When people talk about their dream lives, many of them bring up expensive toys. Big mansions. First class international tickets. Giant swimming pool and personal chef. This is understandable. They look at the toys in their life right now and think “these aren’t making me very happy,” so they must need something truly extraordinary that will lift their focus above the fray.
Understandable. But wrong.
I, too, labored under this misapprehension. My entertainment budget was originally $10k+ a year. But when I retired, I went through a life-changing alteration. Things I did not find enjoyable before were now fun, things that just so happened to save me money rather than cost me money.
When I was working, I lived a high-flying corporate NYC life. I could cook two things. I hated grocery shopping and only bought my clothes once a year in bulk. I outsourced cleaning to a maid service, laundry to a laundry service, and food to restaurants via takeout. My time was “too valuable” and the things in question were “too menial and uninteresting.”
Now in retirement, a trip to Trader Joe’s is pretty darn fun.
I love to eat. Walking the aisles is perfect fodder from all the dream meals I could be eating. Cooking is now an activity that can provide three fun-filled hours in the day for me since I am a beginner: two hours checking out recipes, and one hour futzing around the kitchen.
I used to pay for convenience. Now when I have a task two miles away I enjoy the walk over taking the subway and paying the fare. I enjoy the walk two miles to the cheaper Trader Joe’s rather than popping into the corner grocery store.
The Importance of Blank Space
What I learned was basically that life experiences are like three dimensional art. If you’re cramming everything side by side, you’re not going to appreciate any of it and in fact will enjoy each individual thing less with each addition. Imagine a gorgeous, priceless Picasso surrounded by an entire wall of random crap, some overlapping it, the lighting flying around constantly like a disco ball. Or even within a painting: you can appreciate the beauty of a single pear in spotlight in a painting. But try and appreciate a single pear in a huge stack of pears at the grocery market while someone elbows past you with their cart and their child screams in your ear. There is a reason museums put blank space around each piece. There is a reason why silence is encouraged.
How much blank space is there in your life?
The minds need stimuli it can focus on and engage with to be happy. If your life is crammed to the gills, you will need something to stand out head and shoulders above the rest to really capture your imagination and attention. This is why so many people think they need a lot of money to be happy.
When they think back to the times their imagination has been engaged, it was something rare and expensive, because that was something unique enough relative to everything else to stand out so their mind could engage with it.
There is a cheaper way to accomplish the same thing.
To get your imagination engaged, just clear out the crud and surround an event with blank space.
Rules of Thumb
How much blank space should there be in your life? I think that depends on the person.
For large engagements or events, I personally shoot for at least downtime equal to half my total available time. So if I’m attending a big house party, I will do absolutely nothing else for the day. Or if I’m doing an all-day outing with a group, I will do absolutely nothing with the second day of the weekend.
For smaller tasks, I like to surround an activity with at least two hours on either side. The grocery store counts as an event. Neatening up the room counts as an event. Anything you would put on a task list or as an appointment on your calendar counts as an event; that includes a round of calls to insurance companies/credit cards/etc.
And here’s a doozy: checking your work email counts. Sorry folks, you cannot keep flipping open to your work email every two hours. That absolutely destroys your ability to relax. Trust me, I did it for seven years because it was “required in my industry.”
You won’t succeed at keeping these ratios every week, but if you can get it to work 75% of the time, you will notice a meaningful difference in your well-being.
If you find, however, that you can’t implement these rules, I think something needs to change in your life. Why do you constantly have 15 calls to make on the weekend? How did you end up with three debt collectors, six credit card companies to deal with, a renovation project on your kitchen, a bake sale, soccer games for your two kids, and two classes going on at the community college? Run yourself a little test.
Find a way to put off, cut, or just plain eliminate enough so that you have at least three weeks in a row to follow these rules, and see how it works for you. The first week or two feels odd and you may even find yourself feeling anxious. By the third week, or maybe the fourth week, you will really be able to appreciate your mental well-being.
Build blank space into your life. Your life experiences, even what seem like the most boring of them, are real gems. You don’t need expensive upgrades for them. They simply need the right environment to display themselves in to bring you the inspiration you’re seeking in your life.