A small, happy life

By Caitlin Kelly


From The New York Times:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:

This scale of purpose is not for everyone.

What makes people happy?

There's a simple pleasure!
There’s a simple pleasure!

Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.

Nor the most well-paid powerful job.

Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.

When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.

If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.

Our view
Our view

And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.

If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.

There’s never enough.

Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.

From a story about young women’s rising levels of anxiety in Glamour:

Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”

She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’

That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”

When more is never enough...
When more is never enough…

Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.

I’ve ticked enough boxes.

I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?

She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.

I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?

It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it...
Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it…

I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.

I value taking time off, whenever possible.

I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.

I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.

I value our strong marriage.

I value our good health.

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day
I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.

What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.

Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.

But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.

For which I’m grateful.

How do you feel these days about your life?

34 thoughts on “A small, happy life

  1. Oh, how this one resonates. I love the finer things in life but I find my European friends find them with less stress and less financial emphasis. Phenom meals on chipped plates, outdoors. The perfect cup of coffee. Music and clothing that show who they are but quality over quantity. Life is too short to play the comparison game.

  2. Jim McKeever

    I am grateful to not be “doomed.” I don’t need much, and I want less. Material things are just stuff, except for a few items of sentimental value. I am happy, and I may live a “small” life by some standards, but I think it’s full and about to grow larger as I near retirement — more adventures, more love, more appreciation. Less stuff. I don’t feel sorry for the Type AAA achievers. It’s a choice, and they’ve made it. I have asked my sons a 3-part question: What do you want to do with your life? How hard do you want to work to achieve it? And … What are you willing to give up? The last part’s the trickiest. I see a lot of miserable, stressed-out overachievers. How will they be remembered by their friends … their children? Enough said.

  3. I find since I retired and since my wife died that I need little. I’m happy with a few sales of my books here and there and don’t even promote them much any more. I’m happy to be blogging and happiest about the great responses to the blog. The interaction keeps me going all week though I only blog once a week.
    My biggest stress in life is keeping pace with my emails and yet I find I enjoy even that because it helps other writers when I re-tweet or re-blog them. I couldn’t enjoy the frenetic pace it seems people in the US are expected to adhere too, for some it’s survival and for others acquisition but it’s constant. I think it deadly in health terms and much prefer my simpler lifestyle.
    xxx Hugs xxx

    1. The pace that people here expect to run at — and demand of their children and grand-children — depresses me. Not everyone wants to maximize their productivity, as if we were all industrial machinery.

      Glad you’ve got it so well-sorted! 🙂

  4. I feel pretty good. My husband and I retiring – I have one month left and my husband six – but not completely. Just scaling back and switching to other work so that we are less stressed and can enjoy more those long meals with a nice glass of wine.

  5. caitlin, this is so poignant, especially coming from your background and all you’ve done and accomplished. and that’s really the point, isn’t it? like you, i’ve simplified my life and live with less but feel like i live life with so much more and that is everything. the things that matter are all in place and i couldn’t be happier. i am happy just living each day, with all the ups and downs and quiet moments and sounds.

    1. Thanks…

      A lot of this, you know, is age. I was super-driven in my 20s, wasted much of my 30s on the wrong husband, hit two recessions in my 40s and now…meh. I’m very fortunate we’re OK for retirement (pension, savings, SS) so all that remains now (and it’s not pennies) is the day to day. Jose being home now, freelance, has made us both so much happier than when he was gone 12 hrs every day at his high-status job. We have never been happier and are really enjoying one another’s company. He just has to ramp up his freelancing to avoid another FT job.

      1. i am so happy to read this and think you are right about the ‘age and experience’ factor. my boyfriend, (since last summer), left his corporate job after 28 years as a business guy in the legal field. he now coaches a women’s softball team for a local university and gives private lessons to pitchers. (He grew up playing). we are both happy with our lighter, easier lifestyles.

      2. It’s nice if/when you can shed a stressful life (even if far more lucrative) for a lighter, happier one. Not everyone wants that much stress all the time.

  6. Caitlin, I agree that the true measure of one’s wealth comes from the non-material “gems” one has gathered through a life well-lived. The emphasis on material wealth and “doing” rather than “being” has lead to many empty hearts and soulless lives.

