How does someone build a rich, connected, creative life?
November 20, 2018 5:51 PM   Subscribe

What are your secrets to embracing life and living fully in the short time we have?

I have known some lovely people over the years who seem to live life in a really dynamic, joyful, emotionally-rich, full way that also seems relatively low in stress/anxiety - they're active, tightly connected to a wide group of family/friends in their local community, creative, generous, calmly confident, and they have a lot of joy and gratitude. They seem to prioritize enjoyable activities -- like, they cook from scratch rather than just heating a frozen Trader Joe's meal, they play music for fun with friends, they often have friends pop over for wine, they might paint, write, hike, etc. They appear rooted and content with their lives, in control while open to spontaneity, and confident in their choices, rather than resigned or anxiously striving for more. As an observer I always think, they've got life figured out. This is how I want to do life. Full of richness and meaning and strength.

But I feel like there is a secret to their being at peace with themselves that I'm missing and can't figure out. I think it has to do with my having anxiety and a lack of self confidence, which totally keep me playing small and limited. I've tried to move my life in that direction for years and I've made a lot of progress, but I've never managed to really achieve the level of peace and joy and relaxed openness to life they seem to have. I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. If it does exist, how does it work? What's reasonable to expect and how does someone get there if it doesn't come naturally?
posted by inatizzy to Human Relations (22 answers total) 127 users marked this as a favorite
I can 100% promise you that all those people you think have complete peace, joy, and contentment have their moments of anxiety, sadness, worry, and stress.

One thing you can start doing is to give yourself a break. Try not to compare your state of being to other people or assume that other people have figured out something you haven't.

And then go out and try some stuff. Get a membership at a museum, treat yourself to a show, invite one person to go for a hike with you, commit to throwing one small dinner party next year.
posted by brookeb at 5:57 PM on November 20, 2018 [23 favorites]

You only have one life. They've chosen to make theirs full of joy, sharing, and belonging. There's no magic to this -- you can choose that too.

Invite friends over for random things. Pop over to friends' houses (bring food or wine). Play music. Paint. Cook. Invite friends over to play music with you, paint with you, cook with you. Invite friends over to eat food you've cooked. Stay off your phone.

Go camping. Invite people to come. If they don't, enjoy yourself anyway. Stay off your phone.

Choose to listen and participate when you want to. Choose to speak when you want to. FIgure out how you express and experience joy and cultivate it.
posted by erst at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2018 [13 favorites]

I think I probably look like that from the outside. I do/have a lot of the stuff and habits you describe. I’m still pretty depressed and miserable a lot of the time (which surprises people). Not always, but every once in a while. I think a lot of it is just inborn temperament. Some people are resilient and happy no matter what, others are, well, anxious and over-thinking, like me (and maybe you?).

I‘m not a wise old woman or anything but I‘ve found for me, personally, that rolling with that is better than fighting it. I‘ll never be happy-go-lucky, and that‘s ok.
posted by The Toad at 6:33 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think the feeling of a full, connected life ironically(?) paradoxically(?) has something to do with how well someone appreciates what's already in their life or within easy reach, and lets go of what's not in the cards to be part of their life, or at least not at that stage of life.

What's already part of life or within easy reach is going to be very different for different people. Like, cooking from scratch regularly or throwing dinner parties may be a bridge too far for someone, and maybe there is a trade-off that could make it possible, or maybe appreciating some delicious convenient Trader Joe's is the way to feel that life is already good.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:36 PM on November 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

It seems like you've identified some specific practices of these people that you'd like to adopt. One starting point would be to pick one of those practices that seems doable, figure out what you need to change in order to start trying it, and giving it a shot. For example, one thing that jumps out to me on your list is cooking more often. OK - what do you personally need in order to cook? Time? Materials? What can you do to acquire these components?

Start with something small and specific, and be courageous. Change is hard, but you can do it.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:06 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Like you, I have also strived to achieve a rich, connected, creative life. When we were growing up, my sister and I really admired some family friends of my parents. They were kind, generous hosts who always seemed endlessly comfortable while entertaining.

