How our values change the course of our lives

compass
Ask people what is most important to them—what they think is the foundation for the best kind of life—and most would reply, “love, happiness, and good health.”

They’re not wrong. There’s lots you can live without, but if you don’t feel anyone cares about you, or fulfilled in any way, or if your body is failing, it’s hard to imagine life being that great.

On top of those, there are many other things that people value in life, such as:

  • Security (the feeling of safety and stability)
  • Intimacy (feeling connected or close to others)
  • Adventure (seeking fun/thrills, wanting to try out new things)
  • Freedom (being independent, ability to make own choices)
  • Contribution (making a positive change or difference)
  • Success (feeling accomplished)
  • Passion (doing enjoyable things)
  • Growth (learning new things, self-improvement)
  • Integrity (being honest and having strong moral principles)
  • Comfort (seeking pleasure, avoiding pain)
  • Many others…

What each value means and how important they are varies between each person. How you rank these values can affect everything from what kind of job or career you have, to who you choose for a partner (or, at least, what/who you would be happy with in the long term). One might value passion over security, and choose a job or person they love over one that earns more. Another might be horrified at that idea and do the opposite.

Values can be opposing or overlapping. Contribution might be synonymous with success for some, whilst others believe sacrificing security is necessary for success, in their startup for example.

What’s more, some people have higher values in one area, and a different value in other areas. Someone might seek security above all else in their relationships, but go all out adventurous in their travels.

The whole topic of values can be quite complex, but the main point is that you’ll hardly find two things on the anyone’s list that the majority of people in the modern world are spending most of their waking life on—money and material things.

Money and material things are not really values, but are means to get some of the feelings we do value. Money may give people a sense of security or freedom, and having nice things gives some people comfort, or a feeling of accomplishment.

Rarely are money and things actually valuable to people, deep down. Yes, money can afford you basic necessities and healthcare, but it can’t buy you love and fulfilment. Ask anyone who has bought something that they’ve long dreamed of buying if they would happily die now, you’ll hear a resounding no.

Living minimally is a reminder to focus on our values. Instead of being caught up with keeping up with the latest trends on Instagram, or what people think of us, we instead try to minimise distractions and bring our actions back in line with what’s really important to us.

Would you buy the biggest house on the street if you didn’t have time to spend in it with your family? That depends if you value love over what the neighbours think. Would you get into debt for the latest gadget or designer shoes? That depends if you value security and freedom over appearances.

Our values don’t make us who we are but how we rank them influences everything we do. Our actions should be aligned with our values, but you’ll be surprised by how many people haven’t even thought about it, or spend years ignoring the signs, or even doing the complete opposite of what would actually make them happy.

If we can agree that the best life is spent dedicated to what mattered to us the most, then let’s not waste any more time. Cut out, pare down, simplify. Clear the path ahead. By deciding what we value the most, we create our life compass, pointing us in the direction we want to go.

On Values’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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On Materialism

An often misunderstood part of minimalism is that it is an all or nothing deal.

With popular books, articles and videos showing ‘minimalists’ living in white boxes with just three shirts, two plates, and one pen, it’s no wonder why most people get the wrong idea.

A minimalist lifestyle is defined by each individual’s own terms. For some, owning less than 100 things is their definition. It’s not wrong, but it’s doesn’t fit every aspiring minimalist. Rather than being defined by how much you have or don’t have, it’s about being mindful of the things we introduce and keep in our lives.

Sometimes things have a use, and that’s okay.

A case for stuff

It has become fashionable to demonise acquiring material things as a waste of money and a pointless exercise. Most of us know that buying more won’t keep us happy in the long term, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it.

The feeling of satisfaction or superiority that comes from buying certain things is superficial, which is why the rush doesn’t last long. But some possessions can actually be meaningful to us.

A new suit gives us a much needed confidence boost at work, a set of paintbrushes reveal our creative side, a language course booked to learn something new, a tablet computer connects us to family and friends, a skiing holiday pushes us to take risks, a photo album full of memories makes us smile, a full bookshelf reminds us of how much we’ve learned over the years…

Things like this are needed as part of a life well lived. It may be an unpopular conclusion to come to on a blog about minimalism, but perhaps sometimes buying stuff is not a complete waste after all.

Importantly, however, is the realisation that just having useful possessions is not enough by itself to transform us for the better. Even religions like Zen Buddhism which encourage the use of mindfulness bells acknowledge that a bell by itself is not enough to make us paragons of calm. But for many monks and laypeople, every ring feels like it’s tuning them little by little into the kind of person they aspire to be.

