My Smartphone, My Self

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Yesterday, I had driven three minutes away from my house and was running late for an appointment when that scary shower theme from Psycho started playing in my head.  I had Forgotten. My. Smartphone.

On a road with no easy exit, it would have taken me 20 minutes out of my way to turn back to get it.  Worse, I was not quite sure how to get to my destination, and I normally would have used my phone’s GPS app to find my way.  So the dilemma was, do I forge on and possibly make it on time, or go back for my phone and most certainly be late?

I soldiered on, the memory of my phone sitting on the kitchen counter taunting me.  What if there was an emergency and no one could reach me?  What if I wanted to capture a moment and tweet about it or post it on Instagram?  What if I needed to look something up on Google?  How would I survive the day without my Blackberry?*

But amazingly, without my smartphone appendage, a funny thing happened:

  • I made it to my destination without relying on GPS.
  • I performed with a dance troupe at a festival.
  • I chatted in person with the family and friends who were with me, rather than by text with those who are far away.
  • I shopped for flowers.
  • I planted herbs.
  • I sat out in the sunshine and enjoyed the view.
  • I read a chapter of my book.
  • I wrote out a list of things I needed to do in the coming week.
  • I planned out the design of my invitations for an upcoming birthday party.
  • I cooked supper.
  • I purged my closet of old clothes that no longer fit me.

Turned out, I was so involved in being present and enjoying the day that I actually forgot to retrieve my phone even when I got home.  By the time I remembered it, 9 hours had passed and I realized I hadn’t missed a thing, but I had been filled with so much. I couldn’t believe how much I had accomplished, freed from the distraction of checking for messages and the constant updates on Facebook.

All this, because I forgot my phone.

The day had felt good and purposeful.  Fulfilling.  Satisfying.

And this is what I learned:

1.  Just as turning the TV off can give you back hours in a day to accomplish things, so can setting boundaries around how much and how often you’ll check your phone.  Every moment of the day does not need to be spent with the head down staring at a screen, but should be enjoyed with the head up being present in the world.

2.  Relying on my smartphone has made me lazy about simple things like remembering driving directions or how to spell certain words.  I’d been to my destination before and knew the address, so the GPS lady was not really necessary.  And I used to be a champion speller in elementary school; surely I haven’t forgotten it all already?!

3.  The world will not stop revolving just because someone can’t text you, or because you weren’t able to post that photo of your lunch on Instagram.  We survived before smartphones and, yes, we can survive a few hours detached from them throughout the day.

Yesterday was such a lovely day that, who knows, I may “accidentally” forget my phone at home tomorrow, too.

* (OK.  Stop laughing.  I happen to like my Blackberry.  Yes, I’m retro.)

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The secret to happiness: love, lattes and Danish

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It turns out that the secret to happiness is no secret at all.

We can spend a lifetime chasing happiness, wondering why it eludes us when, really, it’s within our grasp all along.  Happiness is pretty simple, you see:  someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.  (Thanks for that, Rita Mae Brown.)

Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking.  “I’m single.  Are you telling me I’m out of luck for finding happiness?”  No, no, not at all.  “Someone to love” isn’t limited to just romantic love, that Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming, heroine-is-swept-off-her-feet-at-the-end-of-the-movie love known as eros.   Luckily, “someone to love” can be defined much more broadly.  There are as many different types of love as there are types of people to love.

For example, filia refers to the love between friends, an easy camaraderie that comes with years of knowing and hanging out with someone who accepts you as you are.  Storge is another type of love, usually describing the love between parents and children, or between siblings.  Think more Anna & Elsa from Frozen than Snow White & Prince Charming.  (Wait.  Snow White and Cinderella both married Prince Charming?  That’s confusing.  But I digress.)  And, finally, agape refers to the love a person can have for many people, including extended family or even strangers.

Surely you have someone to love in your life.  It may not be Prince Charming (that two-timer!  But I digress.) but it may be a parent, a child, a friend or a brother.

The second tenet of a happy life is to have something to do.  Maybe you dream of running away from your “real” life and spending idle time on a deserted island, but that would wear thin very quickly.  People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and work not only provides income but also gives us a reason to get out of our flannel jammies and move during the day.  Having work to do, including staying at home to raise children, guards against the withering of our brains and our bodies.

Recent surveys have been quoted that up to 70% of Americans hate their jobs or are disengaged from their work.  But people who are working, who are earning and who are contributing to their communities are happier and have lower rates of depression than those who are not working.  Perhaps we have just become accustomed to wearing our complaints about work as some badge of honour.   Maybe the 70% who hate their jobs can reframe their reality by acknowledging that it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, or that it makes them happier overall.  The Danes have got it right:  they have a word, arbejdsglæd , which means “happiness at work.”  I say, let’s be more Danish!

