A blog about health, wellness and well-being, with advice on how to achieve it... from your inner depth to your outer surface.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 15 - Work

Tax Credits, Flickr

How much should one work, and how much should one earn? Reading on that topic I have learned that:

  • the minimum wage is usually not enough to afford a salubrious shelter, reasonably healthy food, medical expenses and an education - especially if you have kids
  • happiness increases as you make your way up to $75,000 a year - after that, additional increases in income will not make you any happier
  • the American Dream costs $130,000 per year

Of course each of those statements has been questioned on various grounds.

I have lived on incomes all along that continuum, which makes me look like I'm qualified to draw my own conclusions. 

However, I'm afraid I cannot comment on the lower income end since in my case, when I lived on very little it was 1) by choice (I refused to borrow any money at all while I was in college) 2) temporary (I knew my situation would improve as soon as I got out of school and got a "real" job) and 3) complemented by my parents' contribution to both my tuition and groceries - plus I could enjoy their property on the weekend. In the end, I did spend a few years living very frugally (1-room apartment, no TV, no microwave, very few possessions in general and not going out much), but it never felt like actual poverty. (It might help that despite my low income, I was treated with respect, which doesn't seem to be the case in many low-income realities.)

I can, however, comment on the fact that the American Dream as described by USA Today is not an infallible recipe for happiness. There are many reasons behind that. First and obvious is the fact that safety and material comfort are only one factor of happiness. From what I have either witnessed or experienced personally, pleasant relationships, meaningful activities, good mental health and such count just as much in the well-being equation. I would rather live in a shack with people I love than live in a castle with people I despise. I would rather have a job I love that pays okay than have a job I hate that pays well. I would also rather have less stuff to look after. I could list examples of well-off people I have known that were not happy, but I will trust that you have your own examples.

This is where an honest appraisal of the reasons we work the way we do and of the costs and benefits of work comes into play. You might have landed the prestigious, well-paid job you had dreamed about. Or you might simply be working really hard at a regular-Joe job. But is it filling you with contentment or with misery? How do you truly feel? Is all that hard work really worth it?

If you really love what you do, and if the time and energy commitment doesn't get in the way of other life goals (like spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies or simply relaxing), then by all means keep at it. 

But if you feel like the trade-off might not be worth it... time to reconsider. In my field, I have met many colleagues who left secure jobs as physicians, lawyers, engineers, financiers, senior managers and the like to become freelance translators, editors and writers. I have yet to hear one of them say they regret it at all. Despite the initial uncertainty, precarity and fluctuations of income (it does get better as you gain experience), more than one has told me they would "never go back". 

Within one's ideal field itself, one must also be weary of crossing the line of "too much". There have been times in my freelance career when things were going so well for me that I started feeling they were going a little bit too well: the money was good, but I was working so much that I could never use said money - there simply was no time for anything else but work! Life was made of hours worked and checks deposited, with very little in-between. I had to cut back.

Doing so has had less negative impact than I imagined. I realized that having the time to watch life go by is a luxury I enjoy way more than most material possessions. I also realized that if I cut down on certain paid tasks I like (translation in fields I am not passionate about), I have more time to indulge in paid tasks I love (teaching, writing, and translation in the fields that I am passionate about). Interestingly, my income did not significantly decrease as I changed how I invest my time: it simply comes from different sources now. I certainly feel like I don't work as hard as I used to, but it's simply because I love what I do. 

Everything is relative of course: there are fields and cities where working less than 50 hours is considered slacking, and there are people who cannot fathom working more than part-time. Each of us has to ponder our need for stimulation as much as our need for rest as we tackle the $ numbers.

I have to be completely honest: I am not ready yet to fully indulge in hardcore minimalism. There are "luxuries" I still enjoy. Plus, I am not even handy. But I am more than ready to mindfully assess the use of each and every minute and dollar to make sure that it truly serves the purpose of maximizing my well-being.

What is your relationship to your job and the money you make from it? Do you think any changes in that area could make you happier?



