Choosing Joy

Recent brain research seems to indicate that the largest portion of our happiness level is hardwired, the smallest portion related to the current conditions of our lives and a surprisingly good amount by the way we choose to think.

My life experience bears this out. The more I allow my thoughts to dig into a rut of self-pity, the more miserable I am, and the more convinced I become that I will never be happy again.

Thankfully (Ha! Get it?) I learned the choice of gratitude. I learned that even when things are really truly difficult, I could focus my thoughts on the things in my life that I loved and was grateful for. This did not immediately change my outer circumstances, but it did ease my inner misery. And happily, when I was not so miserable, I made better choices and helped my outer circumstances as well.

My younger brother got married recently, after a 20 year period of singleness to a wonderful, intelligent, loving woman. Weddings can bring up difficult feelings in me, since my own marriages had been so spectacularly unsuccessful. As these feelings arose, I gave them an inner nod–“Ah, yes, old friend, I remember you. But today is not about you. It is a celebration of joy for those who have found a loving mate. We will visit another time.” And I looked about the room full of family and friends celebrating this happy day.

I noticed my aunt, widowed now five years after being married for fifty. She was sitting alone at a table, as all the others had gotten up to dance. I went to her and commented that for us single gals, these celebrations have bittersweet moments. She agreed. “Your uncle loved to dance. I miss him very much.” I asked about her grandchildren. She asked what my kids were doing in school. We commented on the dancers and the music. We embraced.

If I had sat at my own table, in my own pity party, I would have missed that connection to my aunt.

I choose joy.

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The $100 Birthday

I grew up in a family that didn’t celebrate birthdays much. Mom would make us a cake, sometimes a few friends came over to play. But there was never a rented pony, or elaborate decorations or store-bought cards. My mom just didn’t spend money that way.

When my kids were little and invited to birthday parties at Skateland or Chuck E Cheese, they had a great time and wanted to have birthday parties like that themselves. For a working mom, it seemed a good trade off. For a little more money, a lot of work and mess was someone else’s responsibility. And the kids had a great time. A small present from mom, a cake and the day was complete. Each birthday, with party and gift combined cost about $100, and I soon learned to budget that amount.

As the kids got bigger, they wanted more elaborate parties and more expensive gifts. A few years back, I told them about the $100 per birthday budget. They could spend the whole thing on the party, they could do without the party and spend the whole amount on a gift, or some combination. One year, my daughter spent the entire amount on the party. This year, on her bike. Youngest son, this year, spent about $40 on the party (in the park, with a pinata and water ballons) and the rest on a recording device for his guitar.

I like that they get to choose how the money is spent, and I like that I don’t have budget-breaking birthdays.

Sounds Reasonable

A while back, I had an acquaintance who confessed to me that he had a particular phrase he used to avoid arguments. If someone was telling him an opinion that he did not agree with, but did not feel worth the effort of a disagreement, he would say, “That sounds reasonable.” His hearer felt flattered at being reasonable, and was none the wiser to my friend’s opinion. Thankfully, he forgot that he told me about this technique. Then later, when he told me I “sounded reasonable” I knew he didn’t agree, but didn’t want to fight about it.

I grew up in a family of folks with loud, well-expressed opinions. Several went on to make it a career of it and became lawyers. Sometimes Thanksgiving dinner resembled the practice for a debate team.

Over the years, I have moved from being an active member of the “debate” team to saving my energy for the discussions that are especially important to me. I am hoping that this makes me more effective and not just more agreeable.

I don’t know. What do you think? Sound reasonable?

Frugal Strategies

Since everything is always changing, I think the most important money-saving strategy is being aware of your use patterns and being flexible.

There is no one money-saving tip that will work for everyone, though there are a few that are generally good: tracking expenses for awareness, spending less than you earn, automated savings.

I think our phone use patterns are an excellent example of changing your strategy to meet currents needs and not overspend.

Ten years ago, we had a landline with an answering machine that cost $16 per month.

When beloved daughter was fourteen, she wanted a cell phone. All her friends had them. Really. So I bought her a pay-as-you-go cell phone and she had to pay for the minutes, although she often got minutes for her phone as birthday or Christmas gifts.

A few years later, I got myself a pay-as-you-go phone. Then a couple of years after that middle son wanted a phone as he was always having to borrow one to call me to get picked up from activities.

So, we had a big change, got a family plan with four cell phones, cancelled the landline and beloved daughter pays me $10 per month for the texting on her phone.

As they leave home, I can drop the extra lines and go back to a pay-as-you-go. Or I might get one of those fancy data phones and drop the wireless at home. I guess it depends on what my use patterns are then.