While in my 20s, I often bemoaned the fact that I wasn't more like this couple. I wasn't sure how to achieve the lifestyle and social community they had. As I moved into my 30s, I began to shift my perspective a bit. I realized that events and plans don't just happen. It developed slowly over the years, but I have become the person in my family and social group who initiates plans, acts on ideas, and follows through on suggestions. Sometimes I get tired or have low social energy - then I just scale way back for a few months.

It's still a work in progress. My goal is to have a home with an open door, an inviting place that encourages people to relax and visit. I'm not quite there, but it's my next step. I'd love to do a monthly dinner (there are some awesome threads here on Ask that detail what that can look like). I'm trying to let go of preconceived notions of what I think my social gatherings should look like. Things don't need extensive planning or elaborate set-up. A bottle of wine and music on my Bose are my modern day salon. My happiest, truest connections happen when I send a text, create a Facebook invite, or just make a phone call. It's allowed me to access a deep, peaceful part of myself - a self who is simply allowed to be.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:09 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

I also know people like this, but I've come to terms with the massive amount of privilege that usually underlies their lifestyle, even if there isn't a blatant display of wealth. I also had an acquaintance who was generous with his time, his musical gifts and his cooking, who I lost to suicide this year.

I'm not suggesting that cooking and time with friends aren't worthy goals to pursue, but you shouldn't beat yourself up for not achieving these things with seeming ease, nor confuse gracious hosting with internal peace.
posted by ziggly at 7:11 PM on November 20, 2018 [27 favorites]

What I notice about people like the ones you describe is that they are genuinely interested in other people, and focus on what is good, interesting or delightful in others instead of searching for flaws. They look for commonalities and connections. They are more interested in listening, encouraging and learning than in monologuing.

But yes, as many other have said above, many of the people I know who are the most community-minded wrestle with depression, anxiety and feelings of sadness. Sometimes it is that very experience of loneliness or depression that makes someone expertly able to draw someone else out of their shell, or intentionally plan a joyful gathering. Perhaps one step in your journey might be to directly express your appreciation to these "givers" for the qualities you admire, and ask them how you could better support them. If you build a closer friendship with them you may not only enrich your own life, you may get a more nuanced portrait of a person who creates community.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:50 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

One of the best ways I have found to live a rich, connected, and creative live is to realize that at least two of those conditions are a myth at almost any given time in one's life. And then to further realize that that is not always a bad thing. We are constantly sold this idea that life should be as it appears on instagram and other social media - that the world is nothing but all these happy people at the best restaurants in the coolest cities looking effortlessly blissful wearing the most amazing things and looking way happier than is real.

I'm not going to suggest that everyone's a rotting shell of sadness under their awesome selfie with 507 likes, because I don't think that's necessarily true. I will, however, suggest that the best way to live a life that fulfills you is to understand and embrace, fully, who you actually are rather than feeling bad about who you think you should be.

Be honest with yourself. If your life feels "small and limited", the first question is, is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe you like the lines you've drawn around your life, for whatever reasons you drew them. Maybe the parameters of your life are comforts, not constraints. That's OK! There's nothing wrong with living a "small" life. Living is not a competition to see who can do the most cool stuff.

If you truly feel constrained by your smallness and limits, though, the first thing to try is something that makes you feel less small. Volunteering is a good way of doing this, as is something that my wife and I did recently - we took a cooking class, because for me, cooking is NOT enjoyable, even though I enjoy eating home cooked food. It doesn't need to be cooking for you, though, if cooking isn't your thing; find something that you might want to be your thing, and see if your local community college, or a local business, offers a class in it. Something like that is a good way to dip your toe in the water, and to meet other people who are probably doing the same thing.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no wrong answer here. Living your life in a way that makes you happy and brings you peace is the most important thing, and if that's being "small" and quiet, live thus and be happy. I wish you luck.
posted by pdb at 8:18 PM on November 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

The secret is very likely to be several varieties of privilege, to be honest.

I mean, sure, be the change. Start a family band. Announce a monthly meatball night. Show up at one of the AMC's free guided hikes. Become a regular at just about any kind of social dance.

But don't beat yourself up because you were born to parents who couldn't afford music lessons, or cook foods pleasing to the local majority palate, or sign you up for the Boy Scouts.

