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How I Learned to Want Less

Money won’t make us happy. But what if ‘social connections’ don’t make us happy, either?

A sneaky pup grabs a lick of his owner's beer during a fly fishing float in Idaho.
Ben Herndon/Tandem Stock

I’ve been teaching memoir writing to seniors for more than 20 years, and whenever someone gets stuck or insists they have nothing to write about, I give them a prompt: What has been your greatest joy in life? In the two decades I’ve been asking that question, no one has ever mentioned their 1970 Corvette Stingray or their beach house in Delray.

Instead, they confess: “It’s watching my son run to me when he sees me,” or “Sitting outdoors on a summer afternoon with my dog by my side.” 

We’re unhappier than ever — according to a 2021 study from the Boston University School of Public Health, 32.8 percent of us are depressed, or 1 in every 3 American adults. Psychologists and philosophers tell us this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we’re lonelier and more isolated than ever; the only way to achieve true life satisfaction and lasting happiness, they say, is through connection with friends, family, community, church and charity.

But you know what? In the last few years, many of my friends and neighbors have revealed themselves as radicals with views so wacky I send them immediately to voicemail. Family, meanwhile, remains a minefield. I’m long past finding any solace in church (blame 12 years of Catholic schooling). And as far as volunteering, the last thing I want to be doing in my twilight years is delivering Meals on Wheels.

The last few years have changed my view of connection. I have tasted aloneness, and it wasn’t so bad. It reminded me of nonfat yogurt. 

This is not as grumpy as it sounds. I am still quite social. It’s just that these years of politics and the pandemic have taught me that, yes, connection is important for happiness. But lately, it’s myself I’ve been connecting to.

Nowadays, I’m finding joy in an iced pint of frothy IPA sipped on my deck at the end of a day in which I’ve used my body. 

I’m finding joy on an early-morning bike ride along the rural farm roads where I live in Pennsylvania. 

I’m finding joy in a perfect slice of meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes at this country restaurant down the street. 

I’m finding joy watching the Phillies on TV in the middle of the afternoon when I should be doing something productive. 

I’ve discovered there are hundreds of these tiny, selfish moments in a day — an unlimited bounty, greater than any online inventory. And these moments don’t all have to be so angelic. Eating a bacon cheeseburger with fries after a clean colonoscopy is a relishable moment. So is not letting the kid in the blacked-out lowrider with the Loudmouth Muffler cut in front of you in traffic. 

It’s not easy to recognize these moments of self-connection. Most of us are so busy we rush right through them. But once you learn to recognize and nourish them, these moments become little vacations in your day with your best friend. 

And over time, as you perfect immersing yourself in them and guiltlessly enjoying them, I promise they will far surpass the fleeting delight of finding yet another Amazon package on your porch. Indeed, the fact that you have reached the end of this little article proves you’re capable. You’ve just pushed back the relentlessness of life and had a moment.

Now all you have to do is digest that and go in search of the next.