Visualize for a moment that you have everything you want in your life. You feel fulfilled by your work, relaxed about your finances, and contented in your day-to-day activities. (And no, this is not a unicorn-filled fantasyland. This is your life!)
Imagine you are watching a film of yourself living out this perfect contentment, and take note of all the sensory details. Ask yourself the following questions to help you get in touch with this vision:
· What do you do every day?
· Where are you?
· What do your home, your workplace, and your regular hangouts look like?
· What do you wear?
· Who do you spend your time with?
· What do you spend your money on?
· How will you know you have reached this vision?
I’m writing this all as a neat list of questions, but these should be things you take your time to imagine in all their glory. You want to know exactly what kind of life you’re working toward, and feel in your gut how satisfying it will be to live the life you want.
So, go ahead and daydream, vividly. It’s fun! We’ll wait.
Live the Life You Love
Back now? Great!
Now that you have envisioned the life you want; you can use your vision as a kind of yardstick for your decisions. With each decision you make, you can ask yourself if the choice will help you build the life you want.
For instance, imagine your extended family wants you to join them on a four-day cruise. Now that you have created your life vision, you can ask if booking the cruise will help you reach the life you envision. Perhaps the life you envision includes spending more time with family, which makes this cruise a great fit. You might have to reduce your spending in other areas to afford this trip, but since the cruise aligns with your life vision, you may be able to cut expenses that are less important to your vision in order to afford it.
On the other hand, if spending more time with your family is important but not the foremost part of your life vision, you may find that the cruise does not align with what you want. If that is the case, but you are dragging your feet about calling Aunt Tillie to let her know that you won’t be coming, it’s time to consider what is tempting to you about the trip. Is there something in your life vision that needs to be tweaked to include what you like about the potential cruise? Or might you simply just need to remind yourself of how much you want the life you envision to be able to say no to Aunt Tillie’s invitation?
There are no wrong answers to any of this. There are only decisions that align with what you want or decisions that do not align with what you want. The better you know and accept who you are and what you want, the easier it will be to make decisions that help you create the life you envision and stay the course when Aunt Tillie lets you know how disappointed she is. She may lay it on thick, but it’s easier to stand firm when you realize this is about living your best life.
Love the Life You Live
The life you have envisioned is not only attainable, but aspects of it may already exist in the life you’re currently living. Recognizing what you already have is an important aspect of living mindfully and reducing the urge to use money to help you feel more satisfied. There are a number of exercises that can help you recognize what aspects of your dream life are already present in your current life:
1. Focus on Contentment in Your Current Life
It’s common to fall in love with your vision of an ideal life and put all of your expectations of happiness on that vision. For instance, if you have always dreamed of becoming a novelist (ahem), it can feel as though you have failed at your life if you find yourself in your 40s with no publications under your belt. Focusing solely on your unfulfilled literary ambitions can cause you to overlook your loving relationship with your spouse, your network of friends, your cozy house, and the joy you still get from writing every day.
This is why it’s important to focus on what you have that currently brings you contentment, even if it is not the grand vision you dream of. It can also help to visualize what aspects of your current life you would miss if your greatest ambition came to be. This will allow you to stay centered in the contentment that is always available to you as you work to achieve your dream life.
2. Express Gratitude
Regularly expressing gratitude for the things in your life can improve your feelings of optimism, happiness, and life satisfaction. It works because it can help you identify the abundance that is already in your life. It is much harder to pine for something new, improved, shiny, or different when you regularly spend time reflecting on how much you already have.
And taking the time to express gratitude is also an act of mindfulness, since it asks you to reflect on what you have and enjoy in your life. This will also help you recognize the aspects of your life that are already aligned with the life you envision living.
There are a number of ways to begin the habit of expressing daily gratitude:
Share your gratitude list out loud to your family each day. You can each take a turn saying at least one thing you are grateful for. (This has been part of my sons’ bedtime routine since they were babies. They often express gratitude for unexpected and hilarious things, like “firetrucks and sharks” on one memorable occasion.) Not only is it endearing and funny to hear what the rest of your family says when you all share your gratitude list before bed, but it also gives you a moment to remember how glad you are to have them in your life, even if it’s been a tough day.
Keep a gratitude journal that you write in daily.
Meditate each morning or evening on what you are grateful for.
