• tarahthornburg

Design Your Life for Happiness

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The Fearless Creative podcastIf you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below. 

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Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show. I am so happy to have you all with me. I am coming to you after a most refreshing four-day weekend. It’s been such a long time since I have taken multiple days off, but we had family in town this past week. They left on Saturday morning, and my husband and I spent the rest of the day at home binging on Netflix and eating popcorn.

I honestly don’t even remember the last time we had a weekend day off together, and it was glorious. I really enjoyed it.

Today I want to discuss an important topic. This is something that if you ask most people, they’ll say that it’s important to them, but the way we act and the way we conduct our lives and careers tells a very different story.

I am talking about happiness. Specifically, this week I am going to talk about what can happen when we rearrange our core values to prioritize our happiness and how we can actually follow through on a daily basis making happiness our top priority.

This show is all about creative entrepreneurship, and I’m going to talk about how doing what we love and working with a purpose contributes to our happiness in a big-picture sense, but I’m also going to discuss the little things that I am doing to improve my day-to-day happiness.

But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I mention something that I found useful or interesting this week — usually a book, a podcast, or a TV show.

And this week, I have been making my way through a new podcast series hosted by Oprah and Eckhart Tolle. It is a ten-part series on Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling book, “A New Earth.”

If Eckhart Tolle’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he wrote “The Power of Now,” which was also a huge hit. I have read “The Power of Now,” but I haven’t read “A New Earth.” And you don’t need to have read it to get a lot of value from this podcast. 

I discovered the series by accident when I was searching for a specific episode of “SuperSoul Conversations” — another one of Oprah’s podcasts. The series goes chapter by chapter in the format of a book discussion. It really feels like you’re sitting in Oprah’s living room having coffee with her and Eckhart as they discuss consciousness, the importance of staying in the present moment, and recognizing when our ego is getting in the way of our happiness. It’s a very thought-provoking series, and I highly recommend that you give it a listen.

I thought this was also an appropriate selection for today’s topic, which, as I mentioned, is happiness. And to be honest, I never thought that I would do a podcast on the topic of happiness. The last few years, I feel like our culture has been inundated with books and articles and research around how to be happier…

We’ve heard that experiences make us happier than things. We’ve heard that money can buy happiness, but only up to $75,000 a year, and then we start to see diminishing returns. We’ve heard that having a tight-knit community of friends and family makes us happy…that pets make us happy…

But to be honest, I’ve started to feel a little bit disturbed by this obsessive cultural focus on “being happy.”

From my perspective, we Americans especially seem to have developed this notion that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, which isn’t really realistic.

We all have struggles in our lives. We have stress and illness and deaths in the family…Financial stress, work stress, problems in school…So we aren’t going to be these shining beacons of bubbly happiness all the time. And I think the expectation that we should be happier — these happiness “targets” creates a lot of unhappiness.

And, in my opinion, our society as it’s trending isn’t really set up to prioritize happiness…

Most Americans are working more and more hours. We’re moving farther away geographically from where we were born, which reduces both our sense of connection and whittles down our support system. As a nation, we are increasingly unhealthy, and we are forced to pay a high price in terms of healthcare whenever we become unhealthy.

And if you look at the data, it supports what I’m saying: We aren’t making any great strides toward happiness despite our obsessive focus on being happier.

The use of antidepressant medication has also been on the rise. Between 1999 and 2014, Americans’ use of antidepressants increased by 65 percent. And antidepressant use has been on the rise for each of the 25 countries the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at.

In the US, 11 percent of people over the age of 12 take antidepressants.

Suicide rates in the US are also on the rise despite declining from 1990 and 2000 and staying mostly flat in the early 2000s.

And according to the 2018 World Happiness Report, Americans have never been unhappier. Despite a strong economy and low unemployment, we rank 19 in terms of our happiness compared to other countries.

So why is that?

I did a little digging, and one theory as I mentioned is that Americans are increasingly unhealthy, and being unhealthy here is really stressful and expensive because of our failing healthcare system.

But I don’t think that’s the full story. For one thing, Republicans have consistently reported greater levels of happiness than Democrats since the 1970s, and Republicans aren’t healthier than Democrats. The article I read attributed their greater levels of happiness to Republicans being more religious than Democrats, but I think it’s also because Democrats by and large are filled with this constant angst about deep societal injustice and feel the need to do something about it.

