Last week I asked my sister what she was most looking forward to doing when she moved into her new house. She answered straight away: “Eating dinner in the bath.”
Her words came back to me today and made me smile, partly because of the absurdity of her answer and partly because of what it represented. Having dinner in the bath is really living life on your own terms: doing something other people think is crazy just because you want to.
This week I had lots of things that I thought I should do. It was supposed to be a quiet one, time to catch up on sleep, do my laundry, clean, tidy, write and reflect. But as soon as I arrived back in Oxford on Sunday night I received a text message: do you want to go for shisha? Which of course turned into shisha and wine and a late night.
On Monday night I ended up having a pub dinner and conversations that lasted until it got dark. On Wednesday night a throwaway remark by a friend – “I haven’t had a whisky sour in ages” – saw us camped out in a cocktail bar for most of the night. I returned home and collapsed on my bed. “Oh shit,” I thought as the room span around me. “I needed to do that laundry.” But it turned out I didn’t, because I wore a running bra under my work clothes today and nothing bad happened.
I have a nasty habit of trying to schedule every moment of my life in advance. I plan, I make lists, and I turn down fun to cross things off them.
This week has shown me that I can relax a little: not plan anything, not set expectations. Wonderful things can happen when you leave space for a little spontaneity. You’ll still do the things that matter (that laundry is in the washing machine as I type) but there’s a lot of things that don’t.
I’ll get more sleep when my friends aren’t in town. I’ll write when I feel inspired, not when I feel I ought to. This might lead to more infrequent blog posts but they will be the ones worth reading. Or it might not, because you don’t know what will happen when you leave space. It is okay to do whatever the hell you want to do in the moment, even it that’s eating dinner in the bath.
I have a confession to make: I think I might be happy. I’m not sure exactly when and why it happened, but the knot of anxiety that sat in my chest for years has disappeared. Obviously I still have moments of feeling a bit tired, or stressed out, or irritated about something. But underneath these surface emotions I feel bizarrely content.
I say bizarrely, because being a project person, I’m used to always working on something. But now, I seem to have lost my drive. I’m happy to just lounge around chatting to housemates or watching DVDs. And although I think I should feel bad about this lack of productivity, I don’t. Which makes you wonder what the point of so called “self-improvement” projects are if you feel better about yourself when you’re not doing any.
Because there are a couple of things that are acting as blockers to my happiness, and they’re both connected to an idea that is supposed to make you happy.
- I still stress out about food. I would love to eat a piece of cake, or an ice-cream, or a heavy meal without beating myself up about it afterwards, but I can’t. I put on a good show of non-disordered eating, but that’s because I don’t let myself buy any food that I enjoy enough to binge on. Because the mental anguish that follows eating half a box of chocolates isn’t worth eating the chocolate in the first place. Which is nonsense, because it’s not as though I dislike how I look or fear putting on weight. It’s because I’ve internalised a load of rubbish about how not eating chocolate makes you a better person.
- I stress out about spending money and owning things. While initially helpful in getting me to think about what I need (or don’t need) and what kind of life I want to have, all that minimalist blogs seem to do now is make me feel guilty for owning as many things as I do. Which definitely isn’t the author’s intention, but I always want to be the best at everything I do, so reading about people doing simplicity “better” makes me feel bad about myself.
But getting rid of things that do give me pleasure or depriving myself of things I can actually afford to buy is as likely to make me happy as eating less or making myself throw up the things that I do eat. It might make me think I’m in control in the short term, but it isn’t the answer to long term happiness. I’ve spent years on various projects, some of which have improved my life, but what I’ve realised is that that self improvement doesn’t make you as happy as self acceptance does. We don’t have to be always striving for something better. Sometimes, this is it, and it’s great.
To me, acceptance is about:
- Spending all morning in bed reading without feeling bad about not going for a run or cleaning the kitchen.
- Enjoying that second helping of pudding without worrying about what it’s doing to your body.
- Writing blog posts when you feel inspired and not because you feel obliged to stick to a schedule.
- Knowing that you have enough goal setting in your professional life without bringing them home.
- Letting yourself off the hook. You don’t have to live up to anyone’s standards but your own. It’s okay to be that bit chubbier than you possibly could be, or for your house to be a bit messier. Happiness will make yourself and your surroundings a million times more beautiful.
