Deliberate Misfortune

origin_3595837441Stoicism is something I’ve read about online a few times lately and has really piqued my interest. In a nutshell, Stoicisim is an ancient Greek philosophy that teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It’s a philosophy that followers say allows you to diminish or even eliminate negative emotions and significantly increase the positive emotions.

One of the main tenets of Stoicism concerns deliberately putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, or Deliberate Misfortune as I’m calling it here. They’re not talking about talking in front of a crowd or trying to talk to people you don’t know at a party. What they generally mean is to actually put yourself in miserable situations. Examples of this could be to:

  • Force yourself to walk to the grocery store without a coat when it’s cold out
  • Take a very cold shower once a week.
  • Sleep on a hard floor every once in a while
  • Skip a meal

At first glance, this seems like a terrible idea. We’re looking at increasing our overall happiness; why would doing things that make us miserable help us with that?

Well there are a couple reasons why this helps:

1 – Gratitude

As mentioned in my last post, gratitude has been proven to have a considerable impact on an individual’s overall happiness. One of the problems with society is that because life has become so easy, we’ve started taking too many things for granted.

By deliberately eschewing the creature comforts that we often take for granted (warmth, food, comfortable bed, etc), it really takes us aback and allows us to appreciate it. We become grateful for these things that we’ve grown to take for granted.

2 – Building Inner Strength and Overcoming Fear

Another benefit that can come with this is building inner strength. There is a quote I found that explains this well:

 Comfort, [Stoics] believed, is the worst kind of slavery – because it weakens us and makes us want it more and fear losing it. – App4Mind

Stoics believe that our comforts weaken us and make us dependent on them. By forcing ourselves to leave our comfort zone, we become stronger because we learn that living without these comforts isn’t as bad as we might have thought. When we’re faced with difficult situations, we have more confidence that we can overcome them because we can look back and see other difficulties we’ve been able to overcome.

After having mastered this, you should be able to be comfortable and happy with almost any situation life throws at you.

Other than accidentally going to a concert under-dressed yesterday (I was freezing), I haven’t really put any of this into action yet, though I do plan on experimenting with Deliberate Misfortune and reporting back on my findings.

 

 

 

photo credit: lentina_x via photopin cc

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The Hedonic Treadmill

I’ve recently discovered the concept of The Hedonic Treadmill, or “Hedonic Adaptation” as it is sometimes called and it’s a subject that has made me think quite a bit.

The premise is that despite significant life changing events, whether they are positive or negative, people generally return to a general baseline of happiness.

For example, researchers studied recent lottery winners and paraplegics. Immediately following the event, they had seen a rise in happiness in those who won the lottery and a decrease in those who became paraplegic. However, even within only two months, they saw the happiness levels return to normal.

Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) used the idea of the hedonic treadmill to explain how people with a wide variety of resources or lack of resources can maintain similar levels of happiness. They showed that people readily adapt to their fortunes or misfortunes. Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held. – PsychWiki

This is a really interesting phenomenon to me. As much as it seems counterintuitive, it really does explain a lot of what we see in the world.

On one hand we regularly see ‘privileged’ people getting upset and angry about the most trivial of things. We get so accustomed to living such an easy life that any minor inconvenience seems like a big deal. Louis CK has a great bit about “White People Problems” that illustrates this perfectly.

 (Original source)

On the other hand, you’ve got people in third world countries who live in huts and scramble for food, who really don’t seem any less happy than we are here. In some cases, they seem even happier. There’s a great TED Talk with Jon Jandai, a farmer from northeastern Thailand who talks about living a simple happy life in relative poverty.

I don’t think that this means that we’re stuck at our current level of happiness forever so we shouldn’t even bother to try and change our circumstances.  I think what this suggests, is that external circumstances have very little impact on our happiness levels and happiness needs to come from within.

Brain chemistry and psychological research suggests that only 10% of our “happiness” is determined by external circumstances such as money, health, and relationships – and that the other 90% comes intrinsically from within. – A Course in Miracles

This means that we should avoid striving to achieve things with the expectation that they will bring us happiness. “When I finally get that promotion, I’ll be happy.” or “I need to lose those darn 20lbs and then I’ll be happy.”