They say it takes a few weeks to form a new habit. After 15 weeks of not buying, I think the habit has been formed. I can walk into a store and get the one thing I need without even considering anything else. It's a wonderful feeling. 

Donations (good riddance)

I am stuck in the book department. Really stuck. I know as long as I live in an English-speaking environment I will keep my French classics since they are so hard to come by, and I want my kids to have access to them (plus, I teach French). But any other book seems like it could go. Which doesn't mean I feel ready to let them go. Any advice?

Observations and cogitations

I have had that conversation with a few friends and family members: what should one do about things that s/he doesn't use but feels s/he will use in the future? For example, I am keeping some pairs of jeans for when the ones I currently wear the most have to be discarded. It seems logical in such a case. But such a logic also opens the door to accumulating things "for later", which can certainly go too far. I have seen more than one older person move to a nursing home or pass away with enough hand towels and Javex to last 3 generations. What do you think?

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, April 6, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 14 - Little luxuries

Philip Taylor, Flickr

As the members of our local Minimalist Group would tell you, living simply does not exclude pleasure. I had just apologetically admitted to owning a lot of books. Uncomfortably staring at my feet, I said "We all have our weaknesses... don't we?". A fellow member reassured me that we all do; another one added that "we cannot be frugal with everything".

It reminded me of this tiny house that was equipped by its owners with a system for brewing their own beer. What a paradox: getting rid of most things people take for granted, yet making place for specialized equipment - plus the collection of beer appropriate glasses? 

Which had in turn reminded me of the fact that everywhere in the world, even in the poorest slums of India, people will go out of their way to celebrate when they feel an occasion warrants it, spending the last cents of their meager income on "superfluous" items such as candy and colorful decorations.

Those stories are all a lesson in human experience: we need to enjoy life. In many cases, even living an ascetic existence, where you purposely deprive yourself, brings about pleasure, as it makes the simplest things significantly more enjoyable: drinking water when thirsty, for example, is one of the best feelings in the world when you focus on it. When you have very little, everything just "tastes better".

As I get rid of things and scrutinize each and every one of my consumption habits, I face the fundamental question: when is a superfluous object or activity acceptable? Luckily for us, The Minimalists (of the eponymous blog) have the answer: 
instead of mindlessly getting rid of everything, let's simply ask ourselves if the things we own (and the things we do) really add value to our lives. If they do, they can stay. If they don't, they have to go.

I know I can live without good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine as opposed to the generic. I also know that keeping a bottle of each of those in the house really does add value to my life. In fact, when it comes to wine and chocolate, I would rather have less if it means having "the best". Quality vs quantity. For me, the choice is easy.

Another area where I think quality (as opposed to the cheaper version) makes a significant difference is outdoor gear. Oftentimes, it is not even more costly... if you consider the long-term. Good quality hiking and camping equipment, after the initial purchase, will provide you with years and years of comfort and convenience. The cheap stuff will quickly have to be replaced. I know from experience.

No matter what your actual means are, there are areas of your life that are worth some indulging, whereas other areas could use some skimming.

What are your own personal luxuries, the things that are worth your time and money? 

Are there other areas of spending, objects or activities, that don't really add value to your life?



I cannot speak of temptations per se this week, but I realized that shopping for basics still adds up, after buying a CO2 detector, a smoke detector and a few other needed items for the house. 

Donations (good riddance)

I took advantage of the long weekend to make some progress on my spring cleaning. This time, the unsuspecting victim was my walk-in closet. This closet was one of the - many - reasons I fell for the house when we first bought it. I loved its size and layout. But big closets have that annoying tendency to overflow with stuff. I had already "worked" on that closet last year, and yet I still found tons of various things that should not be in it - things that should not be in the house altogether, to be more accurate. This cleanup created 3 big bags of clothes and accessories for donations, and 1 big garbage bag of "ungivables".

Observations and cogitations

Easter. As all of the other "big holidays", it has turned into a festival of consumerism. I will not deprive my kids of the wonderful pleasure of a chocolate egg hunt, but chocolate is all I bought for Easter, and in reasonable quantities. I am happy to say that I did not succumb to the plethora of pastel colored and spring related items that were everywhere to be found. 