On a less depressing note: I've noticed a correlation (which does not imply causation) between the sort of lifestyle you describe and the kitchen crew at a local church who show up between 8 and 9 a.m. every Saturday, rain or shine, to cook a meal for a hundred or two of their "neighbors in need." I worked for them for a few months (until they put me out front where a bunch of men made "repeated and unwelcome comments" to me). There are worse ways to spend your time, and even if you don't find inner peace you'll at least learn to chop onions efficiently.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:52 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

The most important thing I've learned is that actions beget feelings. It's very easy to look at what we don't have and think "How can I change my feelings so that I act so that I can achieve this?" but that's the wrong way around. You want this awesome life, but are afraid that you don't have the right feelings -- confidence, positivity, whatever -- to make it happen.

But that way of thinking has the causality in the wrong direction. The way to become a person who is confident and positive is to act in the same way as somebody who is confident or positive. Invite people to do things, even if you're afraid they'll say no. Try to find the silver lining even if you're dwelling on the bad. What this does is break the cycle -- you begin to attract people who like that sort of thing, you find it easier to act that way at the next opportunity, and soon enough you find yourself genuinely being this thing that at first you were faking your way through.

It's half "be the change you wish to see in the world" and half "fake it till you make it" but there's a reason those things are cliches. It's because focusing on actions works to change feelings far more than the reverse.

The converse point is that you'll only stress yourself out if you measure your success by whether you are constantly feeling happy, satisfied, creative, etc. The whole point about these feelings is that they are ineffable and fleeting, and disappear the moment you try to scrutinise them too much. Rather, your success measure should be whether you are acting as the person you want to be, and whether you feel natural and centred and "you" even if you don't always feel happy or joyful.
posted by forza at 8:54 PM on November 20, 2018 [28 favorites]

Your anxiety may calm as you grow older. From a previous question, it seems you are mid-thirties. Add another decade and you'll likely be more confident and more comfortable in your skin. Peace takes practice. Keep practicing by redirecting to the present moment. See what happens when you do nothing but breathe and come into the present without thinking of past or future. Live your life without labeling. If you label things as wrong, bad, problematic, etc., you're going to have stress.

I'm 46. My twenties were filled with a total lack of awareness, pain, shame, depression, and reactivity. Most of my thirties were filled with guilt, anxiety and shame. I admire the people who don't dwell and get on with it. I was stuck in negative patterns for a while. It took me longer to wake up and that's okay. Not to pat my own back but I cannot tell you how many people invite me to things, want to hang out with me, tell me that I am "calm" "grounded" "sweet" "nice" "fun". I get the calm thing a lot and when it first started happening I was kind of surprised. I'm calmer and happier than I've ever been. It took a lot of self-reflection, practice, and coming to terms that I am worthy and wonderful and so are you. When you are at peace with yourself the fun and the joy come out because that's what humans are. It gets warped and hidden by our pain and our thinking.

Some random things I've done, realized, and learned that help me be at peace.

1. You are no better or less than any other human. When you meet another human you are meeting yourself. So no putting people on pedestals or diminishing others.
2. What you want, you already have (creativity, joy, peace, love).
3. Yoga and walking in nature (for the breathing, for the movement, for the fitness, for the presence, for the noticing).
4. Therapy (to work through negative patterns, trauma, and shame)
5. Anxiety and emotional pain are caused by what we think about our "problems".
6. Be present with others. Listen without an agenda. See everyone as a friend. Allow people do be themselves and notice the softening and the joy.
7. You already belong.
8. Wanting more money or more success is okay but not if you define yourself by it.
9. People don't wound us on purpose.
10. Integrity is everything. Don't gossip. Be kind. Be sincere.
11. Comparison causes anxiety.
12. You are mostly in control of your life and mostly get to create the life you want. If you want more hikes, more flowers, more nature, more color, more music, more joy, more presence, more romantic evenings, more conversation, make it happen by planning and prioritizing.
13. You don't have to be perfect.
14. Pretending causes anxiety. Behaving in ways that go against your values and your truth will always cause anxiety.
15. Don't take your life so seriously.
16. You don't have to label everything. When you label a situation as bad, wrong, etc. that causes suffering.
17. The stories we create about ourselves and others create anxiety.
18. Let it be.
19. Let it go.
20. Be still and breathe.
posted by loveandhappiness at 9:28 PM on November 20, 2018 [53 favorites]

This sounds a lot like my mom, but not much like me. The main difference between us is that she's extroverted and I'm introverted. She does more activities with people in one day than I would want to do in a week. And that's fine. We have different lives because different things make us happy. We're both creative, I just prefer to do my work solo with no distractions.

