There is a bit of a counter-culture budding up against the grind of what we call the “American Dream.”
You know the “dream” I’m talking about…
It’s the “dream” that promises us happiness. Under a few conditions…
- If we work hard at school, we will go to a nice college.
- If we do well in that college, maybe we go to a graduate school (or maybe not).
- Either way, we get out of school and get a well-paying job.
- That job pays us enough to buy a large house and fill that house with lots of trinkets.
- Then, when we are ready to retire, the combination of our pensions alongside a healthy 401K and some social security benefits will take care of us.
It’s the dream that promises us we need only have a nice enough car, a big enough yard, a well groomed dog and 2.5 kids. Then…and not a moment before…we’ll be all set.
We bought the dream. But upon reflection and review…it was a bit of a lemon.
Why, though? What’s the problem with it?
It comes down to the fact that the dream relies entirely upon consumption. If you have a good job, you have to get a better job. If you have a big house, you need a bigger house. The American Dream, then, is really just one giant hedonic treadmill. We are, as the aforelinked article laments…forever chasing rainbows and never finding the pot of gold.
Basically, we are constantly striving to fill something. A void. Our stomachs. Our living rooms. Our schedules. We never feel like we have enough…so we keep taking on more. The result?
We don’t have any space.
- Food. We don’t eat until we are satiated. We eat until we are STUFFED. Until there is no room left. No space in our stomachs.
- Living space: We fill our houses with widgets and whatsits until there is no space for much movement. We are spending all of our time keeping our stuff in order.
- Schedules: If we have some space in our schedules, we find a way to fill that gap. One can’t simply do nothing. Right?
- Money: If we got it, we spend it. Or we charge it. Live up to your means, right? You have to! The American Dream says so! There is no space left over for savings.
- Relationships: We are so preoccupied with having a number of connections (followers, likes, virtual friends, virtual mates) that we forget about the quality of those connections. We spend our time doing things we don’t want to do to prove to people we don’t care much about that our lives …that we …are valuable.
This would all be perfectly fine if the research revealed it to be an effective means by which to cultivate contentment. But it doesn’t. By eating too much, we are gaining unwanted weight and developing chronic diseases (including heart disease and diabetes). By consuming more commodities than we need, we amass credit card debt (which comes with a hefty 25% interest rate that is incredibly difficult to climb out of). When we keep busy, allowing no time to reflect or relax, we burn ourselves out, diminish our creativity and reduce our productivity. By obsessing over the updates of our so-called online “friends” we are more “connected” than ever…but also, counter-intuitively, more lonely.
I can testify to the truth of this on a personal level. There was a time when I was living in the bay area and making a six-figure salary. I had a house, fancy gadgets in the house, and a respectably busy schedule. I even had a rock on my left ring finger.
I. Was. Miserable.
It was all way too much. None of it was enough. It was everything I should have wanted. None of it met my needs. I was stuffed. I was starving. I was full. I was empty.
This is what comes of creating a life that relies upon outside measures of success to feed our joy. It simply does not work.
So what does work, then? Here is what the research tells us:
- Shift the focus away from trying to get what you want and toward wanting what you have. In other words…practice gratitude. This does NOT mean pretending to be happy with things that you are not happy about. What it means is this: Stop. Look around. What, in your world, do you feel fortunate to have? What are elements in your life that actually bring you joy? I’m not talking about things that numb you. I’m talking about things that make you feel something. In my case, when I was living in the bay area, I could immediately say that I was grateful for my dog. She brought (still brings) me SO much joy. I was grateful for my friends. One of my most beloved people would schedule time to walk with me and talk about philosophy, personal exploration and growth. THOSE moments filled me in genuinely gratifying ways. I was also grateful for my health. Despite all my frustration and stress and confusion…my body was holding up beautifully. It didn’t provide all the answers I needed for next steps. But it provided me with a start. It hinted at my values. By identifying what I was most grateful for, it provided a compass for where I should invest the bulk of my time. I spent less time fixing up the house and more time walking with my friend. I spent less time going out to restaurants to buy fancy food and more time cooking healthy meals at home. It was a beginning.
