Being happy doing nothing

As you know, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted (5 weeks, 6 weeks?). I have no good “excuse” really. I simply wasn’t inclined to write. I have spent lots of time with friends, made art intermittently and for one whole glorious weekend, gone for long walks in the woods with my husband, went shopping but bought nothing, exercised irregularly in the mornings, slept well… but I have done nothing earth-shattering. I’m starting to really like it.

But I am inclined to feel guilty. I have usually operated as if any moment spent should not be wasted, because in my odd sense of reality I am constantly reminded any moment may be my last. Perhaps it is time to redefine what types of moments are a “waste.” I have also operated in the “make everyone else happy first” mindset, and only in my “impulsive” moments do I manage to do what it right for me in that dilemma. It went sort of like this: “If you are capable of doing it, you should do it and do it well, and if you don’t do it you are a worthless sack of sh!t.” In my old perspective, how I’ve spent this summer would be considered a “waste” and would imply that I am a “bad” person. I didn’t bust my butt showing my art or even finishing a single art work. I haven’t dedicated myself solely to one cause or any cause. I haven’t beaten myself up for not being excellent at whatever I’ve set out to do. Instead I’ve gone through my days experiencing life, and enjoying my time without my lists. I’ve done what needed to be done and that’s it. I’ve accomplished things, but I haven’t expected the impossible (which usually only results in making me stressed, anxious, irritable, and resentful).

I’ve taken a different approach this summer. I call it being a “normal person.” Which is not a real concept, but an operational principal of my day-to-day plans. Historically I have tried to do great at everything I attempt. I set huge goals that are typically insurmountable and feel worthless when I don’t reach them. But these last four months, I’ve just been what I am. It’s been nice.

My friend Heather took this picture on a walk out in nature one evening. It’s serene days like these I enjoy most. Being out with friends, just enjoying each others’ company. This has been my best summer I can remember.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have set goals. They go like this:

  1. Do something every day to feel good in my body. This could be anything from exercising, to intimacy, to eating a cupcake.
  2. Focus on doing well at my job. I started a new job (love it!) earlier this year. I am putting my best energy there, making sure I learn the job as quickly and thoroughly as possible. It has paid off.
  3. Be more realistic. I’m tired of setting myself up for failure by expecting myself to do everything extremely. For example, it has never been “I’m going to try to be more active.” It’s always been, “I’m going to exercise for XX minutes XX times a week, doing XX exercises on varying days to tone XX muscles to lose XX pounds by XX date and here is my chart that I’ve spent hours making to do this very thing!” Seriously. I’d make the chart, do it for a week, life would get in the way, and I would abandon the plan feeling like a failure in the process. So now my efforts sound more like goal #1 – general guidelines, effort, and awareness. More fluidity. More living with the moment.
  4. Stop spending time on activities I don’t enjoy because I feel like I should or people expect me to do it. Yes, I still pay my bills and do house work. But my time on other non-essential activities has been reduced to something I can feel good about rather than dread.
  5. Focus on making art instead of showing it. My portfolio needs new work. Trying to show my work is time consuming. I am putting that on the back burner so I can make new work I am excited to show.

And I’ve done things, too. Rebuilt my art website, made headway on a piece and planned a few others, planned a baby shower, been a friend, made exercising a rough part of my routine, explored parks and cooking, volunteered, curated a show, organized my studio, visited relatives…. But only things I wanted to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And that is kind of my point for this post. What are you doing that you don’t enjoy? Can you exclude it from your life? Obviously there are things each of us don’t enjoy that we do because of what it brings us in the long run. You might not love disciplining your kids when they misbehave, but it makes them more respectable as adults. I don’t love paying bills or cleaning, but in the long run they ensure a comfortable lifestyle.

How can you streamline your life to be most full of things that make your day-to-day better (without hurting others unnecessarily – always this caveat…)? How can you make room for what really matters? I suggest stop looking at others’ lives and look only at your own. (Ever heard of “keeping up with the Jones-es?” It’s a load of crap.) For years the competitor in me had something to prove. I would see what others were doing and think, “I can do that.” I would try to do it, and sometimes I might succeed. But what that created was a list of “to do’s” that only fulfilled a quota of comparative self-worth, rather than a self-guided assessment of purpose and value. It didn’t bring me happiness. It just crossed something off a never-ending checklist (there’s always someone or something to live up to in this mode of operating).

