Although psychology is not a topic I often write about here at JLV, mental health and wellness is something that’s very important to me. Being a millennial navigating through my 20’s, analyzing my own psyche is pretty common and I’m constantly trying to improve it.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “simplifying” your life. Numerous books and articles have been written on the topic that speaks to how overwhelmed and restless we are in today’s culture and, especially as Americans, we are unable to slow down. We are connected 24/7 – to work, friends, people who aren’t our friends, the media, corporations – and it’s getting increasingly harder to disconnect and remove ourselves from the fast paced world, even when we want to. And for this reason, professionals (from journalists to psychologists) have begun to write texts about the seemingly new practice of “voluntary simplicity” to reduce the chaos in order to become truly happy on a day-to-day basis.
I’m attempting to delve into this concept, although it seems to be a long road that takes a lot of effort and practice.
Why is being happy so hard?
I don’t ask this as a pessimist. In general, I am a happy person, happy with life. I like to think of myself as as half-full kinda girl. (I suppose that outlook in itself is a half-full approach…) But the real challenge is being happy to your full potential – and that is where the struggle lies for me, and many others. And after all, I think being in your 20’s is about figuring that out – what makes me happy and what doesn’t … and how do I get there?
Finding a new career was a big step, and I think that was my biggest challenge. As for self discovery, I’ve completed two non-fiction books out of about five more that I intend to read which will hopefully open my eyes to new views on life.
We are an anxious species living in an anxious culture.
In a recent episode of Brain Games on National Geographic (yes, that’s what I’ve been watching these days), they mentioned a point that has stuck with me. “Fight or Flight” is the biologic reaction we have when faced with fear. This instinct served its purpose when our ancestors were faced with everyday dangers like bears and wildlife, and encountered a daily fight for survival. What’s interesting, is this natural reaction and its relation to anxiety.
Because we are no longer faced with these dangers in the modern world, we have this reaction to everyday, non life-threatening triggers such as a stressor at work or a simple argument. Health Central explains that in the past, when confronted with these serious fears that were in fact life-threatening, the danger was immediate and passed quickly. But today, those with anxieties have “hypersensitive fight or flight response” which is activated with much less severe triggers. “Even a perceived danger can make you go into full blown fight or flight. Once you do, everything around you becomes a possible danger and you become overly anxious. You see the world as a fearful place. You are stuck in ‘survival mode.'”
“The age of anxiety.”
So, while we are pre-wired with this anxiety, our culture hasn’t done much to help the matter. Take a look at where my generation, the Millenials, are at this point in time. As a 26-year-old female growing up in the NYC metro area, I’ve accepted that expectations are higher than they once were before. We go to college (and often continue to a master’s program), give up our summers for internships, land a low paying job with lofty goals of being millionaires (because we are the generation of dreamers), while trying to pay off student loans and accumulating more debts. We have more freedom to choose what we want to be, and with that freedom comes more responsibilities to live up to unrealistic goals we’ve set for ourselves while sacrificing the simplicity of life that continuously deteriorates from generation to generation.
And apart from these obligations, our lives are also stuffed with “recreational activities” quite different (and more recurring) than that of previous generations: daily gym visits, hourly social media updates, minute-by-minute emails to check (both work and personal), not to mention the relentless commercialism that has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives (which is why the FCC has their hands full keeping up with what’s taking over our brains). Not only does the television not turn off at a certain hour like it did in 1975, but I have 800 channels to choose from in addition to the 3 streaming services I have online, because I have to catch up on those 15 shows everyone is talking about, seasons 1 through 5. It’s all “fun” though – right? But fun has unfortunately become an obligation in itself.
Maintaining your alternate life online is hard work – and time consuming. I have 2 websites, 2 blogs, and 5 active social media sites to update. Plus, every day I check 2 email inboxes, 3 news sites, 5 blogs, 3 social media sites, and 3 apps. And that’s all before I start my real work day.
It’s no wonder the average age of marriage has increased by five years over the past three decades … we have a lot to do in this short young adult life, and none of it involves settling down and having babies.
[Side note: there is an amazingly accurate (and comical) write up on Wait But Why about “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” that is definitely worth a read.]
What can we do?
Simplify. I’ve seen lots of studies and articles lately on the need to “simplify your life.”
Have you ever noticed that President Obama only wears gray or blue suits? In an interview with Vanity Fair, Obama explains that it’s one way he pares down decisions to save mental energy for other more difficult – and important – decisions (and research has proven this method true). “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia,” the President said.
So how can we simplify? I’m still working on it myself, but I think there are a few general guidelines to go by. Here are the ones that I’ve put together.
- Automate – your schedule, your finances, your life. The more you put on auto-pilot the more time you free up for everything else, including happiness. I’ve set routines so that I have a schedule I don’t have to think about, habits I don’t need to force myself into (e.g. going to the gym), and setup auto deductions for my bank so my bills are always paid (including auto transfers to savings). Each time you automate a part of your life, you have one less thing to worry about every day.
- Eliminate – By contrast, take a look at what makes you happy and what you do purely out of habit. Do an “audit” of your activities – whether extracurricular or just for fun – and determine if they really make you happy. I recently forced myself to do this and I had to think about if things like blogging (gasp!) had value in my life. As it turns out, by taking the time to think about it I realized that blogging really makes me happy – I enjoy it, so it made the cut. While other things – like keeping up with certain social media – really are just something I do “because” and it was time to eliminate it from my life.
- Moderate – Find what stressors are in your life and figure out a way to reduce them. Mainly, take a look at technologies you use. Are you always on social media? Always checking your phone? I realized these “luxuries” were actually causing anxiety in the form of addiction. I was constantly checking my iPhone at all hours, so I left my work email in the “off” position unless I absolutely need it and I leave my phone on silent (NOT vibrate) when I get home from work unless I’m expecting a call. And if social media has you consumed with what you think your life SHOULD be, put those apps in a folder so they are harder to tap and make a conscious decision to leave them alone. For me, that meant more Pinterest for “fun”, Instagram to see what my close friends are up to, and cutting back drastically on Facebook by deleting the app altogether. I feel better only focusing on the social sites that leave me happy, not annoyed.
- Educate – Get in touch with your inner “self” who may be fighting a battle with the life that you’re living. Read blogs or non-fiction, listen to podcasts, gather resources that will help you learn more about yourself and how to improve that way you live. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding an escape through workouts, books, music, comedy, or hobbies that you find helps you “release” and leaves you happier.
- Ameliorate – Ask yourself how you can make your life better. Picture the perfect day: with the exception of maybe, not going to work, what happens in that day that you can apply to your everyday life? Last fall, when I came back from Italy and had major jet lag, I was waking up really early and ended up watching an hour of the Today Show while having coffee. Having already done something for me before I went to work had improved my mood so much that I tuned it into a habit that’s still going strong – I now naturally wake up an extra hour early so that I can watch my morning show and have my coffee and it has made a world of difference in my attitude going into work.