I hear a lot people talk about how grounded and calm she is too. They don't know her well enough to see the things she does stress over or realize how anxious she is. I'm not even sure she realizes how anxious she gets sometimes, but I can see from some of the times I've soothed her. (I had someone telling me how peaceful and centered she was on a trip recently, despite the fact that everyone knew her spouse has just gotten a cancer diagnosis. She called home twice a day to check on him and we barely managed to convince her that he was actually doing pretty well right then. But she still seemed grounded and joyful to everyone else.)

That said, she does throw herself into things with gusto and has a willingness to be joyful. I try for the same attitude of why not be fun, kind of childlike willingness to play, and that does bring more joy into my life.

So I think finding that capacity for joy, that willingness to play, might serve you best. And then look for a small change that would make you happier. Maybe more dinner parties if you're an extrovert, or more sketching practice of you're an introvert. But something that's right for you, not that theoretical person.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:29 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Focus on gratitude for the ways that your life is already like the lives of those you admire. Notice and appreciate even the slightest progress in that direction. Cultivate self-friendliness. Try saying encouraging things to yourself.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:08 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I asked the friend of mine who is most like this how they do it. They said:
They smoke a lot of weed
They meditate
They deliberately try to frame things in positive ways or look for interesting ways they can learn from bad situations
They try to make sure the majority of their social life centres around people who are not from work
But mostly the weed

(They also seem financially really comfortable, which no doubt helps a lot.)
posted by lollusc at 12:01 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recommend committing to meditating in ten minute sessions, once a day for the next month whether it feels like it's achieving anything or not, and then making an experience-informed decision about whether or not to put meditation into the same class of basic health maintenance measures as regular tooth brushing.
posted by flabdablet at 3:44 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Where do you live? Not geographically but in relation to neighbors, friends, activities and services. When I lived near a downtown in a small city I had a very active social life, people dropped by and it was easy to walk to or take public transportation to activities. I walked a lot and encountered the same people frequently, shopped at small stores where I got to know the staff. Now I live in a suburban neighborhood where few people are connected and it is a real effort to get together or attend events. Most shopping is in huge stores where I rarely see anyone I know. In winter particularly I can feel very isolated. I am not saying you must move if your neighborhood doesn't support a varied social life, just to be aware of what the barriers are, what you might do to overcome them and to not blame yourself for structural issues.
posted by Botanizer at 6:04 AM on November 21, 2018

"...I've never managed to really achieve the level of peace and joy and relaxed openness to life they seem to have. I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. If it does exist, how does it work? What's reasonable to expect and how does someone get there if it doesn't come naturally?"

It doesn't come naturally to me either but I'm regularly described as bubbly and positive. The other day, someone even described me as happy-go-lucky (!) but my internal world couldn't feel farther than that. I'm in my mid-thirties now and I've worked really hard to sort out all kinds of feelings of anger from my twenties and struggled with depression. My internal world - the one that feels like a continuation of whatever I imagine I've always been - can often feel dark and gloomy and like a constant struggle.

But I always try. I try to be the best version of me with other people because it's nothing to do with them if I'm feeling grumpy, or tired, or overwhelmed. I'm introverted but I try to be present and engaged with others because it's nothing to do with them that social interactions can be tiring for me. I try to be positive, I try to watch what I say, how I react, how I interact with people. I try to remain consistent in how I treat others so that my personal feelings don't dictate whether I'm kinder to one person over another. I try very hard not to gossip and not to engage in any gossip. I work very hard to avoid the tendency we have to vilify others who are causing us pain. I think long and hard about how to approach difficult conversations or difficult relationships. I keep trying to see things from other perspectives. I think about interactions I struggled with and break them down and analyse them so that I can do better next time. I try to do nice things for people because I would like people to do nice things for me. I take care of myself, I meditate, I exercise and eat well. I know the negative thought patterns I can have and I try to be kind to myself, to acknowledge my feelings but be fair: sometimes you feel a certain way but it's nothing to do with other people. I try to do things I know make me happy now and things I know will make me happy later.

