Five Free Ways to Improve Your Life
Sometimes the most effective ways to improve your quality of life don't involve coupons or tax incentives; frequently, the ways in which we enrich our sense of well being simply have to do with the way that we interact with other people (or don't interact with other people). Allowing yourself to have honest, forthright discussions, learning to accept responsibility for mistakes - these things are hard to do, but they are crucial to forming mature relationships with our families, friends, and peers.
Here are five free gifts that I have given myself, even if they weren't always easy to give or accept at first, and some thoughts on how you can give yourself and others these (low-cost!) gifts, too. If these situations don't apply to you, please feel free to add your suggestions for free ways to improve one's quality of life in the comments.
1. Eliminate unnecessary drama
Because I had a happy childhood and have a close, loving family, I was frequently a magnet for people with unstable lives. Most of my friends were pretty balanced, but I would occasionally happen upon a dynamic, funny, frighteningly intelligent friend who would swoop into my life with much ado and drama. These girls were fun to be around, when they were feeling well. Some of these friends were likely experiencing emotional and mental problems bordering on bi-polar disorder - frequent, energetic highs followed by crushing lows. The highs were exhausting. The lows, in which I would find myself cradling a sobbing girlfriend who was experiencing a mental breakdown over something relatively trivial, like misplacing a set of keys, were more than I could handle. Beyond emotional support, I found myself financially giving all that I could to friends who would simply take and take. One of my dearest friends in college was a pathological liar whose tales were so extreme as to be almost believable. It was only when I looked back at her string of deceitful stories that I realized I had been utterly taken in by a complete con artist.
It's one thing to love someone who has mental issues, but it's another to love someone with emotional or mental problems who thrives on the problems that their drama create for others. Friendships, like most relationships, are a give and take, and there will be times when you may be required to give much more than you take. But if you find yourself in a friendship with someone who only takes from you and offers nothing in return, you may want to consider giving yourself the gift of freedom from that friend.
Notice I've classified this as unnecessary drama - there is some drama that is inescapable, some relationships that may always be tortured. I don't advocate abandoning someone who is in desperate need of help and willing to work to change their situation. There are some people we cannot turn away, no matter how difficult the relationship is; that is why I avoid adding any more drama to my life by never befriending people who require as much nurturing as an infant. Life is hard enough without drama queens and kings adding to the conflict.
In my case, although I certainly felt bad doing so, I cut off two friends who I loved very much, but whose near-constant need for attention and support was a terrible weight on my shoulders. I've never regretted that decision.
2. Achieve a tiny bit of financial freedom
OK, I HAD to mention something financial, right? Being financially free may mean something different for everyone. For some people, being financially free means not having to pay bills. For others, it's having enough financial security to not have to go to the same dull office job every single day. It may be getting out from underneath a mortgage, or finding a way to pay for school without taking out too many loans.
The best way to decide how you define financial freedom is to look at your financial situation and see what bothers you the most about it. What burdens do you need lifted? If collection agencies are calling you day in and day out, that is likely weighing on your mind quite a bit. Maybe your credit card debt has gotten out of control or you're perpetually late on your rent. Even if you manage to scrape by, these concerns, wondering constantly if your credit card is about to max out, or if you can afford your doctor's co-pay, can be a near-constant mental burden.
Me, I don't mind paying bills or having a mortgage; I'm not really bothered that much that I pay interest on credit cards. What I hate, what really really eats at me, is living paycheck to paycheck, and it wasn't until I managed to build up a buffer of a couple thousand dollars in my checking account that I was finally able to breathe easy. It wasn't simple (obviously, money matters are never simple, or we wouldn't have a successful web site with all you readers, would we?), but the rewards that I have reaped from having that extra money was much greater than the effort put into creating the buffer.
Even if your finances are a complete disaster, getting one aspect under control can help you breathe easier as you search for a way to fix the rest. In fact, Suze Orman has said that if there was one thing that anyone can do within an hour to improve their finances, it would merely be taking a good, honest look at their financial situation. This might be as small a thing as signing up for Mint.com and seeing all of your debts and assets in one place. It can be sobering, but it can be a relief to know exactly where you stand. The only thing worse than knowing how bad things are is not knowing.
