Money Can't Buy Happiness

4 February 2020

I’ve heard this phrase so many times but it didn’t really click until I took a year off. The problem is that it’s much easier said than understood 1. And to understand it I had to try to prove it wrong, in a way. I thought that buying myself a year in which I didn’t have to work would solve a lot of my problems.

I went to Europe for four months during my year off. It was a wonderful trip. And yet I could still find myself at times feeling anxious, lonely, scared, unsure, wanting to leave. From the outside it could have appeared as if I had everything going for me.

What I really internalized during that time is that it’s not the money or the things or the traveling that make me happy. It’s spending time with my friends and family. It’s feeling fulfilled with my work. It’s sharing what I’ve learned. It’s creating. It’s being outdoors. This trip reshaped my view of money. I was able to see how far a dollar can go when you stick to the basics; I never got tired of living out of a backpack.

The one thing that I could buy myself - if not happiness - was comfort. If I was feeling anxious I could spend more money on a nicer place to stay. Not having to share a bathroom, for instance, would be one less thing to worry about.

We all do need money to survive. And unfortunately too many people aren’t having that need met. But for those who are chasing a dream of having x income or y net worth or such and such car or that size house or this many boats, give yourself the time to reflect on what makes you really happy.

  1. The other problem is a Princeton study found that up to a certain income level can contribute to happiness. ↩︎

My Year Off is Over

3 February 2020

After 15 months of not working I flew to NYC and started back at The New York Times on 5 August 2019. I originally planned to take one year off but because I love the summer so much (and not working was really great) I extended that time by three months.

The decision to go back to work wasn’t originally one that I thought I’d make. When I began my year off I really had no idea what I was going to do at the end, but I didn’t think I’d be going back to a full time job. I considered getting into consulting so that I could pick up work on my own schedule, but that also seemed like a lot of effort that didn’t align with my longer term goals. Going back to a full time job was the best balance of earning some money while keeping my goals in sight.

My year off was a supremely positive experience. I went back to work with my stress level at zero. It has risen some in the last six months but my new perspective on life allows me to maintain a calmer state of mind than I would have otherwise. I never got tired of not working. It was a wonderful feeling to be in complete control of my days. I gave myself plenty of time to rest and relax, but I also got to experiment in a number of ways. Experimentation is so undervalued and I cherish my seasons of experimenting.

I would absolutely do this again and I would definitely recommend taking an extended amount of time off if you’re able. I wish it were something more available and acceptable for people who would really benefit from taking a step back.

What Day Is It?

2 February 2020

This is one of many blogs that I wrote during my year off but never posted.

As my year off progresses, I am inching closer and closer to being in a mental state where I am taking each day as it comes instead of living in the future (or the past). I am the most stress-free that I can remember being. I am wholly healthier than I’ve been in a long time. Things aren’t perfect, but when are they ever? I have made major progress in the areas of my life that I wanted to improve by giving myself the time and space to do so.

I wrote this in my journal on 20 May 2018, a few weeks after my last day of work (for context, I was at my family’s lake house and had not yet let go of the need to be doing something):

One of my favorite things so far about my year off is that I forget what day it is. I wake up without an alarm and begin doing whatever needs to be done that day. Today I finished replacing all of the electrical outlets and light switches in the house, then began wiring the ethernet cable that we ran from the house down to the dock. I came inside at 9:30 PM - my feet covered in mosquito bites - filled with a sense of accomplishment. I thought it must be Wednesday, or Thursday. Maybe Friday. I opened up a calendar; it’s Sunday. Tomorrow begins a new week.

Another favorite: One of the first things I did after my last day of work was delete the morning alarm from my phone. This has turned the morning into a much more pleasant time of day for me; I sleep until my body gets the rest it needs, and I’m not being jarred out of bed to go do something. It is a great luxury.

Empty Canvas

1 February 2020

On 12 February 2018 - three months before I began my year off - I wrote this in my journal:

What I’m most excited for on my year off: what I’ll be able to do with the empty canvas that is a day, a week, a month, a year without obligations.

I had only known work and school up to this point in my life. My weeks were planned out for me. I could go on small trips with my few weeks of PTO or even take advantage of the ability to work remotely. But being constrained to this one thing for 5 days of the week was not sitting well with me. I felt a sort of mental claustrophobia - this feeling of being trapped in a pattern of doing one thing over and over while wanting to do many others.

I have always been somewhat career-driven so I put in a lot of time and effort to get to where I am. But a break would be nice - a time to enjoy what I’ve accomplished and figure out where to go next; a time to pull onto the side of the road simply to stop driving for a little while. Weekends weren’t giving me enough time for that.

