How Self-Isolation Taught Me About Happiness

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Doing yoga on the balcony of our Airbnb condo

At the beginning of this year, our calendar was packed. We were going to fly to Austin for a Google talk, go to L.A for a documentary, fly to St.Louis to speak at the Financial Freedom Summit, visit friends in Colorado, and somewhere along the way, fit in a talk at a female empowerment retreat, and a silent ten day meditation retreat/Vipassana.

I never thought I’d get back on a treadmill after quitting work, but inadvertently that’s exactly what we did. By saying yes to everything, we had no time to think or reflect.

That all changed with the pandemic. We went from having a full calendar to a completely empty one. Suddenly, with our treadmill unplugged, for the first time, we’re stopping to think rather than just mindlessly jumping on the next exciting thing.

It was scary at first. You think being alone with your thoughts is easy but it’s not. Especially if you’re an A-type overachiever like me. I kept thinking I’d panic about the future. About not being enough. About other people getting ahead and me staying stagnant.

Until I realized that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just existing and being happy.

Here are 5 realizations I made during self-isolation that I wasn’t expecting:

 

Stop Doing. Start Being.

North American culture trains us to constantly be striving. We worship accomplishments. We make it everyone’s life goal to be the best, to climb the corporate ladder, and to live for accolades.

But that all eventually leads to burn out, health problems, and a self-worth and identity that’s too wrapped up in our accomplishments.

This is why my family doctor told me that 20 years ago, 80% of her patients came in with health issues like cancer, heart disease, etc. But now, the ailments her patients are afflicted with are all related to lifestyle choices—anxiety, depression, stress-related health problems. And instead of changing their lifestyles to combat these issues, they turn to medication. Why change your life when it’s easier just to change your prescription?

I have to admit, I was guilty of that too. Before we become FI, I thought I couldn’t live without my anxiety medication and anti-depressants. Even during the peak of book promotion last July, I still kept a bottle of pills next to my bed, for those times I couldn’t sleep from anxiety.

But now, with my schedule wiped clean, I’ve been forced to sit and just exist without constantly striving for the next shiny accomplishment. I’ve realized how it important it is to “be” instead of “do”. It took me over 30 years to get here, but it’s liberating and absolutely worth it.

 

External Validation Won’t Make You Happy

Growing up, I thought my parents’ love was conditional. If you’re useful, you deserve to be loved. Otherwise, you don’t. That’s why I always chased external validations—good grades, awards, promotions to be happy. If I got the reward, I’d be happy. If I didn’t, I was a loser.

But when all your events are cancelled, and you can’t turn to accolades for happiness, you have no choice to but to turn inwards.

As a result, I’ve learned how to do things for the sheer joy of the process rather than the reward. Making dough, writing for fun, reading fiction have all been just as fulfilling as drinking in applause on stage.

I learned that chasing external validation is a recipe for unhappiness and true happiness comes from within.

 

Humans Are Surprisingly Adaptable and Resilient

Back in March, we rushed back to Canada because of a family emergency. The terrifying reality that we could lose an immediate family member hit us like a ton of bricks. To say it’s been a wild rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs from the scary medical updates would be an understatement. But, over time, we adapted to this reality and have learned how to cope with this serious situation.

We feel incredible grateful that we have the time and headspace to devote our energy to our family and not have to worry about paying off a mortgage or bills piling up. Of all the positive things that becoming FI did for us, this is the one that tops them all. The time you spend with your family is priceless—especially given that you have no idea how much time you have left with them.

 

Meditation Helps You Stay Calm

This pandemic proves that we’re not really in control. We may think we are, but so many things in life are completely outside of our control. The only thing we can control is how we react to it.

Unfortunately, the part of our brain developed from millions of years ago to protect us from predators—the amygdala—is also the alarm bell that can’t turn off even when there’s no real danger. That’s why I’ve learned that meditation is key to inner happiness, because it’s a healthy, non-addictive way to wean ourselves off of that type of response. The more we learn to calm our bodies via deep breathing and quieting our looping thoughts, the healthier and happier we will be.

