Most things don’t work. Ever since my early twenties when I found myself inexplicably unhappy, I’ve been looking for things that work. Resolutions and experiments. Things to do.
Quality of life is the only thing I was ever after. Not happiness exactly — because being happy all the time is impossible — but a day-to-day existence that creates it pretty easily.
A lot of things seem to work for a while, but then wear off or have a different effect. Some things have conditional or circumstantial effects. But there are five simple things to do that I’ve found to be consistently, disproportionately helpful in moving towards a more fulfilling life.
I’m not claiming mastery of these five things that work. But I am claiming that there is no question that they work. If I had to speak to a graduating high school class, this is what I’d tell them. If a meteor was about to hit earth and all I had time to do was shout advice to the people lucky enough to be allowed on the getaway ship, this is what I’d shout. I never have to puzzle about how to make life better, if I’m not already fully exploiting the outstanding benefits of these five things that always work.
1) Killing conspicuous silences
What makes life good, more than anything, is other people. The value of what those people bring to your life depends on how easy it is for you to be with each other. With almost everyone, we start from ice cold.
Alienation is born in uncomfortable silences. A part of my mind has a stubborn hangup about throwing things out there just to see if they trigger a dialogue. But that hangup has never served me.
Violating it has. It’s nearly always better to say something.
I do like silence, and I think sharing a good silence with someone you know can be empowering, but conspicuous silences do seem to be invariably harmful when you’re getting to know somebody. If a silence comes with tension, and they usually do, it’s best to interrupt it.
Whether I choose to let the silence fester, or take a swing at it with a dull question about how school’s going or whether a particular movie is worth seeing, I learn the same thing — relationships of any kind grow best when words are exchanged, and sometimes it takes a little push. Language is the best fertilizer, and if a generous application of words doesn’t help it grow, then nothing will. I am convinced nearly all of my friendships and acquaintances could have been halted in the beginning by a divisive silence at some point, had nobody offered something. As a rule, say something.
2) Keeping everything clean
I mean this mostly in terms of your physical environment, but there’s no way to clean up your home or workspace without feeling cleaner inside your head. Most people just have so much needless junk in their lives, and believe that each possession is only a possession because it’s necessary.
Things are useless except for the experiences they can provide, prevent or improve. But pick a random possession from your house and ask yourself what experiences it really is improving for you. Not what it could improve, but what its presence actually does for you.
Everything — on your desk, in your closet, stacked on your mantle — has a tax on the mind. If you don’t believe me, get rid of most of what you own, find a proper place for everything else and see the difference in how the day looks — in how life looks — when you wake up.
3) Having a big thing on the horizon
A trip, a major purchase, a move, a project. Something you know will happen, and will leave life different. An impending big thing is a lifeline that makes rough moments softer.
These things do often involve an exchange of money, but the net cost can still be zero. The decision to reallocate your time and money is free. Give up one thing for the other, that’s all you can ever do anyway. Bring your lunch every day, and know you’ll be visiting Italy. Kill your Starbucks habit, and take up watercolors. Cancel cable, buy a camera.
It also softens almost every disappointment between now and the big thing. Your presentation didn’t go well, but you’re still going to Spain next summer.
The big thing on the horizon reminds you that routine days don’t only add up to more routine days. Shakeups are on the way. Always have a big thing on the way. Write them all down and you have a bucket list.
4) Stopping and sitting
The most convincing proof that I am a totally irrational being is my relationship to meditation. There is no question of its benefits — not only does it have direct effects on my mood and physical state, but it leads me to better decisions, it leaves me more observant and grateful, it shrinks anxiety and self-consciousness. It’s been years since I’ve had any doubt that the greatest contribution I can make to my quality of life (not to mention the quality of life of others) is to stop and sit down and cultivate attention.
It’s an enormously high-leverage activity, yet I always seem to have something more important to do. I’ve chastised myself for not being disciplined enough to reserve 20 or 30 minutes for proper sitting meditation, but even a minute of committed sitting goes such a long way. It’s no-brainer if there ever was one. It helps absolutely everything.
5) Seeking out the like-minded
This is another thing that seems like it should happen organically, but doesn’t. No matter who you are, there are specific sensitivities in you that may not be getting the stimulation they need. We don’t pick our families, we tend to fall into friendships and courtships, and so the haphazard group of people that comes to populate your immediate home and social life is not necessarily going to nurture your finest sensitivities.
Nothing is better for your creativity, for your capacity to find and express what only you can express, than to find people whose artistic and ideological values you share. I’m not talking about making more friends, but that might be inevitable. Your friends don’t necessarily share them, and the people who share them might not necessarily be your friends.
I’d guess almost everyone has an artistic or intellectual interest that has been driven into hibernation by the values and expectations of the people around them. I wonder how many people would take up design, athletics, painting, photography, calligraphy, yoga or martial arts if there were only one other person in their lives who was already immersed in it.