What is the value of a single day of your life? What is the measure of a day well spent? At the end of the day, do you stop and think about how you used your time? Despite what we’re told, there’s no single solution to these questions, which is why self-help books are so wildly successful. We want someone to help us reflect, to give directions on how to “do” life better.
If we’re very lucky, we might have between twenty-five and thirty thousand days available to us. In that time, from a very young age, we have endless lists of accomplishments to check off, a million things that we are told that we have to do. School, work, parenting, travel, sports, music, and chores all blur together until we aren’t always sure we’re getting any closer to a stopping point. Regardless of our situation, we are all told that the key to life is productivity. If you work harder, you will have fewer problems, more money, more respect, and you will be closer to one day being allowed to rest. While some people struggle to have it all, others struggle just to have anything at all. What we have in common is a desire to be content. Happiness is the carrot that society dangles in front of us as we toil.
Happiness has become a commodity. It is bought and sold not only in the form of products, but also in the form of trends like mindfulness programs. Little by little, as each generation reaches maturity, most people to come to terms with idea that our possessions can’t truly grant enduring happiness. However, if the accumulation of goods doesn’t bring us the deep contentment we hoped it might, we’re left with the realization that we need to work on ourselves, which now adds self-improvement to the to-do list. We tackle task of being better with the same zeal usually reserved for our jobs. We now have life coaches and wellness classes to teach us how to be better, work harder, work better, and enjoy our lives at the same time. We literally take classes on how to be a happy person. We turn the quest for happiness into work! When we do that, we are basically that annoying friend who makes a minute-by-minute agenda for your “relaxing” vacation. Vacation should be enjoyable, so should happiness.
Ultimately, your life is the sum total of your decisions and choices. While it might be true that happiness lies within, so does accountability. Hold yourself responsible for your own choices. Instead of chasing someone else’s version of what it means to be healthy and whole, try to narrow your focus to your own circumstances. At the end of every day, ask yourself three questions.
Was my day productive?
This seems like an easy win for most of us. We go to work or school. Therefore, we are productive. Done.
Unfortunately, productivity has to be put into context. Every day, millions of people spend long days at jobs they don’t like. Rent has to be paid. Children need to eat. If the hours spent at work aren’t giving that person joy, they are left with only part of the day to capture this ever-elusive happiness. Life is full of things we have to do and things we want to do. A lot of days will be devoted to things we have to do. That doesn’t mean those tasks can’t make us happy, we just have to put them in context. Productivity makes us feel useful and that gives us a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. However, if days pass and you realize that you’ve stopped doing the maintenance that keeps your life afloat, that’s when you get in the way of your own happiness.
Was my day emotionally fulfilling?
It’s very telling that we call stepping away from work to care for ourselves a “mental health day.” We have deprioritized our emotional well-being. When we take time to go kayaking or to care for a loved one, we are made to feel like we’re shirking our responsibilities. Have you ever met Europeans or Australians who are baffled by how little vacation time people from the United States are granted? There are many cultures in which people understand that we owe it to ourselves to feed our souls. We can’t all take vacations, be we can all take moments to get down on the floor and really play with our kids or take the time to listen to a friend without being too preoccupied with the next task to really focus on what she’s saying.
From a young age, we take the enjoyment out of activities that should be leisure, like music and sports. We put pressure on kids to achieve in these areas, even if they clearly won’t ever be playing soccer or violin professionally. We are trained to be goal-oriented at all times.
So, at the end of the day, ask yourself, “Was my day emotionally fulfilling?” The answer to this question can’t always be yes, but if the answer is always no, you might want to think of ways to add moments joy to your life.
Was it both?
This is the sweet spot. On an average night, we might be able to answer yes to either question one or question two. The trick to being both productive and emotionally fulfilled is to combine them. This is more than a matter of efficiency. We can work toward happiness by finding ways to be productive in ways that emotionally fulfill us. This is why stories about successful people who quit their jobs to become teachers or rescue dogs fascinate us. We admire them because they are consciously giving up wealth in order to be productive and/or contribute to society in a way that makes them happy.
Why don’t we all stop what we’re doing and switch careers, switch our focus, choose contentment? For most of us, the sacrifice would be too great. Rent has to be paid. Children have to eat. An abrupt life change isn’t in the cards for most of us. That’s where passion comes in.
What would you choose if you had no limitations? Do you want to sing, paint, or make clay pots? Even if you can’t give up your day job, you can make a conscious decision to enjoy that activity as often as you can, even if it’s for an hour. Don’t do it because you think it will lead to a job or money. Do it because that is the thing you would choose above everything else. In time, you will have a shelf of pots and a wall of paintings. What you create will be better because it was crafted it with the patience and care. The happiest people aren’t always the wealthiest. Possessions can’t replace experience, and few experiences rival creating something you love or pushing yourself to accomplish something that seemed impossible.
Before you fall asleep tonight ask yourself these three questions, and give yourself permission to be happy with your answer. No day is perfect. Sometimes, you’ll be obligated to spend the day fixing the sink, and that will have to be enough. But, if you hold yourself accountable to answering yes to at least one of these three questions, you can sleep with the knowledge that today, you respected the value of this day and it was well spent.