Thoughts on friendship

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When I began this blog almost two years ago, I didn’t know that blogging would enable me to make friends in real life, as well as bring me closer to a worldwide community of like-minded people.

Since you’re reading this, let me tell you this: I appreciate you!

The nature of friendship

I have been reflecting on the nature of friendship over the last few weeks. That may be because our teenager is about to do her GSCEs and move on to a new school for Sixth Form in September.

I know she has been thinking about the friends she’ll leave behind at her old school, as well as the ones who’ll move on with her. Of course, there’ll be new pals for her to make and we all know that strangers are friends you just haven’t met yet.

But how has the nature of friendship changed since we were at school?

When you are young

As a child you imagine that you’ll have the same friends your whole life. Some people do still keep in touch with friends they had at primary school, but I expect that’s fairly rare in today’s upwardly mobile world. Sometimes, childhood friends are re-united when they find one another on social media, or they manage to keep in touch through their parents who continue to live in the home where they grew up.

Make new friends and keep the old: one is silver, the other gold

My oldest and dearest friend is godmother to our daughter. We have been friends for almost 30 years. We met when we both lived in a hall of residence owned by the the high street bank for which we worked in London. This was a subsidised ‘staff perk’ to attract young workers to spend time in the capital. In 1990, this was like being at university but with pay!

I was interested in joining the drama group to which my would-be friend belonged, so I looked her up. We became instant pals and have remained close ever since, even though we haven’t lived in the same place for much of that time.

Circumstantial friends?

I am very lucky to still have contact with friends I made during my undergraduate and postgraduate years at university. I also still have good friends I made in the early years of living in Warwickshire and later as a mum.

Happily, some of these friendships have persisted beyond those specific circumstances. Although I originally met my friend, Lynne, at a local parent/toddler group, we have since enjoyed many years singing together. These days, we meet monthly at a bread-making group, which I wrote about here.

Some connections that you make through work or hobbies also continue via social media (especially via Facebook which is the only reason I don’t delete my account). It’s lovely to keep in touch with people who mean a lot to you and there’s the added bonus that we do meet up (either regularly or from time-to-time).

Minimalism and friendship

I have been really fortunate to make new friends through the contacts I’ve made with those connected to the world of minimalism and simple living.

My lovely friend, Rae, hosted the London leg of Courtney Carver’s Tiny Wardrobe Tour two years ago. I realised, after the event, that were both Warwickshire-based and it’s been an absolute delight to get to know her.

Lindsey and I met, as part of my quarterly meet-ups. She’s been a great friend with whom it’s fabulous to compare simple living notes, as we compare and discuss our minimalism journey.

I’ve also begun to make friends around the globe (some in person and others virtually). What’s heart-warming and encouraging is how virtual friends can become real friends when you reach out to one another.

New ways to make friends

Connection is so important. It’s one of the four ingredients of Robert Lustig’s book that I wrote about here.

Listening to Liz Craft and Sarah Fain on Happier in Hollywood this weekend, I was reminded of the challenge of making new friends in a new location. In this ‘Listener Questions’ episode, one of the questions discussed was how to make friends when you move to a new area.

You may not want to be alone or even in that particular situation but this may still be a time when you can make connections. In his book, Resurrection Year, Sheridan Voysey calls this “ministering to others.” You may not relish being alone in a new place, but if you’re willing to put yourself out to serve others, you’ll no doubt reap the personal benefits of so doing.

That said, as the hosts of Happier in Hollywood suggested, “Put yourself out there but choose people who want to be with you.” As the pair remind us, you want, “volunteers not recruits” when it comes to friendship.

Special interest groups

If you do put yourself out there, it’s worth noting that natural friendships can take time to emerge. It may take a while to become established in a new group, especially if you join a longstanding community of people who’ve know each other a long time.

One possible way in is to join a sub-group. Last year, I wrote about my decision to join the WI. My ‘way in’, in terms of getting to know people, has been to join the WI Reading Group. We meet monthly at someone’s house over wine and nibbles, often followed by cake (of course!) and tea or coffee. Whilst we do spend a good amount of time discussing the book for that month, we also connect in ways that aren’t possible when you’re in a monthly WI meeting of 50+ members.

