Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Happiness Project - Introduction and Month One

I just finished The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and I decided to do an extended book review. This won't be a pure summary.  I'm going to re-read it and write about not only her ideas but also how each section affected me.

I tend to like the whole social experiment genre.  I love reading about how people challenge themselves and discuss what they learned.  This author realizes she is not appreciating her life as much as she could and therefore goes on a mission to increase her own happiness.  She looks at what brings her joy and satisfaction as well as what brings guilt, anger, and remorse.  Then she writes a year's worth of resolutions to increase the one and decrease the other.

I like the fact that she is not looking to make major changes in her way of living such as moving or changing careers but she is wanting to "change the lens through which I viewed everything familiar" and "find more happiness in my own kitchen".  In other words, she wanted to change her attitude and her outlook rather than her circumstances.

I find it humorous that her method is exactly what mine is whenever I want to make a change in my life: make the decision, go to the library for LOTS of books, and start making charts and lists.  Yep, that's so me.

She struggled with whether seeking happiness was a worthy goal, but finally decided to embrace it because happy people are more productive, helpful, friendlier, and healthier.  In fact, most of our typical goals and resolutions revolve around an underlying premise of becoming happier.

January -

The first month Gretchen decided to focus on increasing her energy level since that would help with all the other resolutions to come.  She focused on getting more sleep which is not really my issue.  I probably have the opposite problem.  Still, many people would be happier, healthier, and more productive if they got enough sleep.

Next she tackled exercise. It's amazing I didn't give up on the book at this point.  I have never found a form of exercise I like and I think the whole endorphin thing is a myth.  Either that or my endorphin pump is broken.  However, another one of the benefits is supposed to be delayed onset of dementia, so maybe I better get to work.

Then she moved on to a topic dear to my heart - decluttering.  For me, piles of unidentified clutter and searching for lost items is very stressful.  Maybe it's because I've lived that way for so much of my life, but I seek the outer order that brings inner peace.  When I can clear out a closet or counter and find homes for everything it feels so open.  I am content and calm.  I love it.  Maintenance, however, is my nemesis.  Those surfaces and shelves just don't stay clear and organized.  I guess that gives me another opportunity to seek the next clutter-clearing high, but I want to create systems that help me keep things straightened out not just keep fixing them.  One of her personal rules might be helpful here - "Identify the problem".  For example, when I cleaned out my walk-in closet, I realized that I dump everything from my pockets on a shelf there each night.  Most of it is trash.  I decided to put a small trash can in there.  Now I can ditch the trash right away and avoid the mess.

For me another part of the problem is bringing too much stuff into the house in the first place.  Several years ago a friend gave me some very important advice.  She said she only buys something if she knows where she is going to put it.  At the time I lived on the Navajo Reservation and if I saw a decoration I liked, I bought it.  When I actually started thinking about where I could display these items, I cut my buying significantly.  Over the years I have also learned to avoid 'freebies' unless I really wanted them. Still, I buy too many unnecessary things for my children and my book collection is a little excessive.

There were some other clutter ideas in the book that I found helpful.  For example, too many choices is overwhelming.  This accounts for why so many people are happier when they reduce their clothes.  It's much more satisfying to face a closet of items you actually like to wear than a crammed space full of things that don't fit or have no matches or you might wear some day.

Another truth is that 'junk attracts junk'.  If a surface already has a pile of random items on it, the natural tendency will be to drop more stuff there.  If the space is clear and organized, it is less likely to attract random mess.  (Unless you are allergic to open space like some of the members of my family seem to be.  Then I use the tactic of putting one or two strategic items to 'claim' the space.)

Two more helpful pieces of advice were "You always find lost things when you clean" which I have found to be true, and "If it takes less than one minute, do it now."  I have some trouble with this last one because sometimes a minute really does make a difference.  Still, most often, a lot of mess could be avoided by taking care of small tasks right away.

Another way she sought to get rid of things draining her energy was to tackle nagging tasks.  These are the things you have been avoiding forever.  They just stay on the to-do list and bring you guilt.  It's time to tackle those ugly things bit by bit.  One of her personal rules is "Do what ought to be done."  I try to follow similar advice - Take the next right step. (title of my blog)  It's easy to spend my free time watching TV or playing games, but getting some of the junk off my to-do list would make me much happier and actually be meaningful.