Approached in the right way, material goods can help us become happier people, but achieving the right balance can be difficult. Here is where minimalism as a practice comes in—helping us become more disciplined with our desires and mindful of distractions that tempt us away from the kind of life we want to live.

On Materialism’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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Minimalism and our natural biology

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Based on thousands of years of evolution, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to reward us when we feel pleasure, and punish us when we feel pain. If you do something that your body likes, it rewards you with a rush of dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals making you feel happy. It hardly matters what the consequences are in the long term.

The major flaw in this system is that any pleasurable feelings that you initially felt for doing/eating/getting something will always fade away. This is so that you’ll go out of your way to get it again.

Imagine if a chimp ate a banana and felt happy about it for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of starvation whilst his chimp friends whose dopamine hits faded away would go on to seek the feeling again. The most well fed chimps would be the strongest and most likely to find mates, thereby passing on their dopamine seeking genes. Meanwhile our chimp who got everlasting happiness from his first banana wouldn’t be motivated to do much else, and would likely end up dying without having passed its genes.

Multiply this by thousands of generations of evolution and couple it with the fact that we can get dopamine fixes as easily as buying a new pair of shoes and we begin to understand why living a minimalist lifestyle is so difficult.

To intentionally abstain from the fun and flashy things that wins us social approval is basically going against human nature itself. Indeed, humans are especially difficult to please because it doesn’t take long for our brains to become normalised to the hit of buying the latest gadget before having it is no longer enough. At least chimps are happy with bananas—if they were human they would inevitably get bored and find a way to upgrade to the latest version.

What can we do about this? Unfortunately, short of reprogramming our evolutionary biology, we can’t do a whole lot about the way that our brains react to pleasure, or absence of pleasure. But as Homo Sapiens we do have the ability to override our biology using our intellect. We can look back into the past, come to conclusions about our decisions, and make predictions about the future.

We can look back and see that for almost every material thing we have bought in our lives, the ‘happiness’ we felt in that moment eventually faded. From this we can conclude that continually buying new things may not be an effective or sustainable way to obtain happiness. Instead, we can decide to concentrate on the kinds of things that make happiness last, such as our hobbies and achievements, memorable experiences, and close relationships.

Being human can be both a curse and a blessing. When I see how happy a pet dog is playing in the grass, or how satisfied with life a house cat is, I sometimes wonder why we humans have to make things so complicated.

Maybe if we spent half as much time and effort learning how to be happy as we do on buying stuff, we could actually do it. Just as we can choose to have carrots over cake, our biology can be overcome—it’s a factor, not an excuse. Perhaps the real determinants of happiness are how ready we are make the most of the situation we’re in, and our willingness to make the hard choices. That’s what makes a difference.

On Nature’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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How a Stolen Bike Made Me Rich

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A few years ago, back when I was still a university student, I bought a brand new road bike which I owned and loved for a couple of months before it was quietly stolen in the early hours of a grey rainy morning. There were no any security cameras, so the local police couldn’t do anything about it. I never got it back.

I was devastated. It was worth the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, which was a lot of money to me back then when I only working part-time around my studies for £8 an hour and was spending less than £20 a week on food. For months after that every time I thought about the money I wasted on a stolen bike I would kick myself for not being more careful.

I was so upset and angry that I made a vow to myself that one day I would earn enough money so that losing a few hundred dollars would never affect me so badly again.

Little did I know that over the next few years the incident would become fuel for my future growth and a valuable life lesson.

Over the following months I worked hard to finish my degree and was awarded prestigious internships in the public sector. I was offered good job opportunities at the end, but I turned them down because it wasn’t enough for me. I switched to the private sector because it paid more money. I’m not saying that the bike incident was the only reason (after all, I had been bought up by Asian immigrant parents who equated money with self-worth which took me years to get over) but I was definitely motivated by earning more money for the better part of my career.

Eventually I grew exhausted with corporate life, so I quit the conventional career path and started my own business so I could work less but still, of course, earn more money. To cut a long story short, now my investments are paying off and my business is growing every year. I’ve earned and saved enough resources in the last two or three years that I’ve noticed myself feeling more free about spending and giving money away.

So thanks to the bike thief, I made and fulfilled that promise to myself to earn enough money so that a few hundred dollars isn’t such a big deal any more. At least, it’s not worth getting so upset over because I can earn it back. But looking back now I can see that the original promise was a shallow reaction to losing money. The real question is, how can feel less stressed about money, and more happy about my life? Is it as simple as earning more?