So, find your ‘tribe’ and you may make some unexpected friends.

And remember, it’s said that a dog is ‘(wo)man’s best friend’. You always have a friend when you have a dog.


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Why we should declutter our ‘to do’ lists

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For someone (like me) who is extremely task driven, ticking items off my ‘to do’ list delivers a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Be they work tasks or household chores, that literal or virtual “tick” against each item infers productivity, usefulness and a sense of moving forward. Right?

In today’s society, being goal-oriented is usually something to be admired. If we have goals and targets, we know where we’re heading. Even better, breaking down larger projects into manageable chunks makes a larger or audacious goal more attainable.

We’ve all heard the old joke:

How to you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…..

Productivity addicts

What happens, though, if we allows this ‘productivity mindset’ to seep into every aspect of our lives? What if every day becomes a 24/7 ‘to do’ list?

I’m currently reading Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball. It’s a book I’d resisted for a while, as I felt uncomfortable with its key tenet: that women were shouldering more of the domestic burden than men and that, to redress the balance, women needed to ‘drop the ball’. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Plus, Warwickshire libraries delivered the e-book version to me in the click of a button so here we are. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends!

Jot it all down

In Chapter 5, Dufu addresses the issue of the never-ending ‘to do’ list. She describes a coaching exercise she leads in which she asks women to jot down every single thing they expect to achieve in the coming 24 hour period. That includes every achievement, no matter how small, such as making breakfast or scheduling an appointment.

Before you read on, you may like to try this.

Participants are then invited to do the maths to calculate how long they think all of these achievements will really take.

Tried it?

Dufu’s declaration that she has never encountered anyone who could realistically complete all of her tasks in less than 24 hours is unsurprising. As she writes, “The point of the exercise is to show that just making lists and trying to get everything on them completed is not a winning strategy. Trying to do it all guarantees only one result: burnout.”

The endless ‘to do’ list

Are you, like me, a sucker for a nice ‘to do’ list? In a professional setting, it’s natural and desirable to use a variety of tools to help keep all the plates spinning. Indeed, my highly-productive and efficient colleague, Cheryl, even has the following mantra on her office mug: Get Stuff Done.

But do we need to adopt this sort of mindset at home, particularly at weekends?

For sure, there are times when you absolutely need a list. Imagine you’re organising a family gathering or planning something significant like a wedding. You’re going to need to need to approach it like you’re about to embark upon a military operation in a theatre of war! Especially where family is involved…

What’s a Weekend?

/wiːkˈɛnd,ˈwiːkɛnd/
noun
Saturday and Sunday, especially regarded as a time for leisure

In the wonderful Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess, delivers one of her classic lines, “What is a weekend?”

Although the concept of ‘weekend’ has been part of our culture for many decades, full time workers may still ask themselves, “What weekend?” when they return to the workplace after a busy two days at home.

Setting yourself (or others) a set of tasks, or weekend jobs, runs counter to the idea that a weekend is supposed to be for doing what you enjoy; recharging your batteries; having a slow start; or – dare I suggest it – doing nothing at all?

I was always a woman on a mission when it came to weekend planning. I’d have my iPad at the bedside with the notes app primed to receive my usual set of household chores. I’d sometimes ring the changes and jot tasks down on pen and paper. Either way, there’d always be a list.

Letting go

Just lately, I’ve decided to let go. And whilst each weekend day follows more of a meandering path, jobs still get done. Meals get cooked. Washing is washed, dried, ironed and put away. The recycling is put out. The dog is walked twice a day. And I no longer feel the urge to go about my day in an energy-driven frenzy of activity, no matter how rewarding this might feel.

Reading the message behind Tiffany Dufu’s exercise reminded me that I’m on the right track. There’ll never be enough hours in the day, so why beat yourself up if you haven’t ticked off everything on the list you created for yourself?

