Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 2)

I've always had a vague idea of the way I wanted my life to be someday. I'd like a house near a major city. I'd like a Jack Russell terrier. I'd like a husband — tall, dark hair, a bit of charming geekiness about him. I'd like a couple of spunky kids who make me laugh every day. I'd like a window seat so I can sit and read and listen to the rain.

This scene comes with that fuzzy filter that's used in movies and TV shows to designate flashbacks and flash-forwards. "Someday" is an amorphous time in life, one that I hope to reach, well, someday. But I have a feeling that no matter how much time passes, "someday" will always be in the future, lingering just out of arm's reach. "Someday" is a mirage.

Think about it. Do you think life is rough now, but you'll be happier someday? Do you think someday you'll have that corner office, that car, that house, that husband or wife, and then you'll be happy? Are you living paycheck-to-paycheck but thinking that someday you'll be making $50,000 or $70,000 or $100,000 a year (choose your own magic number) and you'll finally have everything you need to be happy?

The second life-changing thing I've learned in the past 30 days is this:

2. You will achieve happiness and wealth only when you decide that what you have is enough.

This is an idea I've picked up from the book Your Money or Your Life, the blog Life After College and several other blogs in the personal finance/simple living realm. The idea is simple: If you're not content with what you have and you're always wanting something more, something different or something better, you'll never be satisfied.

Sometime in high school, I decided that I would die if I didn't go to New York University. I believed that I could only be happy there, and that NYU was the key that would unlock all of my hopes and dreams. I'm not sure why I believed this since I had never even visited NYU (no money), but I was determined to go there. My fallback schools were other colleges in New York, and my last-choice safety school was — can you guess? — the University of Washington.

I got into NYU. I was awarded tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, but not nearly a full ride. Obviously, my parents couldn't afford to pay the remaining tuition, and my mom convinced me that I really, really didn't want to graduate with a boatload of student-loan debt. Did I mention that she is a very smart lady?

I was crushed. I have a whole journal from 2005 full of emo entries about how disappointed I was and about how much UW was going to suck. I was freakin' miserable.

But guess what? I had a blast at UW and can't imagine having gone anywhere else. I wasted a bunch of my 18th year of life being miserable for no reason. I should have been content with the amazing opportunity I was given — to attend UW with the help of an insanely generous four-year endowed scholarship — but I had pinned my hopes and my happiness on something more, something different, something better.

Your Money or Your Life illustrates the idea that "more, different, better" will always be unsatisfying:
"Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field. Eventually, we hope we will have more possessions, more prestige and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more out of ourselves and ever more from the world, but rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have, the more we want — and the less content we are with the status quo."
A great example of this idea comes from my close friend Diddy, who recently addressed rumors that he might replace Simon Cowell on American Idol. He said, "At first when people were asking me if I was interested in the job, I was like, no… that’s not my style, but once I heard what Simon makes… I would love the job. I’ve got six kids. If I would get the same check Simon gets… we would have a ball.”

Diddy is a special kind of person I like to call Insanely Rich. He gave his son a car worth more than $300,000 for his 16th birthday. But even he wants a bigger paycheck! To most people, Diddy is wealthy. To Diddy, Simon Cowell is wealthy. Simon Cowell is probably hustling for Oprah-caliber money right now. When will any of them think they have enough?

To me, wealth doesn't mean having $500,000 or $5 million. I'd say having $5 million doesn't mean sh!% if you're unhappy or always wanting more. My idea of wealth is having enough money to pay your expenses, save for retirement and spend on things you enjoy without having to worry that a life-changing event (job loss, car accident) will cause you to go bankrupt. If are in that position and are happy with what you have, no matter what the balance is in your bank account, you're wealthy in my book.

If "more" won't make us happy, then what will? Your Money or Your Life says the peak of fulfillment is recognizing that you have enough. In terms of money and possessions, this means:
"Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little 'luxuries.' We have everything we need; there's nothing extra to weigh us down, distract us or distress us, nothing we've bought on [borrowed] time, have never used and are slaving to pay off. Enough is a fearless place. A trusting place. An honest and self-observing place."
I've been successful with this mindset of having enough in terms of my minivan. Yeah, it's not cool. Yeah, it's falling apart. Yeah, I could probably buy a nicer used car with the money I have at this point. But the minivan runs. It gets me where I need to go. I always have been and always will be grateful just to have it. It's enough.

I think contentment really is a fearless place because it means that you're fine with what you have regardless of what other people think. Judgment and comparison are big threats to "enough."

I'm becoming content with things I used to worry more about, like the fact that I already have more than enough clothes. Yeah, they're not the newest or most fashionable clothes, and I wear them over and over again — my typical boring-but-comfortable outfit consists of jeans and a solid-colored, v-neck tee — but they are enough for me.

My salary isn't very high, but I can cover my expenses and still sock away some money in savings, and it's enough for me. I don't even have an actual bedroom right now — long story — but I have a comfortable bed and all the privacy I need, and it's enough for me. I don't have a boyfriend right now, but I'm enjoying my time alone and with my best friends, and it's enough for me.

Maybe all any of us needs to do is take a good, long look at any aspect of our lives that we feel is lacking. Ask yourself, "Do I really need more this, different that, or a better something-or-other?" You may realize that you already have enough, and then you can can just stop worrying so much.

This is not to say that one shouldn't have goals or not strive for better things in life — I am huge on having goals. But don't pin your happiness on that goal. Be happy now. You may never reach the brass ring, but you sure as hell can have a good time on the carousel while you try.

Jenny Blake wrote a whole blog post about "enough." I'll quote it liberally here because it's pretty great:
"Stop delaying your dreams or your happiness until some future state of perfection — you already have all of the skills, resources and talent you need.
"If you are constantly longing for the past or waiting for the future, your entire life will be spent — well, longing or waiting. Joy is fleeting if we don't stop to appreciate where we are now, and remember that who we are and where we are is enough.

"So instead of waiting for the future — for some future state where you suddenly have enough or are enough — be the future. Live and embody it; act as though it were here. It is. There is no there, or better state. Make the most of this one — it is right where you should be — and the only place that's real."

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 3) will be about... actually, I'm not sure yet. I had something in mind but now I'll have to choose between a couple of great things. Or I could just change it to four or five things. Decisions!

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