Last week I turned 26. It’s not a particularly inspiring age. Really it just means more of my friends are having babies and I’m closer to 30 than 20. But on my birthday one of my friends posted to my Facebook wall “I hope this is your best year yet!” I thought about it for a minute, and then realized there is every reason to believe 26 will be infinitely better than 25, just as 27 will no doubt be better than 26. I figure this because each year I learn more; more about myself, about the people I interact with, and about the world around me. And if School House Rock taught me anything, it’s that knowledge is power. In honor of this philosophy, I present to you 26 things I’ve learned that help keep me sane, and that will help make 26 my best year thus far. These lessons are in no particular order and range from astute to silly, much like my own thoughts. I hope that you find some of them helpful, too.
1. Embrace your inner child
Getting older does not mean that you stop having fun. It does mean you have to cultivate creativity and spontaneity more than you used to. Do a cartwheel. Buy a coloring book. Re-read your favorite children’s books whether you have kids or not. Run after the ice cream man when he drives down your street. Make leaf rubbings. Fly a kite. Watch a Disney movie on VHS (WHAT?!). I promise you will feel lighter, happier, and more youthful afterward.
2. Gaining some weight is not a big deal
Are you happy? Are you healthy? Do you FEEL good? Do you have the money to feed yourself and your family with nutritious things? These are the questions to be asking yourself because these are the things that matter. Your body has been changing since you were born, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Get over it.
3. Speaking your mind is incredibly empowering
Being respectful does not mean you have to agree with everyone. In fact, people will respect you more if you tell them honestly what you think, instead of complying to avoid conflict. Conflict is where ideas meet, mingle, and make better outcomes. Don’t silence yourself because you’re afraid of what someone might think about what you have to say. Someone might laugh at you, but you can smile knowing you were true to yourself, rather than frowning with regret later.
4. Give yourself the freedom to relax
I am a recovering perfectionist and multi-tasker. I get it. You can make your lists and be productive without sacrificing peace of body and mind. Take a break once in a while to recenter yourself. I promise the world will not stop turning if you take a night off to watch junk TV on the couch or read a book for fun.
5. Make time for what makes you happy
Doing things because you feel like you should is not an indicator of their importance. Life is short. If you enjoy something, you should pursue it whether or not it falls on your typical “to do” checklist. I read a lot and do a lot of yoga. My husband and I make big, delicious meals together. We have a puppy who loves to eat dirt. I don’t always get the laundry folded, our kitchen is frequently a mess, and our clothes often have mud on them. But are we happy? Very much so.
6. You can’t be friends with everyone, so don’t try
This took me a very.long.time to learn. But now that I’ve embraced it, I’m a much happier person. It does not matter how amiable you can be, how funny your jokes are, or how open your mind is. There will be people out there who, for whatever reason, don’t like you, or, aren’t a good fit for your life. Smile at these people and let them flow out of your life. If you try to befriend everyone, you will spend far too much time shaping your life to fit the perspectives of others, which will only lead to unhappiness.
7. You can’t solve other peoples’ problems
When you care about someone you want to help them. But helping a friend, or even a stranger, doesn’t mean you have to take on his or her problem as your own. You can provide support, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, and words of advice. These are all good, helpful, compassionate things to do. But you can’t be someone’s solution. It is unfair to you, because you have taken on undo stress, and to them, because you have taken away their learning opportunity.
8. Silence really is golden
I am one to fill silence, whether it be with small talk during dinner or with music while I do the dishes. But the power of silence lies in its ability to foster clarity. If you’re talking with someone it allows you a moment to process what the other person is saying before you respond. If you’re doing an activity alone, it allows you to be present and mindful with your actions. I try to incorporate more silence in my days, especially when I’m stressed, to offer myself a moment of serenity.
9. Complacency and contentment are not the same
The difference is subtle, for sure, but it’s an important one. Being complacent about any part of your life means that, to some extent, you have given up. Complacency is saying that you’re making the most of where you’re at while knowing deep down that you could be trying harder. Contentment means you are doing everything you can to fulfill your goals and live a good life, while accepting your limitations and the things you can’t control.