Going a step further

Courtney Carver’s Soulful Simplicity introduced me to the Italian notion of dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing. I haven’t mastered that particular art just yet, but my virtual ‘to do’ list can take a hike.


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Christmas commitments

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This Christmas, I will…

Mend a quarrel
Dismiss suspicion
Seek out an old friend
Share good news
Encourage someone
Listen
Apologise if I’ve been wrong
Be patient and understanding
Re-examine my demands on others
Think first of others
Show appreciation
Be kind
Be gentle
Laugh more
Express gratitude
Welcome a stranger
Gladden the heart of a child

(Author Unknown)

Happy Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of my minimalism journey and for all your support and comments during the year. A very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year 2018. See you on the other side!

Catherine x

The myth of work life balance

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In June, I was invited to lead a session on ‘work life balance’ for the department in which I work. This was prompted by the results of an organisation-wide staff survey, which showed that this theme was something that staff felt was an area for improvement.

It was great to be able to draw on some of the learning I’d done in my own time – as part of my own journey towards greater simplicity – to help others.

This week, I delivered a further session for colleagues in another part of the organisation.

As the lead up to Christmas is a particularly busy time of year, I thought I’d share my insights here. You may not have time to read the whole post now, but why not pick it up over the holidays, as you reflect on the year that’s just gone by?

Work life balance: Myth or Reality?

In this week’s presentation, I began by asserting that the idea of balance is actually somewhat unhelpful. Achieving perfect equilibrium suggests (in fact) stagnation or stasis. It could be argued that if you’re existing in a state of perfect balance, how will you ever move forward?

In our discussion, I drew on the Marcus Buckingham’s 2009 research in which thousands of women* were polled with the following 5 questions:

1.  How often do you get to do things you really like to do?

2.  How often do you find yourself actively looking forward to the day ahead

3.  How often do you get so involved in what you’re doing you lose track of time

4.  How often do you feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day

5.  How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?

In depth interviews then followed with those who could respond “every day” to four of the five.

The answers

Instead of some magic formulae, the women in Buckingham’s study who were happiest didn’t aim to achieve balance at all. Rather, they intentionally focussed on the areas of their life that mattered most at any particular time.

These women deliberately threw things out of balance, giving whatever needed their attention their full focus. This reminded me of one of Greg McKeown’s key messages in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

“What’s important now?”

What this means in reality

So, what does this mean in reality?

Think back to a time when you were planning some really important event, such as a wedding, a work event or some other significant occasion. The chances are, you’ll have naturally ’tilted’ towards that particular activity, allowing other things to take a back seat (even if only in your head). This is a perfect example of tilting or ‘leaning in’ to whatever is important in the present moment.

Tilting can work, even on a day-to-day basis. Imagine you’re leaving work to go to two events (one after the other), as I did on Monday evening. This means cutting yourself some slack when it comes to what you’re going to eat when you get home. Here’s where my 5 Ingredients recipes come in.

Perhaps there are times when you’re needed more by family members such as children or elderly parents (or both)? Again, when this happens, you’ll tilt towards family life more during that period, perhaps putting career development aspirations or even work itself on hold. At the very least, you might make ‘work’ less prominent in your life.

Strategies and Mindsets

As the intentional removal of anything that doesn’t add value to your life, minimalism can help this mental shift.

Back in summer 2016, I was working full-time; still running my teenager to school every morning in the car; had significant non-work commitments and was feeling a strong sense of obligation, as I was pulled in all directions.

18 months on, I have significantly simplified my life, which included systematizing how things run at home; decluttering and paring back my personal space; and reconsidering with my family how we wanted to spend our time.

I now enjoy monthly commitments, rather than myriad ones each week. And our teen now gets the bus to and from school (I can’t tell you what a different that has made to my morning commute).

The biggest single benefit?

In my presentation this week, one of the participants asked me what I felt was the biggest single benefit of doing all of this.

My answer was this: adopting a minimalist mindset has enabled me to have a greater amount of flexibility.

