Musings — Secrets to a Happy Life: 1% Physical; 99% Mental
It’s that time of the year where I look around at the kids going to summer camp and wonder why I have to go to work while they get a 3 month break from the “job” of going to school. There is a section of Global Thoughts called “Musings” and I’ve been trying to think of some fascinating topic to write about, but the last time I recall doing so it was on the topic of butt-wiping in August 2001 and it turned out that the gods must have thought I was too bored, and the next thing you know it was 9/11.
So I’m a little bit nervous about doing anything that appears to muse too much lest the gods think I’m bored again.
So I think I will discuss secrets to a happy life today. Nobody can really be sure, because sometimes totally healthy people who do all the right things just drop dead, and then there are people like my great grandmother who was a human garbage disposal who lived into her mid-90’s without any trouble and ran circles around her children even in her old age. Some people who have no reason to be stressed out or who retired from heavy workloads and should feel free have heart attacks or get cancer (although people can never be sure that somebody else has no troubles just because they look calm and appear to not be harried). You never can tell.
In a physical sense though, there really are some rules of the road. People who eat healthy unprocessed foods, stay clean, get a good night’s sleep and some exercise tend to not get sick as often and tend to feel good. I know that stretching in the morning and before bed has eliminated about 90% of the aches and pains I used to have all over my body. Eliminating juices and sodas from my diet got rid of 90% of my stomach problems. Eating fish instead of meat leaves you feeling lighter. I see people around me who eat horribly and get little sleep, and then they wonder why they have a bottle of stool softener sitting next to the dining room table. People who sleep well at night tend to not get headaches during the day too. If you feel good, you tend not to take prescription medicines which create even more problems.
Now let’s talk about the mental stuff because the #1 Thing that ultimately makes for a good life gone bad is STRESS which means that the most important challenge is to reduce it. Of course the #1 thing that causes one stress is if one doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills on time and has no savings, but to the extent one can be satisfied with what he has, that person will be a lot happier. The pursuit of happiness is the greatest source of all unhappiness. A recent study co-authored by a Nobel prize winner in economics science released from Princeton University shows that beyond a certain point, people with more money were no happier (and often less happy) than people with less money simply because they kept wanting more things as they realized they could get them. The funny thing was that the optimal point was about $75,000 a year for the average person (who obviously was not living in Manhattan).
If you can manage not to walk around thinking about what you don’t have that you want, it makes for a happier person. And if you are always trying to get something done and feeling that whatever you do isn’t enough, you are never going to be satisfied.
If you don’t use much TV or radio and only read newspaper and magazine articles, stay away from shopping malls and get yourself off junk mail lists, you are likely to want fewer things. There are so many things out there that I don’t even know about because I throw out nearly everything that comes in junk mail thus giving waste to catalogues and coupons that drive you into stores or websites. I hardly ever go shopping, ignore TV and radio and only read newspaper and magazine articles. The first few years of our marriage I threw out every coupon and catalogue that came in and called up the senders to take us off their lists. It helps that I am an odd size and can’t buy much off the rack so I don’t get much joy out of shopping. Unfortunately, I am the kind of person that can bankrupt a manufacturing-based economy.
Not all technology is worth the stress it causes. I tried a blackberry one day and hated the hyper connectivity and the feeling of standing around waiting for someone to respond to a message I sent; I have an iPad but have only used it a few times to read long articles on airplanes and check some email while traveling. But I only like having a plain old cellphone and I love turning it off except during the work day or a few times a day while I am traveling. My stress level goes way down the minute it’s off.
Stress relates to the other stuff — getting a good night’s sleep provides insulation against stress just as getting a poor night’s sleep aggravates stress. A lack of protein, fruits or vegetables makes people feel like they are lacking something in their system. People feel more relaxed when they are clean and exercised. If you have bad sleep, high blood pressure and cholesterol on top of being overweight, the number one thing you can do to relieve these problems is to lose weight, and often diet and exercise will not bring down the weight — if stress is shutting you down, it also holds the key to solving these other problems..
I think that people are happier when the points don’t matter. Does it matter if you win when you play or do you play just to have fun? If you play scrabble, do you feel good if your goal was to come up with some good words or only if you got more points than your opponent?
The article I mentioned above said that one way to have optimal happiness was to give stuff away. The people who came up with the idea of charity were on to something — people feel richer and more self-satisfied when they give something away to others rather than just buy something for themselves with the money.
I also think that it helps not to always feel you have to be doing something. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes except to just think or enjoy yourself. People need time to think — people who just do things all the time without thinking are often accomplishing nothing and are drifting aimlessly. And there is no accomplishment and therefore not much happiness. People have to prioritize and delegate tasks — we can’t manage to do everything and we shouldn’t try. Maybe it’s better to get that pedicure instead of making a home-made dessert. Or maybe you just want to take a joy ride on a train to Brooklyn or get a facial at a day spa while you think out a solution to a problem. Or maybe just relax and breathe in the dark for 5 minutes and think about nothing.
Partners in life such as a wife and business can be the cause of much stress, and of course it helps if you can choose the right ones. But especially in business, life takes many strange turns and people wind up in “bed” with people they don’t particularly like. But partnerships also give you room to share the burden of business and life with another — someone to bounce ideas off, someone to be good at the things you are not, and — particularly in business — someone to be on duty when you are not because the business of business never stops. I’ve seen too many people fail and be unhappy more so because they never found the right business partner or fell in with the wrong one.
