Measuring Happiness—How a Life
with Less Can Be a Life with More
PERHAPS YOU’RE READING THIS while browsing in a bookstore. If so, glance over at the woman across the way when she’s not looking, the one scanning titles of books on a table and searching for her next engrossing read. She’s well dressed, appears healthy and happy, and looks intelligent and strong willed, someone who could be a friend or neighbor. You can’t picture this woman as someone who feels extraordinarily lost and as emotionally bankrupt as her bank account. She is estranged from her husband and friends, disconnected from her children, stifled by debt, angry and resentful at how much her life has changed in recent years, and terrified that she’ll never get back to that place where money was abundant and she felt so in control of her life. But if you were to follow her home and get to know this woman, you’d find that her looks defy everything about her. She doesn’t know who she is anymore, and in fact can’t find her way “home.”
She’s got mail dating back three months that she hasn’t opened for fear of another past-due notice. Her teenage children have no idea that their college funds have been squandered and there’s no money for summer camp this year. Ever since her husband lost his job a year ago and money got excruciatingly tight, their relationship hasn’t been the same. They can’t afford to get a divorce, though the thought has crossed her mind. She harbors a grudge toward her husband for telling her that she’s got to learn to live on less, and that their previous lifestyle is gone. Conversations about money erupt into ferocious fighting, and the thought of accepting this new reality is terrifying for both of them. How can she be happy? Where will she get the courage to find joy and peace of mind in all this mess? Who is she now? What pains her the most is that things fell apart so quickly. Just a few years ago, life was good and filled with opportunities. They always had money in the bank, plans for another vacation, and a clean and tidy house that their friends envied. Then came the Great Recession. Overnight, all bets were off.
Now the fear of losing their home looms large. They have burned through their savings and much of their retirement money. The woman does whatever she can to soothe her overwhelming anxiety, trying to find pleasure in boutiques and clothing stores—anything to put a damper on her emotional pain and deepening depression. She can’t stop shopping. She pawned some of her jewelry last week just to pay for basic living expenses this month and find more money for shopping. When she pulls out a credit card to make a small purchase for herself, she feels guilty on the one hand, and on the other, wonders when someone will come bail her out like the government did for Wall Street. Somehow she gets through each day by pushing the reality of her situation to the back of her mind. If she just doesn’t think about it too much she can manage it.
This woman is not unlike millions who are struggling to make ends meet through tough financial times while at the same time trying to preserve their emotional well-being. She may even be like you. And you are like everyone else.
I don’t need to remind you what’s been going on in America since I last wrote a book. Treading water has become second nature as we attempt to recover from the worse financial fallout since the Great Depression. Technically, the most recent recession may have been declared over already, but that doesn’t negate the fact so many of us are still stuck in its debris. Millions of people remain lost, disheartened, uninspired, debt-ridden, and frustrated by having to live on less. Some of us are paying the price of living deep in an orgy of consumption for the past decade—surviving giddily off of borrowed money and a kind of pay-as-you-go happiness. But others of us have just been bystander victims of the financial tsunami that has swept through the country. The combination of an unexpected job loss, medical crisis, and tumbling net worth due to the real estate decline, for example, can be enough to devastate even the strongest and savviest of financial planners. And this kind of financial change can steal not only your happiness, but also your sense of self.
Regardless of your unique story and experience these past couple of years, what’s obvious, now, is that the time of personal reckoning has come: we need to change the way we think about our finances, our lives, and what brings us happiness and fulfillment. It’s time to seriously clear out the psychological clutter tied to money and finances and the hurdles to happier lives that are running, railroading, or ruining our lives.
You can either continue living in denial or (and my guess is you’re considering alternatives because you’re reading this book) you can learn how to navigate this current tsunami that has affected all our lives and create a new path of hope, happiness, and well-being for you and your family. The old adage rings true and begs to be repeated: With crisis comes great opportunity. I honestly believe this and think that if we wallow in our collective problems and fail to see the chance for something great here, then we’re seriously missing the point! That said, you must be brave enough to seize the opportunity. If you’ll come along, together we can use that to our advantage.