3. Get out of an abusive relationship
Abuse comes in so many forms that sometimes, it can be hard to recognize. Take it from me: even intelligent, confident people can easily find themselves experiencing mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse at the hands of someone trusted. It doesn't take long before your self-esteem can be utterly destroyed, to say nothing of your mental and physical health.
Recent media exposure of the Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse story has shone a temporary light on the fact that even wealthy, talented women can be horribly abused and apparently see no reason to break the cycle. I would never suggest that removing oneself from an abusive situation is easy, because it is frequently one of the most difficult decisions a person can make, and can often involve financial issues that are hard to solve. It is, however, one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
4. Apologize to someone (take the fall)
Take a page from My Name is Earl and make a point to right any wrongs that are right-able. If you've hurt someone's feelings, and you know it, swallow your pride and tell them, on the phone, in person, or in writing, that you are sorry. No half-assed apologies, either. One of those politician-style "I'm sorry that people took my joke the wrong way" kind of apologies; you have to actually take the blame to make an apology worthwhile.
I hate the feeling of having someone angry at me. It bugs me so much that I will go to great lengths to avoid it. I once allowed someone to cause a rift between myself and a roommate; it bothered me so much that, eight months later, I had to call up the roommate and apologize for my behavior.
A few years ago, I recall seeing an episode of a daytime talk show (Oprah? Sally Jessie?) in which a group of people had organized specifically to apologize to people who had been hurt by someone, often very deeply. The thing was, they weren't apologizing to specifically to someone that THEY had hurt. Rather, they were seeking out people who had been the victims of crimes or abuse, and had apologized on behalf of the perpetrator (the perps themselves were frequently dead or never got caught by law enforcement). While it might seem strange to apologize to someone for a crime you didn't commit, the experience seemed to be very cathartic for everyone involved, with some of the victims saying that they felt like they could begin their healing process, and let go of the some of the pain of their experience, because someone had accepted responsibility, even if only by proxy, for their suffering. In addition, apologizing for a hurt that you have can help ease your mind.
Along those lines, you might also find it helpful to...
5. Forgive someone (even without an apology) who has hurt you
It can be incredibly difficult for some people to let go of grudges. I should know - I'm still pissed off at someone from middle school who laughed at me when I fell down a flight of stairs outside of the gymnasium. I hold grudges like no one else, and even once fantasized about opening a firm that specialized in revenge. However, holding a grudge really only hurts the holder. Josie Hopkins has no recollection of laughing at me and so my eternal dislike of her is hardly going to affect her in any way. I'M the one who occasionally mentally relives the humiliation of looking up from my scraped palms to see a gaggle of obnoxious 7th graders pointing and laughing. If I forgive her for being a clueless tweenager, I can move on from remembering just how much it sucked to be 11 years old and exceptionally klutzy.
I'm not a religious person, and I don't endorse any dogma or belief system. I do, however, remember another televised instance of forgiveness that really stands out in my mind, and it involved a very deeply religious couple whose child had been killed by a drunk driver. They were interviewed by a news station a mere 24 hours after the death of their beautiful daughter, and although they were clearly grief stricken, they also displayed a remarkable amount of composure. When the interviewer asked about potential punishment for the driver, they looked straight into the camera and said "We have absolutely forgiven him. Our daughter has gone home to a better place, and our hearts will never mend without our commitment to forgiveness. We bear him no ill will."
I can't say for certain that this couple never changed their minds about their stance on the drunk driver's sentencing, but their remarks struck a powerful note with me, because they had so much confidence, so much love, and so much certainty in the face of nearly unbearable tragedy. Whenever I end up angry and vengeful over something minor and insignificant, like losing an empty parking spot, I try to recall this couple and their brave ability to let go of anger and embrace healing and renewal in a situation that could arguable warrant hatred and anger.
Forgiving doesn't necessarily mean forgetting, and it doesn't always mean that you must accept a hurtful person back into your life (you don't even have to tell the person that you forgive them). Forgiving someone allows YOU to move on. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful tools in your emotional arsenal, and if you can unleash it, you may be surprised to learn how much you can grow and how much freedom it gives you.
What about you? What kind of changes have you made in your life that have helped you to achieve freedom of some kind? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.