Families are a source of comfort and stress, depending on the luck of the draw. You can choose your friends but not your family, especially when it comes to inlaws. People change as they age across all age spectrums and marriage has its effects on families — getting together with your family with a spouse in tow requires a different type of accommodation. Daily phone calls with parents when you are single and have all the time in the world are not the same as phone calls that come in when you are trying to manage a household with kids not going to bed or eating their dinner. Vacation day budgets must be shared with a spouse and visits to one family compete with visits to the other family and other pursuits involving friends, self and one’s own household. Some people don’t handle this well, and one thing I’ve seen is the regret that people say they have when a parent dies and the estranged person says “my only regret is that I didn’t make up with my parents before they died.” My secret to happiness here based on what I’ve seen too much of is don’t wait for them to die to have your regrets. Make up with them now. If you aren’t angry at your parents, then by all means enjoy them while you can, but remember to balance your household’s needs against their demands and to judiciously provide access to you and your family on terms that are acceptable to you and fair to them. Especially if it is clear to you that they are engaging you on their terms and convenience, why feel guilty about doing the same? If you have to travel far or long, then stick in a stopover that you can look forward to or do something else (ie plan an overnight excursion to a nearby place) to make the trip one that becomes exciting. Then you can enjoy your family and be happy about it rather than dread the time you will spend together because all you can think about is that you are being dragged into something you are not comfortable about doing.
Travel can be a lot of fun and I really enjoy doing that, but let’s face it. Travel can also be a source of a lot of stress, and to my mind, there are two main reasons for this. One: people try and economize while traveling to the extent that they are willing to put up with all sorts of inconveniences that they would never tolerate at home, such as putting 4 people in a hotel room for a week. Two: People do a poor job of pacing their trips and either wind up dragging a bunch of cranky overtired and bored kids with them to do adult things or wind up doing everything to make their kids happy and they themselves wind up miserable. My secret here is that money strategically spent can provide much happiness in this department. Babysitters in the evening let the parents get out. Taking an adjoining room gives parents space. Drop-in day camp at a hotel gives parents flexibility during the day. And parents have to be realistic — you can’t over-program your kids and you have to expect to deal with jetlag, hungry tummies who want familiar foodies, and that you are just not going to take small kids to art museums. If I want to go to the Musee D’Orsee in Paris, it’s not going to be with my 4 and 6 year old kids. But they are more interested than Karen in going on a walking tour of bakeries and ice cream stores in Paris and I’m totally into that. Travel with family is hard work and requires preparation, but I really believe it’s worth it if you do it right and sadistic torture if you don’t.
I’ve always been a proponent of the sunset rule. Never go to bed angry if you have the possibility of working it out beforehand. If you have thoughts on your mind, write them down before going to sleep or if you get up in the middle of the night.
Making plans is not the same as making commitments, and it can reduce stress and give one direction. Draw up a budget to anticipate your income and expense, even if you don’t have to worry about it. Then you don’t have to keep thinking about your finances. Keep appointments in a calendar book and list reminders in your calendar so that you don’t have to keep remembering them. If you can’t stand the uncertainty of vacations, book your hotels and tickets far in advance. It’s almost always cheaper that way and you eliminate the uncertainty of not knowing your fate when you later decide you want to make a booking. And you can always cancel hotel and car reservations and even air ticket changes are not insanely expensive. A study about vacations said that while the effect of a vacation wears off soon after return, the acts of planning and anticipating the vacation greatly increase the happiness effect of a vacation all year long.
Keep a clean house. Be able to find your stuff. Get rid of the old crap that doesn’t look good or fit. I like to say that if it doesn’t pay rent, it can’t stay.
Not everything can be perfect. Other people, especially hired hands, make mistakes and do stupid things. I often say that if the person working for you as a maid or nanny was as smart as you wanted that person to be, that person wouldn’t be working for you. And if that person is eating too many fresh fruits or ruined a blanket in the laundry or lost a pair of goggles at the pool, so what if it cost you an extra few hundred dollars a year? Just like I say that when you are renting a place and a few hundred bucks will give you the pullout shelf in the kitchen you always wanted or pretty curtains on the windows, don’t say that you don’t want to enrich the landlord — install it and enjoy it.
I’m not a big fan of owning a house or a car. That’s a big financial commitment for people and the source of a lot of stress, despite the “security” of living in your own home. That’s crap — most people today pay so much interest on their house and have so little equity to show for it that they’re paying rent. I like renting an apartment. Lot less maintenance and cash flow, and no worry about losing my house to the bank or my investment to a terrorist who makes a mess of Manhattan. I’ve never owned a car except once for a few months — I just rent them when I need them which turns out for maybe 10 days a year (OK, so I live in Manhattan). Renting often makes more sense than trying to own, but don’t confuse this for leasing arrangements that are used to sell things to people who can’t afford to buy or who just can’t commit even when it makes sense to do so.
Back to the physical health stuff for a minute. Doctors are good at prescribing drugs to alleviate symptoms. I’ve found Chinese medicine to be more helpful at holistically looking at the person and solving problems.
Well, I hope that’s enough for now. Interestingly, the stuff about being healthy is really only the tip of the iceberg. The other side of the coin — managing stress — is the other 99% in my happiness quotient. But clearly it matters — it’s why people get $1,000 an hour to come to your house and throw out all the crap in your closet for you. It’s why some people feel so happy buying a pair of shoes and then it sits in the box on the floor of their closet for months unopened, because the stress of committing to the finality of that purchase is just too much for some. It comes down to an exercise of pursuing happiness and find unhappiness as a result.
I can’t promise you that following this advice will leave you healthy, wealthy and wise, but I can tell you that I’ve seen enough of what happens when people do the opposite. If you have some advice you want to share with Global Thoughts readers, please let me know and I’ll include it in a followup posting.