Glance again at that lady standing nearby and now pretend that she turns to you and wonders what it’s like to live your life. Your story might not be so extreme, but how much of what she sees on the outside contradicts what’s hammering you on the inside? Do you look strong but confront an inner turmoil daily about how to rebalance your life now that things aren’t what they used to be? Do fears about the future and of “not having enough” keep you up at night? Are you physically tough but mentally weak and drained from relentless thoughts about your financial situation—and the fact that you’re struggling to define yourself and your life in a way that makes sense anymore? We all measure our happiness in different ways. Many of the people I work with find it hard to distinguish happiness from getting more stuff. For these people, better is measured by more and their possessions have become the measure of their well-being. Chasing more and having more has come to mean that I’ll somehow be more; that if I just buy the right things I can somehow acquire the life I want and will then—of course—be happy. It’s a common theory. And a great recipe for disaster!
It almost always takes a crisis for people to make big changes in their lives. I hear from families all the time that their loved ones—parents, spouse, friends—are wrecking their lives with clutter, that it just can’t go on like this anymore. The stuff they own has damaged the happiness they want. Well, we’ve reached the same kind of crisis with money. Even though it may fly in the face of what we’ve been conditioned to believe, owning more or the pursuit of more simply is not better, for ourselves, our families, our communities, or our planet. Worse still, the “more” that we chase might just be the single biggest reason that happiness escapes us. We need to reframe our attitudes toward our stuff and our happiness. We need to rethink how we spend money and what’s truly important if we want to improve the quality of our lives and the future of our families.
This very well may be the most important book I’ve written. Unlike my previous works, from It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, which focused on physical clutter, to Enough Already!: Clear the Emotional and Mental Clutter to Create the Life You Want, which dealt with damaging mental and emotional clutter, this book comes at a time when people need to hear a clear and unambiguous message the most. It comes when tens of millions are wrestling with serious financial problems that invade every aspect of their lives, and no matter how hard they try to change directions and find solutions, they continue to hit walls, go in reverse, or just give up entirely. It also comes at a time when record numbers report their dissatisfaction with their relationships, frustration with their job, and an overwhelming sense of unhappiness with life itself. And—like clutter—the pile of misfortune, exasperation, deferred dreams, and troubled relationships keeps accumulating. Some of you may have decluttered in the past, performed some serious spring cleaning, and invested good intentions in your attempts to organize your life. But was it all to no avail when the recession hit? Did the physical stuff get cleared out but leave a huge emotional and personal vacuum in its place? What happened? Where did you go wrong? Why couldn’t those good intentions help you to avoid, at least a little bit, the ravages of the recession? The answers to those questions are in this book. And so are the straightforward solutions for turning this around for good. Some say that money is the root of all evil. I’m not a subscriber to that theory, but I do believe that our attitude to things, and especially our attitude to money, has hugely contributed to the mess we’re in.
The news isn’t all bad. I know that thousands, if not millions, of families are taking advantage of the downturn to reboot their values and their plans for their futures. This is a huge plus. We’ve lost money but we’ve found a sense of priority in our lives. We are more aware of the difference between needs versus wants and entitlements. We are increasingly conscious of our environment, and no longer have to drive the heftiest SUV on the road. We don’t care for another 2,000 square feet of living space if we can live comfortably with what we have and pay our mortgage on time. We are more apt (more out of necessity than anything else) to tell our children that they won’t be getting x, y, or z these holidays. And I sense that there is a growing awareness that less really can be more. That being thrifty, when done right, can be surprisingly liberating, pleasurable, and rewarding all the way down to our happiness centers. When I ask people which words describe how they want to live now, I don’t hear words like “big” and “large”; I hear the words “simply,” “peacefully,” “modestly,” “with less stress,” and “with more real connection to loved ones.” Happiness doesn’t come with a hugely expensive price tag, a maxed-out credit card, a crushing mortgage, or keeping up with five thousand “friends” on Facebook! I’m going to show you how thrift allows you to evaluate the world anew. Frugality is not about deprivation at all. Much to the contrary, it’s about examining life’s possibilities, then homing in on the ones that make you happiest.