When I started mediating near the end of last year, I couldn’t even sit still for just 10 mins. Even two minutes of silent sitting felt like an eternity.

But after meditating daily for 15mins in Thailand for a month, I’ve noticed a huge difference with my thought patterns. And now, having had the forced quiet reflection that the pandemic has pushed on me, I can now meditate for an hour without breaking a sweat.

I can now stay in the present without ruminating about the past or future.

(If you want to get started with meditation, I recommend the free “Insight Timer” app which has 45,000 guided meditations, and a community of over 1 million meditators! The content is so amazing I can’t believe they are giving most of it away for free. I love this app so much I signed up for the yearly subscription to support them.

https://insighttimer.com/.

Oh and I also love books by “Thich Nhat Hanh”.)

 

No One Knows How Much Time They Have Left

When there’s a deadly disease rampaging around the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people, you’re faced with the uncomfortable truth of your own mortality.

None of us know how much time we have left. Why waste it being stuck in the past, ruminating over the future, or fixating on minor grievances or obsessing over minutiae?

Reflect on what’s actually important in your life and focus on that.

For us, that’s our family and relationships. And thanks to finding FI, we’ve had the luxury of being there for family and spending as much time as possible with them, because none of us know who much time we have left.

After spending a lot of time reflecting, I finally realized something at the end of this shutdown.
I can now manage my anxiety and just exist and be happy.

With no gold stars to strive for, no accolades, nothing scheduled in the horizon, for the first time, I’m happy just being instead of doing. I’m happy being me. I don’t need to prove anything anymore. Not to myself. Not to anyone.

After a lifelong obsession with constantly striving for the next thing, I’m perfectly happy just sitting and being. I no longer get anxious from not completing my daily to do list. I don’t care about collecting accomplishments like a kid collects Pokémon cards. And as long as I can spend time with like-minded people, eat spicy Sichuan hot pot, and drink bubble tea, I don’t need much to be happy.

I am enough.

 

What about you? Has the pandemic given you pause to reflect on life? Have you had any epiphanies or realizations?


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56 thoughts on “How Self-Isolation Taught Me About Happiness”

  1. It has been a busy time with little mb, almost 4 and full of energy and love, some adjustment issues, a few tantrums in the mix 👧🏻 I have had time to reflect on life and the universe and related calmly or removing myself from family and others who have been consistently toxic. Please drop off some hot pot 😊

  2. i just wrote up the fact that i’m having a good year. i really don’t feel guilty despite all that’s going on in the world. it’s not different than when you have a crappy year when the rest of the world seems to be sailing along. enjoy the good while you can.

  3. Great revelations! Though I definitely had a lot less planned than y’all did 🙂 the pandemic also taught me I needed to slow down. I was trying to kick ass at work, see my loved ones as much as possible and enjoy Seattle before we become nomads, but doing all of those things – even though I chose them and even though I wanted to do them – just left me drained all of the time. If I would have done it over I think I would have slowed down and scheduled possibly every other weekends to do nothing and recharge. That makes me happy as well and helps center me and I shouldn’t have been afraid of that.

    I’ve been playing around with putting a month or so of self-imposed isolation on our nomad calendar. Perhaps a cabin in the woods. I need to listen to myself and be ok with what I need and at times that’s sitting on a couch reading for hours on end and that’s ok.

    1. “that’s sitting on a couch reading for hours on end”

      Yup, definitely been guilty of that too. Then I need to meditate to decompress. It’s hard not to be addicted to the news with everything that’s going on, but stressing out about it doesn’t help.

      That cabin in the woods sounds really good right now. I don’t think I’ve ever missed being in nature this much.

  4. Sounds great if, as you said, you’ve paid off your bills and achieved FI. Unfortunately for those who haven’t yet, the slowdown isn’t always welcome. My career has come to a standstill and may never return. The longer we stay locked down, the further away gets my chance of reaching FI. I try to channel my anxious energy that would have gone to working into other positive (non-compensated) activities, but I still feel the desire to work and put money away to invest. I’ve explored other work options and they’re just not there for me. So I sit and wait, trying to be mindful and grateful for what I have.