The fact is that you likely won’t be any happier at that point. If you’re always looking for the next thing to make you happy, you’ll likely have something else that’s in the way preventing you from true happiness.

Instead, we should look at focusing on our inner selves and cultivating true happiness from within. For example,. something as simple as being grateful has been shown to have tremendous impacts on happiness levels. This is something I’ve been very intrigued in for the past little while and will be writing about more in the future.

Credit Card Debt – How Bad is it Really?

Not to turn this into a finance blog or anything, but I felt like talking about credit card debt today.

In my 20s, I always heard people say “You should absolutely make sure you pay off your credit card in full every month!”. I knew that was probably the best case scenario, but I live in reality here and to me, it just wasn’t possible to pay it off. Where would I find an extra $6,000 (which is what I assume my average credit card statement balance was every month)? I told myself the best I can do is pay as much as I can and not let it get out of hand. Besides, I was doing pretty well financially with a fairly good paying job and some of my money invested in real estate, so I didn’t see any urgency in paying them off.

In the end, would it have made much of a difference anyways? I decided I’d run those numbers today.

The assumptions I’m making:
– $6,000 average statement balance (which was never paid in full)
– Interest rate of 18%
– Potential investment rate: 7%
– Period of time: 10 years

So let’s calculate this:
Interest per month: $90
Interest per year: $1,080
Interest over the 10 years: $10,800.

Wow, that’s actually a lot of wasted money. Now let’s assume I had invested whatever money I spent in interest into an investment account that paid 7%. Where would I be?

I’ve calculated it and it would have netted me $15,575. That’s a pretty crazy amount of money.

This money is also ALL interest, meaning, I actually got NOTHING for that $15,575. Maybe it was more of an emergency than I thought.

According to CNN, the average American credit card debt is $15,950.

Using those same calculations, over 15 years, Americans lose over $71,000 because of these credit cards! No wonder so many are struggling financially – they’re giving all their money to the banks.

If I had followed the advice given to me and had found a way to not spend $6,000 unnecessarily and avoid carrying a balance in the first place, I’d have $21,575 in the bank right now. That’s an expensive mistake to make.

Anyhow, I managed to pay off my credit card last year, but this really reinforces for me the fact that I should never carry a balance on my credit card again. Credit card debt is an emergency, and I think it’s time people start seeing it that way.

Financial Freedom through Minimalism?

“What are you hoping to accomplish with this?”

I’ve had this question asked a couple times already, and to be honest, it was something that I hadn’t put a ton of thought into.

In the end, what this is really about for me is happiness and freedom. We only live once, and really, shouldn’t our optimal life goal be to be as happy as possible?

I see minimalism as a way to achieve this maximum level of happiness. We spend so much time and money* on things that really don’t give us any lasting happiness. If we’re able to shift our focus away from these material possessions and focus on what actually brings us happiness, we’ll find that these things usually really aren’t very expensive. (Spending time with family and friends, going to the park with the dogs, getting exercise in the great outdoors, cook delicious and healthy meals, reading and learning, writing, meditating, and the list goes on.)

By limiting our spending to things that truly make us happy, we should soon find that our lifestyle becomes much more inexpensive to maintain. This opens up a whole set of doors in that it gives us the financial freedom to do what we want to do with your life, whether that’s retiring early** or finding work that we really enjoy regardless of how much it pays.

As much as I love my job, if money wasn’t a concern, I’d gladly take a pay cut to work 20 hours per week so that I could spend more time with my family and focus more time on the things that make me happy.

My wife and I have created a budget that would allow us to live off of her income only and place mine directly into investments. This is step 1 and we hope to cut our expenses down even further as we get better at this.

What would you do if you could permanently cut your living expenses in half? How would your life change?

*the average American credit card debt is currently over $15k. That’s nearly $3,000/yr given away to credit card companies; if that money was instead invested (and got a return of 7%), it would be worth $115,000+ in 20 years. So holding a $15k credit card balance could end up costing the average American $115,000 – no wonder banks and credit card companies are so rich.

**I’ve recently discovered the Mr Money Mustache blog (an excellent blog! I’m currently going post-by-post through it all). He and his wife were both software engineers who managed to retire at 30 so that they could spend more time with their child and do what they enjoy.