One reason this book took me years to finish was because I stopped to apply what I was reading.  The author may have changed her sleep schedule, started exercising, and organized her whole apartment in a month, but I think it will take me a little longer. ;p

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poor, Rich, and Middle Class - who are they?

For the book I'm thinking about I need to define the terms rich, poor, and middle class.

Who are the poor? 
According to the 2018 US Poverty Guidelines, a family of four making $25,100 or below are considered poor.  That sounds straight forward, but what does it really mean?  Does this family have hungry teenagers or a baby that needs expensive formula?  Do they live in income support housing or does their rent take half their income? What about the family making just above the line that has no food stamps or SNAP benefits?  What about the multitudes of families making under the equivalent of $2 a day in US dollars living in other countries?

Who are the rich?
There seems to be much less consensus on what it means to be rich.  Some statistics use twice the average income as a guideline.  In 2016 the median household income was $59,039.  That means any household making  $118,080 or above would be considered rich. This of course does not take into account the number of people in the family or debt.  While people in the lower end of this category are most likely not struggling for daily needs, they also might not have money for extravagant extras.  Is this rich?  Another way to draw the line is to call the top 1% of earners wealthy.  This would include any family making $389,436 or above, but I'm not sure it takes that much to be considered rich.

Who are the middle class?
According to one website, middle class is anyone earning between 67% and 200% of the median income.  For 2016 this range would be $39,560 to $118,080.  This encompasses about 50% of Americans.  That seems to leave a gap between lower middle class and the US Poverty line, but at least it tells us that these are the folks in the middle - in-between rich and poor.

For me the numbers don't tell the whole story.  By these stats, I would be upper-middle class.  If I compare myself to people who make more than my family, who travel and dine at expensive restaurants, I feel much more lower middle class.  My family pays our bills and we are able to put our children in extra-curricular activities, but we are not extravagant and money is tight at times.  Then I compare myself to people making less.  Their kids are not taking gymnastics lessons.  They run out of food before the month is up.  They don't have securities like renter's insurance.  Compared to them, I probably look rich.  Additionally, if we look outside our borders - to so many people without running water or electricity, we would all be considered rich.

So, if the numbers fail me, how do I even get a handle on the title of this book?

I am left with my own, subjective, definitions:

Poor - any person or family that struggles to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.

Middle Class - households that have finances to meet their basic needs and provide a few extras but may not have resources for emergencies or extravagances

Rich - those who are comfortably meeting their needs, provide for future expenses and emergencies and have extra for charity and fun.

My definitions are still inadequate, but they give the reader a general idea of what I mean when I use these terms.  I also want to emphasize that I am putting no emotional connotation on these labels.  Too often our society connects a person's value to the amount of money they earn.  In this book, and in my life, I am hoping to let people see that value has nothing to do with wealth.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Let's Share

Many people have the idea that people living in poverty are always begging for something.  When I was growing up, I experienced this with one of my aunts.   She lived in the inner city and worked a low paying job.  She was a wonderful, loving woman, but it seemed like whenever she visited, she asked for something. For example, if my mom had a new performance tape, my aunt would ask for a copy. (They both sang in church.)  She seemed to think that whatever we had that she did not should be split with her.  It wasn't until years later that I began to understand this mindset.

The light went on when I read a book about a woman who worked in California picking crops.  She discovered that it was the other workers who would teach her how to harvest the food correctly and even share their portion with her when she was first learning.  Neighbors showed up at her door with food when they had extra.  They shared rides and information with her.  This group of strangers bonded together because it was the best way for the whole group to survive.  From this story I began to realize that many poor people  are more than willing to give you whatever you need and they are confused when someone else does not do the same for them.  This sharing mentality is very different from the independent, take care of yourself mindset I grew up with.  I'm not saying either one is better than the other, but I think it helps to see things from someone else's perspective. 