The idea of being able to wake up and do whatever I want (or nothing at all) felt like a weight off my chest. And even more than that, doing something for myself without worrying about the reactions of anyone else felt liberating. I’ve struggled with this worry for a while and have only recently begun to explore how to reign it in. Taking a year off was part of that process.

The canvas of my year off is now full of colorful experiences. While painting it I learned a lot about myself and what I want and need. It is a valuable piece of artwork that will pay me dividends for years to come.


19 October 2018

When I turned 28 it occured to me for the first time that 30 was about to happen. The thought of that stressed me out for a minute. Had I done everything I needed to do in my 20s? Was I ready for whatever being in my 30s means? Am I getting old?

My 20s were, taken as a whole, great. Sure, I had some difficult years, but I pushed through a lot of internal struggles, I figured out and became confident in who I am, I realized what my priorities currently are in life, I learned from many failures and successes, I made the best group of friends who support me and hold me accountable, and I built a solid career foundation.

After giving it more thought, I realized that turning 30 would give me a chance to focus in on what’s important to me.

And 30 isn’t old.

I became content with turning 30. Excited, even. And then I decided to take an entire year off to make sure that my 30s begin strong and that I have the time to reflect on where I’ve been, take the lessons I’ve learned from my journey so far, and set myself on a path to make the first few years of my 30s fruitful (I would say all of my 30s but I have a hard time planning more than a few years ahead, if I can even decide what to do tomorrow or next week.)

My 20s were more or less doing the ‘usual’: go to college, figure out a career, figure out how to be an adult and on my own. Thirty is a blank canvas to paint, a new chapter to write, new problems to solve.

Today is my 30th birthday. I’m spending it on the beautiful island of Kefalonia, Greece, on a secluded beach, under the sun, looking out at the blue and green water that you can see right through. Which is exactly where I wanted to be today.

I’ve given myself a giant birthday present in this trip around Europe and this year off in general. I couldn’t be more pleased with the decision. Who knows what the next few years will look like, but I’m excited about what I’ve taken away from the thinking and reflecting that I’ve done during the last six months of not working.

Grandmama Sara

18 October 2018

This summer I got to spend time with Grandmama right before Grandaddy passed away and before I left for Europe. For a while we sat on the covered porch where she lived because she wanted to be outside. Not much was said, but the memories I have of her were present and that was enough.

Grandmama Sara’s Summer Camp - the one week every summer that she wrangled her 9 grandchildren together - provided so many experiences that contributed to making me who I am (including my sweet tooth - she never said no to us eating candy or drinking bottomless Yoo-hoos).

Each summer she showed us her world, where she lived and worked and grew up, the people she knew, and people she didn’t know but could somehow talk into letting her bring a rowdy group of cousins to their factory/business/etc to learn something new. She taught us about family, work, and responsibility. She seemed to have an endless amount of energy to deal with us, and never missed scratching our backs and singing us a song before we fell asleep each night.

Grandmama went to be with Grandaddy today. I’m thankful for all of the time I had with them, I’m sad they’re gone and I’ll miss them both dearly, but I know they’ll continue to cheer us on from wherever they are. ❤️

I originally posted this text on Instagram, but wanted to preserve it here.

I Went Off-Grid For One Week

16 September 2018

For the last 10 years I have worked and played on a computer for 8+ hours a day, leaving little room for much else while not always accomplishing anything. My cellphone became something I would reach for first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night if I couldn’t sleep, or when I had any idle moment.

I began my year off by spending one week away from these devices that I’ve become so accustomed to using all day, every day.

While my year off is a reboot of my lifestyle, my week off-grid was a reboot of my use of technology. I make a living off of technology, but the always-available nature of the internet allowed me to get into unhealthy usage habits like checking email multiple times a day, reading websites that haven’t changed in the five minutes since I last read them, or taking my phone out of my pocket to fill time that would be better spent interacting with the people around me or reading a book or writing or reflecting on the moment. Backing away from screens would hopefully allow me to be more present and focused.

On the night before I began this week off-grid, I powered off my laptop and my cellphone. For 7 days they sat on my dresser, unused. I also did not watch any TV during this time. Instead I planned to read, write, walk, and be outside. My parents were around for 5 of the 7 days, so I wasn’t in complete isolation, and they were nice enough to not turn on the TV or talk about current events. I also told some close friends about my plans so they knew what I was up to.