This isn't an exclusive list and apologies for taking so long to make a point. But I wondered whether it'd be useful for you to see some of the things other people don't when they describe me as positive. They see the peace and joy and openness to life because it's there. What they don't see is how I get there.
posted by mkdirusername at 7:57 AM on November 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

Try to remember that comparing yourself to other people necessarily involves matching their final edits against your own blooper reel.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lots of good stuff written above. For me it comes down to choice. Almost as simple as choosing to be happy rather than sad. Be a 'glass half full' person, not a 'glass half empty' one. When I was a kid (mid-last-century) who collected autographs, my dad wrote "Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars". I've been wealthy and I've been homeless, and really life isn't very different in either, rich or poor I'm still me. I choose to be happy and at peace.

Also, as already said, "actions beget feelings". Helping others is a wonderful way to help yourself.
posted by anadem at 9:31 AM on November 21, 2018

I probably also seem like one of those people. I host parties or dinners every other month or so, I volunteer, I organize nights out, I have a few creative hobbies, I’m good at bringing people together, I work out with friends, and I’m generally pretty happy. But I had to make conscious decisions to get there.

5 or 6 years ago, I thought about people I admired, and how I could be someone I’d admire. I basically made a list of the the things that those people did and then started doing them myself: volunteer, serve on boards, organize cultural outings, host small dinner parties, host bigger parties, exercise, develop hobbies, etc. I chose my own hobbies, charities, etc based on what I enjoy and care about. I also tried to emulate personal qualities I admired, like kindness and patience. There were times I felt like I was faking it, but I never kept doing something I didn’t enjoy.

Sides that aren’t as obvious: I plan a lot more than I think other people realize, so I’m able to get tickets to things before they sell out, for example. I probably also spend way more money than other people realize when hosting events, but I’m okay with that.
posted by loulou718 at 10:21 AM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

For me, it's a process of figuring out what things I find meaningful and important to prioritize, versus things I see other people doing and feel a vague sense that I should be prioritizing those things too. So in your question, you mention cooking, music, having friends pop over, hiking, and artistic activities. I find it's really easy for me to feel frozen if I kind of think of that whole list of stuff at once.

But as I've settled into my current city and my job and into friendships and romantic relationships the last few years, I've been able to start thinking through what really makes me tick and leaving behind thoughts of interests/hobbies/activities I should care about. For instance, I have a long background being involved in music through band, choir, piano playing, musical theater, etc, etc, from grade school on. None of those things are my job and I got to a point a few years ago where it had been almost a decade since I'd been involved in anything musical and I realized I really missed that in my life. I was a grad student at the time, and looked into the university choir and ended up joining and having it become a really meaningful part of my life.

I'm no longer in that grad program but when I left to take my current job, I made it a priority to seek out choral groups in the area so that leaving school wouldn't mean leaving music again. I've been singing for the last year and a half with a local chamber group and it's something I want to stay involved in for as long as I can, even though it's just a hobby. From your question, it seems like it would be really helpful for you to think of a couple of activities in this vein that would make you feel more fulfilled. Are there things you used to do that have kind of fallen out of your life? Are there specific artistic or athletic pursuits you've always wondered about but never explored? Pick one or two of those things and work on making them a small part of your life.

I think you're going to find that ultimately brings you a lot more of the feeling that you're embracing life, than it will to look at other people's lives from the outside and trying to kind of vaguely insert a lot of activities because those activities seem like the kind of things people who are "living fully" do. Find a few things that make you feel like you're living fully while you're doing them, and then dive into those as deep as you can.
posted by augustimagination at 1:09 PM on February 21, 2019

« Older Lost iPhone with (possibly) no "find my iphone"...   |   An estate battle, a manipulator, and me (legal... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.