I saw this sharing concept in my own life when a friend of mine got her food stamps for the month.  She went out that day and bought food for herself, for a church breakfast, for a sick neighbor, and a treat for me.  These gifts were given with no strings attached.  She was simply sharing her own blessings.

Maybe my selective memory only recalls the times my aunt asked for help.  Maybe I've forgotten all the times she brought food for us or gave me little gifts.  Maybe living on the boundary between middle class and poverty caused me to cling to whatever I had and fear losing it.  Maybe I can still learn to share.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Poor, Rich and in the Middle

I'm thinking about a new book idea.  I've been learning the past few years that people of various income levels really don't understand each other.  I would like to use some of what I have learned to build a bridge.


"Rich people are greedy."  "Poor people are lazy."  "Why do 'those' people live like that?"  I've heard these statements all my life, but what I've learned is that kind, generous people can be found in all socio-economic levels.  However, it is true that most of these people don't understand each other.  Each of us sees life through a certain point of view.  It's like a pair of tinted glasses that colors our whole life.  Our glasses are shaped by our upbringing, our family, and our life experiences. It takes great effort to get to know someone who is different than you and to see life through their pair of glasses instead of your own.  It's a lot easier to judge people based on our own values and circumstances.  However, if you take time to understand others, they can add diverse and interesting dimensions to your life.

(Chapter 1 or continuation of the Introduction)

I guess I should start with my own background since that, of course, colors my life perspective.  My parents were divorced so I grew up in two different households. My mother worked two jobs most of my childhood years.  When she married my step-dad, he had a lot of debts.  Then they bought a house that they probably could not afford.  So, despite my dad also working full-time, we had no extra money.  My clothes were given to me or bought at thrift stores.  We ate a lot of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.  I'm pretty sure my mom never chose to ask for or receive charity and we did not qualify for state aide.  The lessons I learned from my mom were to value hard work, to pay your bills, and to live with what you had.  Later, as my mom struggled to get our of debt I learned to hate credit.

My dad came from a family that understood investing money and living below your means.  My dad retired early.  His bank account was stable, but he chose to wear socks with holes in them and repeatedly told me that "money does not grow on trees."  My dad is not a flashy rich guy.  He is a frugal rich guy.  He does not waste a penny if he can avoid it.  From him I learned that having money was security.  Also, it was a tool to be respected.

As I grew up I had the typical middle-class dream.  I wanted a good job and a savings account.  I didn't want a bunch of stuff but enough to be 'comfortable.'  Then I got married.  I knew all the rules for financial safety - avoid debt, save 10% of every check, buy used, don't waste... My husband agreed in theory but then we 'needed' a computer and the store had a 6 months at 0% interest loan.  We paid it off before the interest kicked in but I still felt like a failure for relying on credit.  Over the years we began to build up debt for other things we 'needed'.  My dreams of a safety net savings account never seemed to materialize.  We did start having money pulled out of our checks for retirement investment and I felt joy watching that grow.  So, instead of fighting about money, I try to enjoy the toys we have and I've also found ways to be generous and help others.

That's a brief overview of my perspective on money.  Work hard, pay your own way, save for the future, and avoid debt.  Despite evidence to the contrary, I thought that deep down everyone must agree with me.  Then I started to try to 'help' poor people.  I found out that their reality was very different from mine and my rules did not necessarily work for them.  My colored glasses didn't seem to fit so well any more.  I also found many people who resented rich people.  The pictures they painted were nothing like the actual people I knew.  So, maybe I am in a unique position to explain these groups to each other.  Maybe we can all take off our glasses and see each other as people of value who can enrich each other's lives.

Ideas for Chapters:

Gimme, gimme or let's share?
Why do we feed poor people crappy food?
Maybe they didn't need my help as much as I needed theirs.
You waste money too
Rich people are not heartless

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fasting isn't always fun

So, I am a joiner.  I love new projects, social experiments, and challenges.  I like starting things.  I like learning all about new subjects.  Then - what typically happens is I hit a few roadblocks, find out the project isn't as much fun as I anticipated, and quit to go looking for the next new thing to hit my radar.