Thank the people in your life for what they do. When you think something nice about someone in your life, tell them. One of the best New Year’s resolutions I ever made was the decision to tell people when I thought something nice about them. This has run the gamut of simple compliments in the moment to a hand-written letter to an old friend who had years before given me a different way of looking at the world.
Thank the things in your life, a la Marie Kondo. Thank your car for getting you to work, your computer for saving your work presentation, and your FitBit for reminding you to take a walk.
Express gratitude for the things you wish were different. For instance, feeling thankful for the pain of a sprained ankle can help to remind you that your body is working hard to keep you healthy and whole. Pain is a byproduct of that work, and you can feel grateful for the discomfort because it means your body is taking care of you—and it will help you appreciate future pain-free days rather than take them for granted. I am also grateful every day for the pain and grief of losing my dad in 2013. Much as I wish we had more time with him, I am grateful for the love we shared, even though it hurts now. Without the hurt, I wouldn’t feel the love.
Each of these exercises will help you create a mindset of abundance. When your thoughts are full of how full your life is, you will be much less tempted by the desire to consume.
3. Use What You Love
When I was growing up, my cousin would keep his toys in pristine condition, sometimes leaving them in their original packaging, but never getting into the rough-and-tumble play with his action figures that most kids did.
I always thought this was bizarre—toys are meant to be played with, after all—until my husband and I received “good china” for our wedding. We have eaten off of those lovely, delicate plates less than a dozen times in the eleven years we’ve been married.
And of course, you only have to take a glance at all the gorgeous, unused blank notebooks running amok in my house to know that I’m not so different from my cousin.
What’s going on here is a reluctance to use the things we love most for fear of ruining them. We are so focused on the potential for loss that we don’t recognize how little satisfaction we are getting out of these unused items.
This can often lead to buying other things to try to feel satisfied with our stuff. In my cousin’s case, he owned scores of toys that he never played with, but there were always more toys he wanted. For me, I have gone through three sets of everyday dishes in the years we have owned our good china, each time hoping the new set will make me happy. And then there’s the unending influx of new blank notebooks into my house. Blank notebooks that never get used.
We can feel more satisfied with our lives by simply using the loved items that we are protecting from ourselves. While it’s possible that our beloved items could get damaged, the satisfaction of using them every day can help you overcome that fear.
In addition, paying attention in the present moment to how you feel using your beloved items will make the experience of using them both satisfying and memorable. The memories of those experiences will also serve as a protection against any regret you might feel at faded china or scraped paint or a notebook that’s got to-do lists and grocery lists in among the poetry and sketches.
4. Travel in Time
Living mindfully is all about being present in the current moment, letting go of the past and recognizing the future is out of your hands. But creating and living the life you want is sometimes about inviting in your past self and your future self to help you make sense of what is happening now.
For instance, you could think back to the past self that wanted the life you have now and reconnect with the excitement your younger self would feel about things in your life that have become ho-hum with time.
If I could tell my 20-year-old self that she would be a professional writer in 20 years, nothing could contain my younger self’s excitement. On the days when I’m behind on a deadline or not feeling the particular assignment I am working on, reaching back to my college-age self to taste her excitement at my day-to-day life is a great way to remember how much I really enjoy the life I’m living, even on tough days.
At the same time, you can ask your future self to feel some pre-emptive nostalgia for the aspects of your current life that you will miss when they change. There are things that you take for granted now that you will look back on fondly sometime in the future.
I need this reminder on the days when I find myself shouting “EVERYBODY STOP SCREAMING AT EACH OTHER!” to my kids. While the never-ending rough-housing, arguing, screaming, scheming, and attempts to get out of brushing their teeth may get on my last nerve, I can think ahead to future-me who will miss having two elementary-school aged children in the house. Knowing that she will look back on this time fondly can help remind me to enjoy what I have while I have it.
Live the Life You Love, Love the Life You Live
Human beings are unique in our ability to make ourselves miserable. Dolphins aren’t out there worrying about making their Aunt Tillie happy or acquiring an endless parade of unused goods that they keep in pristine condition. They just muck about in the water having a good time.
Of course, that means dolphins (and the rest of the animal kingdom) also don’t have the very human opportunity to build the life they want and build appreciation for the life they have.
Our very tendency to overthink things also gives us the opportunity to enjoy things far more. It’s simply a matter of turning our too-busy thoughts toward the decisions that will make us happiest while recognizing the little joys we already have.
What an excellent use of our imaginations!