Most of us are able to offer guidance and support to friends, but aren’t so good at following our own advice. “Never be embarrassed about who you are,” I say to people. But I routinely don’t speak up about things that are important to me for fear of judgement. I hold back in my writing because I worry that people will think it’s silly, or self indulgent, or just plain boring. The irony being that my most shared posts are those where I speak from the heart.
I suppose I still suffer from the desire to be one of the cool kids. I want to write passionately about music or films. I want to tackle important political or social issues. I want to make people laugh. But leaving aside the issue of whether it’s even possible to do all three, this isn’t who I am. I may care about “issues” but I don’t feel inspired to write about them.
I’m a bit embarrassed about my interest in self improvement. I haven’t even told my friends that I’m going to Alive in Berlin even though some of my favourite bloggers are speaking and I’m really really excited. I love reading about how people have improved their lives through creativity, movement, new habits and minimalism, and I’m interested in changing mine. So maybe this is a bit self-helpy, and a bit uncool. But I’m committed to living my truth, and I’m trying hard not to be embarrassed about using phrases like “living my truth.” (Because I am British after all, and the last things we want to be talking about is our feelings).
It’s time to stop worrying about what people think of me. It’s time to:
- Say ‘yeah, I’m committed to creativity, friendship and living out my values.’
- Look after myself even if that means turning down a night out to go to bed early and make a yoga class the following morning.
- Listen to the music I want to listen to,and maybe even make some of those Spotify playlists public.
- Write the word “awesome” in a professional email.
- Put a kiss at the end of a text to someone I’ve just met.
- Eat what I feel my body needs (even if it means putting on weight).
- Open up to more of my friends, and not hide my excitement about things.
- Write more about my ideas and my life without worrying that it’s self indulgent. After all, nobody is making you read this.
A few weeks ago, my colleague was sharing her experiences of living in Malawi. Having gotten used to the slower pace of life in rural Africa, on her return to the UK she found herself wondering what everyone did to keep themselves busy all the time. “It’s amazing how much time people spend just dealing with their stuff,” she said. When I then thought about how I was planning to spend my weekend I realised, not only does stuff cost time, stuff costs money. And the more stuff you have, the more money you feel compelled to spend. Even if intuitively you think it should be the other way around.
Bits of my iPhone 3GS are slowly breaking. I didn’t really mind the screen cracking, or the side button breaking. But recently, although it docks well enough to charge, it has stopped connecting to my speakers. My response to this: I either need to get a new phone or a new set of speakers. Maybe some that connect vis bluetooth to avoid this problem in the future. Or perhaps I should buy a new ipod, one that will dock into the existing speakers and be less bulky then my phone to carry when running.
But the thing is, if I didn’t have the phone or the speakers in the first place, I wouldn’t “need” anything new.
I thought about what I would do if I lived in a Malawian village. I wouldn’t be able to pop down the road to Argos to pick up a new ipod to solve my problem. I would just use my headphones. Hang on, I could just use my headphones.
Then it dawned on me: often we think we need things because we can get them. Because they’re accessible. But what if there was no alternative?
I there was no alternative, we might:
- Fix holes in our clothes rather than buying new ones.
- Finish reading one book before moving onto another.
- Cook using the vegetables that feel slightly soft, but will taste perfectly fine once cooked.
- Drive a car until it can no longer be repaired, rather than until you get bored of it.
- Keep our natural hair colour, or like how our faces look make up free.
- Use a phone until it falls apart, rather than accept automatic upgrades.
- Run without listening to music.
- Talk to people face to face, rather than via social media.
- Be content with what we have, instead of striving for more.
- Go to sleep when it gets dark, and wake up when it gets light.
When I have an idea for a new project, I find myself making a shopping list of everything I need. A couple of weeks ago, when I started jogging to work, I treated myself to some new running clothes to inspire me. This week, I decided I wanted to start drawing again. I thought about when I’d have time to go to a stationery shop to get some new pens and a sketchbook. It was only when I couldn’t find the time that I considered using the pen and paper that I already owned. I realised that I prepare myself for things by stocking up on supplies.
But actually, life is less about your tools and more about your attitude.