That said, our good intentions and renewed values can be undone easily by our ingrained habits and past decisions. Many of us may want to live on less but don’t know how, having grown so accustomed to the pre-Recession world, and having attached our whole identities to what we own. We still cling to who we were or how much we had to spend before facing (or ignoring) today’s realities, and we can’t stop equating being happy with having more. We may secretly fight to keep up appearances while continuing to delude ourselves and let our relationships with loved ones erode because we can’t talk to them about money and limitations. So how do we rectify this? How do we heal the great divide in our families and come together as a team to fulfill each other’s dreams no matter what the economy throws at us? If you’re feeling paralyzed by fear, overwhelmed by your money woes, and paying (figuratively, emotionally, and literally) for your past mistakes, how do you move forward and embrace this new world while you’re still carrying all the baggage from the old world? Put simply, How do you live a life of abundance on less? What does that mean? How is this possible—without pretending or feeling that you’re being forced to against your will? Can you reclaim a financial life—and be happy—with significantly less?
You know what I’m going to say to that: Yes! Remember what I’ve always said: it’s not about the stuff. Experience has shown again and again that if you focus on “the stuff,” you are never going to get to the root cause of a cluttered, unhappy life. I say the same thing about the stuff of money and your financial compass: If you just look at the money (and the credit cards, and interest rates, and rules to retirements accounts, and budgeting formulas, and so on), you will never get at the root of financial distress. If you define yourself by your possessions and financial status, you’ll never find peace of mind, lasting contentment, and deep-rooted happiness. You can make spreadsheets, concoct elaborate budgets and spending plans, read the latest personal finance guru’s book, or speak with financial advisors until the cows come home. But to truly understand what is happening you have to look at why buying more and acquiring more is so important to you. You have to look at where you’re attempting to find happiness and decide whether it’s really causing you pleasure or just more pain. It’s easy enough to understand the need for change, it’s tough to embrace that change in your everyday life. Only then can you get to the heart of your consumption, deal with it in an honest way, and create a vision for the life you want for yourself and your family. Only then can you define who you really are and live up to that person every single day with excitement and pleasure.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do together in this book. In the same way that I conquered clutter in your home (and on your butt and in your mind) in my previous books, Lighten Up will help you to wade through your financial mess, and clear a path to financial health and emotional harmony. I can’t guarantee you instant happiness but I am going to show you how to live a life of abundance on less in a way that doesn’t plunge you deeper into misery and despair, and my suspicion is that with a changed mind-set will come a sense of calm, authentic personal identity, and . . . yes . . . happiness. Your well-being doesn’t have to be measured by monetary wealth. I’ll show you how to capitalize on where you derive happiness, and help you to realize that your truest sources of pleasure and joy are actually free. I’m also going to help you see that what you already have is more than most people in previous generations ever dreamed about having, and with a little bit of mental and, in some cases, physical rearranging and reprioritizing, you can come to view your life from a completely different place. To that end, I’ll show you how to psychologically transform your pain, anxieties, and anguish into a spring of courage and action no matter how much you’ve lost or had to give up.
If you know anything about me, you know that I tend to think a little differently than most. This book is no different. Most books that offer traditional financial advice and get-out-of-debt programs are a little like diet books. Everyone buys one, everyone reads one, pretty much no one has anything to show for them. Just like fad diets, their lessons are quickly forgotten. The problem is these books often shove the how-to at you without exploring the whys underlying your financial distress. It’s like the first week of the New Year. We’ve all been there! You intend to exercise more, to eat better, and to get organized. All goes well for a few days until you hit the first hurdle: a late dinner with friends and one or two drinks more than you intended. The next morning you’re too tired to get out of bed to exercise. Suddenly all those resolutions go south! We’ve all been there—probably many times. Without a realistic plan, a clear understanding of what’s likely to trip you up and—most important—an honest assessment of why you want to make these changes in your life, change is unlikely. I want to teach you a lifestyle tuned to the optimal way to live within your means that will keep your life clutter free (and I mean that on every level of the word “clutter”—emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual).