Personally, I think a big source of Americans’ unhappiness is our cultural obsession with busyness.

We are a culture that smiles upon those who work long and hard hours — even if the work we do isn’t very purposeful. In other countries that rank higher for happiness, employers give their workers significantly more vacation time, and those employees work fewer hours during the week.

Of course, when we are creative entrepreneurs, we are able to do work we find meaningful, but a lot of us still fall into the workaholic camp. Personally, I would never work on the weekends if I were working for someone else, but because I work for myself, I often will do work on the weekends and skip holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I am trying to get away from this and get back to taking a full two-day weekend, but at least I am doing work that I find meaningful.

Another survey I found that was interesting profiled the happiest and unhappiest Americans.

In case you’re wondering, the happiest Americans tend to be male, 39 years old, with a household income between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. These men are married white-collar workers with one child at home whose wife works part-time.

The unhappiest Americans, apparently, are unmarried women with no children — 42 years old who are making under $100,000 per year in a professional position.

But in general, women tend to be less happy — married, unmarried, with children and without. And according to The Daily Mail, “Women are more miserable than men until their mid-80s when they are widowed and begin enjoying retirement.”

Now, as a married woman, I thought that was pretty grim and cynical. But I wasn’t really surprised because women tend to take on a lot more than men. Women by and large do a bigger share of the housework and caregiving — both caring for children and aging parents. And ¾ of us work full time.

Women are also expected to do more emotional labor both at work and at home. Emotional labor is when we exert energy to take care of other people’s feelings and emotional well-being. Unsurprisingly, managing other people’s emotions takes a toll on women’s emotions.

And all Americans — but women especially — are trying to do too much and spending our time doing too much of the wrong things.

  1. We are spending too much time working to pay for too much debt.

  2. We are spending too much time on social media and too little time forming strong social connections in person.

  3. We are watching too much news and worrying about the state of the world.

  4. We are spending too much time being sedentary with technology and not enough time being active in nature.

So these are some of the reasons Americans are unhappy…But the purpose of this episode is to discuss how we can prioritize the things in our lives that make us happy.

And this really clicked for me when I was reading Tony Robbins’s book “Awaken the Giant Within” and I read the section where he talks about personal values. I know I’ve mentioned this book on the podcast several times before, but this is important.

Now if you’re like me, you probably think your personal values are these fixed notions you were raised with that don’t really change very much. We may not think that it’s even possible to change them or understand why we would want to. Most of us tend to be proud of our values. We wear them like badges of honor.

But are these values holding us back from having the life we want or from being happy?

Even those of us who are doing creative work that makes us happy in a big-picture sense might be prioritizing things in the short term that do not contribute to our overall happiness.

As most of you know, I write novels for a living. And I spend a lot of time creating and managing paid ads for the books I write so that I can make more money. But all that marketing is really detrimental to my happiness.

Would more money make me happy? Maybe. But the reason I do it is to be financially responsible and more secure — not to be happier.

If we are really honest with ourselves, I think many of us will find that we are actually prioritizing values other than our happiness.

If you don’t believe me, take five minutes to list out your top personal values.

When I first did this exercise, I ranked things like “independence,” “health,” “honesty,” “love,” “security,” and “achievement” really high. But when I really dug in, I realized that “perfection” outranked all of those things.

All my life I have had this notion that I have to do everything “right.” I have to treat people well and do the right thing, obviously, but I also feel that I have to handle my work perfectly, make good money, invest that money wisely, have everything I own insured, be the perfect wife, the perfect friend, remember everyone’s birthdays, cook perfectly healthy meals, recycle, and keep my house perfectly clean all the time.

And all of those things often come at the expense of my happiness.

So I made a new list. I created a new hierarchy of values designed specifically to make my life happier. And now, my top three values are happiness, adventurousness, and gratitude.

I’ll be honest: It felt really self-indulgent, maybe even selfish, to list “happiness” as my No. 1 value. But it has been a revolutionary choice.

And if you think about it, when I am happier, that is going to make the people around me happier also. If I’m being a martyr and doing things to sacrifice my own happiness because that’s the “selfless” thing to do, I’m going to become resentful, which is ultimately detrimental to the people around me.

So now, whenever I feel that I *should* do something but I’m resisting, I ask myself “Will this make me happy?”

Now, of course, we all have to do things we don’t want to do…We all have to go to the grocery store and do our work and fold laundry and answer emails. But what if we could start doing some of those things in a way that would make us happier and design our lives in a way that made room for things that make us happy?