    1. So sorry to hear that Allison. *hugs* I’ve been talking to my other friends who are in a similar situation, and they are also channelling their energy into developing new skills and staying positive. Kudos to you for working on being mindful and grateful. It’s a tough situation and I feel for you. Stay safe and wishing you the best and hoping that your career will be back now that businesses are starting to open up.

  5. Not looking for external validation is a core principle of Stoicism. Perhaps you are well aware. Or they would say, attend only to what is within your own control. If you haven’t already, you might like to read the original stoics. It’s fun to read what people had to say two thousand years ago, and hey, we have some time on our hands. Try Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”. It’s short sayings and aphorisms you can study a little bit every day. Or Seneca. His writing is down to earth and plain. Or Epictetus, a former slave and a nice guy. He pretty much started Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca are repulsive figures in ways, because they owned slaves. And Seneca worked for Emperor Nero, so he’s like a Trump enabler. But it’s well worth a deep dive into their writings. A lot of FIRE bloggers like the Stoics, because of the focus on staying within your circle of control.

    1. Great resources, I second all of them. I keep Marcus Aurelius ‘Meditations’ (Oxford edition) by my bedside. Wishfully, we’ll come a full circle and learn from the ancient wisdom, before continuously making our life decisions following each other blindly and being influenced by social media and advertising.

    2. Yes, stocism and buddism has been helpful in times of crisis like this. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve also had others recommend Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” to me so will be adding that to my TBR list.

  6. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing this. I can understand that it may not resonate with everyone, but for those of us who are well on our way and/or have already reached FI, this hits it on the head.

    I have been feeling many of the same emotions in terms of anxiety, apprehension about the future, comparing myself to others, not wanting to waste a crisis, etc. over the last three months. It is only very recently that I have come to realize how negative all that energy was, and that I just need to let it go.

    Which is not to say its mission accomplished, but I’m trying. Thank you again for posting this.

    1. Thanks, Ben. Glad it’s been helpful. I’m super grateful to be in this position, because 6 years ago when I was popping pills and seeing layoffs around me, there’s 0 chance I could’ve imagined life would turn out this way. Once you become FI, it doesn’t mean you’ll be completely fixed and happy all the time. It’s a lifelong process of staying present and telling yourself you are enough. Good for you for trying and continuing to work on it.

  7. I’m American, FI but not RE yet (mostly because I thought 2020 would be crazy due to impeachment and the election, so I decided to wait a bit longer – never would I have imagined a pandemic!). Mostly my main thoughts are 1) how insanely lucky and grateful I feel to be FI and have 0 financial worries, and 2) enraged at the abysmal failure of controlling the pandemic here. I’m originally from Europe, so I can compare. It’s such a tragedy that at the same time as we face the worst crisis since at least 50 years, we have the worst government ever, and one that the majority didn’t even want. Meditation does help, as does limiting the news. Glad you guys are doing well!

    1. Yeah, I’ve been trying to stay off the news because it’s so stress inducing. And it’s way worse for Americans! Scary stuff. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but as they say “this too shall pass”. Stay safe, Fille Frugale.

  8. Great post. Thank you. These days have definitely made me turn more inward and search for a purpose, which knows nothing about money and asks how I can serve.

  9. I think it’s safe to say that a huge percentage of the FIRE folks, myself included, are “Type A” and virtually all the FIRE blog, podcast…etc celebrities are. For us, overachieving is baked into our DNA so it takes a huge conscious and consistent effort to change these behaviors. Behaviours, I might add, that have been consistently and voraciously rewarded all our lives and rightfully so.

    Buildings, bridges, software, computers, cars and airplanes don’t get created from nothing without a whole bunch of fiercely determined or perhaps mildly crazy people. It takes an enormous amount of grit and determination to suffer through the agony of creating something significant and it’s quite difficult to turn all that off when you finally see a number in a financial account.