No, the answer is more complex. Certainly earning more money helps (and I do appreciate there are people who don’t have a lot and would be horrified at the thought of working hard for something expensive and having it stolen—see above, I’ve been there) but as I get older and I naturally cycle through more things over time, I’ve also noticed myself getting less and less attached to things in general.

Whereas when I was a child the few toys and clothes I had were precious to me, nearly three decades later I’ve gone through hundreds of possessions which have come into my life, been used, and then donated or disposed of. It’s not that I’m much more wasteful than the average person (in fact as a practising minimalist I have less than most people) but it’s just a natural result of living a normal life—clothes wear down, favourite mugs break, books get read, gadgets die… eventually things get replaced. Repeat the process a few dozen times for everything I’ve ever owned and naturally one becomes less attached to each thing. Heck, I’ve even gone through another 1-2 bikes since that one was stolen (before you judge, I cycle everywhere, I don’t own a car). It hasn’t escaped my notice how extremely rich and privileged I already am to be able to live like this.

However, the most important factor is gaining an awareness of time passing, and having more important things in my life to occupy me as I grow older. My business, my health, my relationships with my partner, family and friends… they all take time and mental energy to maintain and grow but they are the things that matter to me the most. They make my life worthwhile and I would pay any amount of money to have them. It just doesn’t make sense to waste energy worrying about buying/keeping material stuff or fretting about small things that don’t matter in the long run.

All of this, I realise, is what a minimalist lifestyle is supposed to be about—not having less stuff for the sake of it, but having less because it means worrying less and enjoying more.

Minimalism gives us the freedom to separate the trivial from the vital, to let go of stuff so that we can get over one stupid stolen bike and go on to lead a a rich and meaningful life anyway.

On Perspective’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

Written by Jessica Dang
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In Praise of Quiet Moments

by Jessica Dang

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by Jessica Dang

We tend to measure life by our memories. The most joyful or devastating, exciting or stressful, interesting or hard fought for milestones, from one to the next, they stand out the most in our minds.

These are the things we go out of our way to do, to plan for, to work for, to pay for. Advertising encourages us to fit as many ‘experiences’ as we can cram into our lives. When the big moment arrives, we take photos on our smartphones, upload to social media, even journal or tell our friends and children about it.

We remember these events for years, but everything else in between is forgotten.

What did you do on an typical Tuesday afternoon? Or a quiet Thursday evening? Or a routine Sunday morning? It may seem unimportant, but what if the ordinary in-between moments are just as powerful as the extraordinary ones?

Who knew that a regular day sitting on the sofa with my grandmother, half watching TV while sharing some fruit would be the last time I saw her alive? Nothing lasts forever, not even the mundane. Everything will pass, whether you notice it or not.

Indeed, it is a practice to be as grateful for the journey as the destination. It’s not easy to give our limited attention to the unremarkable moments, but they probably make up about 90% of our daily lives. If we live a good life with multiple journeys to multiple destinations, what kind of fulfilment would we have if we only appreciated 10% of it?

So maybe in a month’s time I won’t remember this moment—sipping my coffee as I write this, the smell of it waking me up to the sound of the city going by outside my window on this sunny July morning—but I can enjoy it right now, thoroughly and gratefully, for everything it’s worth.

On Productivity II — the power of focus

by Jessica Dang

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focus

So you’ve chosen the ‘right things to do’, now how do you get them done?

The answer is simple—focus on one thing at a time.

It sounds easy, but just think of how many tabs you have open right now. Even while you’re reading this, there are probably a dozen other things distracting you.

Your mind and body have limited bandwidth. Most things that need to be done properly require our full attention but very rarely do we give what we’re doing our fullest effort.

Instead, we spread ourselves too thin. I can’t tell you how many yoga classes I’ve had where I was supposed to be breathing with my movements, but instead I was thinking about work. Or how often I’m talking to someone but internally deciding what to make for dinner. Or when I’ve sat down to read a book but 30 seconds later I remember a text I’ve supposed to have sent…

Focus takes practice. It’s not something that you can easily switch on or off. You have to be willing to work on it and declutter distractions from your life—turn off notifications, cancel Netflix, outsource tasks, say ‘no’ more more often, delete those apps, lock the door, stay up later or wake up earlier to get quiet time.

