Friday, August 13, 2010

Having less is the secret to happiness.

When I was a younger upstart with a big job at a big corporation, (yes, I left nursing to become, among other things, the Director of Managed Care for New England, for a large, well-known pharmaceutical company) I met a colleague who worked in New York state. He was different from all of the other sales managers. He was quite simple. The others were showy and talked about all that they acquired and so on, but this guy didn't. He didn't wear flashy clothes. He didn't live in a big house. He didn't have a fancy watch. And yet he always seemed relaxed and happy.

His philosophy was, "live beneath your means." He told that to anyone who would listen. The other guys made fun of him. As they were stepping on each other's necks to get ahead and acquire more, he simply plodded along. Doing his work quietly and efficiently.

He stood out like a sore thumb.

While others talked about a new boat or a Cape Cod second home or a big vacation to Bali, he talked about his family. While the others talked about moving into their dream home, he talked about how his family of 4 shared one bathroom in their split level home in upstate New York. While others talked about the fancy and expensive camp they were able to get their kids into for the summer, he talked about how they went camping or bike riding.

The other guys I worked with, and most were guys, made fun of him behind his back. They made comments like, "low class" and even "loser." But these guys, who were all about getting more, and more and more, were just about the unhappiest guys I had ever met. And they were always stressed. Always fretful.

Even with their fancy homes and watches, boats and second homes.

Today, I go into the homes of many people. Some live quite well, with huge homes amid manicured lawns in upscale communities. Others, live in basic squalor. I see a lot of poverty.

But there is a middle ground, where people live quietly, but well. And I have to say, they seem the happiest to me.

They have just enough. Just enough house, just enough yard, just enough decorating to make their home seem, well, homey. Nothing over the top, nothing to really brag about. Just a warm, comfortable feeling.

Most of these families can afford the additional care that is many times required when you get sick and want to stay at home. Hospice benefits under any insurer only provide 4 hours a day of home health care aid services. The patient and family have to make up the rest. That is 20 hours at sometimes $15.00 an hour. Out of pocket. Sometimes for months.

Many times the ones that live in the big houses cannot afford it. They are straight out trying to maintain all that they have. They cannot help at home to take care of the loved one; they have to work too much to pay for all they have acquired. They are stressed and angry.

But they do have that lovely well-appointed living room that no one ever goes into.

The poor, well, they usually all just pitch in. They are stressed as well, but for different reasons.

The middle of the road folks, the ones that live well but acquired less, they seem to have money in the bank. They saved for that proverbial "rainy day." They are sometimes not working, many having retired at a young age.

They tell me stories of family time and how mom made Sunday dinner for the whole family every single week. How dad took them fishing. There are usually many pictures of family all over the home. The scene is sad, but relaxed.

Now, many of these folks are very successful people. MIT professors, CEO's of companies, people in the finance world, MD's, lawyers. They just decided not to get on that fast track. Not to try to impress everyone.

They decided just to live simply and for themselves.

And they planned out future needs so that they could afford what they needed should disaster strike.

These people never fail to impress me. They are by far the happiest people I meet, even though they are in crisis.

That is not to say that they didn't spend money. They did. They have beautiful art on their walls and pictures in frames of trips taken abroad. Their kids are all well educated. But they kept their lives simple; acquiring less things and spending more money on making memories and living well enough.

"We never tried to keep up with the Joneses," said a lovely 60 year-old patient that I had the honor of caring for recently.

They lived in a very expensive town outside of Boston.

They had a lovely home, but modest compared to all of the McMansions that dotted the neighborhood.

"Most of these new neighbors that built these big homes over the past few years are strangers to us. They are always gone; either working or running around. I never quite understood it. They build these big homes and are never there to enjoy them."

She went on to tell me, "We were always tempted to buy more. But we realized that buying more stuff does not make life happier. As a matter of fact, it makes life harder. Suddenly, you have more to take care of, more to worry about. You spend all of that energy on things. I wanted to spend my energy on people. It made me different, but I didn't care. Having less is the secret to happiness."

She was so right.

I wish I could say that I follow that rule all of the time. I don't. I like stuff. I want things. But I remind myself that things do not make a life. That at the end of the day, when you look back, you think about people and experiences. Never things. I see it all of the time. And I have changed a lot since those "corporate" days.

I see how maintaining things that we thought would make us happy have really turned out to be more of a burden. Costing us time and money and not true enjoyment.

So I do agree with my patient and that colleague from New York state. They are right. Of course they are right. They have always been right.

And that guy from New York? He retired at age 54. I hear he and his wife took a trip around the world.

The other guys I worked with? Still working. Hard. And still stressed, I am sure.

So, I guess it is really true that less is more. That we just need a few things to make us really happy and the other stuff that we do and acquire to impress others only hurts us in the long run. That success cannot be measured by outward appearances.

That experiences, like riding your bike with your kids, trump bragging rights regarding fancy country clubs and camps any day.

It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.

True happiness flows from the possession of wisdom and virtue and not from the possession of external goods.
~ Aristotle (B.C. 384-322)

Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.
~Peace Pilgrim (1908 - 1981)

Thousands upon thousands are yearly brought into a state of real poverty by their great anxiety not to be thought of as poor.
~Robert Mallett

Too many people miss the silver lining because they're expecting gold.
~Maurice Setter

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