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5 things that always work and don’t cost anything

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Most things don’t work. Ever since my early twenties when I found myself inexplicably unhappy, I’ve been looking for things that work. Resolutions and experiments. Things to do.

Quality of life is the only thing I was ever after. Not happiness exactly — because being happy all the time is impossible — but a day-to-day existence that creates it pretty easily.

A lot of things seem to work for a while, but then wear off or have a different effect. Some things have conditional or circumstantial effects. But there are five simple things to do that I’ve found to be consistently, disproportionately helpful in moving towards a more fulfilling life.

I’m not claiming mastery of these five things that work. But I am claiming that there is no question that they work. If I had to speak to a graduating high school class, this is what I’d tell them. If a meteor was about to hit earth and all I had time to do was shout advice to the people lucky enough to be allowed on the getaway ship, this is what I’d shout. I never have to puzzle about how to make life better, if I’m not already fully exploiting the outstanding benefits of these five things that always work.

1) Killing conspicuous silences

What makes life good, more than anything, is other people. The value of what those people bring to your life depends on how easy it is for you to be with each other. With almost everyone, we start from ice cold.

Alienation is born in uncomfortable silences. A part of my mind has a stubborn hangup about throwing things out there just to see if they trigger a dialogue. But that hangup has never served me.

Violating it has. It’s nearly always better to say something.

I do like silence, and I think sharing a good silence with someone you know can be empowering, but conspicuous silences do seem to be invariably harmful when you’re getting to know somebody. If a silence comes with tension, and they usually do, it’s best to interrupt it.

Whether I choose to let the silence fester, or take a swing at it with a dull question about how school’s going or whether a particular movie is worth seeing, I learn the same thing — relationships of any kind grow best when words are exchanged, and sometimes it takes a little push. Language is the best fertilizer, and if a generous application of words doesn’t help it grow, then nothing will. I am convinced nearly all of my friendships and acquaintances could have been halted in the beginning by a divisive silence at some point, had nobody offered something. As a rule, say something.

2) Keeping everything clean

I mean this mostly in terms of your physical environment, but there’s no way to clean up your home or workspace without feeling cleaner inside your head. Most people just have so much needless junk in their lives, and believe that each possession is only a possession because it’s necessary.

Things are useless except for the experiences they can provide, prevent or improve. But pick a random possession from your house and ask yourself what experiences it really is improving for you. Not what it could improve, but what its presence actually does for you.

Everything — on your desk, in your closet, stacked on your mantle — has a tax on the mind. If you don’t believe me, get rid of most of what you own, find a proper place for everything else and see the difference in how the day looks — in how life looks — when you wake up.

3) Having a big thing on the horizon

A trip, a major purchase, a move, a project. Something you know will happen, and will leave life different. An impending big thing is a lifeline that makes rough moments softer.

These things do often involve an exchange of money, but the net cost can still be zero. The decision to reallocate your time and money is free. Give up one thing for the other, that’s all you can ever do anyway. Bring your lunch every day, and know you’ll be visiting Italy. Kill your Starbucks habit, and take up watercolors. Cancel cable, buy a camera.

It also softens almost every disappointment between now and the big thing. Your presentation didn’t go well, but you’re still going to Spain next summer.

The big thing on the horizon reminds you that routine days don’t only add up to more routine days. Shakeups are on the way. Always have a big thing on the way. Write them all down and you have a bucket list.

4) Stopping and sitting

The most convincing proof that I am a totally irrational being is my relationship to meditation. There is no question of its benefits — not only does it have direct effects on my mood and physical state, but it leads me to better decisions, it leaves me more observant and grateful, it shrinks anxiety and self-consciousness. It’s been years since I’ve had any doubt that the greatest contribution I can make to my quality of life (not to mention the quality of life of others) is to stop and sit down and cultivate attention.

It’s an enormously high-leverage activity, yet I always seem to have something more important to do. I’ve chastised myself for not being disciplined enough to reserve 20 or 30 minutes for proper sitting meditation, but even a minute of committed sitting goes such a long way. It’s no-brainer if there ever was one. It helps absolutely everything.

5) Seeking out the like-minded

This is another thing that seems like it should happen organically, but doesn’t. No matter who you are, there are specific sensitivities in you that may not be getting the stimulation they need. We don’t pick our families, we tend to fall into friendships and courtships, and so the haphazard group of people that comes to populate your immediate home and social life is not necessarily going to nurture your finest sensitivities.

Nothing is better for your creativity, for your capacity to find and express what only you can express, than to find people whose artistic and ideological values you share. I’m not talking about making more friends, but that might be inevitable. Your friends don’t necessarily share them, and the people who share them might not necessarily be your friends.