When we try to do too many things at once, we do none of them well. Sometimes we’ll get by and no one notices our attempts were half-assed. But anything worth doing, the things that really matter, by definition are worth it because they’re hard, and need concentration, and the willingness to pursue them relentlessly.

So let us focus, not to get more things done, but to do things better. Life is too short to be mediocre.

‘On Productivity II’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

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On Productivity — the difference between efficiency and effectiveness

by Jessica Dang

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Back when I was an aspiring career girl who thought the epitome of success was earning a Director’s title and a generous bonus package every year until I retired comfortably at 65, I used to be obsessed with productivity. How could I get more things done in less time? How could I fit more into my busy life?

After years of cramming more and more work and other commitments into each day until I barely had time to sleep, I became exhausted with the long hours and complete lack of free time I had to do the things I really enjoyed. I realised I had been going about it all wrong.

I used to think that doing more automatically meant living more, but that’s not true. Life shouldn’t be about fitting more of just anything into it. There will always be more things you can do to fill a thousand lifetimes. Instead, it should be about making time for the ‘right’ things and eliminating all the other stuff that doesn’t matter.

There is a difference between being efficient, versus being effective. One is about doing something that takes up limited resources (time, energy) with the least waste, and the other is about intentionally doing things that make an impact.

In other words, being efficient is about doing things right, while being effective is about doing the right things.

Productivity advice is too focused on the former instead of the latter. Doing things right is fairly easy. That’s what how-to books and productivity blogs are for. The harder thing is choosing the right things to do. We are swamped in work, meeting requests, invitations, the media, places to go, new things to try out, TV shows to watch… there isn’t enough time to do it all, even if you can do it all efficiently in the least time possible.

What counts as a ‘right’ thing? There’s no easy answer, but you’ll know deep down if what you’re spending your time on feels right. Is it important to you? Or important to someone you love? Are you enjoying it? Does it make you feel good? Are you making other people’s lives better? Is it short term or long term? Is it fun and challenging? Are you growing? Is it meaningful? What if you died tomorrow? Can you think of a better way to spend your time? Will you remember this day years from now?

If we pared down to the things that mattered the most then we would feel less FOMO, and wouldn’t need to be in such a hurry. There are some things that aren’t meant to be rushed. How unfortunate would it be if we didn’t have the time to take our time on things like making a delicious home-cooked meal, getting engrossed in a good book, or making memories with loved ones.

These moments are the stuff life is made of. Choose wisely, and enjoy every moment.

‘On Productivity’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

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Dear Grandma

by Jessica Dang

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My dear mama, you passed away earlier this month.

You had been ill for a long time, so it wasn’t unexpected. At least you were surrounded by family when it happened. Everyone dropped everything to go to your house that night. There were a lot of tears.

You lived a hard and busy life, immigrating from Vietnam to England forty years ago bringing your ten children with you. With such a big family, your house always had people coming in and out to visit, to talk about everything and nothing, to eat and drink tea until late into the night. Weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Years have always been hectic and wonderful and full of food and laughter.

In the end though, old age took over. You got breast cancer, and eventually liver cancer and other ailments that made you so weak you needed help with everything. We all did our best to take care of you, getting you the best treatment we could, but in the end, we had to let you go.

Growing up, you didn’t have much. You married a man, my grandfather, who was from a village in the mountains near the border of China and Vietnam. You had to have ten children because you were so poor you didn’t know how many would survive until adulthood. Some actually didn’t survive—as close as we all are, there are members of our family that I would never know.

So it’s no wonder you valued money so much. Having it meant the survival of your family, which was everything to you. When you all came to England in the 1980’s to look for a better life, everyone worked hard at the few years they had at school to learn English so that they could find work. My own father, who was 14 at the time you moved here, only had a single year of education. Those first few years were all about learning to survive in a new world.

Eventually everyone found their feet. All ten children became adults, found jobs or started successful businesses and married and had children. Some even went on to have their own children and you and Grandad became great-grandparents. Ten years ago, Grandad passed away and although you were alone without him, you were never lonely with all of us being there for you.

We started with nothing but now our family has more money than we could have imagined as refugees from a mountain village. You started a dynasty, but we haven’t forgotten our roots. Although money is useful, it isn’t the most important thing. To this day every one of us would do anything to support each other.

You were a minimalist by circumstance, not by choice. You didn’t have much, but what you did have and all that mattered were things that money couldn’t buy—good health for as long as possible, a loving family, and living a full and happy life. You had everything you ever needed, and I’m glad for that.

May you rest in peace.

