Note: This is a guest post from Jay Harrington of Life and Whim.
Working out at the gym got a lot easier the day I realized the sweat served a higher purpose. I’m 43, and have three kids under eight years old, so if I want to be around—healthy and active—for my grandkids, I better put the work in now or face regret later.
Activities that aren’t inherently joyful, like clocking time on a treadmill, get better when done in service of something bigger.
The same can be said of cleaning out one’s closet. Satisfying, yes, but the buzz is too fleeting to be self-sustaining. It’s only when decluttering is reframed as a piece of a larger, more significant puzzle that it sticks.
Without a bigger picture in mind, our actions are often dictated by “What’s more pleasurable in the moment?” rather than “What’s better in the long-term?” In the moment, the consequences of most choices are insignificant. It makes little difference, on a particular day, if you opt to stay on the couch rather than hitting the gym, but over the course of a year, the negative results from this repeated decision will compound.
An intentional life is one marked by long-term thinking that leads to beneficial short-term decision-making. First, decide what you want. Then, decide—every day, in ways big and small—how to get there. Have the ends in mind, and the means will become clear.
Determining the ends, however, is not always easy.
What makes Netflix so appealing—the quantity of programming—also makes it hard to decide what show to watch. The same quandary applies to life, but the stakes are obviously far greater. There are countless ways to live, values to prioritize, and experiences to optimize for. However, because there’s no clear path to follow despite the abundance of options, it’s easy to bounce aimlessly through life like a tumbleweed.
One of the best ways to live a fulfilling, intentional life, and direct one’s actions toward a beneficial end, is to adopt an “ism” operating system. Some “isms,” such as materialism and consumerism, have proven to be harmful and should be avoided. Others, such as minimalism, lead to smart decision-making, contentment, and happiness.
Years ago, when I first stumbled across the notion of minimalism, I bought into the idea that a life with less could lead to more. Like many, I began my journey by eliminating the low hanging fruit of plentiful and obvious excesses from my life. Over time, despite how satisfying purging could be, I came to realize that minimalism is not an end in itself. The process of decluttering, detaching, and deemphasizing materialism is simply a step on the road toward something more significant. Minimalism is a mechanism to create space and time for what really matters.
The Real Secret to Happiness
For thousands of years, people have grappled with the big question of “What really matters?” What, among the many alternative ways we can choose to spend our finite time, will bring us happiness?
Recently, another batch of smart people have attempted to answer these eternal questions, and their conclusion reinforces something that most of us intuit.
According to Harvard’s Grant & Glueck Study, which tracked more than 700 participants over the course of 75 years, the key to long-term happiness and fulfillment comes down to a single factor: the quality of our relationships.
The root of happiness is not money, fame, or good looks—it’s the people we choose to surround ourselves with and how well we nurture our relationships with them.
Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, explained that: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
As with most things in life, when it comes to building good relationships, quality is more important than quantity. Indeed, practicing minimalism is as important in curating relationships as it is in decluttering a closet.
In the 1990s, British anthropologist and researcher Robin Dunbar determined that we are only capable of having a finite number of people in our social sphere—150 at most—due to the size of our brains. Any more, and it becomes impossible to manage one’s social network. This theory is known as “Dunbar’s Number.”
Dunbar went on to conclude that while we can form, at most, 150 loose relationships, we only have the capacity to form close, meaningful relationships with approximately five individuals.
The takeaways from the Grant & Glueck Study, and Robin Dunbar’s
Nonetheless, despite how hard it may be, the reward is worth it. As Booker T. Washington once said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”
The Payoff from Positive Relationships
The benefits of having close, healthy relationships with members of one’s immediate family are self-evident. A safe, secure, and loving family results in happy, independent children and parents who derive the satisfaction of having completed a job well done. The payoff from social and professional relationships may be less obvious, but are no less important. Consider the following historical examples of people leveraging close relationships into meaningful success:
In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway moved to Paris to join a group of expatriate, “Lost Generation” writers, including Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had taken up residence in the Left Bank. They hung out at cafes, argued about politics, caroused late into the nights on the streets of Paris, and produced some of the greatest works of literature of the 20th Century.
In the 1970s, young and brash directors Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma, known as the “Movie Brats,” took Hollywood by storm. They competed, collaborated, shared resources, worked on each other’s films, gave critical feedback, and formed friendships. They transformed an industry because of, not despite, one another.
A “tribe” of inspiring and supportive people can lift you up, hold you accountable, and inspire you to live to your greatest potential. As motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously observed, we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. So choose wisely.