I’d guess almost everyone has an artistic or intellectual interest that has been driven into hibernation by the values and expectations of the people around them. I wonder how many people would take up design, athletics, painting, photography, calligraphy, yoga or martial arts if there were only one other person in their lives who was already immersed in it.


Photo by bitzcelt


Jay Schryer February 6, 2012 at 12:08 am

This is, by far, the wisest thing I have read in a long, long time. Thank you for sharing this, David. You’ve made the world a better place with this article.

David February 6, 2012 at 7:24 am

Thanks Jay. Always good to hear from you.

Cheryl February 7, 2012 at 12:30 am

I could not agree more!

EcoCatLady February 6, 2012 at 2:22 am

Oh geez… You must think I’m just a total contrarian, and I swear that’s really not where I’m coming from… but I’m just not so sure on a few of these.

Where conspicuous silence is concerned, I totally understand the desire to put other people at ease, and filling up empty air time certainly does that. But I’m not convinced it’s always the best approach. In fact, I think that I’m often too quick to say something because the silence is uncomfortable… but sometimes uncomfortable silences mean that important stuff is being wrestled with inside, and when you jump in to fill the silence, you actually end up cutting off what could be real and meaningful communication and supplant it with trivial chit chat. I suppose it all depends on the situation, and who it is that you’re with when the silence ensues. But I’ve found that some of the most meaningful connections of my life have come when I am willing to shut up and allow actual communication despite the uncomfortableness of it all.

The “big thing on the horizon” thing also makes me a bit qualmy. It sounds perilously close to “picture painting” to me. The whole idea of focusing on some bright shiny object in the future, and the feelings of happiness that you project onto it just takes us further away from the only thing that’s really real – which is the here and now. I guess I’ve just spent WAY too much of my life playing the “won’t it be great when xyz happens” game, only to find that when xyz actually comes to pass, nothing is actually substantially different in my life. To me this just sounds like a tactic for avoiding your own emotions in the here and now.

OK… I’ll shut up now. You probably hate when I comment on your blog, and I really don’t mean to be a jerk. I guess I just think that the single most important thing we can do in life is to feel our own emotions… right here, right now, all the time. And anything that takes us away from that does us a profound disservice.

David February 6, 2012 at 7:12 am

Such a contrarian!

You and I are obviously quite different, but that’s fine. I think if real and meaningful conversation is going to happen, a relationship has to survive the fragile budding phase, to which conspicuous silences are the biggest threat. Comfort has to be established, and that happens with verbal openness.

Luis Arturo Huerta February 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Don’t worry EcoCatLady. The same two points that I struggled to agree.
In the first, I am not such a good friend-maker neither friend-keeper. My head gets full when there are more than two at the same time.
In the other, I am not a big dreamer either. Very few things make me feel that worth to work for it. I am sure that some one is the same kind of person now, than after back from Rio de Janeiro. I’d love to know Brazil, but I dont want to leave my morning coffe.
I agree that it depends from circumstances.

Nitya February 6, 2012 at 4:10 am

I like your choice of life enhancing circumstances. Perhaps with time, I could add to or subtact some of these to my own personal groupings, but these will do to start with.
The first & last are sometimes linked in happy events when , in the course of trying to smooth the way during an uncomfortable silence, one encounters a fellow-traveller, kindred spirit or whatever like minded individual happens along life’s path. What joy! Someone who actually knows where you’re coming from & shares your world view, values etc. there is no greater feeling of connectedness than to one with whom you agree.
I’m not sure about the meditation aspect, unfortunately. I realise the benefits of meditating are well documented, but I’ve tried many times & never succeeded. I’ve come to the conclusion that I rather like all those thoughts buzzing around in my head ,( as long as they don’t veer into that critical inner voice that sometimes bedevils me).
Always having something to look forward to is another plus in my opinion. It doesn’t have to be the prospect of anything momentous, just the small everyday joys that make life worth living. My anticipated events can include a show or trip, or something really small like coffee with a friend (particularly a like-minded friend). I would also add reading your weekly email , to my list of small pleasures.

David February 6, 2012 at 7:21 am

A lot of people say the same thing about meditation: that it doesn’t work for them. The point is not to cease your thoughts, only to develop a more keen awareness of them (and every other sensation) and discover how they affect each other. It’s applicable and relevant to everyone.

You are right that the thing on the horizon doesn’t have to be big. I’m about to have breakfast with a friend and it really adds something to my morning. The big one is nice because it’s there for a while — a series of only small ones might make it an addictive thing.