Being Grateful

In my last post, I’ve explained my struggles with always chasing that next ‘high’; that next hobby or item that’s going to make me happy.

This has been an issue of mine for years – if not ever. You’re pushed these ideals in advertisements, in movies, and on TV. No matter what you watch, you see beautiful and happy people using these products and making you think that this is what you need. 

We tend to glamorize our lives with these items. When we think of starting up woodworking, we get visions of building beautiful things and impressing people by our handiwork. When we get skis, we imagine ourselves in some gorgeous chalets sitting by the fireplace after a long day of skiing. 

What we don’t think about is the time, money, and effort it takes to achieve those things, and in reality, it never quite lives up to the hype leaving us unsatisfied. So what are we to do? 

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits. I’ve also been reading more about meditation and doing some beginner sessions with Headspace on my phone. 

I really like the idea of focusing on the now and appreciating what we have. We live so much of our lives living in some dream or haze that we miss out on what’s going on at the present moment. We dream about becoming rich and what we would do with all that money, we dream about our next big vacation, we dream about what we’ll be doing this coming weekend or what we’ll be doing tomorrow. We spend countless hours re-living the past. Dwelling on missed opportunities or thinking of how a certain situation could have been handled differently. 

We waste so much of our time living in the past or the future that we don’t take time to fully appreciate the now. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am right now.:

  • I have a beautiful and supportive wife and daughter and two happy dogs
  • We live in a modern townhouse that has more space than we’d ever really need. 
  • I have wonderful friends and family on whom I can trust and with whom I can be myself
  • I can work from home, do a job I love, and get paid well
  • We have the choice of all sorts of quality food and have enough money not to have to worry about whether we’ll be able to afford the bill when we get to the cash. 
  • We also have enough money that we can afford some luxuries like owning a cottage and taking trips if ever we feel like we need to get away. 
  • We’re all very healthy and aren’t hindered by any disabilities or serious illnesses

This is only a short list of the many things I have to be grateful about, but when you don’t intentionally stop to think about it, it’s incredibly easy to take these things for granted and be dissatisfied with them.

If I spend my time dreaming about living in a mansion, having a big cottage with a speed boat, and driving sports cars, it’s incredibly easy to be unsatisfied with my townhouse, little cottage, and Venza.  The reality is that I likely would not be any happier, even if I did have those things. And even if I did, I’d probably be dreaming  of something bigger and better, never really being satisfied and happy with what I’ve got. 

Let me close this post off with a really poignant and relevant video I came across yesterday. 

Hobby-hopping

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. It’s difficult to get into a habit. I’m especially bad for starting something and not following up. In a sense, I’ve always thought there were positives with being open to trying new things and then letting go when you start to lose excitement.

Looking at it logically, if I get a lot of enjoyment out of starting something new but the enjoyment fades as I continue to do it, would I not get more overall happiness by starting something new than continuing something I don’t enjoy as much anymore?

I don’t know – I’m thinking there’s a factor I’m likely overlooking because I don’t feel like this continuous hopping of one thing to the next is really giving me any real profound happiness. I’m starting to think that perhaps the ‘cheap high’ of starting something new is nothing but that. I do something new, get excited about it, lose interest and become bored. My mind’s always looking for something better; something that I’ll enjoy more. I start something and get disappointed that it’s not as exciting as I expected it to be and then I feel bad that I didn’t follow up.

I also never really get the satisfaction of finishing projects and really developing a skill. Not only that, but it can get expensive.

Take my recent woodworking hobby as an example. I bought myself all sorts of tools and material and spent a good chunk of money setting myself up to do some woodworking. I really enjoyed it for a week. I built myself a workbench and started building a toy chest for Mia, my 8-month-old daughter. I built myself a bench at the cottage and that was supposed to be step 1 of building myself a little outdoor dining area. Now it’s been two months and I’ve barely touched any of it. I have a half-finished toy chest in the garage and tools taking up space (and $600-700 less in my bank account). Every time I walk by it, I feel guilty for not finishing it and feel like I should force myself to do it.