Implicit in this principle, of course, is the fact that it works both ways. If you fail to choose wisely, and surround yourself with people who exhibit behaviors and habits that are inconsistent with your own desires, you’ll have a hard time bucking the group’s standards—as unappealing as they may be.
For example, if you desire to lead a healthy and active lifestyle, you’ll be hard pressed to do so if your inner circle consists of couch potato friends who spend their days playing video games and eating junk food. On the other hand, if your friends are physically fit you stand a much greater chance of being fit yourself because the cultural norms of your group will influence your own behavior. Who you spend the most time with is who you are.
Find the Tribe that’s Right for You
Our instincts to fit in have ancient roots. For thousands of years, humans have lived in tribes in which it was essential to conform. To buck the tribe was to be shunned or cast out altogether, leading to great hardship. Modern culture is different, but from fraternities and sororities to sports teams and social groups, tribes still exist and still enforce social norms. Just ask a young college student who is pledging a fraternity whether participating in hazing rituals is optional if you doubt the existence of modern tribes and their codes of social conduct.
In this environment, faced with the expectations of a tribe, you have a few options: (1) conform to the rules of the tribe, (2) resist, or (3) find a new one.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with conforming to a tribe’s social norms—as long as those norms align with your own desires. If you’re living out of alignment with your desired values, and those around you are exemplifying the lifestyle you want to live, then the quickest way to get what you want is to surrender to the group’s standards. But often the opposite is true—you want something different than what the group demands. In this scenario, surrendering to the group is sacrificing the life you desire.
Another option is to resist the group, but this path is perilous. It’s hard enough to change one’s own thoughts and behaviors. Why take on the nearly impossible task of trying to change someone else’s?
The third way is to practice relationship minimalism, which is not always the path of least resistance, but is certainly the path of greatest benefit. Most people enter into relationships too haphazardly, or maintain existing ones by default. They rely on proximity or convenience to guide relationship decision-making, or are gripped by the inertia of the status quo.
Finding the tribe that’s right for you is not always easy. It requires careful consideration. Often it means making difficult decisions to part ways with those who don’t align with your values. But isn’t the payoff of lifelong happiness and fulfillment worth it?
There are people out there who can bring real joy to your life, who you can share meaningful experiences with, and who will be there to lift you up when you need it. Cultivate a tribe in which your desired behavior is the normal behavior. Surround yourself with people who are leading lives you want to live.
First, use minimalism to shed the extraneous excesses that clutter your home and your mind. Cast aside harmful “isms” that are detracting, not adding, value to your life and the lives of those around you. This will create the space and time necessary to tackle life’s more important issues.
Second, leverage your newfound mental bandwidth to think deeply about how you want to live your life. How do you want to spend your time? What makes you happy? What kind of person do you want to be?
Third, make the hard decisions necessary to part ways with toxic people in your life, and scale back ambivalent relationships to make room for new, better aligned ones.
Fourth, find people who exemplify the values and lifestyles you aspire to. Clusters of such people may already have found each other and formed groups—from book clubs to biking groups—centered around the activities and experiences that are consistent with your desires. Begin to engage.
Fifth, take frequent, consistent steps to strengthen budding relationships with members of your newfound tribe. Show up. Give back. Express gratitude. Let your guard down. Be generous. Find your people, then never take them for granted. You’ll become a transformed and better person when you surround yourself with people who push, prod, and encourage you to reach new heights.
Give of yourself to others who inspire you and a delightful thing will happen: you’ll get so much more than you could ever imagine in return.
Jay Harrington blogs at Life and Whim where he offers insights and inspiration about how to live a life full of more First Moments.
Let’s be careful though to stop labeling others as “toxic” and the ease of getting rid of them. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but tread lightly in this area. Many struggle and in this day and age, a ghosting of a friendship can destroy someone. This isn’t just about “you” -cause no harm to others.
You are richly blessed! I don’t think Dunbar made room in his theories for the power of God to expand our capacities for loving more people. :)
Beautiful article and so useful in my research and approach to recreate a close circle having recently moved to Sydney. As an introvert, by nature, building meaningful relationship is a real challenge! I absolutely agree with the idea that being with friends who move you up and to whom you can bring value is a recipe to happiness and happy life. I know it will take some time but it is a very insightful journey.
Really enjoyed this post. Thank you!
Thank you. This was such a powerful post. I wish everyone would read and implement this one. I am trying to change my friends and this is not always easy, but it is for sure worth it. I want a tribe. I need a tribe.