I don’t know where this new mindset is taking me. I know I don’t want it to lead me to a life of couch-potato-dom, or to mindless consumerism and apathy. I’d like it to bring new energy to my heartfelt interests. We’ll see what happens, but I like the way this road feels. Pretty great. So great, it is almost scary!

4 thoughts on “Being happy doing nothing

  1. I got married 10 days ago! We rented a house on a lake in Vermont for the week after the wedding. The first few days we had 3 other friends at the house with us and then it was just the two of us. It was so quiet and serene and beautiful…the whole week. We talked about putting more energy into friendships because we find the time spent with friends is so fulfilling. And I sort of realized something else too. I struggle with living in NYC for many reasons; but, as I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and thought about our wedding which was at Anya’s cousin’s apple orchard with the Green Mountains in the background, I kept thinking: I need to get out of NY. I’ve had those thoughts before but the specific thing that seemed like a light bulb to me was that I realized: I want to live in quiet and beauty and VISIT NYC; not live in NYC and visit quiet and beauty. Part of that is it’s so easy to do nothing there.

    All the things you talk about are about living and accepting that paring down the to do list and just doing “nothing” which is really NOT nothing…are all the little parts of life that add up to a satisfying life lived. And I think when we do these things more and worry less about giant goals and plans, we end up accomplishing things far greater. Since my brain injury, I have to balance my energy and it is freeing because I get to think and say things like: I’m not agreeing to do anything for the next 4 months and I really let myself off the hook. I have to. If I need the summer to rest and rejuvenate, then…screw it…i need the summer to rest and that is that. The awesome thing is that I have been spreading the gospel because you don’t need a brain injury to need a stretch of time, no matter how long, where you get to let yourself off the hook for not diligently pursuing goals, checklists, to do lists, whatever. Sitting in the garden is an accomplishment.

    Sharon Salzberg said, “It is better to do nothing than to waste time.” I love that!!!

    I encourage you to let yourself off the hook. Think of it as a sabbatical from guilt. Maybe it will turn into a retirement!

    • Oh, Ann, I just love it when you comment. You are always so insightful and encouraging! I have read and reread your comment, and I cannot stop smiling. First, because you are so happy (congratulation on your wedding!!!). And second, because your words are the sorts I love to read after writing a post like this. You have offered such a wonderful affirmation…. 🙂

      I agree, too, my favorite thing is to get out into nature. This summer was the first in my *adult life* that I really got out and did things like that. Went I was 14 I used to sit out in our front yard under a tree and read, write, and enjoy the cool shade. But as I got older and busier, my time outdoors became isolated to events and commuting. It is so rewarding to get out into nature, isn’t it? I hope you will achieve your dream of leaving NYC one day for the country. Plenty of houses for sale out here – you’ll have no trouble finding a pretty one I’m sure!

      Sabbatical from guilt… I am going to run with that motto for awhile. I agree, a retirement from it sounds just dreamy!

  2. Re-reading some of your old posts while eating and thought I would post a comment as a reminder for you to check on how you’re doing on your listed goals. I especially like #4. Mostly I hope you are still spending significant time doing “nothing.” Also…I laughed at how you and your friends write these long insightful notes and I read and think, “Wow, I love this; I should comment. But sometimes the extent of my comment would be “Good Stuff!” Hahaha…I just think so simply sometimes. Surely also a side affect of being a sleep-deprived new mommy. BTW, Love all your posts!

    • Hi Sarah! I’m so excited for your comment – even if it is just “Good Stuff!” I love seeing it. 🙂 Comment to your heart’s content!

      I have done pretty good at #4 actually. It has been really freeing to be doing only what I want for the most part, rather than what makes others happy. Luckily people are happy with this new me just as well. The one I’m falling off the wagon on is #1. I was on a stint of yoga for awhile, and have had some physical set backs but I’ve let that halt my efforts completely which isn’t good. I was seeing the benefits of yoga in so many ways, and I still let it stop me. So I need to get back to doing that “good” something for my body! Thanks for the reminder. 😉

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