Surviving Modern Life and Financial Success

I want to throw a selection of interesting stories at you, all at once.

The average human is lonelier today than at any point in recent human history, and loneliness has hugely negative health and psychological effects. Here’s a good summary of those studies.

Humans are reporting record levels of personal stress around the world, and Americans are among the most stressed of all. Continuous daily stress has a negative effect on mood and a negative effect on health, and we’re all feeling it.

Maintaining a work-life balance is harder than ever, gobbling up other areas of our life in the process.

All of this together creates kind of a bleak picture, doesn’t it? Here we are, in the most prosperous era of human history by most accounts, and we’re stressed out, lonely and overworked.

I think there are a lot of people out there who yearn for something significantly different in their life. They yearn for deep social connection. They yearn for time to actually enjoy things they’re passionate about. They yearn to have those things without a shroud of personal, financial and professional stress hanging over them.

People want to “have it all.” They want to have a rewarding career. They want to have deep social connections and personal relationships. They want to have time for whatever form of leisure appeals to them. They want to have material trappings in their life. They want to have a strong family life, too.

But the truth is that you can’t have it all.

Here’s the thing: most people start focusing on finances in their life because these elements of stress are getting to them, particularly the work-life balance and the general life stress. Money causes stress, and when you’re working at a job that sucks up your life and you’re barely keeping your head above water, you start to yearn for a change.

I’ve seen that time and time again in the messages I get from readers, and I saw it in my own life, too. I approached our financial turnaround with such vigor because I felt many of those things in my own life. I was stressed out and was giving too much of myself to my job. I yearned for deep social connections but never had the time or energy to really build them. I wanted a better future for me, my kids and my wife.

In my mind, financial success was the route to those things, and it’s certainly a helpful tool. However, rather than financial success leading to lower stress, more free time and better social connections, I’ve found along the way that it’s much more of a synergistic thing. While financial success can help you achieve lower stress and more free time and better social connections, doing other things to improve those areas can actually help with financial success, too.

Why? We often use our money to try to combat the short term effects of those problems. We use money to buy short term stress relief. We use money to buy short term loneliness relief. We use money to try to fix that work-life balance, if just for a little bit. We use money to buy things that we think will fix those problems, and they do, for a moment.

As we find other tools, low cost or free tools, for surviving modern life, there’s less of a desire to use our money to fix those problems.

What follows is a toolbox of low-cost and free tools that do just that: they help us overcome most of those struggles of modern life without opening our wallets. These are all things that I’ve applied in the last decade of my life, and each and every one has helped me overcome personal loneliness, handle and reduce excessive stress, deflate feelings of being overwhelmed and melancholic, and achieve a much healthier balance between work and other areas of my life.

I’m going to start with some ways to recover some time from your life, so that you don’t find yourself asking “Where can I find the time for this?”

Cut down on your time spent watching television or streaming.

I’m not suggesting that you eliminate it, but rather I suggest cutting it down to where you’re not browsing for new things to watch but you’re making selective choices without browsing and just watching those things. Don’t seek out things to watch via channel surfing or browsing through show listings. Rather, if you have something you want to watch, sit down and enjoy that show, but don’t just browse for something else to watch. Get up and do something else or, if you’re too tired to do that, go get some genuine rest.

This is what my television viewing has gradually turned into. I basically watch television in two cases: our weekly family movie night and things that my wife and I hear about (usually through friends, but occasionally NPR or something like that) that we decide to watch together. Other than that, I don’t watch television.

This is an application of the 80/20 principle to television and streaming media. I eventually realized that 80% of the value I got out of watching television came from just 20% of the programs, so I decided to just watch that 20% that gave me value, which was basically just the “appointment viewing” — family movie night and a few selected programs I watch with my wife.

What’s the benefit of doing this? The big one is that it gives me a lot of free time for other things, obviously. Imagine giving yourself back the time that you spent watching forgotten television shows. There are some smaller benefits, too. I don’t really compare myself or my life to people on television anymore. I’m a lot less aware of — and care a lot less about — the latest and greatest products. I think I just generally feel better about myself.

Try it for a while. Pick out a few programs you really care about and then just turn the television off when you’re not watching those specific programs. Find other things to do with that time. Do it for 30 days and see how you feel.

Spend less time (ideally almost none) on social media.

At this point, I use social media for two purposes. One is for professional reasons: I get messages from The Simple Dollar readers and sometimes communicate with collaborators. The other is communication with a handful of people that I see face to face semi-regularly, as social media is convenient for sharing links and resources with them. Aside from that, my social media time is basically nonexistent. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if it wasn’t for simultaneous professional needs, I would use exactly one social media service, which is my only tool for directly messaging several friends who don’t use cell phones.

Here’s the thing with social media: it cultivates lots of shallow relationships but doesn’t help you build deep ones. Deep ones are built with one-on-one contact, usually face-to-face contact, and it’s the deep ones that are the ones that we yearn for. You can build strong relationships online, but, again, those typically lead to offline interactions over time or else they fade; usually, online connections work best when they facilitate and maintain offline connections.