Peter Fritz says
Wonderful piece, Jay. My father has told me many times that if I manage to find and keep one real friend in life, I’ll have done well. As a result, I’ve always been extremely picky about who I allow into my sphere of influence. I can’t overlook amorality, dishonesty or disingenuous behaviour. Because of this, I maintain a very small band of friends who I trust and respect, and who bring out the best in me. In fact, outside of immediate family, I could count them on one hand.
And luckily for me, it turns out my most beloved and reliable friend all these years has been my dad.
Interesting article, although I have to disagree with the Dunbar number. I have 8 siblings with whom I have very close relationships. My parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and they have over 100 descendants that they care for and love dearly. I also have a loving husband, six children and a son in-law that I am extremely close with. I love and cherish each of them equally spend time with all of them every day! I also have two “best girlfriends” that are like sisters to me.
I think the brain has the capacity to expand as big as our hearts!
Gloria Hohenadel says
We moved back to a small hometown to be near aging parents and are finding it extremely difficult to find a positive tribe. What do you do in a situation where one might not exist?
It is hard to find people that share my wife and I’s same vision, especially when it comes to family. What if your extended family is the couch-potato, tv watching, phone addicted type? What if they spend tons of money on vacations and don’t care about living simply and intentionally?
We want to have deep relationships with them, but they also have way different visions of life that are at odds with our vision. It’s easy to find friends that have similar visions, but you can’t just minimalize your family. Some people move far away from their families and “endure” them over the holidays. I don’t know if this is the right solution either.
What to do?
Gloria Hohenadel says
With family you keep them as is. Hopefully any positive changes you make will be seen and respected. Try to be the director by lovingly suggesting positive activities to do together instead of couch-warming. Invite them along on your walk to spend time with them or some such activity. Also make sure your friend choices are as recommended in the article to offset any downward pull family may have.
laura ann says
John & Gloria: After parents pass on, many siblings quit communicating incl mine and friends who tell me same thing, why? nothing in common, different values, etc.
You never know what impact you might have on your family. If you are friendly, loving, and accepting of them, they will see in you a better way to live. Don’t underestimate the influence you can have. The opposite is also true. If you distance yourself from them too much or they get the impression you don’t approve of them, they may feel they don’t want to be like you.
Ya. Don’t want to be like them. Sorry. Minimalizing friendships and relatives? I am a recipient of this philosophy.
Do you want to have relationships with offspring who want to minimize their time with you because this new philosophy teaches them to make every minute of their lives efficient and you are too much of a bother?
It has a bit of disenguiness about it. It seems to be about “What can I get from you” instead of what can I give to you?”
There is a bit of flurry, frenzy, and anxiety in many minimalists.
There is also an amazing blessing and enrichment to learning to love and live unconditionally with others.
There’s some richness in life to be missed by minimalists.
I still love seeing childhood friends and keeping in touch with them even if we have different philosophies, different interests, and live in different circumstances.
And those American Left-Bank people in Paris? It all sounds great until you read about their personal lives. Ernest Hemingway, a famous novelist. Also a drunk who ended his own life after messing up the lifes around him. That group interacted with each other for a few short years, maybe one decade, until they self-destructed.
What will be the next fad of philosophy after this one? I can hardly wait to find out the next trend.
Heather L Powers says
I can definately relate to your impression about minimizing relationships, especially with family. My brother and his wife recently had a baby and are finding relating with my parents increasingly difficult but I believe that it’s partially their job to allow their child and their parents to develop their own relationships, even if they choose not to be close. Sometimes, we need to be facilitator’s for others and yes it can be draining but perhaps others will reap beautiful rewards and that can be a reward in itself. I find we are living in an increasingly narcissistic, cut off society and it depresses me to think that people can’t be bothered to cultivate relationships! Yes it’s hard work but it also helps you and the other person grow if you can let it. There are also certainly toxic relationships that should go, I totally get that too.
Same boat. I love my extended family, but our values are SO much in opposition. We’ve had to choose carefully how to love them without being enmeshed. They feel it and it hurts them (they hate anything that they perceive as judgment, but what they consider condemnation is simply discernment). I have never been able to pull it off myself. I have to keep in there with them some, yet keep my family at a reasonable distance at the same time. All we can do is try. When it comes to the family you’re born into, you don’t get a say about that tribe (and they wouldn’t pick me either, I imagine ;)
THIS!!! While I love all that Joshua Becker’s thoughts and ideas have taught me, this guest article just enhances it all and brings it full circle! I have found another person to follow, this made my day…and maybe the rest of my life! Brilliant!