter of that year and had a yearend balance of $233.48. While that doesn’t seem like much to me now, I’m certain it did at the time.
I’m also certain that these and other money lessons I learned—from my parents, as well as friends, colleagues and podcasts such as small change—have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing.
How about you? What money lessons did you learn…and from whom? And how have those lessons impacted your own financial wellbeing?
My friend Maery did it after fracturing her shoulder at a company outing.
My cousin Eugene did it when he ran out of staples for his office stapler.
My sister Karen did it when COVID-19 closed the dental office where she worked.
What did they do?
But unlike me, they all had employers to retire from. They also all had a key moment when they knew it was time to do just that.
But as a freelance writer who works for dozens of clients, there’s no one employer to retire from and since I haven’t yet had a “now’s the right time” moment, I’m still saying yes to most client work that comes my way. Thankfully, I enjoy the work…and the people I work for.
That said, I am beginning to think more seriously about retirement and what it might look like for me.
Despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about (and saving for it) since I was 22, I don’t have a very clear picture. That’s one reason why, when I turned 60 three years ago, rather than celebrating with a big party, a piece of jewelry or an exotic trip, I took a one-year sabbatical.
Though I missed having work as a way of structuring my days, I really enjoyed the downtime and the chance to unplug both personally and professionally. I also enjoyed the chance to travel for months at a time.
Although I’ve since returned to freelancing, I now say yes only to projects I can do from anywhere at any time. That way, I still have plenty of flexibility and free time, a lot of which I just putter away. Most days that feels like exactly the right thing to do.
Other days, I’m more engaged. I’ve also started journaling again and gotten reacquainted with art supplies I haven’t touched in years. I’m cooking some and reading more. I’m writing letters and calling friends. I’m even enjoying routine household chores, plus getting estimates for several home improvement projects.
Increasingly, it’s these things—not my client work—that’s giving structure to my days…and no doubt moving me closer to retirement. What sign will tell me that it’s finally time? I don’t yet know, but I do look forward to finding out.