zenhabits : breathe

The Simple Joys of Smaller Living

‘Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.’ ~Walter Hagen

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Victoria Vargas of Smaller Living.

We all know that we need to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the small joys in our lives. However, we have to have room in our minds and schedules to engage not just in those joyful moments, but also in reflection afterward.

It’s in the processing and reflection that allows these experiences to become meaningful to us and for us to deeply experience the joys they hold. Downsizing and living smaller helps us do that.

Does that sound counter intuitive? If so, I’m not surprised. There’s a skewed perception in the media today that downsizing is a painful necessity of those in hard financial straits and that smaller living and minimalism are about austerity and deprivation, not joy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my experience, the process of downsizing has given me a surprising sense of relief, not just in the results I’ve achieved, but also in the daily engagement with the process. It gives me a sense of freedom that grows with each passing day and a greater capacity to experience the small joys of everyday life.

Learning the Power of Simple Joys

I was hiking along a trail in the Silver Falls State Park in Oregon with my soon to be boyfriend and as we rounded a curve, a breathtaking vista complete with a roaring waterfall came into view. Both of us stopped in our tracks and breathed deeply at the same time, blissed-out smiles creeping up our cheeks. What I remember most was the complete happiness of that moment as we stood together, our eyes alight with the raw beauty of where we were and the companionship of sharing it with each other.

That moment on the trail is one I’m not likely to forget. Just recounting it here fills me with joy. With my previous approach to traveling and living, I likely would have rushed from “hey, cool waterfall” to “what’s next?” Not anymore.

Acknowledging Joy

Joy comes from the realization of how special the moment we’re experiencing is, such as sharing the sight of an amazing waterfall with someone dear to us, a spontaneous hug from a child, our pet’s enthusiasm at our return home, the burble of the coffee maker in the morning, curling up with a new book by our favorite author, or the sound of our name when spoken with love by our inamorato. None of these small joys would be nearly as significant to me had I continued to live my in the frantic, chaotic, and over-scheduled way I did before committing to living a smaller and saner life. Yes, of course, I knew they were special moments, but I didn’t often give myself the time to savor them when they occurred or process and reflect on them afterward. Thus, I lost much of the joy such experiences can bring.

Depth and Joy

“The moments we enjoy most as they unfold, and that we treasure long afterward, are the ones we experience most deeply. Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do. It’s the essential ingredient of a good life and one of the qualities we admire most in others.” William Powers.

Cultivating small joys was one of my major motivations for living smaller. When we intentionally downscale our lives and possessions, it is because we’re seeking something more in our lives, something more meaningful, fulfilling, free, and joyful. By jettisoning the meaningless clutter and bustle from our lives, we free up the time and space for small joys to arise and for us to fully appreciate them for the richness and texture they bring our lives.

Understanding what is important in our lives allows us to rid ourselves of the rest without remorse. As Cal Newport recently wrote in a guest post here on Zen Habits, “ … when you know what your life is about it’s easy to sidestep all that threatens to clutter it.” Time, attention, and most especially, the ability to go deep into our experiences—all gifts of minimalist and smaller living—are the critical ingredients for a life to be rich with simple joys.

So how can you create and enjoy more small joys in your life?

1. Allow some breathing room in your schedule. When we rush, we barely acknowledge what is happening around us. I can’t remember ever hearing someone say they had a joy-filled day because they were rushed and stressed, running from one thing to the next.

2. Be present. Being present, a common theme here on Zen Habits, is absolutely essential for experiencing and appreciating the small joys of life. Instead of always thinking of the next thing on our to-do list or itinerary, being present allows us to recognize and enjoy those small moments of joy as they arise.

3. Stay with the moment and fully experience it. Pay attention to the details.

4. Remember this. Remind yourself at the time of how it makes you feel and what about it you want to treasure. Think of these moments like little GPS way stations, points in time and space that you want to commit to memory.

5. Go deep. Great joy can be experienced from even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential thing by going deeper into the experience and not just flitting along the surface of it. Go deep with it, relish it, and store that moment away in your memory banks. These small joys are the moments that make up a meaningful life.

6. Make a note of it. Journal about it or consider keeping a Joy List and jot down these small joys as they happen in your life. When the world starts coming on too strong, taking a few moments to refresh your memory of the small joys in your life can bring a calmness, centering, and contentment back to your day.

7. Cultivate moments of joy by doing the things you love. Nothing picks me up and makes me more joyful than tooling around town on my bicycle with a cool breeze in my hair and the sun on my shoulders. Something about it makes me feel free, childlike, and gleeful (ringing the little bell mounted on my handlebars is a happy bonus). Take the time to understand what speaks to your soul and make joy dates with yourself to keep that feeling in your life.

8. If you’re traveling, send the joy home on a postcard to yourself. At the start of your trip, pick up a handful of postcards and stamps and keep one or two with you at all times. When something you want to remember, some small joy, occurs, you can jot it down and pop it in the mail to yourself to be waiting for you when you return. I picked up this habit some years ago from a travel memoir by Alice Steinbeck called Without Reservations. One of my favorites I sent myself reads:

“ Dear Vic, Remember the deer that stopped not two feet from you this morning while you were having coffee on the yoga deck? She looked you right in the eye and then bent down to nibble on the plants without concern. Don’t forget the magic of that moment: the soft shine in her eyes as she gazed into yours and found you to be good company.”

It’s easy in the days and weeks that follow the whirlwind of travel to start losing those magical details of your experiences. Keeping a journal works well for some people, but many find it hard to maintain when on the go. Sending a postcard to yourself with just a few lines scribbled on it lets you capture the moment with minimal fuss and relive the joy again once you return home.

9. Share small joys with loved ones that live far away. One of my favorite daily rituals is my evening Skype video call with my boyfriend. It’s often the shared smaller joys and pleasures that stay in my memory afterward and that bring us closer. Likewise, although we live more than 2,000 miles apart, my mother and I often call each other to share some little joy we experienced— like a recent call from her to tell me about the sweet nest of baby birds she discovered in a flowerpot on her porch. Reach out and share the little joys of your life with your loved ones that live distant and you’ll find your relationship with them stays more nourished, loving, and positive.

10. Gift small joys to those you love. If you know some small thing brings a loved one joy, find ways to gift it to them. Does the sight of a cheerful jelly jar with daisies make your lover smile contentedly? Then have it waiting for them at their place at the table when they sit down this Monday morning. Does an early evening walk make a child in your life prance with happiness? Then do it. Take the time and give them your full attention on that walk, stopping to stare at the cool but creepy grasshopper or skip rocks across the water. Intentionally giving small moments of joy to members of our tribe is an amazing testament of our love for them and brings us more joy in return.

Small joys are available to us in the pauses between the outer actions that fill our lives. They are the depth in the moments lived fully with complete attention. This is what smaller living is all about, cultivating simple joys in our days while stepping outside of the schedules, deadlines, and chaos that make up so much of modern life. Joy comes when we take the time to thoroughly relish something wonderful we’re experiencing, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to others. For me, simple joys seem to be the most durable and memorable.

Ask yourself, what’s one small thing you can do today to bring joy to you or someone you love?

Got it? Lovely.

Now go do it.

Victoria writes at Smaller Living about right-sizing our lifestyles for the space and freedom to live large. Read more by subscribing to her feed.


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