In the last month, my family hosted two Chinese homestay students (visiting PhD students from Capital Normal University in Beijing). This enriching experience was really enjoyable and I would never have been able to do this had my weekly routine not changed.

You’d think this would be difficult in the run up to Christmas, but we involved our guests in the small things we enjoyed during the last few weeks and we were all the better for it.

How do you respond to expectations?

One area I brought up in my presentation was a word about how we respond to expectations, both inner and outer.

This key question, as you will be aware, is the focus of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies.

I think this is a very good question to ask when you’re considering the thorny question of work life balance.

To draw on Rubin’s work, I spoke about the four main personality types, which are as follows:

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

They find it easy to meet deadlines and, for example, keep New Years resolutions. Task oriented, they like to meet expectations (either their own or those of others). This is great if you need someone who’ll follow the rules. Whilst at times they might be too driven by the ‘gold star’, they find it easy to create and maintain good habits.

Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. I have two questioners in my team. They make fantastic colleagues, because their natural curiosity means that you need a clear and strong rationale when explaining something or when asking them to deliver on a particular task.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. Rebels, Rubin says, are motivated by present desire. But they are likely to resist outer expectations. Rebels thrive when they can be disruptive.

Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

As the biggest group in Rubin’s study, Obligers are the people who volunteer, who help, and who deliver for others. People pleasers, they inevitably make time for others but not always for themselves. The secret is external accountability; if someone else expects it, they show up. The risk? They feel overwhelmed and may experience ‘Obliger rebellion’.

So, it helps to understand yourself when it comes to your own tendency. Are you more likely to say yes to an external expecatation? If so, how will this impact on your sense of equilibrium?

Take Rubin’s quiz here.

Technology has to come into it

When was the last time you assessed your technology habits, unplugged or a while or allowed your creativity to be ‘jump started’?

In the first podcast of the new season of their By the Book Podcast, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer discussed an interesting book, whose key thesis is that our relationship with distraction is stopping us from living our fullest life.

Bored

In Bored and Brilliant: How time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, Manoush Zomorodi reminds us to “Take a Fake-ation” to give ourselves time away from digital devices.

Here’s where we create space in our lives to enable us to feel less busy, less stressed, less overwhelmed.

A digital detox can be a useful way to help us find a sense of perspective, if not absolute balance. Your best ideas can come to you when you allow your brain a chance to do its own thing.

That said, certain tools can help avoid a sense of overwhelm and I use them frequently. Evernote is my ‘go to’ external brain whilst Producteev helps me remember what I don’t want to forget….

Twitter friends weigh in!

Earlier this week, Twitter friends joined the conversation when I asked, “What’s your trick to ensure work life balance or do you prefer ‘tilting’ and deliberately throwing things off balance?”

Rachel from The Daisy Pages said, “For me it’s spending less money, then I don’t have to work so hard and can spend more time doing things that I really enjoy 😊.”

Shaun replied, “Rationing device use in this 24/7 officeless age!” Good point, Shaun!

Nick suggested that, “… balancing is what you try to do when your work is not compatible with your life.” Uh oh. Recognise that one, anyone?

And Rae (raeritchie.com) provided her perspective that chimed very well with my own thinking. She said, “I think balance is okay if we think about it over a period of time. It’s unlikely to be continually in equilibrium – more shifting between different points.”

What about you?

So, what about you? Do you agree that the idea of work life balance is unhelpful? Or do you try to achieve a sense of equilibrium by closely guarding your time? By saying no? Or by deploying other techniques?

Do let me know by replying to this post, below!

(*On the Buckingham study, I am unclear as to why this study focussed on women only, but I would wager that the very same questions could also be posed to men.)


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Who do you think you are?

 Connaught Hotel
If you watch the BBC Series Who Do You Think You Are (or any its spin-offs in your own country, if you’re not UK-based), you’ll know that much of the historical insights unearthed by local historians or professional genealogists rely significantly on physical artefacts and official records. Some of these may only be accessible in their original form and it’s amazing when personal items from centuries long ago are revealed.