Taking baby steps toward change will slowly alter how you feel, how your financial life looks, and how well you really are. In Part I, we’ll explore what kind of life you imagine for yourself and where you think you derive your happiness. I’ll challenge you to create a realistic vision for your life, reassess what the words “abundance,” “needs,” “wants,” and “entitlements” mean to you, and help you to sketch out a mental blueprint for living out your newfound vision each and every day. Part II will help you use three personal audits to gather information about your situation to instigate changes. This won’t necessarily be easy. I’ll ask you to face not just the physical stuff and concrete dollar signs, but I’ll also ask you to excavate your emotions and address those psychological underpinnings to your habits and attitudes. You’ll be challenged to confront your family members, establish tough boundaries under the limits of your family’s means, engage the participation of your children even if they are young, and become fully attuned to your own shortfalls and weakness, including the excuses you tell yourself every day just to “get by.”
“Just getting by” doesn’t work anymore and you know it. It’s time to get clear, get real, and get going. Sounds scary? Good! Exciting? Even better! I’ll be arming you with all the tools you need to do this, including scripts to use with your partner and kids, specific To-Dos that you can put into practice immediately, exercises for helping you to learn the ropes to living a life of abundance on less, and practical information to create a real, achievable, and personal plan of action. Part III will then give you a checkup and maintenance plan for staying on track with the vision you have for yourself in the real world.
Like I said, this won’t be a walk in the park. You’ll no doubt find yourself having tough conversations with yourself along the way, as well as difficult discussions with other people in your life, notably the ones who share the same space and contribute to your well-being every day. I’ve never asked you in the past to sit a five-year-old down and tell him about your debt and what it means to him, or to enforce family meetings with a specific agenda that will stir debate and probably some seriously uncomfortable moments. I’ve also never asked you to take a personal audit and make the connection between the tension in your life and your everyday habits that aggravate that tension. Until now.
Take a deep breath. For everything you uncover about yourself and your family in this book there will be a clear solution that we craft together so you know what to do. I understand that living on less seems (and feels) unappealing and unnerving, but I’m going to help you change that so it becomes a source of immense power and enjoyment. Keep in mind that the lessons you learn and pass onto your children as you enlist their participation may be the most instrumental and life-enhancing lessons you give them as they mature into thoughtful, productive, money-savvy adults. By the end of this book, you’ll have shifted the way you and your family measure happiness, you’ll have redefined who you really are and created space for what really matters in your life, and you’ll have moved a lot closer to the vision you have for your life than you ever thought possible.
It never ceases to amaze me how, by formulating a clear plan and embracing realistic change, my clients have watched their financial—and other—problems diminish and, in some cases, completely vanish. Among the hundreds of thankful letters that I receive routinely from people who’ve taken my ideas to heart, there is a singular thought spoken many different ways: “This process has changed my life: I feel empowered and liberated from constant struggle. I’m enjoying the best relationships with my loved ones like never before.” They not only share how their financial problems have cleared up since they started following my program, but their overall well-being—both physical and mental—has changed significantly for the better. Significantly.
Mark today as the beginning of a new life. A new sense of honesty with yourself and your world. Accept your past failures and let them inform this new life with resolve. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt jarred by the events over the last several years. The economic storm has ravaged through every demographic and every level of income. We may harbor ill feelings toward our financial institutions and government leaders, but at the end of the day, the change—the recovery—happens at home with you. What I want from everyone who reads this book is to find a greater sense of purpose and power to effect that change on an individual basis. It’s within all of us. And yes, that peace, stability, security, and happiness is within you.
© 2011 Peter Walsh
Excerpted from Lighten Up: Love What You Have, Have What You Need, Be Happier with Less by Peter Walsh
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.