I’ve always prided myself on keeping busy and having many hobbies. Just with sports, in the past 2 years, I’ve played hockey, softball, volleyball (beach and indoor), curling, rock climbing, and squash. I also have an expensive road bike that I take out three times a year. I have a gym membership that I haven’t used in 3 months (though, to be fair, I did go very regularly for about 6 months before that). I bought a set of golf clubs that I bought 4 years ago that I’ve used once in the past two years, I have some 4 year old skis that I haven’t used for two straight winters, and I bought a tennis racket this winter that I’ve only used once all summer.

What is the point of all this? I don’t really know honestly. I do know that having all these things is quite expensive though. All the equipment is also cluttering up my house (well, garage and basement mostly), and I think the worst part is how it’s making me feel bad about myself. Having all these things makes me feel that I owe it to myself to go out and use it all so that I get my money’s worth. Then I feel guilty because I haven’t been using them as much as I feel I should and it drags me down.

So ya, maybe I do get a brief high when I get a purchase. I think that the idea of doing the sport or the hobby excites me more than the actual act of doing it. I think that’s at the root of a lot of my purchases; I keep associating them with some ideal that isn’t realistic. Then I feel bad because my expectations weren’t met and I move onto the next purchase in search of a ‘better life’, never really appreciating what I do have.

First steps

I’m not generally someone who takes things slow. When I’m excited about something, I’m all in. If I were on my own, I’d have probably thrown out half of what I own by now – 4 days into my recent enlightenment.

Sharing Minimalism

I have to take a different approach with this though since I’m married and share the majority of my stuff and space with Kristina, my wife.

You see, my wife’s pretty amazing; she not only puts up or encourages my constant ‘experiments’, she’s usually game for trying them with me. This one, however, struck a bit of a nerve. Owning and buying nice things was just such a core part of who we are. We both loved to shop and buy fun things.

I am big into gadgets and gizmos. I use them for a short while and they sit there and gather dust after. She’s big into buying and storing all sorts of nice things that might be useful at some point or that we use once or twice a year. As an example, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have over 10 serving trays and plates.

Anyhow, she’s not such a fan of my ‘minimalist movement’ at this point. She’s trying to keep an open mind, but you can see it’s tough for her.

To her defense, I did come out pretty strong with this, so I realize I need to take this slow, no matter how hard that is for me. I think that as she sees that it’s working well for me, she’ll open up to the idea a bit more. I doubt if we’ll ever really reach the standard of minimalism I’d like to see, but I think we could get down to a nice level of minimalism that works well for the both of us.

Next Areas of Focus : Home Office

After having cleared out my wardrobe, I decided that my office would be a great place to start. I’ve been working in this office daily for about 6 months and it has never felt clean and tidy. I’ve had all sorts of boxes and furniture in here from the day we moved in, really.

I wish I’d have taken a before picture but here’s an after picture:

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There is still some work to do, but it’s night and day from what it was before. I feel so much better working here and being in this space now.

Treading into Kristina’s Territory

So, I messed up a bit here. The first thing Kristina told me was not to touch her kitchen; and I agreed. Unfortunately, amidst all of my excitement, I forgot about our agreement and figured I’d surprise her and ‘minimalize’ parts of the kitchen (bad idea). Needless to say she was not happy with her surprise, but she did agree to let it slide and allowed me to keep things as they are for the time being (thank you, hun).

I did only focus on a couple of areas, and really, for the most part just got rid of duplicates (and triplicates).

To give you an idea of how much crap we can cram into a small space, here’s a picture of one of our cupboards emptied out (Fun fact: there were 4 bottles of rice vinegar in the cupboard. We haven’t used rice vinegar in 3 years. Kristina insisted we keep one bottle):

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I don’t have an ‘after’ picture because I’m still slightly embarrassed at how much stuff is still in there, but it’s a start!

I’m loving it though. With more space to store things I’m finding it noticeably easier to keep the kitchen clean and put things away. There’s still much more I’d like to do with the kitchen but that’s a battle for another day (or month).

Anyhow, I’m incredibly motivated to keep moving forward on this. I’m already starting to feel like some weight’s been lifted from my shoulders and I can’t wait to see where it takes me!