Physical artefacts and memorabilia tell a story

Artefacts such as records of birth, marriage and death or census records are now readily available online, but many stories featured on the TV programme see celebrities reviewing the personal effects of their ancestors including hand-written letters, certificates, photographs or personal belongings.

Seeing a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are? got me thinking. What would someone looking at my stuff in the future discover about me?

What does the stuff you own say about you?

I come from a line of working class folk. One of my great-grandfathers on my father’s side (pictured, below) was a cooper, a maker of barrels and casks.

Cooper.jpg

On my mother’s side, another great-grandfather was a “licensed victualler” (a formal term for someone who was the landlord of a public house or similar licensed establishment). In fact, as a young man, that particular great-grandfather was the hotel manager of the establishment whose picture is shown at the top of this post.

Family heirlooms

As a family, we have retained very few artefacts from the past. Had we done so, we would might have had a greater insight into the lives of my ancestors who were coal merchants, steel makers, homemakers and teachers (to name but a few).

Instead, the things I own are mainly in digital form. Photographs and video snippets we upload to online repositories such as Flickr could form an historical record of our present day lives for future generations (assuming they can access them!).

What you wouldn’t want your stuff to say about you

For my part, I wouldn’t want my children or grandchildren – or their children – to find evidence of money squandered on a load of old tat. Much rather, they might see photos showing a life well lived, full of rich experiences.

Hopefully, most of us will not leave an ‘archive’ of unwanted belongings. Indeed, there have been many articles in recent times, such as this one,  illustrating that grown up children certainly don’t want their parents’ stuff.

The virtual ‘stuff’ of today

I would suspect that the vast majority of future ‘historical evidence’ from our present-day lives will lie not in our physical belongings, but more in our digital footprint. That is, the ‘trail’ of data that we leave as we visit websites, submit our details online, share stories via social media and so on.

Indeed, we may leave a trail that could reveal a much greater level of detail for future generations to consider and evaluate. What will they make of it? What will they learn about us? What will the comments, the tweets, the insta’ stories, online profiles and blog posts we submit today say about us in the future? What would you want it to say about you? And just who do you think you are?


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How minimalist environments can help people with ADHD

ADHD article

This is a guest post by Jane Sandwood.

We all know the minimalist movement emphasizes removing clutter from your life; clearing spaces of unwanted distractions that can make one feel drowned by the effects of consumerism.

However, for people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), decluttering is not simply a choice, but a necessity. For many with the condition, it is the only way to feel secure, relaxed and safe at home.

How clutter affects people with ADHD

Imagine that you have a big exam coming up, and you have problems concentrating. You are immersed in your books, but every time you look up, you see furniture piled up, glasses and crockery on your desk, or loud colours that seem to bore into your brain; you would be tempted to leave to go to a quieter spot, wouldn’t you?

ADHD manifests itself in different ways, making children and adults with the condition more impulsive, disorganized and easily distracted. They may also have more trouble doing ‘boring’ tasks such as tidying up, which is why it is important that the areas they live in are well organized.

A room full of unnecessary furniture can lead to frustration. Only essential pieces should be present; there should always be enough space in a home to balance out any furniture items.

Specific tips for home design

Strategy and storage space are the key elements of good design for an ADHD household.

Organisation

When planning a kitchen, for instance, the person preparing a meal shouldn’t have to run to another room to access items from the pantry, or have to find items they need for a meal from drawers on opposite sides of the kitchen.

Breakfast items, for instance, should be in one ‘space’ – cereal, bowls and cutlery could all be in one drawer. Additionally, all cooking utensils (chopping boards, knives, ingredients) should be more or less in the same corner of the kitchen.

Storage

All rooms should have adequate storage furniture, even bathrooms. Consider having a separate ‘space’ for each family member, somewhere they can keep their robe, rubber ducky (if they are kids), special soap, etc., which is easily accessible and most importantly, out of sight until they need it.