Furthermore, social media creates a really distorted picture of life. People use social media as the “highlight reel” of their life, not as an accurate picture of their life. It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing one’s everyday life to the “highlight reel” of someone else’s life and feel deeply inadequate.

Even more than that, social media is filled with marketing. There are ads directly inserted into your feeds, and even some of the “real” content is directly made by companies or is mere product placement. Advertisers have figured out that social media is incredibly useful to get people to become aware of more and more and more products that they should want and buy. I don’t need more and more and more products to want and buy.

My strategy for exiting several social media services was simply to go through my list of followers on there, decide who I actually wanted to keep a connection going with that would likely involve face-to-face interaction in the future, and contact them directly to swap phone numbers for texting or other mechanisms for maintaining contact. The rest? I bet 99% of them never realized I left the service.

For those that I did share contact information with, we now communicate via texting, and that’s often done to lead to doing things together in real life, such as coordinating a game night or planning to eat lunch together or to follow up on those things done recently. (Yes, deeper conversations occur over texting, but those are extensions to our face-to-face relationship.)

Try ditching some of your social media services. Keep maybe one or two that give you the most positive value and check out of the rest using the strategy described above.

Understand you can’t have it all, so figure out what you do want.

You can’t have it all.

You can’t simultaneously have a rewarding career, lots of deep social connections and personal relationships, time for every hobby you might want to participate in, tons of material trappings and the time to enjoy them, strong fitness and a strong family life while also maintaining basic life upkeep. There are simply not enough hours in the day to support all of that.

It’s often in the striving to achieve all of that at once that we place ourselves on a treadmill, one that we’re galloping on and wearing ourselves out on just to stay in place, and one where we fall flat on our face as soon as one step is out of alignment.

That’s not healthy. That’s stressful. That’s draining. That usually means you’re doing all of the things in a mediocre way.

The healthy thing to do is to figure out what elements of life you really want and then don’t worry about the rest of them. Keep that number small — two or three things — and make those the central focus, while other things slide off to the side.

I intentionally chose a career path that wouldn’t absorb all of my life. It didn’t earn as much as I could have in other fields, but it’s flexible and gives room to other things. It’s rewarding, but it’s also not all-encompassing, at the cost of a bigger salary.

I intentionally stepped back from hobbies and commitments that weren’t as valuable to me.

This gave me room for other things. I have more strong friendships today than at any point in my life. I have a strong family life. I have a small set of hobbies that I have time to enjoy and really care about.

I don’t “have it all,” and I’m pretty happy with that.

Spend more time interacting meaningfully with people face-to-face.

Simply spend time with people you care about (or might care about), interacting in meaningful ways with them. This means getting beyond the small talk and having real conversations and doing real-world things together beyond work.

If you don’t know how to do this well … honestly, I don’t either. But I have some recipes that work, and they might help you, too.

Go to social events that seem interesting. You can find these on sites like Meetup or local community websites. Find ones that seem interesting and go to them. Mark them on your calendar and make them a priority.

Go with the intent of engaging with people and getting to know people. I often feel awkward in groups, so my solution is that whenever I feel awkward and don’t know what to say, I ask a question. Please, please read the next section.

If you click with someone and have reason to continue the conversation, swap some contact info and follow up. Shoot them a text or a message after the event saying thanks or simply that you were glad to meet them, and then make a point to go to future meetups to continue the conversation. If there’s reason for follow-up, send that along, too.

Listen.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of just waiting on other people to stop talking so you can express whatever idea you had in your head. When you do that, though, you’re not actually listening to what they’re saying, and if you’re not listening, you’re not connecting.

Listen. Just stop thinking about what you want to say next and listen to what other people are actually saying. Listen to their words, but also pick up on their tone and body movement.

Yeah, this might mean you don’t have something good to say next, but that’s OK. As I noted above, when I don’t know what to say, I just ask a question and listen again. When you have something actually worthwhile to say, the opening for it is usually obvious and you don’t have to think about it. That’s usually because someone asks you a question, or because there’s a lull and you have a good idea in your head.

The key, though, is to listen. When you focus on listening, you learn a lot about people and you feel more connected to them.

Get out of your own head. Stop thinking about what to say next. Listen.

Put yourself out there, even though it might sting sometimes.

Building social connections is hard because it means that you have to put yourself out there a little, and when you do that, it becomes easy for others to reject you. Usually, their rejection isn’t even a conscious thing — they’ll just forget about something or something else will come up — but it can still sting.

It is much easier to simply hole up and let the internet be your communication medium because it’s much harder to really get rejected online. Most of the time, people just scroll by what you said and you don’t feel that unconscious rejection, so it doesn’t sting. However, it’s prohibitively hard to build a real connection that way.

What do I mean by “putting yourself out there”? I mean doing things like hosting a dinner party or putting together a game night. I mean raising your hand to volunteer for some task at a local group. I mean simply joining in a conversation. All of those things involve social risk.