- You don’t need a new cookbook to eat well.
- You don’t need a new ipod to start running.
- You don’t need a new outfit for a date.
- You don’t need a new notebook, or laptop, to start writing.
Most of the time, you don’t need anything new to start something new. You just need to be brave enough to show up.
If you look for one, there’s always an excuse not to do something. I can’t go out, I have nothing to wear. I can’t cook at home because my kitchen is too small. The hardest thing about anything is starting. Usually, you have everything you need. Quite often, the only thing stopping you is fear.
When I started to simplify my lifestyle about seven years ago, it wasn’t in pursuit of happiness. As I student I started to experiment with non-consumerism as a reaction to the things I was learning about the world. I stopped buying new clothes as a learned more about sweatshop labour and the amount of textile waste that gets put in landfill each year. I became a vegetarian to cut my personal carbon emissions. I made an effort to borrow rather than buy things I needed, and reduced my air travel to try and reduce my impact on the earth.
But while my journey started out as a political, all the above reasons are now secondary to why I live as I do. The reasons I rarely buy anything new, don’t own a television and walk or cycle to most places I need to go isn’t to stop doing damage to others. It’s now much more selfish than that. I’ve continued my trying to reject consumerism and live as simply as possible because the further along this journey I travel the happier I become. This was unexpected, but means my lifestyle changes are more sustainable because they don’t feel as though I’m depriving myself for the benefit of the planet. They feel as though I’m treating myself to better experiences. For example, I’d still call myself an environmentalist, but the main reason I don’t drive my car is because I want some fresh air and exercise, rather than because I don’t want to feel bad about carbon emissions (and a little bit because I don’t want to spend money on petrol).
Basically, I’ve discovered that rejecting consumer culture has made me happier.
- Giving up magazines has made me more at ease with my body.
- Having less stuff makes me less stressed, and gives me the freedom to move house easily.
- Choosing to spend my money doing things with other people rather than buying things for myself (I work for a charity, I can’t afford to do both) has strengthened my friendships and connection with family members.
- Not eating packaged food, and cooking a mostly vegetable based diet from scratch makes me feel healthier and seems to mean I can eat more than most people I know without putting on any weight (although I might just have a different kind of metabolism).
- Making do with what I have forces me to be creative – with what I wear, what I make and what I eat.
- Not having a television gives me more time to read, write and craft.
- Cycling or walking everywhere means I exercise several times each day.
- Making things to wear, things to give people, and things to decorate my house with saves money and makes me more connected to my possessions. I also really believe that the process of creation has therapeutic value – when I’m struggling with something I find it really helpful to work the issue through in my mind while doing something practical like knitting.
These aren’t just things that I do – they’re who I am. They’re also things I’m hoping to share more of in this blog. Because we all need to start talking more about the alternatives to a society that’s on the whole making people unhappy, unconnected and unequal.
For I while I’ve been reducing my physical possessions but now I’m trying to make space in my virtual life. I have too much on my to-do list, too much on my to-read list, I’m overwhelmed by my twitter feed and my personal email inbox. Over the last week or so I’ve been asking myself questions about how I use and what value I place on different social media and online communications channels, and gradually unfollowing and unsubscribing to things I think I could live without.
Usually when I stumble upon someone or something that looks interesting online I add the site to my favourite’s folder to read later. The list had gotten a little overwhelming because ‘later’ almost certainly never comes. In an attempt to halt my rising panic about it, I set aside some time one evening to spend a few hours reading everything. I found there were some great blogs that I wanted to delve into but you know what, there’s just too much. I want to spend less time consuming and more time creating but find it hard to stop in case I “miss something”. The internet is full of so much amazing writing, inspiring people and beautiful images (granted, a lot of rubbish too, but also a lot of great content) and however hard you try you can’t read it all. So you have to accept that you will inevitably miss something, but that’s okay.
So how do you choose? How do you decide to follow one blog but not another, like a page at the expense of something else, and stop your twitter feed being an overwhelming barrage of noise? At what point to you say, ‘Okay I’ll stopped trying to find new people and build new connections now and need to focus on building relationships with those I’ve found?’
As well as trying to spend a little less time online, these are the questions I’m going to be thinking about over the next few weeks.