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 13 - Precious time

The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali)

On our quest to minimalism, it is essential that we examine the usage we make of our time. After all, time is one of our most precious assets. In a typical consumerist society, unfortunately, we spend most of our time either:

a) making money to buy stuff
b) spending money on stuff
c) taking care of the stuff we have acquired with our money
d) worrying about money (will we have enough for all that stuff?)
e) thinking about the stuff we'd like to buy but don't have enough money for

Unless you are struggling at making ends meet (i.e. have a hard time paying for basic shelter and food), there might be another way to go about this.

If you're like most people, you probably feel like you don't have enough time. Not enough time to do all the things that need to be done and even less time to do all the things you want to do. If you're like most people, you probably also don't know how to solve that problem. 

I know because I have been in that situation. My life is not very original: simply put, I am a full-time working mother who likes to live in a relatively tidy environment, hang out with her family and friends, engage in some hobbies and allow herself some downtime. My time management skills are okay, I think, and yet I often feel like I'm chasing my own tail. As I once told D, "How come I feel like I'm always running and yet never seem to get anywhere?" His sage answer was:

"You must not be running in the right direction."

My lack of time, just like yours, is not entirely an illusion: when I did the math, all the things I have to do simply did not add up to 24 hours a day. That's the bad news. On the bright side, they added up to maybe 25 hours a day. Enough to make one stressed, tired or frustrated, but nothing that cannot be fixed.

How do we fix it?

You will find tons of time-management and time-saving tips online. Some can be very helpful. But they are not sufficient. What I want to suggest is that we examine our time allotment more closely.

1) Set priorities: 
What are the things you are absolutely not willing to sacrifice? Call me sleep-obsessed, but there is no way I will cut down on my 8-hour nights. I also want to exercise and eat healthy on a daily basis (and have my kids do the same). 
What are your unshakable priorities?

2) Be honest with yourself: 
We all have a weakness. Mine is to read articles online. I have an insatiable thirst for information on the topics I am passionate about, but it is easy to get carried away. I have to set a time limit, otherwise I would never do anything else. 
What is your weakness?

3) Revisit perceived expectations: 
You might have seen the quote "The graveyards are full of indispensable [people]" (attributed to Charles de Gaulle). We might feel like the world will fall apart if we do not accomplish such and such task, but the truth is, if we slowed down a little bit there would probably be little consequence. If slowing down possibly means the end of a career or at least a decrease in prestige and income, not slowing down can often mean health problems (mental and/or physical). Perceived expectations can also lead us to burn ourselves out at home and in our relationships. Relax: you are not the savior of the world and occasionally bored children or a little bit of dust are okay. 
In what ways do you put too much pressure on yourself?

4) Revisit stereotypes: 
Breadwinner (making as much money as possible for the family). Superwoman (juggling with career, children, clean house, impeccable looks). Whatever our ideal, it is often best left to the utopists. Real life is not about perfection. Working less, spending less time on looks... it magically frees time to do other things that are probably more meaningful. Speaking of stereotypes, if you have a partner (and children old enough to help), this is a good opportunity to discuss the attribution of chores and make sure it's equitable. It's not okay to have one family member work while the other ones are relaxing, no matter the age and gender of the protagonists.
Do you endorse stereotypes that really do not serve you?

5) Revisit the difference between needs and wants: 
Only once you realize you need less does it become possible to consider working less. 
Any examples come to mind?



This week my temptations were children-related. I have one young consumerist in the family, and it does get tiring to say "no" all the time. She is getting more reasonable, however. After getting all excited over a stuffed animals display, she calmly observed "but I would probably play with it for just a few days, and then lose interest". (Good. The brainwashing I have been working on is beginning to show results!)

Donations (good riddance)

Clothes and books. Books and clothes. I used to get a high from acquiring them. I have simply reversed the situation and now get a high from donating them.

Observations and cogitations

Minimalists come in all shapes and sizes, as I noticed at my first Minimalist Meeting. Some live ascetic lives. Some like to surround themselves with nice things. But all try to be mindful of their consumption habits.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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