As the week unfolded I felt more focused when doing one thing at a time. I spent a lot of time sitting outside and thinking about nothing. It was so refreshing. My head was clear. I stopped reaching for my phone that wasn’t there. I was enjoying being disconnected.

I journaled each night before going to bed. I was at a lake house so I strung up my hammock on the dock for a reading/thinking/napping spot. The background noise of birds chirping, water flowing, boats passing, and the occasional rain storm on the metal roof set a relaxing mood.

When my parents and I went to a friend’s graduation party, I felt much more engaged with those around me. Even when I wasn’t talking to anyone I could sit with my own thoughts and be happy.

It took 4 days until I had a strong urge to get my phone out and look things up. Luckily that day I had some house work to do to keep me active.

As the end of the week neared, I felt like I was getting what I wanted from the experience. I also started to miss my friends! The wonderful thing about the internet is how connected we can be to the people we love no matter how far away they are. It’s no substitute for connecting in-person, but as I travel around I enjoy being able to talk to my family and friends from wherever I am. It makes them seem a little closer even though I’m (currently) an ocean away.

There’s no escaping the fact that I need my computer and the internet to write software and make a living. I love making things - software or blogs or videos or pictures - and my computer is the tool that usually helps me with that. I also enjoy seeing what others have created or learning something new, often on social media or around the internet.

There’s also no denying the utility of a smartphone. I can navigate around a foreign city, pay my credit card bill, transfer money into my checking account when I need to use an ATM, and send my travel partner my half of a dinner bill, all from a device that fits in my pocket. I can also endlessly scroll through Instagram and Twitter, check and re-check the same websites, and feel a compulsion to talk to people through that device instead of enjoying whatever moment I am experiencing.

Hopefully by stripping out all of the excess and unnecessary usage of my phone and computer I can re-learn to use them only for necessary utility and for creating. And when I don’t need to do either I can choose to do something else like read or be active or meet someone new or do nothing.

Am I perfectly cured of my bad technology habits? No. But going off-grid for a week made me more aware of them and one by one I’m working to change them. I’ve removed all social media apps from my phone, in favor of logging into Instagram or Twitter or YouTube on my laptop. This helps me to limit my usage to once a day or less, and I don’t feel the need to take my phone out nearly as much. I’ve been able to keep myself from unnecessarily checking websites throughout the day, and I’m trying to use the web browser only when I really need to look up travel info.

I find that it’s important to learn how to slow down, and to make sure that the things I’m doing are important to me instead of them being habit or “that’s how it’s always been done.” Going off-grid gave me a clear head to see what my priorities are, and in the time since then I’ve been working on clearing out what’s not.

I will absolutely go off-grid again, and likely will do it at least once more during this year off.

Why I'm Taking a Year Off

12 September 2018

I’ve written various forms of this post as journal entries over the last 18 months. The first was 17 January 2017 (yes, 2017) when I wrote:

“I have decided to take a one year sabbatical beginning 1 June 2018. The timing is such that it’ll take place during the last 6 months of my 20s and the first 6 months of my 30s. This will signify in many ways a transition into my 30s and will set my pace of life for the following few years. I don’t yet have an idea as to exactly what I’ll do on this break, but I do know that I’d like to take the time to refocus my life and make sure I’m living every aspect of it as I want to instead of how I think other people think I should.”

My decision to take a year off was gut instinct. I’ve learned to trust my gut instinct because it’s usually right, no matter how difficult it may be to accept or act on what needs to be done. I remember the feeling of making this particular decision. It was refreshing - powerful, almost - to be able to step out of the norm of my life and get back to where my heart has been for a while. And being four months into it now, I can say that it was the right decision.

I have wanted to take some sort of break since my final two years of college (I was there for six years). I worked all through college, first as an intern at an architectural testing firm and then writing software for a startup, and was burnt out. I wanted to do nothing for a few months. To recharge. But I hadn’t saved up enough money to be able to do that so I pushed through and put the idea on the back burner.

A couple of years after I graduated from college I hit a low point, and through that did a lot of growing up and learning about life. I made career and financial goals to work towards in the second half of my 20s. I met those goals and did things that I had no idea were possible back when I made them, but I felt like something was missing. I hadn’t really taken care of myself.

While I spent the whole of my 20s investing in and building my career, I didn’t do much to invest in myself personally. I wasn’t taking care of my mind and body and spirit as much as I should have been. Now that I’m in a position to cash in on my career investments and get a year’s worth of work weeks to myself, I am making me a priority.

This year I’m doing the things that make me happy, push me out of my comfort zone, make me active, and get me ready for my 30s.