Quiet spaces

A minimalist ‘quiet space’ works well for both children and adults with ADHD. It might just be a small room with lovely natural light, and just a soft seating area and sound system, so they can put on their earphones and disconnect, feeling grander in the space rather than overwhelmed by the clutter that surrounds them.

Minimalism is more than a design choice

Minimalism embraces the dialogue with our inner selves but also drowns out the maddening outer ‘noise’ that exists when too many things vie for our attention.

In the case of people with ADHD, decluttering is more than a design choice; it is a life line that makes the difference between a prison and a home.

Jane Sandwood is a professional freelance writer with over 10 years’ experience across many fields. She has a particular interest in topics relating to health and wellbeing. When Jane isn’t writing, she is busy spending time with her family. She also enjoys music, reading and travelling whenever she can.


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Do you know the difference between pleasure and happiness?

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Do you understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? Can you explain how reward differs from contentment? Robert Lustig certainly can and his latest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains, has something powerful to say about happiness and wellbeing.

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig MD is perhaps best known for his bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease.

These are not minimalist book titles!

Lustig is a professor of paediatrics, as well as being chief science officer of EatREAL, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. His latest work argues that the corporate world has manipulated us specifically to get us to buy junk we don’t need. It’s an argument you may have come across before, but here we are offered the science behind the message.

We have been ‘manipulated’

Lustig argues that business has conflated pleasure with happiness and “with clear-cut intent” to get us to engage with behaviours that result in society feeling, “…fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed and most decidedly unhappy.”

Recognise that rush of pleasure when you:

  • bite into something super sweet and delicious?
  • purchase something shiny and new?
  • see a notification on your smartphone?

That rush is one of dopamine, bringing fleeting reward or pleasure, but this is only ever short-lived and ends up with you wanting more. These things are genuinely addictive.

There is another way

By contrast, Lustig argues that the ‘happy chemical’, serotonin, provides longer-term contentment. He explains the difference between the dopamine effect, which creates, “That feels good. I want more.” versus the seratonin effect that brings about a sense of, “That feels good. I have enough.”

As Lustig says, it’s about understanding the difference between chasing fleeting reward and longer-lasting contentment.

How do we achieve this?

With clear scientific evidence to back up his argument, Lustig argues that real contentment is to be found through his 4 C’s, which increase serotonin in the brain to promote well-being. 

They are:

  • Connect
  • Contribute
  • Cope
  • Cook

I’ll use these themes as categories on future blog posts, so be sure to look out for them.

What it means in practice

Connect

Actively participate in actual social interactions. Social engagement or emotional bonding correlates with contentment, says Lustig.

Facebook (by way of an example) does not count here. Lustig explains the more people use Facebook, the less “subjective well-being” they experience. Just as a diet of processed food fails to support our well-being, so our daily “digital diet” is also doing us harm.

Contribute

By contributing to society (perhaps through work, volunteering or other activities), this (again) increases contentment through feelings of self-worth. Ever read stories of people who gave up their Christmas Day to help at a shelter for the homeless? These volunteers’ feelings of well-being can be directly attributed to the feel-good factor associated with contribution.

Cope

This is mega important. Sleep better, be more mindful, exercise more. These coping strategies are essential to our well-being.

Simply:

  • Get your 8 hours
  • Don’t multi-task
  • Be more mindful or intentional in how you approach your day-to-day activities
  • Take exercise

Cook

The JERF (Just Eat Real Food) message has been around for a while but Lustig makes a particular case for cooking for ourselves, for our friends and for our families. If we do this, we’ll not only be eating foods that can boost that happy chemical, serotonin, but we’ll also be contributing and connecting as well. And sugar is a no no. Period.

All together now

Taken together, these 4 C’s provide the essential support we need to move away from transient moments of reward (pleasure) to a more contented state (happiness).

As a minimalist, reading this book gave me an insight into why we know – instinctively – that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. When it comes to more, it’s more of the 4 C’s we really need.

Lustig’s work is based on solid science; it’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever battled with overcoming negative habits or been concerned that your time spent on social media isn’t adding to your subjective well-being, this book explains why.


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