The thing is, as long as you’re behaving in a reasonable fashion (not cruel to others and so on), the downside to that social risk is actually really small. It can sting to have people not show up to your dinner party, but it’s a minor sting that fades. The upside is that the rich connection you build with the people who do show up is incredibly valuable.

If you want that connection, you have to put yourself out there, and it will sting sometimes. That’s OK — the sting will fade. Sometimes it might even hurt in a big way, and that’s OK too, because the value of the connections you do build outweigh them over the long run. The value you get out of a good relationship or connection with someone drastically outweighs any pain from it ending.

So, what can you do? When you start feeling a budding social connection with people, put yourself out there a little. Invite them to something reasonable and safe, like a dinner party with several other people or a game night or a movie night or whatever. If they decline or don’t show, it’s not a big deal; however, if they do show up, that’s a connection you’re building, and the upside of that is much greater.

You can do the same by volunteering to help with something or even accepting an invite that you might have otherwise skipped. Yes, there’s the potential of a little negative social sting, but you have to take that risk to build anything meaningful, and it’s that meaningful connection that so many of us really strive for today.

Take some basic steps to feel healthier.

The chase for a “perfect life” where we “have it all” often encourages us to take a lot of shortcuts, and one of the easiest shortcuts to take in the modern world is with our health.

The most convenient foods are often grotesquely unhealthy. Exercise is something that’s easy to skip when there are things that feel more urgent. It’s often easy to push sleep into an ever-smaller corner of our life because there are other things we want to do.

The result of all of those moves is poorer health. We simply don’t feel good any more. We’re tired, whether we truly recognize it or not. We’re not eating a good diet, and that leads to all kinds of decline in mood. We’re not exercising and missing out on the energy boosts and endorphins and higher metabolism it provides us.

Take some time for your body. Intentionally choose to eat healthier stuff — a little less drive-thru and a little more home cooking with plenty of vegetables. Get a good night of sleep every night, even if that means going to bed earlier than you’re used to. Get some kind of exercise so that you’re moving around a lot on a daily basis. Go outside and get some sunshine and fresh air each day. Make those things a daily routine. You will feel a whole lot better, and that will make everything else so much easier to handle.

If you want a suggestion that ties several things together…

Go on nature walks, preferably with others.

Go on a walk through the park each day, ideally with a friend. It doesn’t have to be a fast walk or a jog or a run, just a reasonable stroll in a place where nature is abundant. Let a bit of sunlight hit your skin and eyes. Smell the fresh air. Talk to a friend. See and hear nature around you.

It’s amazing how this simple routine can check so many boxes. It’s social and helps build a deepening connection with someone. It gets you outside into the fresh air. It gets you moving around. It puts you in a natural setting, which has been shown to be a natural mood lifter.

Make this a routine. If you don’t have someone to walk with, do it solo.

I go on a walk with my wife in a park near where we live very frequently. We talk and connect and get a bit of exercise and get some fresh air and get some exposure to the green world and we both end up feeling really good.

Unplug regularly.

My final strategy is to just unplug regularly. Completely turn off your cell phone (and put it in another room, ideally) and all of the screens in your life and do something that doesn’t involve a screen. It doesn’t really matter what it is that you do, as long as it’s unplugged.

The reality is that you won’t miss anything important during that unplugged time, at least not the vast, vast majority of the time. What you will find is some solace, a sense of being in your own skin that’s sometimes really hard to find in the modern world. You don’t feel obligated or tethered to anything, and that’s incredibly freeing.

I find myself unplugging for longer and longer periods, to the point that I’m going to do some multi-day unplugs in the near future. It forces me away from the constant distraction of electronic devices and makes me focus on the real people and the real things that are around me, and that’s incredibly fulfilling.

This weekend, spend one day completely without electronic devices. Don’t turn your cell phone on or the television on for the whole day. Find other things to do. Make a great dinner for your family out of a recipe in a cookbook. Go on a long walk. Draw a picture. Dig deep into a hobby that you haven’t explored in a while. Have an impromptu game night — schedule it the night before by sending out enough invites that you’ll be stocked to the brim, but tell them that you’ll be without your phone for most of tomorrow and to just show up at 6:00. Find things to do that are without digital tethers.

You’ll be so glad you did, and maybe you’ll make it into a routine.

You don’t have to spend money to feel fulfilled in modern life.

You already have everything you need to be fulfilled. In fact, fulfillment in modern life is often done through subtraction, not addition. Watch less television. Spend less time online. Unplug for a day.

Then, use that time to make yourself feel better. Eat a good healthy meal. Get some exercise. Go outside. Get some sleep. Delve into a hobby.

Use that time, also, to build real connections with people. Go to a community social event, or host one for your friends. When talking to people, listen, ask questions, and then follow up with them. Don’t let them down because it’s easy or because you’re afraid to put yourself out there. Take a little social risk, even if it might sting.

That’s how you build the life that so many of us yearn for. You don’t build a low-stress life with meaningful connections by trying to “have it all.” You’ll never get there. You also won’t get it by throwing money at the problem. You’ll never get there that way, either.

The steps are simple, and they’re right in line with healthy financial progress, too.

Good luck.

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