- Take time to get quiet. In Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter, he talks about 7 ingredients we need to have a healthy state of mind. It includes: play time, move time, connect time, sleep time, focus time, time in, and time out. In our culture…we tend to do a pretty good job of championing focus, play, exercise and even connection (think about the mantra “I work hard and I play hard”). We do a poor job, though, of celebrating relaxation and rest. Research supports the fact that when we take time out of our day to engage in mindfulness-based techniques, our mental state improves. By providing space in our days to reflect on our thoughts and/or to daydream and allow our thoughts to drift, it makes for an improved capacity to function in the world. Do less and more gets done. In my busy life of “to-do’s” I wasn’t sure if this would really be able to help me. But it was a game changer. I started to make room for meditation in my daily life. I watched as my mind got clearer. My work became more focused and meaningful. I cultivated better discernment. My life circumstances hadn’t yet changed, much…but the lens I used to look at my life felt less foggy. I was able to see the ways in which my life resembled me…and the ways it did NOT resemble me. I was able to see the steps I would need to take to make a life that looked like me. It was going to require a great deal of work. I would need to have the strength for it…which leads me to the next must-have…
- Get enough SLEEP. The mantra “sleep is for the weak” could not be farther from the truth. Don’t believe me? Then listen to the experts. Mathew Walker, in his TedTalk about sleep revealed that men who sleep less than 5 hours each night have lower testosterone levels than men 10 years their senior. Men and women both show lower immune system responses (with a marked drop in T-Killer Cells responsible for fending off cancer cells and foreign invaders). There really is no marker in our health that is unaffected by our sleep. I had spent decades struggling in this area. I knew better than anyone just how powerful getting a good night of rest was. The man I was dating at the time had a different schedule than me. It made sleep even more challenging. I started sleeping in a separate room to assure I got enough rest. I adjusted my schedule to assure that I would go to bed at the same time each night. I increased my exercise to tucker my body out more so I would be sufficiently tired. I did whatever it took to get as much sleep as I possibly could. I watched as my strength improved. My mental agility went up. The combined effects of meditation, sleep and gratitude helped me see what needed to be removed from my life in order to see my world reflect who I am.
- Clean House. I don’t mean this literally…although Marie Kondo’s book speaks to the power of removing clutter in your home. Sooo…. it certainly can include tidying your house and getting rid of unnecessary junk. A more robust way of saying what this entails, though, is to practice minimalism. Basically…it’s a practice of getting clear on what you want to keep in your life, and what elements are merely taking up unnecessary space and energy. In my case, I realized that I was in a house far too large, and in a relationship that was not serving either of us. We were not compatible. Finally, I was in a job that required a long commute and was causing unnecessary levels of stress in my life. Changing things around took immense gumption. It required me to make changes that made a number of people unhappy (a rough gig for a recovering pleaser). Nevertheless, I made those changes. I got out of the relationship. I sold the house. I changed jobs. I moved states. I now make less than half the amount of money I was making before. But I feel wealthy. I can walk to work. My job is far less stressful. I am in a relationship with a man whose values align with my own, and whose company brings me a sense of peace and ease. Nothing in life is “perfect”…but by removing the elements of my life that were not serving me, and which did not look like me, it left space for movement. It left space for relationships that are a good fit. It left space for me to breathe and rest easy.
- Create green zones in your schedule. Urban planners will often block out segments of cities designed purely for “green zones.” They are intentionally undeveloped areas that are sectioned out for parks or community spaces. The idea behind this is that creating a city must also include creating spaces that people would find aesthetically pleasing. You need to create blocks of areas for people to retreat to. This is a useful metaphor that can apply to our schedules. We have a tendency to schedule every conscious moment in our lives. There is value, however, in intentionally creating blocks of time in our schedules that have nothing “planned.” It doesn’t have to be meditation time or sleep time or learning time. It doesn’t have to be connection time or work time. It also can be any of those things. The important thing is simply to create a spot of time for spontaneity. When that hour comes up, you may feel inspired to paint or write or create. You may want to take a nap. You may feel drawn to call a friend. It doesn’t matter. What matters is not the “what” but simply that you created a section of your day or week that could be whatever you need it to be in that moment.
The bottom line with all this is simple…and it follows Brene Brown’s quote: “The opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It is simply enough.” This applies to food (it’s better to eat to satiety and not to feel stuffed); it applies to our schedules (it is worth creating space between the to-do’s); and it applies to our relationships (allowing time to disconnect makes real connection possible).
It’s like music. If there were no pauses between the notes, it would just be noise. Melody requires a measure of silence. The same is true in life. A mind without rest is glorified echo chamber. A house without space is a nothing more than a storage unit.
Try stepping off the hamster wheel of “gotta-have-it” and catch your breath. You may be amazed by the joy that rushes in when you have removed the clutter of discontent.