Friday, August 23, 2013


Our family loves books.  The public library is one of favorite places ever.  We go there at least once each week.  Usually, I spend most of our visit in the kids' section helping my daughters find books they want to read.  In the past, I did not necessarily have time to look for something I wanted to read on my own.  But in anticipation of this huge crossroads in my life, on a recent visit, I picked up several nonfiction books on topics I want to explore more in coming months. 

One book was Tammy Strobel's You Can Buy Happiness (and It's Cheap):  How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How you Can Too.  (How can you not be drawn to a title like that?!)  Over the years, I've read a lot of books on simple living.  They were all fascinating and helpful in their own way.  But one thing I particularly appreciated about Ms. Strobel's book was how down-to-earth and honest she was. 

Ms. Strobel admits she is not a perfect minimalist.  She loves buying books and indulging in chocolate.  She and her husband took on debt to downsize to a tiny home.  She shares in the book how she fretted this financial step backwards made her a fraud or hypocrite. 

But I love how Ms. Strobel is very forgiving.  Perfection is not the goal, which she reminds her readers often.  That is a tough lesson for us to learn in modern America where our culture sends us the opposite message all the time.  One screw up and you are out of a job, will be sued or will ruin your kids' lives.

Working towards an ideal like voluntary simplicity takes time.  You may never get to the ideal anyhow.  That's why it's an idea.  And everyone's circumstances are different.  Learning to slow down, stop all the busyness to enjoy a higher quality of life.  That is what counts.  No guilt trips if your circumstances put you in a home or a job that meets the needs of you and your family but may not be as simple as you would ultimately like.

Ms. Strobel's book describes her journey in simplifying her life, and also tells the stories of people she knows.  I like that.  We learn from hearing each other's stories. 

Some of what I read was familiar.  I had been through experiences like those of the people described in the book.  For example, Ms. Strobel talks about her miserable early career in the corporate world.  She was on what Sonja Lyubomirsky calls the "hedonistic treadmill" in her book The How of Happiness.  Many of us deal with the stress of our hectic lives by buying something, which is only a temporary salve and distraction, but ultimately leaves us unfulfilled.  Moreover, when we're on that "hedonistic treadmill," we often make things worse in the long run.  We spend from our savings or go into debt such that we are trapped in our miserable, overly demanding jobs to pay for the stuff we're buying but don't really need.

As much as I admire her and her book, let's get something straight:  Tammy Strobel and I live very different lives. 

She is married and has a cat, but no human children.  I'm married with two human kids and two canine ones.

In their journey to simplify, Ms. Strobel and her husband eventually went carless.  They now bike all over the place.  That ain't ever going to happen in my life!  I don't even aspire to it.  I live in a sprawling metropolitan area where cars are king and the heat is life-threatening in the summer.  We'd be more than inconvenienced if we had no car.  We'd rarely be able to go anywhere and our lives would be in danger!

Ms. Strobel and her husband also moved to a tiny home consisting of 128 square feet.  That ain't ever happening in my life either.  Again, I don't even aspire to it.  Even if we doubled the square footage and looked at a 250ish square foot home, that would not be attractive.  We have active children and we spend a lot of time together at home.  It would not improve the quality of our lives to be so pressed for space.  I'm not going to make our kids give up all their toys.  And unlike Ms. Strobel and her husband, if someone in our family wants alone time, we cannot just venture out for a walk or bike ride by him or herself.  Our kids are too young for that.

Pointing out these differences are not a criticism of Ms. Strobel.  Not in the least.  Our family dynamics are different.  What works for one family may not work for another.  Ms. Strobel acknowledges that in her book.  Simplifying is not a one size fits all sort of thing.

Even though I'll likely never live the "radically simplified" life that Tammy Strobel writes about in her book, I found much that inspired me in her words. 

Many bits of inspiration were actually concepts that I'd read about in the past, but had lost sight of over time.  (I've had a particularly intense professional life the past few years and my kids have gotten older, which means their needs are more complex.)  In that sense, Ms. Strobel's book was a great reminder of past lessons I'd learned but forgotten to some extent.

But I also learned new things in her book,  On pp. 10-11, she writes about Tim Kasser's book The High Price of Materialism.  She sums up Professor Kasser's findings: "In short, materialism distracts us from two main facets in life that actually make us happy--strong relationships and doing work you love."  I loved that summary. 

Strong relationships and doing work you love.  That's what it is really all about, isn't it? 

For so long, I've spent most of my waking hours doing work for my paid gig.  Much of it had become drudgery and full of office politics.  It was draining.  There were aspects I liked very much.  But over time, it seemed like those became less and less a part of my job.    

Meanwhile, I feel like to some extent I've missed some of my kids' childhood.  Mommy was always so busy, so much to do for her paid job.  There are only so many hours in the day, and I didn't always have a lot of time to spend with my kids.  I'm anxious to not miss any more.

As I go through this journey, I'm going to try to return to this summary as my priorities.  Building strong relationships and doing work you love. 

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