So that same week that I created my new hierarchy of personal values, I created something else for myself…What I call a “Happiness Menu.”

And these are simple things that consistently make me happy that I could do every day if I choose. This is not another checklist or a to-do list…That’s why I call it a menu. I can pick what I want to do and ignore everything else. Most of these things cost nothing and are really, really simple.

This is my Happiness Menu:

  1. Quiet time by myself — especially first thing in the morning

  2. “Slow time” throughout the day — basically, little breaks throughout the day.

  3. Connecting with friends, family, and acquaintances.

  4. Giving and receiving affection from my husband

  5. Good food

  6. Exercise

  7. Learning new things

  8. Getting outside

  9. Creating order and beauty

  10. Accomplishing something

And so what I’ve been doing the past few weeks is trying to build more of these things into my day. I’ve started eating my lunch outside every day when it’s nice out because we all have to eat lunch. Eating it outside takes no extra time, and it gives me a good boost of happiness and calm.

I give Ben a hug and a kiss every time one of us leaves or comes home…We were pretty good about this before, but now I make sure I do it every time.

I’m trying to make more chitchat with casual acquaintances, like the baristas I see multiple times a week and the people who bag my groceries. As an introvert, I hate small talk, and I also hate wasting time. But expending the effort to be friendly and connect with people actually improves the quality of my day — and probably theirs also.

And I’m trying to build in a nice little pause in the evening before I make dinner. So instead of rushing straight from coming home to making dinner, I’ll sit down and have a glass of wine on the back porch or have a snack. Because I’ve realized that my happiness always takes a major dip between 5:00 and 7:00 at night, and that’s because I’m freaking starving. So I’m snacking more in the late afternoon and early even as well.

But prioritizing happiness for me also means letting some things go. The house has been a little bit less clean lately — I’ll be honest. My sister-and-law and her girls came over to the house the other day after we’d been up in the mountains. We had our gear strewn all over the house and dirty dishes in the sink, but that’s because the night before when we’d come home late, I’d decided that watching an hour of Netflix would make me happier than frantically tidying the house again.

You know what I had for breakfast this morning? Chocolate chip waffles. I also had them for dinner last night. Now, I’ve been 90% gluten free for over a year now, and I haven’t had a real Eggo waffle in that entire time. I’ve had the nasty multigrain gluten-free waffles from the health-food store, but last night we had breakfast for dinner, and I bought myself some good old-fashioned gluten-free Eggo-style waffles, and they were the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.

That’s prioritizing happiness.

For me, this comes down to taking a more relaxed attitude toward things like food and cleaning and answering emails late and even finances.

Ever since we got married, Ben had been asking me if he could take over managing my Roth. I am a pretty hands-off investor myself. I’m conservative. I follow the rules. Before, I had a money manager, and when I took back control of my investment accounts, I generally would just pick good stocks and just leave them, which Ben hates. He’s a very active investor…And he’s really good at it. I have very little interest in it, but my whole life I’ve been a control freak.

And control freaks and perfectionists are unhappy people.

So a few months ago I gave him the password to my Roth and basically handed over the reins. This is really a good example of utilizing people’s strengths — or just using the resources you have.

I handed my Roth over and I basically said, “I trust you. I’m not going to micromanage you. Just don’t lose all our money.” And he’s literally doubled my Roth.

At first, I think he really felt that I needed to be consulted and kept informed about everything he was doing, but I said, “No. This is what you’re good at. I trust you. And if you think this is a good investment, that’s good enough for me.”

This also goes along with my No. 2 value, which is adventurousness. Adventurousness can be really hard for recovering control freaks like myself, which is why I’ve adopted a new motto: “Let’s roll the dice.” Because life is short, and I’m trying to let go over antagonizing over every decision.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately. I have made happiness my No. 1 value, and that small simple change has had a radical impact on my day-to-day decision-making. I’m worrying less…I’m relaxing more…and I’m giving fewer shits about things that used to run my life.

I hope that you will give the personal values exercise a try and maybe make yourself a little happiness menu.

As always, if you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts. This helps other creatives find the podcast and their home away from home on the Internet.

You can always get in touch with me on Instagram @writewithtarah and on the web at www.writewithtarah.com. You’ll find a transcript of today’s show and a new blog post every Wednesday.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

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Photo by Derek Thomson

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