Alyssa February 6, 2012 at 4:57 am

I hope that this kind of post can be shared to other people so that they will be inspired too…

Mona Sinha February 6, 2012 at 7:47 am

Very profound and true…thanks for sharing.Take care..Mona.

Gustavo February 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Great points, David! Points 2, 3, 4, 5 have been reliable helpers all the time for me. Point 1… I have to give it a thought.
Although I am a confessed introvert (a comfortable one), I had never have trouble with conspicuous silences. It’s hard to deal with them when you give them credit or when you try to solve them by changing you. It is very easy to deal with them when you focus on the other person and you honestly pay attention, not to what she says but what you can learn from her.
As you very well said, what makes life good, more than anything, is other people; so, there is always something worth discovering in others. If you really believe you can learn from another –you have to get rid of that voice inside that tells you that you know better-, then a question will always come forward. And is usually an interesting question for both.
Everybody is always eager to talk about themselves.

David February 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm

You may be different than me, but I often rationalized saying nothing by telling myself it’s not important to fill silences, and that it’s not “me.” I say if a silence conspicuous or tense to both parties, it’s creating a barrier.

There’s nothing wrong with changing yourself or your behavior, especially when it brings you closer to other people.

Dar February 6, 2012 at 8:37 am

I love it. A great reminder of how we can improve our daily lives.

I understand how EcoCatLady interpreted the “big thing on the horizon”, but there’s a difference between taking on the attitude that ‘you’ll be happy when’ and ‘if only ___ then I’d be happy’ and taking on a gentle and inspired attitude towards something good that you are going to take time to make happen. You don’t have to invest yourself in it, become attached to it, you can still look forward to things without getting to that place where you’ll be disappointed or crushed if it doesn’t come through.

To me, you don’t spend all day dreaming about it, it’s like when you make that decision not to buy coffee, to save that money instead, that maybe that little dream of what you’ll do with the money comes to mind and it feels good. Pick a ‘big thing’ that motivates you to do good things today. Then you actually become more conscious of the moment by making decisions with purpose.

GoodGravyBoat February 6, 2012 at 8:49 am

Great advice…I agree all the things are important. 2,3,4 are absolutely essential for me in maintaining a good mental space. I don’t meditate, but I do find a quiet place and just stop thinking (not easy when your mind races all day long at 200mph!). They are things that are always a work in progress.

The first thing…yes, break the awkward silence! Even if it means saying someting stupid. I have found more often than not people are forgiving of stupid things said in an effort to create conversation, especially if your stupid thing leads to a conversation about their favorite subsect: themselves! I have stopped caring a whole lot about what people (in general) ultimately think about me…it does not serve my creative monster well. :)

The last point gets a little tricky for me and I am working on it. Being a happy introvert, I am usually very content to spend my hours in my own company. That’s great, but my best creative ideas usually are a result of the interesting people I see and meet. I will continually be working on that one.

Thanks for the artrticle!

Chris February 6, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I am far from an expert, but my understanding is that meditation (at least mindfulness meditation, which is what i take david to be talking about) is not the same as not thinking. It’s simply about realizing that you are thinking while you are thinking. Not thinking might also have benefits, perhaps, but they would be different benefits than meditation.

Julie February 6, 2012 at 9:39 am

Beautiful David!!! Love love love this post. I actually see #1 as the courage to get to know someone. Can I be bold enough to show my curiosity, my desire to connect with another human being? And, how good does that feel to be on the other side?! To me, it feels uplifting to be engaged in a meaningful way, to be the object of someone’s interest and attention… even if the initial question verges on the mundane.. who cares?! It’s an opportunity to connect! So, YES to killing the sh*t out of conspicuous silences. Yes to engaging and connecting. Yes to cleanliness, visions, sitting and finding your tribe.

Thank you Dear David!!! Happy you liked NY. When you coming to LA? :)

David February 7, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Hi Julie, good to hear from you. I’m still determined to take a road trip across the south, then out to LA, but I don’t know where it is in my always-growing sequence of upcoming trips. :)

Jeff February 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

David, another treat of an article this morning. Thank you.

You have such a unique perspective on things that I can say that I have absolutely no idea what your next headline is going to be but I never (at least not yet) leave one of your articles feeling disappointed. I felt a bit of anger when I your article about refusing to write a book, but I am realizing that this format is the one lets you offer the most value.

I too wonder about No.1 . I often blurt something out in those moments and then wonder to myself why I said something so mundane and worry about how the other person will now perceive me. But I do agree with you that it is valuable to break this barrier with people…

Great post, I hope you did like most of the public and bet on the Giants last night. Where do you think Eli will project in next year’s fantasy drafts?