In areas where the economy is depressed or jobs are scarce, it is still possible to fulfill this requirement for happiness. Volunteering regularly is as effective in fulfilling a purpose as paid work.   When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and happiness in American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.  So go help in a soup kitchen.  Offer your labour to a community garden.  Paint an elderly neighbour’s house.  The best part of volunteering?  It not only gives you a reason to roll out of bed, but it also adds to your work experience, adding to your resume and potentially leading to a paying job.

Too much and too frequent idle time leads to boredom, and boredom breeds unhappiness.  As a kid, whenever I said, “I’m bored,” my mom would tell me to go help someone. (And when my mom said “help someone”, she really meant “go clean the bathroom.”  I tried not to be bored too often.)  Being useful to others made me feel purposeful and suddenly, my boredom would vanish.  No paid work?  No worries.  Go help someone.  Volunteer. Contribute your time, your energy, your labour to someone or some cause that needs it.

The third requirement for a happy life is something to look forward to.  Anticipation leads to happiness.  It could be as simple as getting together with friends during the week or planning a vacation 6 months out.  A Dutch study showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation, even more so than actually taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.

As for me, I look forward to my weekly splurge on coffee.  I generally limit myself to one Starbucks latte every Friday.  No matter how bad my week is, knowing that on Friday morning I can treat myself to a double tall non fat no foam equivalent of joy in a cup, I have a small skip in my step.  Actually, it’s a large skip in my step.  I look forward to that coffee with such glee that my coworkers have named the moments leading up to it as my “Friday Morning Latte Dance.”

Feeling like you need more happiness in your life?  It may already be within your grasp.  Do a quick audit of your life to determine the abundance that is yours already:

1) Do you have someone to love?  A spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend?  Love comes in many forms.  Don’t limit yourself to thinking it needs to be romantic, fairy tale, only-in-movies love to count.

2) Do you have something to do?  Work gives you a reason to get up in the morning.  Hate your job?  Think about the purpose of your work and connect your work tasks with this greater purpose.  Don’t have a job?  Volunteer and help someone who needs your ideas and energy.  Write a book.  Design jewellery.  Build a deck.  Do something.

3) Do you have something to look forward to?  If your calendar is blank, make a date with a friend for a Tuesday.  Plan a vacation.  Research upcoming local festivals that you can attend.  It doesn’t have to be grand.  You could just join me on Friday at Starbucks for a latte.

You don’t have to search far and wide to find happiness.  Have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, and happiness will find you.

Live with purpose

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In the 2013 movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, the title character’s main crush tells Walter that the secret to writing mystery novels is to figure out the ending first, then work backwards and scatter clues throughout the story.

A lot of articles counsel that we do the same with our lives: figure out how we want our eulogy to read and then live our life towards that ending.

For some people, that advice translates to identifying a profession or a calling and then making it happen. But is it a profession specifically that we should be pursuing? Many professions that exist today weren’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye 20 years ago.  Who knows what professions will be popular 20 years from now. The danger with defining your life by a profession is that it limits you to the possibilities as yet imagined.

So is it a calling, then, that we should be pursuing in order to end towards our desired eulogy?  “Calling” denotes something divine, a higher summons to do something profound.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a calling as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.”

Let’s face it.  Many of us still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up even years after leaving school, and even fewer of us live our lives the Merriam-Webster way.  So if it’s not a specific profession that we should be pursuing, then, or if we have not felt the “strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action”, how do we live our lives towards the eulogy we envision for ourselves?

Sometimes the answer to that question is found by paying attention to what is happening around us.  There was a period in my life, some years back, when three different people told me over the course of a couple months that I had (unwittingly) inspired each of them to do something better in their lives.   After the third time I heard that, I thought to myself, “maybe my purpose in life is to inspire others to achieve their best potential.”  Now, that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a specific career for me, nor am I certain that the revelation was due to divine influence, but the idea of this purpose in my life has informed many of the things I do, or how I do them.

Whether we know it or not, we all serve a purpose for one another and for this world.  We are brought into people’s lives for a reason.   It may be to inspire others to reach their best potential; it may be to help someone through a challenging period; it may be to teach someone something they wouldn’t otherwise discover on their own.

Sometimes the purpose does not reveal itself for years, if at all.  We may never know exactly what purpose we serve for another, but you can be certain that you have one.  How can you help yourself discover what that is?

1. With every interaction you have, including with strangers, ask yourself, “What is this person getting out if this?”  What the other is getting out of the interaction is your purpose at that moment.

2. Pay attention to recurring themes that come up when people talk to you . Do people describe you often as “helpful ” or “connecting” or ” funny”?  Maybe your purpose in a broader sense is described in these themes.

3.  Acknowledge that your purpose will change frequently depending on the circumstances you are in.  Your life does not have just one purpose, but many.

Rather than spend your time in pursuit of a profession, a calling, or an answer to “what do I want to be when I grow up”, live your life with deliberate acknowledgement in the moment so that, at the end of your life, your eulogy will read “She lived her life with purpose.”  Unless you’re male.  In which case, having a eulogy that refers to “she” will just confuse people.  And I don’t know the purpose in that.