A few months ago I quit drinking Diet Coke.  I replaced it with flavored/carbonated water and sweet tea.  I was pondering the idea that it was time to go all the way and get rid of the flavored water too when the 7 Experiment came on my radar.  It seemed like perfect timing.  It seemed exciting!  After all, it was a new project and the perfect way to kick off the new year.  So, about a week ago I quit the flavored water and this week in addition, I cut the sugar out of my tea.  It seemed like a small step, maybe not even glorious enough for the 7 Experiment but I jumped in whole-heartedly.

Then life hit.  See, my typical pattern with fasting is that taking out a comfort item, such as the sugar in my tea, brings me closer to my emotions.  It allows the ugly parts of my personality to surface.  In other words, I get angry and irritated.

Yesterday was a tough day.  Every little thing was ruffling my feathers.  I ended up in an intense argument with my husband.  This is unusual because we both hate conflict.  Because I had no buffer, things I usually overlook really upset me.  I found myself seething over infractions from years ago even.  It seems that some past injuries had not been forgiven but just buried.  So, I guess that is what God wanted to show me.  I spent some time in prayer and was reminded of the time when Jesus told his disciples to forgive 70X7 times.  I decided that all those things that my husband does that really anger me are going on the 70X7 list. If it's on the list, then I don't hold it against him.  It's been forgiven and released.  (and just so you know the list is not on paper, just a fuzzy thing in my head so basically I'll never know if I reach 490 items.)  It's just my way of reminding myself that my husband does not have to be perfect and I have permission to let him off the hook.

So I wanted to just quit this whole experiment yesterday - to cover up my emotions with sugary tea and forget the whole thing.  Instead, I stuck it out and God showed me something important about myself.  It wasn't fun but I grew.  Growth is my word for this year.  If I survive the process, big things might happen.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

7 Experiment - Food Month

I am writing this one week before the planned start of 7.  As I contemplate what type of food fast God wants for me I have already begun to hear his voice.  He's already tapping on an area that needs repentance - my pride.

See - in the past few years I have made many changes in what and how I eat.  I want to list all these accomplishments and get some pats on the back.  I want people to appreciate how far I have come before I lay out the next steps.  However, that is not the blog God wants me to write.  I hear his gentle voice telling me to stop.  My desire for acceptance and my reliance on the approval of others needs to be crucified.

I just read the story of the Rich young ruler and saw something I had not noticed before.  After the man tells Jesus that he has kept all the commandments, he says "what am I still lacking?"  This man was doing so many things right, but he humbly recognized his own need, his own emptiness.  He wanted more of God in his life.

Lord, may I also humbly ask you to search me and tell me where I am lacking.  My I seek more of you, acknowledging how far you have brought me, but never forgetting that we have ever farther to go.

(Warning - that prayer is dangerous. Not one hour after praying it I found myself snapping at my husband over an old grudge I thought I had released years ago. I haven’t even started the fast and God is already shaking out my weaknesses. That is how it works for me. I fast from my comforts and the ugly hidden parts of my spirit start to show. Then I either cover them back up or let God heal them. Let’s hope I choose the second option more often.)

So - with no fanfare or history attached, here is how I will be fasting during food month:
Give up flavored water - only water, juice, unsweetened tea, and milk for beverages.
No graham crackers (my go to snack food)
3-5 meatless lunches a week
Spend as little as possible by using up what we already have (working on food waste)
I am also considering giving up pork and fast food. I don’t eat much fast food but sometimes I’m with the family and we stop there. I’ll have to ponder the exact limits on this. Lastly our family has pizza once a week. Maybe I can add salad to that meal.

I am also super excited to announce that my girls (age 9 and 12) want to travel 7 with me.  This month they will be abstaining from all chips.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What a ride!

Just over a year ago I made some serious changes in my life including joining a 12-step program for compulsive overeaters.  Little did I know that working this program would reshape not just my body but my mind as well.  I have experienced spiritual and physical healing.  Then the changes started to expand into other areas of my life.   I became willing and able to tackle my messy house.  Then I started looking at reducing my belongings.  Recently I've even delved into recycling and reducing waste not to mention living frugally and ministering to the poor.  I have no idea where this roller coaster is taking me, but I'm enjoying the ride.