Tom K February 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

In a like spirit:


Chris February 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Wow this was fantastic. Especially liked points two and five which really resonated for me. I’ve always been a person who has struggled to rid themselves of clutter, but I really like the concept of things as a tax on the mind. I’m feeling pretty overtaxed right now! I’m going to keep this in mind as I strive to clear my world of extra “stuff”.

sayama February 6, 2012 at 2:28 pm

So much truth in this, but especially on the meditation. I discovered the benefits of it more than 6 years ago now, but my commitment lately has been weak. So I’m off now to sit for 10mins before sleeping… taking it in baby steps.

Tim February 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Great article. I just turned 20 today, and reading this article was a great way to start off my third decade of life. Mentally, turning 20 is such a big milestone, and because of that I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I want to grow and change in the next 10 years. I just thought I’d take a minute to thank you for what you do here. Your writing has helped me through some uncertain times recently, and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate it. Keep up the good work!

Chris February 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

This is a great post, thanks. I could go on about all of the things that I agree with here, but what fun is that? :)

My one qualm is no. 3, Having a Big Thing On the Horizon. You write:

“It also softens almost every disappointment between now and the big thing. Your presentation didn’t go well, but you’re still going to Spain next summer.”

I agree with you that this is indeed frequently the result of having something big on the horizon — but is this actually a good thing, learning to “soften” present reality? Isn’t this a form of escapism? Speaking from my own experience, there is a very fine line between “softening disappointments” about things that don’t really matter in life (which I suspect is what you have in mind here) and “softening” your experience of something that may seem unpleasant on the surface but is actually very important. “I had a fight with my wife, but I’m still going to Spain” or “It’s getting harder and harder to connect with my daughter, but I’m still going to Spain.”

I would say that Having a Big Thing On the Horizon ultimately “works” because it gives greater shape and texture to your life, which can *increase* your attention to the present because it helps keep you from getting into a rut. But if you’re constantly looking at the horizon, it can be hard to see the ground beneath your feet.

nrhatch February 6, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Good thoughts, David.

I have few regrets in life (and seldom think that a “do over” would make sense) BUT I do wish that ME NOW could tell ME BACK THEN not to buy so much STUFF. It’s so much easier not to accumulate it in the first place.

And I agree with you 100% about meditation . . . Om Sweet Om!

Xzannia February 7, 2012 at 2:47 am

This is what most people need and i want to share this to my friends too…

Vincent Go February 7, 2012 at 8:20 am

These thought made me realized how a mess my life is. If only I was able to read this last year maybe my life would be a little different. I badly need the ‘stopping and sitting’ part because I need to set out my priorities. I must focus my thoughts to what I need and disregard the things that I want.

Thanks for sharing and letting me ventilate my feelings here.

Vincent Go

Charry February 7, 2012 at 8:41 am

Thanks for the advice you have shared us here and I am sure this is a help…

David C February 7, 2012 at 9:13 am

A short but very powerful and enjoyable piece David. It’s a gift to be able to capture such thoughts and express them so concisely. It’s so easy to get lost in the multitude of advice out there about how we can find a more balanced existence. I found this to be very refreshing advice and it really speaks to me. Thanks for all your efforts.

Bonnie February 7, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Sage advice!

This reminds me of a video my husband just showed me from the TedxBlommington session. Shawn Achor did a very interesting talk on “The Science of Happiness and Potential” based on positive psychology. (http://www.tedxbloomington.com/2011/03/shawn-achor/) Some it sound similar to what you wrote about here. Awesome stuff!

William Smyth February 7, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Let’s see if I can clearly articulate what I want to get across. I agree that with uncomfortable silences, something probably can and should be said. But silence can be a great test for relationships. When you find that person that you can have silence with and not have it be uncomfortable, then you know you are really on to something. I’ve learned to be aware of those amazing “comfortably silent” moments when neither one of you need to fill the void, there’s no pressure or awkwardness, you can just enjoy being in the presence of that person, and that alone is enough.

c February 8, 2012 at 7:21 am

Nice video..I am inspire watching on it..Thanks for sharing this to us..Looking forward to read more post from you..

nathan February 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm

This was a very invaluable and important blog. Thank you the these reminders.

Patricia39 February 10, 2012 at 7:46 am

I enjoyed reading this most.. These task are indeed free as you get your time passed yet you have many things accomplished without realizing that. Thank you for sharing…

Hiten February 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm

I have to admit I’m guilty of collecting up junk at times. It’s because I tell myself I might need it someday. Funny thing is, its those junk items where I tell myself I might need, which I usually never do!

