I would not exactly categorize myself as a dreamer.
I have never been one to get lost in the clouds, entertain myself with wild visions of grandeur, or contemplate what I might do if I win the lotto max.
Maybe it’s the way I’m hardwired, but I find such activities to be an utter and complete waste of my time. If something doesn’t seem logical, productive, or fall within a realistic probability of attainment, I really don’t see the point in allocating even the slightest brain power into thinking about it.
Which is a somewhat diplomatic way of saying I can be a real buzzkill for people who are dreamers, or even those who just like to wonder about abstract ideas.
Granted I still really like the Bare Naked Ladies song “If I Had A Million Dollars”…..
But despite my non-dreamerish demeanour, I absolutely AM an optimizer. I love to look for ways to increase efficiency and productivity in all aspects of my life. Give me a choice between tackling a problem that requires a definitive solution, or musing about the origins of the universe, and I’ll take the problem every single time.
This is particularly true when it comes to harnessing a sense of contentment and well being. I’m a firm believer that some of the biggest impacts to our overall happiness stem from making small incremental changes in our lives, rather than big sweeping ones. Finding many little areas of dissatisfaction and improving them, even if it’s just slightly, versus looking for large but singular changes. Making mindful and incremental improvement not only streamlines our day to day lives, it gives us little happiness boosts along the way.
And yet despite my aversion to spending brain power on random abstract thought, just the other day I found myself engaging in an interesting mental exercise that, on the surface, had some pretty dreamer-ish appearances .
One that, even for a hardcore logic/optimizing addict like myself, actually struck me as worth indulging.
It all started with Mike pointing out that the Lotto 649 all-time record high was $64 Million. (I know for any Americans reading this, that probably seems like a paltry lotto prize compared to the hundreds of millions up for grabs south of the border. But up here in Canada, 64 mill was a big deal.)
Mike then went on to pose the question “What would we change in our lives if we suddenly had 60 + million dollars. (Because, even though our lotto prizes are small here in Canada, we don’t have to pay tax on lotto winnings…..cha-ching.)
My reflexive response to the question was to immediately dismiss it, because seriously, I’ll worry about that if we actually win the lottery. Which will be pretty hard for me to do, because I also happen to view buying lottery tickets as being akin to throwing money directly into the garbage. Not something I’m known to willingly do.
But the way Mike had phrased the question gave me pause.
What would I change in our life if money was completely irrelevant?
(And for clarity, I kept this particular exercise restricted specifically to our life, not those around us, or save the world stuff, but just ours.)
So I started to make a mental list. And as I was making the list, it began to dawn on me that there was not much that I would change.
I wouldn’t buy a massive “dream” home, because frankly I don’t want to clean a bigger house. Nor do I want a house that necessitates the hiring of a cleaning staff, or grounds maintenance crew, even if I could afford it.
In fact, I don’t think we would move at all. Our kids are well rooted in our community, have amazing friendships in close proximity to our home, and we enjoy our neighbourhood. I can’t imagine leaving all that behind.
I decided that I would like a nicer back yard, one in which we wouldn’t be sweltering in the unbearable heat that bakes our South facing backyard during the months when it isn’t raining. One that would actually get sufficient use to justify the maintenance of having a backyard in the first place.
I wouldn’t send our kids to private school, I’m pretty happy with the schooling arrangements/plans we have in place.
I wouldn’t buy an outrageous car. (Ok – we kind of already did that……but I certainly wouldn’t buy ANOTHER one……well…….maybe we would spring for the new Tesla Roadster……but that’s probably a car for when our kids are out of the house. So I’ll reserve that for a much later list down the road!).
I wouldn’t go on a designer clothing shopping spree – the benefits of minimizing and the capsule wardrobe are far too amazing to walk away from.
I wouldn’t travel more – we already travel a fair amount, and we also really enjoy our time at home. Although, admittedly, I would love to fly first class when we do travel, because that is quite simply the bees knees.