‘Dear Grandma’ post was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

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On Maturity — What would I tell myself if I could go back 10 years?

by Jessica Dang

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It was my 27th birthday this month. Although I don’t feel that old yet, almost every day I’m reminded of memes I don’t understand, trends I haven’t heard of, or technology I didn’t know existed. I feel a big difference between myself and ‘kids these days’. In fact, I have a brother who is 11 years younger than me, but it often feels like he’s from a different generation.

Amongst all of this change in the world, I realise there has been a lot of change within myself too. I wasn’t always so comfortable with not being up-to-date on the latest fashions and gadgets. Like most teenagers, I overcompensated for my self-confidence issues by trying in my own way to be as cool as possible. For me that meant having cool stuff like the latest iPhone or laptop to show off with. People would gather around me and it would make me feel better about myself, but only for a while. Obviously buying stuff wasn’t a long term fix for my insecurities. Those times sowed the seeds for the minimalist lifestyle I developed soon after.

As a teenager I dreaded getting older, but a decade later I’m in a much, much better place. The biggest lesson I learned is to not give a f*ck. Who cares where I live, what job I do, or whether I have the latest iPhone? No one! Or at least, no one cares nearly as much as I thought.

Realising that and being okay with it has been huge. Once I let go of other people’s expectations of me, I was free to do whatever I want—it’s unlikely people care enough to judge me for it, and even if they did, who cares! Certainly not me.

Hence living minimally to avoid debt and save up enough to be able to quit my job in my mid-twenties to start my own business. Could I have done that if I was concerned about what people thought of me? Probably not. I would have felt too self conscious to say no to spending $100 on a night out, worrying about what outfit I was wearing, or which car I was driving, or staying in a luxury hotel so that I could instagram it, instead of saving up the start up capital I needed to be free of those kinds of traps.

Two years on, I only work a couple of hours a week but earn twice as much as I did in my soul-sucking job. I have the freedom to pursue anything I want to. I can sleep/read/travel whenever I want, and thanks to not being tied to a desk all day, my health is better than ever. On top of that, I can give more to people and causes I care about, because I have more to give.

It wasn’t easy getting here, but neither was it that hard to be honest. It was a series of small sacrifices and good decisions that paid off. I only wish I started started sooner. That is, if I could go back ten years and give advice to my 17 year old self, or indeed to my younger brother now, I would say, “Hey, you. Stop worrying so much about what other people think, they don’t know all the answers themselves. Breathe. If you do what you feel is the right thing, you’re going to find happiness. I promise.

‘On Maturity’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

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On Vanity — how valuable things can actually be worthless

by Jessica Dang

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Why do we buy stuff? Not everything we buy is useful, so there must be other reasons why we work so hard to buy things.

Maybe it’s because we find a sense of happiness or satisfaction when we buy something new, but we all know that that feeling soon fades (even though we almost never remember this every time we buy something new).

Why we buy stuff has less to do with the object itself than with ourselves. When we buy expensive clothes, the newest gadgets or a flashy car, it’s because we believe it will give us recognition from the people around us—we’ll ‘show’ them how successful we are so that they’ll accept us, or even love us.

Humans crave recognition. To be part of a group, or at least not be in some else’s shadow. Most people are more influenced by what other people think of them than what they actually want ourselves.

Think about it—if everyone in the world disappeared tomorrow and you were the only one left (apart from the upset you would have from losing your friends and loved ones) what would you do now that you could have anything you desired?

You could just walk into someone’s mansion, even the most beautiful castle, and have it all to yourself. You could pick and choose anyone’s finest clothing and jewellery, even put on the crown if you wanted to! Drive a Ferrari, swim in bank notes, have hundreds of iPhones. But after a while, what would happen? With no one to impress, the chances are that you’ll find somewhere more convenient and easier to maintain than a huge house, you’ll wear clothes that are more comfortable, you’ll drive something more practical and you’ll get bored of the latest gadget.

Things you thought were worth a lot won’t matter as much any more. You’re the last person on earth, there’s nothing left but to find something worthwhile to do, something that makes you happy, not anyone else.

If no one was around to validate our existence, as society has defined by how much stuff we have, we would wouldn’t actually care about it. Hardly anyone would actually choose to have their life’s purpose revolve around buying things, but so many people do exactly that every day, without stopping to question it.

We don’t have to go as far as erasing every other person on Earth. If we just cared a little less about what other people think, we’d care a little more about what we want, and what really matters to us.

‘On Vanity’ was originally published via Minimalist Meditations.

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