Iceland 2018

11 September 2018

The first stop on my year-off travels was Iceland! I went with two friends and former roommates, Nicole and Merjen. We were there for 5 days, 11 August through 16 August, and spent our time exploring the south coast.

Check out the photo galleries I posted:

Part 1 - Days 1 and 2. From Reykjavik to Hella, then to Vik.

Part 2 - Day 3. From Vik to Hof then back to Selfoss.

Part 3 - Days 4 and 5. Grindavik and Reykjavik.

A Terrible Weekend On The Lake

15 June 2018

A quick preface/disclaimer/warning: I put this post together from a few of my journal entries. They were written in near real-time while I was experiencing the death of a man who I didn’t know. He died near my family’s lake house last weekend, where I’ve been spending this summer.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Saturday started out like any other day. I woke up around 9:30A.M., took a shower, ate breakfast, and read in my hammock on the dock. After eating a late lunch I went back down to the dock to shave my head. When I got there I noticed a massive storm sitting over the lake to the north and west. It began thundering so I went back up to the house. My brother Price and I started planning his bachelor weekend.

The sky darkened with clouds as the storm made its way south. The wind picked up and was blowing off the lake, towards our house. There were whitecaps on the lake and our windows rattled with a few gusts of wind. Waves were breaking onto the dock. Lightning was flashing on the far side of the lake. It wasn’t raining.

Price and I looked out the windows and noticed that two boats - a pontoon boat and a speedboat - were meeting a pair of kayakers out on the lake, maybe 100 yards off our dock. The pontoon boat floated between us and the kayaks, blocking our view of them. This was all far enough away that we couldn’t see what was going on, so Price got our binoculars. I could see people on the boats, and the two kayaks were vertical and mostly underwater. The boats were floating north and neither seemed to have their engine turned on. But nobody was trying to get the kayaks. Or the paddles. There were life jackets in the water. There wasn’t anybody else on the lake. Something seemed off.

Price walked down to our dock when the boats floated out of eyesight (some of our trees block the view to the north, so we couldn’t see anything after the boats floated past our neighbor’s dock.) Melinda, our neighbor to the south, walked over to meet him. After a minute or two I heard sirens. As I walked down to the dock, Price was running up to the road to meet the firetruck.

When I got to the dock Melinda looked very concerned. She told me that she thought someone went under. That took me a second to process, but there wasn’t any time to think on it because the two boats were driving towards our dock.

The speedboat arrived first, on the north side of our dock. On board was a woman, her brother, and three children. The man helped to keep the boat from slamming into the dock, as the wind and waves had not calmed down. I helped the three kids and the woman off the boat. I took down my hammock so it wasn’t in the way.

The pontoon boat arrived next with two young couples and a woman on board. Price helped tie it up to the front of the dock. The woman got off first, crying and in shock. Another woman got off and looked at me with the widest eyes, a look that I won’t soon forget.

The first woman was met by an EMT who walked her to an ambulance. She and her husband had fallen off their kayaks and into the water. Her husband drowned.

At this point the firefighters had arrived on our dock. One of them got in the speedboat to go back out to where the man drowned. An ambulance was parked in Melinda’s driveway. Police officers arrived in plain clothes because they had all been enjoying the weekend and were not on duty.

Slowly more and more emergency personnel showed up. The Sheriff. His lieutenant and deputies. More firefighters. More officers. They took our statements. Price and I put folding chairs out for the two couples who were in the pontoon boat.

The two kayakers had been out on the lake for the day. They were on the far side of the lake when the storm began rolling in. They decided to make their way to the other side of the lake - where our house is, and near where they had put the kayaks in - which is almost a mile across. Neither had a life jacket on, and neither knew how to swim well. They were panicking and paddling hard.

They flagged down two boats when they were about 3/4s of the way across. A wave knocked him out of his kayak. He grabbed her kayak, flipping her out. The people in the pontoon boat threw all of their life jackets towards him. He wouldn’t put one on. He was panicking. They got her onto the boat. When they went back to get him he was gone. This all happened in the moments before Price and I looked through binoculars to see the kayaks vertical in the water.

The emergency personnel cleared everyone off our dock. Sheriff Hancock asked Price and I if they could use our dock and our yard and we said of course. The dive team showed up and used the pontoon boat, which was a rental. Boats from the Department of Natural Resources were gridding the search area with sonar. Off-duty police officers who were on their personal fishing boats joined in the search.

I walked up to the house to calm down and drink some water. I started writing. “They’re currently still searching. It’s 7:09 PM. He went under at probably 4:00P.M.”

A light rain began.