    After FIRE, I let my Type A off the chain: I spent a year turbo dating to finally “solve the girlfriend problem”, we did international travel full time for awhile, sold everything and hit the road in a motorhome for almost a year. When that wore thin we bought land, and spent the last 10 months as the General Contractor/fill in labor building a house – which turned out to not be fun at all – more like being gang raped for a year.

    Anyway, I finally feel like I’ve gotten it all out of my system. I literally have no more “big dreams” left unfulfilled. Sure, I want to continue travelling and get back into shape, but I’m really just focused on enjoying the moment….and it’s a much happier place.

    1. Haha, your comment cracked me up 🙂 So, don’t build any houses for fun–got it.

      You’re so spot on. We have been in “crazy mode” for too long (and really the whole reason why we were able to reach FI in the first place), there’s no off button. I think our upbringing probably has something to do with it too. What do you think? My parents always said “be useful, not happy”. Their childhoods were so shitty and they were always struggling just to survive that happiness was a myth. Now we get to make that myth a reality. Very hard to transition to this mindset but so grateful we have the time and space to do it.

      1. Yeah, the supply/demand is totally out of balance in the trades – almost no one has gone into them in the last 20 years so these guys can pick and choose jobs, they can’t be bothered to call you back, quality is minimized…you name it.

        Yes, I totally agree that upbringing has everything to do with it. I’ve never met a high performer that came from what many would call a “happy family”. Resilience and drive come from suffering or at least discomfort, not pampering. All this focus on self esteem over everything has raised a generation of soft entitled wimps that cry the first time they recieve some negative feedback, no matter how gently it is delivered.

        Here’s an example: I’ll never forget the look of shock and horror on the face of a summer intern when I told him that I wasn’t pushing back the project deadline and that he always had nights and weekends to get it done on time. Suddenly, he stopped dicking around on his phone all day and managed to get some real work done but at first I thought he was going to piss himself.

        I’m sorry for generalizing, I shouldn’t do that, but I’ve seen it dozens of times throughout my career. I have met a few tough hard working young men and women, but they typically come from poverty, not pampering.

  10. Ditto all of the above.
    Stoics are great and I’m enjoying Ryan Holiday’s posts at DailyStoic.com
    Meditation, and digging deep for discoveries to heal old wounds, and ever grateful that I am FI and don’t have to worry as much as many who are struggling right now.

    1. Oh yeah, I read some of Ryan Holiday’s books on stoicism. Great insights. And yes, we share that gratitude to be able to be in this position.

  11. I am also Financially Independent and Retired, but not very Early. It is definitely a good situation to be in. I can wake up in the morning and basically do whatever I want. I still have goals, but they are my goals, not somebody else’s . I appreciate the sunrise and birds singing and beautiful scenery and sunsets every day.

    1. How are things in Colorado? We were supposed to go there to visit friends before everything got shutdown. Hope you are staying safe!

  12. Us type-A freaks really need to work on this. Sitting. Relaxing. Just thinking. Not doing. Not caring about what anyone else thinks. Not striving to reach a goal. It’s so so so good for the soul. We try to get out to our family cabin as much as possible in the summer to try to escape from it all and let nature be our therapist.

    1. Who knew just sitting and not thinking is such hard work right? 😛 Society puts so much emphasis on working out our bodies and it’s easy to neglect cultivating our minds and staying present.

      Nature is definitely the best therapist. Enjoy your time at the family cabin!

  13. Since I joined a meditation retreat in Thailand (at about the same time that you probably started meditating), I got stuck on a quote from the monk that led the retreat. He said that like exercising is a medication for the body, meditation is a medication for the mind. That resonated so much with to me that I haven’t stopped practicing meditation every morning and it has now been part of our morning routine (along with journaling that you might want to give it a try if you haven’t done it yet: https://www.nomadnumbers.com/how-5-minutes-of-bullet-journaling-can-help-you-focus-and-turbocharge-your-day/)

    1. “He said that like exercising is a medication for the body, meditation is a medication for the mind.”

