02 Nov

are simple, happy and meaningful mutually exclusive?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how I wanted to stop glorifying busy and live a simple life. My Simple Life (with caps, because it’s very much an entity in my mind) vision is a very pretty picture. It looks like an isolated house with a view of green fields and sugar cane. It looks like contentment and calm and valuing people over possessions. It looks like creativity and financial freedom and (one day in the future) home schooling. I even know where this simple life should be situated – just south of the border, a little bit north of Byron Bay. I indulge in this simple life fantasy whenever I drive through this area, but I suspect that in my case, the Simple Life fantasy is very much full of fancy.

I have another simple life fantasy though. This one doesn’t get caps because it isn’t a mythologised, fanciful, indulgent and unattainable dream. This one looks like doing meaningful work, nurturing my family, achieving a ratio of work to life that sits well with me, being creatively fulfilled, investing in relationships, valuing people, being present, having time. While I might indulge my dream of the Simple Life, it is the simple life that I am invested in achieving.

A couple of week’s back, Penelope Trunk posted about happiness and meaningfulness, and suggested that the pursuit of happiness or (as one commenter suggested) contentment might lead to a life that isn’t meaningful. This post really resonated with me because it suggested that pursuing meaningfulness is not a simple thing, and that made me feel a lot better about this season I’m in. I’ve been thinking about the post and the way I responded to it quite a bit over the past few weeks.

In this post, Penelope Trunk argues that it’s not the happy or fun part of the day that matters (picking apples), but the serious interruption (saving the calf). She suggests that happiness isn’t memorable or valuable or rich in the way that making a difference is.

This is what resonated with me:

… Your real job, not necessarily the one you get paid for, is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.

Look around for where you can make a big difference. It is likely a place that will shake you up…

Interestingly, I read this and interpreted it as validating this complex phase of my life, in which I am not all that happy. It’s okay that I’m shaken up and challenged right now, that things are messy, because I’m working on something that will make a difference.

Another interesting thing: subconsciously, I made a linkage between ‘happiness’ and ‘simple’, and another between ‘being shaken up’, ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘complexity’. This says more about my state of mind than it does about the blog post: I’m really craving simplicity and I’m reading it into everything.

As I’ve been sorting through this in my head, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I subconsciously linked ‘simple’ and ‘happy’, and they way I put these linked-in-my-head ideas at the opposite end of the spectrum to ‘meaningful’.

Contentment and happiness are the hallmarks of the simple life – or they are for me, at least. Both my Simple Life and simple life visions are about being content with what I have, with my family life, with the moment I’m living in, with being present.

Being happy or content doesn’t preclude meaningfulness. Contentment isn’t just about passively accepting things as they are, or pursuing the quick happiness highs that come from picking apples. It is about feeling content with the choices you’ve made, the place you’re in, and the destination you have your sights on. I think you can be in a space of discomfort, where you’re being shaken up and doing something that matters, and still be happy.

In fact, I don’t think I could be happy if my life wasn’t full of meaningful work and I wasn’t making some kind of contribution to the lives of others. I become unhappy when I’m coasting. When a job or a project stop challenging me, I’m out. I find it really hard to stay motivated and keep pushing through, and this is usually when I start hunting through job ads.

Happiness and meaningfulness can co-exist. But more than that, I’m not sure one can exist without the other – at least not for me. I simply wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing meaningful work or connecting with people in a meaningful way. And I think I’d find it difficult to live a meaningful life if there wasn’t some joy in the things that I was doing, even if that joy is sometimes tempered by uncertainty or ‘being shaken up’.

My simple life vision is a picture in which I am content and my life is full of meaning.

Simple, meaningful, happy. These are three words that describe the life I want to live. So no, I don’t think these terms are mutually exclusive. I think they are actually mutually dependent.

14 Sep

busy, in all its (un)glory

We’ve all seen the pins.

Stop the glorification of busy

I’ve spent the last five or so years (pretty much the whole time I’ve been busy, come to think of it) declaring that I want a simple life. But simple isn’t all that simple, right? Life is intrinsically complex, and I think I might be kidding myself when I idealise living simply. Complex is one thing, but does life have to be crazy busy, all the time?

I’ve had a few reminders lately that there is little glory in being under the pump, all the time.

A friend of mine got sick. It gave me a fright; it gave me an opportunity to reflect; and it made me realise what I’m missing out on. We spent some time together and we talked about our aspirations for a simple life. Spending time with her (despite her being unwell) was so good, and it made me greedy for more time with her. I was left feeling sad that I have to plan weeks in advance to see her because of busyness. (Mine, not hers.)