I met Mercedes. She was in the speedboat. I helped her and the three kids off when they got to our dock.

I met Zach, he went kayaking with him three weeks ago.

I met her cousin. She was thankful we let the family sit on our porch, which was out of eyesight of the local media who had arrived.

Police tape was strung across our yard and into Melinda’s yard, on the side of our house facing the road. The Sheriff’s Command Center RV was parked in our driveway. The dive team’s pickup truck was parked in our yard by the dock.

The young couples that were on the pontoon boat were brought back to the marina where they rented it from to get their car. We’ve since only spoken to them via text message.

The dive team packed up after sunset, around 9P.M. They’ll be back at 6:30A.M. Price and I walked down to our dock, which was quiet except for the boats still gridding nearby. Two police officers were there. They told us at least one will be there all night. The rental pontoon boat was tied up to the end of our dock.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I was mostly up thinking through too many what-if scenarios.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Price and I went for a walk, maybe around 10A.M. When we were out we heard and then saw a helicopter flying up and down the shoreline of the lake and then back to the search area off our dock. It was the Georgia State Patrol, who were called in to assist in the search. We were out for about an hour. On our way back in we could see the enormity of the recovery effort. In addition to the Sheriff’s Command Center, there were at least five other vehicles in our front yard and another five down by our dock. A fire truck was parked on the street. Across the street were at least ten vehicles. A few media vehicles were parked along the street. A tent was setup near the Command Center with food and drinks.

I met Jason, his brother. He arrived late at night and slept in his car in our driveway.

I hadn’t fully processed the situation, so instead of sitting inside I walked over to Melinda’s to talk to her and her husband, Eddy. I watched the helicopter flying directly overhead. I watched the boats on the water, the divers in the water, the people all over our dock and our yard. I met a county commissioner and some folks from the Sheriff’s office who I talked with for a while.

A cadaver dog arrived and went out on a boat. I’m not sure how that works but I believe it’s trained to bark if it smells a human. Since there were other boaters out on the lake the dog’s senses were thrown off and it was barking quite a bit. The dog was biting at the water that went past the boat, which is something our family dog used to do.

I spent four or five hours on Eddy and Melinda’s dock. The Sheriff came over to chat at one point. It was after 9P.M. when they called off the search for the day. Price and I went back up to the house, and to take our minds off things we watched a Tig Notaro standup on Netflix. I barely made it through without falling asleep. I slept like a rock that night.

Monday, 11 June 2018

On Monday morning around 8A.M. Price and I were sitting on the porch swing. The emergency personnel were just getting started for the day. The helicopter was circling the lake when the pilot spotted him floating. We watched the boats - two pontoon boats for the divers, a few DNR boats - all converge very quickly. Sheriff Hancock walked up towards us and, giving a thumbs-up, told us they’d found him. He walked Jason to a neighbor’s dock where the wife and other family were waiting.

The helicopter landed in a nearby yard. The boats slowly made their way back towards our dock. Holding on to the front of one of the pontoon boats were two divers in the water. They were holding onto an orange bag. The coroner showed up and backed his truck to the steps that lead down to our dock. The divers carried him out of the water and onto our dock, then up to the coroner.

The divers packed and cleaned our dock. The coroner drove away. The Sheriff walked up and thanked us for the use of our yard and dock.

In no more than an hour the pickup trucks and the SUVs were gone. The Sheriff’s Command Center RV was gone. The police tape was taken down. The family left. The boats drove away.

Price and I walked down to our dock for the first time since Saturday. We moved the fenders back to the side of the dock. I put my hammock back up and laid in it for a while.

The man was a body builder. He was around 6'5" 250lbs, all muscle. It took less than a minute for him to go under. There was nothing Price and I, or anyone else, could have done. The people on the two boats that met them did everything they could have.

If you’re on the water, please have a life jacket available - one that is fitted to your body size. Learn to swim. Learn to tread water. Learn to float. Understand how quickly this could happen to even the strongest person.

Later in the week Price and I were in Florida to celebrate our niece’s sixth birthday. We went out on a friend’s boat with six kids and three other adults. It was our first time on the water since this whole experience. The kids all had life jackets on, and there were enough on the boat for the adults. I found myself double checking, even though I’d been out on this boat with these people before and it probably hadn’t crossed my mind. Having grown up around boats and on the water, these things are second-nature to me. We had a lovely time.

The water will always be a part of my life. It makes me happy and calm. I feel most relaxed and peaceful when I’m swimming or sailing or on a beach. Last weekend I was reminded of the power of water. I’ll never take it for granted again.

<- older