From an early age we are taught that bigger is better, that more is better. Maybe we aren’t taught it directly, but all the advertisements we see show us that the more we have, the happier we’ll be. The more we earn, the more respected (and powerful) we’ll be. The better we dress (and the more we spend on face cream), the more beautiful we’ll be. The more holidays we take, the more relaxed we’ll be. If we work hard, we’ll be able to accumulate all this stuff, we can live happily ever after in a nice house and afford to retire comfortably and live in the countryside.
I used to believe this too. I had no reason not to. It seemed to make sense. A big house must be far better than a small one. Six bedrooms and space for a pony must be better than two bedrooms and just enough space to swing a cat. A job where you earn a heap of money must be far better than a job which pays only an average salary. A hundred pairs of shoes must be better than ten pairs of shoes. Several holidays a year must be better than one. Surely?
Like many, I graduated from university, went travelling, came home and got a full-time job. That’s what you do, right? I was at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but I was determined to climb it, to get that great job with the fat paycheque and buy all that stuff that was going to make me happy.
Climbing the ladder means working hard. I had to jump through hoops and put my hand up for “projects” that increased my workload but reflected well on me, and were noticed by management. I’d work extra hours, and take work home to try to get ahead. Slowly I began to climb. I got a few successive small promotions, with bigger teams, larger budgets, more pressure…and further to fall.
But I wasn’t enjoying my job. My passions in life did not match the work I was doing, and it was getting harder and harder to put extra effort into something that I had no passion for. I was frustrated, and miserable.
I started questioning what I’d been led to believe. Was more really better? I wasn’t earning big bucks, but I was earning the national average, so I could afford to pay my bills, go on holiday and still save a little. It was enough. I doubted I’d ever reach the heady heights of the luxury I saw on the billboards.
It seemed like aspiring to a life like that could only ever bring disappointment. Even if I worked harder and got closer, would relentless pursuit of promotions and payrises really bring extra happiness?
Slowly, another idea began to grow in my mind. What if, rather than working towards having more and then being happy, I learned to be happy with what I already had? What if, rather than trying to earn more money, I found ways to spend less?
If I am happy with myself and my situation, and accepting of who I am, I reasoned, even though I’m not perfect, then I don’t need to chase the external rewards I’ve been told will make me happy. I don’t need them. Who I am now is all I ever have.
That’s not to say I don’t (or I shouldn’t) aspire to change or grow or be more, and chase my dreams.
It just means I shouldn’t depend on this for my happiness.
What makes me happy is spending time with friends and family, being in nature, gardening, cooking and good food. Learning new skills. Seeing new places and experiencing new things. Being connected to my community. Contributing to society, and having a positive impact.
I’m not alone: research shows the three main things that make people happy are close relationships, a pastime they love and helping others.
What helps with this is having time. I don’t want to work more hours, I want to work less. I don’t want to spend more time cleaning a bigger house and shopping for stuff to fill the extra rooms. I don’t want to be too busy working (or too tired after working) to miss living life right now.
I stopped chasing. I stopped thinking about work as a career and started thinking of it as a job; something that paid the bills. I reduced my hours. Colleagues thought I was unusual: after all, I wasn’t semi-retired and I didn’t have children, the two socially acceptable reasons to work part-time hours, but it didn’t matter to me what they thought.
I spent more free time growing my own food, and doing the things that brought me joy. Interestingly, I found that with less time spent at work, I enjoyed my job more. I also felt less inclined to shop and “treat” myself – something I hadn’t consciously noticed I was doing in the past.
I owned (with a mortgage) a flat in the UK, which I sold when we moved to Australia. My husband and I have been renting for the past four years. I laugh when people say that renting is money down the drain, or a waste – actually it’s a great deal because you get somewhere to live in exchange for your money. There are plenty of things that I consider a waste of money, and renting is definitely not one of them.
We’ve been able to live in a suburb we couldn’t afford to buy in and live car-free with excellent access to everything at our doorstep. Now we plan to buy a flat, because we want to move to a new community and the project is something we believe in. We didn’t think about re-sale factors, or whether it was a bargain or over-priced when we bought it because we aren’t buying it to sell. We are buying it to live in. Maybe we’ll never need (or want) to move again.
We don’t need more. We need enough. Learning to accept what we have and being able to find pleasure in the simple things is something we can all do. Chase dreams, but don’t chase more in the pursuit of happiness. You might never get there.