    I feel as if one needs enough money to meet the basic necessities of life. Not having to worry about how you will pay your bills and feeling free to have a night out for dinner with breaking the bank does improve your quality of life, but there is a certain point at which more money doesn’t buy more security or happiness. Indeed, it has the opposite effect. It complicates life. You begin to wonder of the people around you care about you or what you you can buy them.

    I am retired prematurely because of my health. I wish that weren’t so. Then again, I’ve built a satisfying life doing things I never thought I’d do, so that’s good. I’m very happy and live comfortably but by no means opulently. I live with a man who adores me and I adore him. My family and I love each other. I have good friends. I can work around my health issues to do the things I want to do most of the time and I realize that I’m better off than a great number of people in terms of my health because I am able to take good care of myself. What’s not to be happy about?

      1. I am happy, Caitlin. Everyone has something about their health that they wish they could improve, right? I have Chronic Fatigue. Other people have something else. And so it goes… 😉

  7. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail

  8. sthrendyle

    Love is all you need… hugely rising real estate and stagnant/dropping incomes have turned Vancouverites into have/have-nots. It’s a terrible thing, the urge to compare, which is maybe why finding a soul mate is so important. What’s also important is a faith in the future, though, that things won’t get worse – that your conservative investments will see you through your retirement, that your kids (if you have ’em) will get a bit of a head start on life. Those two things more than any other have caused an enormous amount of stress (and continue to) in my life. But really, why not live ‘small’ and contained and sensitive lives? Leave the excess to the rock stars and pro athletes. Bully for them.

    1. Thanks.

      That feels like an unpopular — if important — sentiment these days, when every media outlet fawns over the rich and celebrities while the rest of us just get on with life.

  9. Pingback: Balancing simplicity with responsibility | Speed River Journal

  10. We’re giving up on the Toronto housing market for a while for many of these reasons. When we recently saw our “dream house”–a teeny converted carriage house on a park and close to friends, on a 20″x30″ lot–come on the market for $700k, we threw up our hands and said, “Forget it!” We don’t want to live with an oppressive mortgage and the stress it carries, and the way it will influence other possibilities for our lives.

    In many ways, I love living in Toronto because it feels familiar to me as an American expat. However, it also seems to have some of those negative qualities that I associate with the American mindset–like the more, more, money-driven status lifestyle. Really trying not to get sucked into it!

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s awesome that you’re enjoying your husband’s job shift so thoroughly!

    1. Sorry to hear that…the Toronto housing market is terrifying to me. Friends have asked us to come home for years — but we could never afford the kind of home I want.

      It is very American in that regard, I agree. 🙂

      Thanks for reading. Good to hear from you again!

  11. rich

    I think a lot of it has to with how people view money. Having had the rug pulled out from me and not having had the funds to deal with acute situations that rose up in addition to crippling student loan debt I view money as a means to security. I don’t like debt; I hate it. I have eliminated much of it. My dreams are far from opulent; I enjoy different types of writing. I don’t want much other than peace of mind, and I will settle for that. A good book I can lose myself in, a movie mid-day when I am the only one in the theater, those are the things I crave and enjoy. I am not much of a traveler, and Toronto is one beautiful city. I never saw so many coffee places in my life on every street; Second City and Starbucks, like dueling banjos…
    I still can’t figure out the needle….provocative post….

    1. I hate debt, too! It’s like trying to walk wearing concrete boots. We have finally paid off ours, all except the mortgage.

      And having some money put aside is very comforting. Knowing you will not lose your home/food/health (esp. in the U.S.) allows you to get on with your life without endless, daily anxiety. I’m glad you’re in a less worried place now!

  12. Given that, environmentally speaking, the do more have more lifestyle is not sustainable, this is a very important blog. We need to redefine luxury, success, enjoyment, happiness so that these are about life lived, not stuff owned or the size of a bank balance. Plus life in the fast lane does not seem to make people genuinely happy anyway, it just creates new things to be stressed, anxious, miserable about and in face of which too many people feel not good enough. It is a game that is designed not to be won so you always have to strive, and consume and expand and no one gets to just live and be happy. the only way to win is not to play.

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