At our stage of life, I definitely would’t buy a bunch of toys, because frankly it always seems cheaper (with much less headache, maintenance and storage costs) to rent a boat, or an RV, or any other such thing I could only see us using on an occasional basis.
Maybe if we fell in love with one of those hobbies/activities, and wanted to invest considerable time into it, it would be an obvious choice to spend some upfront cash for long term use – but right now, the hobbies we enjoy are pretty low cost and require minimal gear.
So after giving it some considerable thought, I realized that aside from a more functional backyard and maybe some travel upgrades, there was actually very little I would realistically change about our current life, even if money was no object whatsoever.
Going through this process reminded of several things that it never hurts to be reminded about.
- I am extremely grateful for the life I have;
- I am quite content with where our lives are at; and
- The whole concept that once you exceed a certain threshold of income the relative increase in happiness is marginal, well that is 110% absolutely and completely true.
Those reminders, in and of themselves are enough for me to recommend we all engage in this little exercise every once in awhile. Just to take stock of where we are at, and in many cases, probably surprise ourselves at just how small of a list we end up with when we ask ourselves what we would really, actually, for real real, change in our lives.
But incase that’s not enough to convince you to commit some mental energy to this endeavour, I think the real gains arise out of the second exercise that naturally flowed from this thought process.
And that is contemplating how, with your current means, you can achieve the essence of your list, NOW.
I’m not talking about actually checking off everything on your list. But I am talking about delving into each item on that list and identifying the underlying component that would increase your happiness, or bring your life additional value.
What is it about each of the things/experiences/changes on your list that would improve the quality of your life, and edge you closer to contentment?
Is having a bigger house just about having a bigger house because that’s what people are supposed to aspire towards? Or is it about changing neighbourhoods, or having more functional spaces? How and why would a bigger, better house make you a happier person day to day?
Answer that question, and then analyze the answer to see if there is a way to implement it now.
If it’s because you want a dedicated play area for your kids, maybe a good alternative is to shift from having two (or more) kid bedrooms, to a shared bedroom and a separate play room. One space for sleeping (set up and designed for optimal sleep with minimal distraction), and one space for playing (set up and designed for optimal fun and play AND keeps your kids toys/forts and crafts off your kitchen table or living room floor! ).
If you want a more open floor plan, is it out of the question to sell your current home and move to a lower cost of living neighbourhood, or more rural area that would facilitate the house you want? Conversely if you want walkability, could you envision your family downsizing in order to live in a neighbourhood that offers more amenities right outside your front door?
If your list includes moving to a nicer climate, what’s stopping you from doing that now? Job’s? Cost of living? Have you actually actively looked for a job in your dream location? Considered downsizing to a more modest home to offset the cost of living?
Is it really off the table and not an option for you? Or are you prioritizing something else over making that move? (Kids school, friendships, family proximity.) Would that priority really change, even if you suddenly had a bunch of money available to you?
When I was making my list, it became obvious that I would like to upgrade our backyard and travel in comfort with my family. But as I broke down the why behind those things, I quickly realized that I didn’t need a massive pool/backyard renovation or business class flights to achieve what I was really looking for.
I wanted our backyard to be more functional, lower maintenance and family friendly. Something I could easily achieve with a smaller amount of money, some sweat equity, shade, and some backyard games. Similarly, a much more affordable upgrade to premium economy flights would achieve increased comfort in travel, and a more enjoyable experience, without breaking the bank with 1st class price points.
For many of us, living the dream can be more than just a catch phrase, but in order to make it our reality we often need to move beyond the surface “wants”, to identifying how those wants actually change/impact our life.
Once we have those answers, there are almost always alternative options to capturing the associated happiness boost, without exceeding our means (or blowing our plans for Financial Freedom.)
So try making your own list. Maybe it will be a reminder that things are pretty darn good, or maybe it will be the boost you need to start making small, incremental changes now. Changes that will, inevitably, compound over time.