10. You learn the most from people who are different from you
If we were all the same the world would be a very boring place. Interacting with people who come from different cultural backgrounds, have opposite political views, or even who like different books and movies than you do is an opportunity to broaden your worldview and learn more about yourself by analyzing how your perspectives compare with others.
11. Respect and compassion go a long way
No matter where you live and work, you will have to deal with difficult people. You can see them as an annoyance, or an opportunity to practice patience, compassion, and respect for those around you. These feelings benefit you, and might help the other person learn from your example.
12. Expectations lead to disappointment
I’ve learned this the hard way many times. If you build up expectations in your mind, at some point they will come crashing down and bring your emotions down with them. Goals and plans can be helpful, but if you don’t leave room for change, you will never be satisfied.
13. Spend as much time as possible with the people you love
You have a limited amount of time in any given day, week, and ultimately in your life to spend in the company of others. I am striving to spend more time with people who truly lift me up and help me become a better person.
14. Pursue your interests
Sometimes the weird things you’re interested in can turn into fulfilling, lifelong hobbies, or even a career. Either way, pursuing activities and topics that pique your interest will engage your mind and bring you joy.
15. Balance your intake of fantasy and reality
Dreaming is wonderful. So is escape. I love good fiction because of the escapism it provides. And I often dream of what my future perfect day might be like. But being present in your daily life is just as important. If you can’t be happy in the present moment, regardless of the hardships you might be facing, you will spend much of your time in a bad mood. It is healthy to experience all of life’s trials and be educated about what is happening in the world, regardless of how awful it sometimes seems. Life is suffering. You just have to learn how to live with it.
16. Be direct and honest about your feelings
People won’t really know how you feel if you don’t tell them, and when you keep your feelings to yourself, you’ll often be misunderstood. Tell friends and family how much they mean to you, or even when they’ve upset you. Tell a coworker you appreciate how they helped you, or that you’re frustrated they didn’t follow through with something. Be respectful without placing blame, but remain straightforward and honest.
17. Take time for yourself
As Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Make sure you take time out from your busy schedule every so often to breathe and do something that you find rejuvenating. When you give yourself time to rest and relax, you’ll be more capable of doing things for other people.
18. Identify your values
Identifying what truly matters to you helps you make decisions that make you feel more fulfilled and happy. It also helps you make choices in complicated situations when there is not a right or wrong answer, but a best answer FOR YOU.
19. Never stop learning
Education continues to be one of the most important and fulfilling areas of my life. The more I learn, the more I feel capable of helping others and moving my life in the direction I want. Watch a documentary, read nonfiction, listen to NPR, take a class on something you’ve always found interesting. You won’t regret it.
Endorphins are amazing things. Being active and exercising has helped me cope with anxiety and depression at different times in my life. Physical activity can help clear and focus your mind. For me, yoga does these things very well. But for you it might be gardening, walking, training your dog, ballroom dancing; just something that gets you up and moving. Your brain and your body will thank you.
21. Plan ahead, but allow the plan to evolve
It’s good to think about the future and proactively work toward your goals. But, life is transient. If you try to hold on to the reins too tight you’ll get rope burn. Allowing your plans to change organically can lead you to even more exciting experiences and outcomes.
22. Reduce negative thoughts
The key to happiness resides within your own mind. Silence your road rage, forgive those who hurt you, and don’t assume the worst. You’ll be happier for it.
23. Embrace your weaknesses
Weaknesses are blessings in disguise. They provide you opportunities for personal growth and improvement. Instead of seeing your weaknesses as discouraging, view them as motivating.
24. Try new things
Be it food, a sport, or a new genre of media, expanding your worldview is always a good thing.
25. Release your worries
I am stealing this one straight from the Dalai Lama:
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
26. Learn how to say “no”
This relates to many of the other lessons, but it’s important. Don’t feel like you have to agree to things just to make someone else happy. If you say “yes” to every social invitation, volunteer opportunity, or work request, you’ll spend a lot of time doing things that don’t align with your values and don’t make you happy and fulfilled. You’ll also be exhausted and have little time left over for yourself. You can say “no” politely, but firmly, even to people who matter to you. If they care about your needs, they’ll understand.