Earlier this week, I read a blog post about wearing ‘busy’ as a badge of honour. The post doesn’t really offer a solution for unbusyfying (though the author does talk about a couple of strategies she uses to keep her busyness in check). What it does is suggest we should figure out how to work smarter (admittedly not an easy thing) and stop trying to ‘out-misery’ each other. I took two things from this post. Firstly, it reaffirmed my thinking that I don’t want to be the Busy Girl anymore. I’d much rather be the Accomplished Girl, the Good at her Job Girl, the Well Round Girl, the Girl with a Good Hold on her Sanity, the Girl who is a Fantastic Friend, the Creative Girl, the Healthy Girl, or the Content Girl. Those girls are incompatible with the girl who only operates at franticly busy speed. Secondly, I’m sick of the negative mindset that comes with being ‘busy’ (busy in the badge-of-honour sense; busy in the I-have-to-whinge-about-this sense; not busy in the I’m-neck-deep-in-this-awesome-stuff-and-I-love-it sense). Too often, I respond to enquiries about how I’m doing with ‘busy, but good’, colouring my busy in black by setting it up in opposition to ‘good’ . We rarely hear people say ‘I’m so busy! It’s freaking awesome!’. Who actually gives a shit about me being busy, and what gives me the right to take someone’s friendliness and use it to help me cement my busy badge in place? When you are crazy busy and really feeling it, it’s so easy to get swept up in panic, to feel overwhelmed (and be paralysed by overwhelmedness), and to morph into a ball of negativity.

The next day, I read a post from Brazen Careerist Penelope Trunk on the hardest time management decision of her day – choosing between sex (and by extension, her marriage) and work. I read the post and thought, ‘Interesting, but surely this is not a common conundrum for women with children and careers?’. Then I scrolled down to the comments and realised I was wrong. It seems many people struggle to balance their relationships, and specifically their partnerships, with their work and parenting commitments. Maybe I’m an idealist, but it strikes me that if finding 10 minutes in your day to do something (in Penelope’s case, to have sex, but it could be anything really – cooking a meal, going for a walk…) is impossible or a big deal, you have a problem. (And yes, I suffer from that problem. I pilfer time from all aspects of my life to feed my busyness.) There is a theme here that I need to pay attention to; a theme about managing all the aspects of my life, of paying attention to people and relationships, and of keeping my work load in check.

On Wednesday, I had my first life coaching session. Life coaching is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time. At first I thought I needed a career coach, and then I came to the realisation that my career is just fine. I don’t need to invest any more into it than I already do, and frankly, I probably need to invest a bit less in it and a bit more in other parts of my life. So I’ve started online consultations with a life coach, who also happens to be a dietician and exercise physiologist (the perfect combination of skills and knowledge for a life coach, I reckon!). I’ve known her for a long time and I have worked with her before on diet stuff. I’m also connected with her on social media and have been for several years, and that means she has a pretty rich understanding of how I function and what happens in my life. On Wednesday, she said this to me: ‘being ‘busy’ has become part of who you are deep down (part of your identity, and being busy = positive self-worth)’. She said it gently and without judgement, and I knew she was right before I even finished reading the sentence. And I don’t want to be that person.

While I have been doing work-work during my sabbatical (naughty!), my attention hasn’t been fragmented to the same extent as it usually is. That means that even though I have a lot of work to get through in the next four months, I’m not really all that busy. And being less busy has given me an opportunity to reflect on how I usually operate and to see it with a little bit of objectivity.

So there are two lessons here for me.

Firstly, people come before PhDs. And not just other people. I do, too. Well, I may not come first right now, but I have a new understanding that I *should*. Work has to get done, but I don’t have to work seven days a week; I can spend Sunday at the park (and not feel guilty about it). It’s okay to knock off at 5pm to have dinner with the kids, and I don’t have to start work again when they go to sleep. I can watch TV at night without working at the same time. I can be creatively and intellectually fulfilled without working a million hours a week.

And secondly, ‘busy’ is not a goal or an end game. It’s not necessarily a desirable state of being. It’s not a badge of honour. It can be unhealthy and it is often unproductive. And I don’t want to live busy anymore. I don’t mind being busy from time to time, but I want to move through busy in pursuit of something. I don’t want to get bogged down in the busy. I want to celebrate making it to the ‘something’ I’m pursuing, not the busy I might – from time to time – experience on the way there.

In short: I don’t need to glorify busy, nor do I want to.

So that’s where I’m at, and that’s what I’m working on.