I like the idea of looking at an item and asking yourself how it improves your experiences. If it doesn’t, a good place is the bin or the car boot sale. :-)

ben February 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Good points overall. I agree with a lot of people who say killing silence may not be the best move. Silence is golden. And to a lot of people and cultures in the world, presence and being together is all you need to get closer to someone. Speaking doesn’t do much for a lot of people. People’s character is still there without verval affirmation. That said, that qualification here is conspicuous silence, meaning there is silence that is abnormal or palpable. Those types of silences can be debilitating and I agree should be broken. But still, that conspicuousness is all through your own lens. Calling it conspicuous may be assuming the other person feels a certain way.

Noch Noch | be me. be natural. February 11, 2012 at 1:38 am

stopping and sitting is the hardest for me. but it’s so valuable to calm the mind down and clear out random thoughts
thanks for the reminder
Noch Noch

tpsychnurse February 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Thank you for another great article, David. I, too see the value in a relationship where silence can be more meaningful than words. But first, the relationship needs to begin and that takes the willingness to reach out to one who is a stranger. Some of my happiest memories were made while sitting in a very cold train station in a foreign country, waiting for the night train to arrive. A simple smile or compliment about the host country can inspire a meaningful interchange that warms the hearts of both. And another brief encounter led to an ongoing friendship with a man who played the violin at a restaurant in Prague. He learned we hailed from Texas and asked us to send him “Cowboy poetry” and “Truck driving poetry”. This inspired conversations with other strangers who helped us fulfill the interesting requests. Such serendipitous events unite and delight!

hannasvea February 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm

This was absolutely marvellous, I really needed this, and I certainly will be needing it again. Thoughts of mine, all over.

Kylie February 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I love this post David. Often I’ve felt that I should try and avoid meaningless chit chat, but in real life it’s not possible – if I’m trying to connect with someone small talk gets things moving. This can even be the case with people I know well, it’s a bit like I imagine jamming is for muso’s, you get together and play and sometimes it’s a bit stilted and difficult but you need to go to those places to get to the resonant, satisfying music.
And number 5: “the haphazard group of people that comes to populate your immediate home and social life is not necessarily going to nurture your finest sensitivities”. This is scarily true for me! Not that I’m a completely different person in my off line life, but most people see a way watered down version of who I feel like I am. I suspect this something for me to work on!

Phillip Rozario February 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm

This is a very intelligent post. A very nicely written one.
I seemed to have missing these five valuable things with me all these time, but I will make sure that I always have them with me.
I specially loved the ending of the post. I know most of us don’t even think of taking up something if we know someone who is already doing it. But it will be so much better if the two of you do that work.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.


Uzma February 12, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Very nice and very useful. It really is about bringing in ‘awareness’, through meditation, or supportive friends, or having a bigger plan. Thank you for sharing..

Alyssa February 12, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Those are good ideas to share for us…Genius!

Jeff Taylor February 12, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Please don’t stop writing

Scott March 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm

This is fantastic. I’ve been reading your work for the past two days, and find my feelings very similar to the way you described your life in your early twenties. You are motivating me to figure out what makes me tick. Thank you.

Max April 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm

I have the bad habit of jumping from one post to another without taking the time to sit, and enjoy what’s “there”.

But frankly, this post made total sense to me and I really took time to read it, and even re-read some part.

I’ll come back on your blog for sure. Thanks

Sandy April 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Very good blog post with profound advice on how to live. Folks take heed of these tips and implement them in your lives.

Gabriela Alonso April 12, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Gracias google que me ayudó a traducir este post!!
Actualmente mi vida cambia constantemente, y creo que parte de ello es justamente cosas como estas las que me ayudan, saber que alguien ya las ha experimentado y las recomienda me hacen feliz, creo que voy encontrando lo que deseo.

Gracias a quien lo escribe, realmente su forma de ver me aníma…creo que podre sacar mucho provecho de sus experiencias!!! ánimo :)

Paula April 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Good post , I enjoyed the 5 things that always work but dont cost anything. Thanks for sharing, I look forward to your next post.

Sherry April 17, 2012 at 8:25 am

Wisdom comes in many form. Those things that always work but does not cost anything come from a deeper wisdom that many of us should pay heed too.

Sharon April 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Like your blog.Try smiling with others it works and its contagious and does cost you anything other than you bring joy to others.

Jack February 8, 2013 at 4:34 am

Hi David. I’ve been reading your blog recently and it’s very interesting. This has coincided with starting a mindfulness programme (also very interesting). What mediation do you recommend? Any tips?

Thanks a lot.

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