      This is so true. Too much emphasis is placed on working out our bodies that we tend to neglect working out our minds.

      Yeah, i’ve done some journaling in the morning (was following the “Miracle Morning” routine) but ended up doing just 3 out of the 6: Silence, Reading, Exercising. But yes, journaling works well for many people.

  14. Not sure I understand the correlation of a type A personality and the need for external validation. I don’t think that’s true. Is it not more an issue of maturity or the lack thereof? It could also be that those individuals feel hostage to their current circumstances. When I was younger, I had to complete things because either the parents expected it or a teacher in class. When I started working, it was to please the boss. At those points, I was a hostage to someone having authority over me. Throughout all that, I knew the difference between what motivated me personally (intrinsic) versus what was required for others (extrinsic). The moment others don’t hold you hostage anymore, all that external validation shit goes away. If you still feel it even after that, it’s just all in your head and you just need to realize you’re your own enemy. Just like “The Man”. “The Man” is not some external entity – it’s just a figment of your own imagination. It might be good to meditate on that. Once you come to terms with that, the anxiety will dissipate on its own.

    Saying “NO” is the new dopamine.

    1. It’s not to say that all A types need external validation, just that if you’ve been indoctrinated to be a high achiever all the time and using external rewards like money, praise, status, promotions you tend to be addicted to that type of validation. It’s all bad though, because as Lance said, the external validation (ie money) is what got us to FI in the first place. It’s just learning to turn it off when you no longer need external validation to be happy.

  15. Hi Kristy, your post resonates with me 100%. I have been meditating regularly for last 6 months and my experiences mirror yours quite well. Just curious, what kind of meditation do you do? How often do you do? And what are your thoughts on embarking on the Spiritual path?

    1. I do mindfulness meditation, usually 15-30mins a day in the morning using the Insight Timer app. I’m not sure it’s about the spiritualness as it is about the proven scientific method of using meditation to calm down your amygdala. I’m mostly a logical person so what appeals to me is secular meditation–anyone can do it, regardless of religion. It’s mostly scientific.

      1. I see. that makes sense. Do you feel that meditation helps connect with your inner self, which brings about a certain inner joy that external achievements cannot provide? In that sense, it fills a void that external achievements cannot fill?

  16. Congratulations on finding The Answer…I have been meditating for about 15 years now and consider it life changing in so many positive ways, as you stated. Meditation/mindfulness coupled with FIRE! Life is good!

  17. I’m so happy to read this – very well summarized. I was hoping for this article, and find this realization is one of the most important ones, if humans can learn anything from this pandemic.
    I unfortunately suffered a sudden and unexpected loss of the most important person in my life, very young without any illness, a year before covid, and was forced to evolve ahead of time such that the pandemic did nothing to shock my already numb system, but I really wish more people would understand all the points you mentioned so well in your article. SO wish.
    Great to have FI principles, but life is short, so is the life of the planet. Now that FI word is out, its time for the next step. This community is so well positioned to bring more light to personal satisfaction/happiness within the local communities with everyday activities, and reduction of mindless consumption/travel carbon emissions etc. Look forward to more discussions to come.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that, V. Yes, when we lose someone close to us, then we are jolted back into reality–into realizing our relationships are really the most important things in life. Money is only a tool to buy more time so we can spend it with the people we love. In our case, we don’t know how much longer our parents (or even ourselves) are going to be around, so we need to savour every moment.

  18. Beautiful article. So very true. We often forget that our work and other external validations are temporary. True happiness comes from within. We also don’t know how long we have on this planet. This pandemic has been a rude awakening for many people of the fact that we have little control over things along with how short life is, and perhaps that is a part of the mass fear we are experiencing here in the U.S.

    FI principles offer a powerful tool to achieve the personal freedom many of us are seeking. For us it has sharpened our focus on wanting to spend time with family, along with recognizing that nothing in life is guaranteed . While we are still working on our FI goals still, we have realized that time is not assured, and to enjoy the time with family and friends.

    I personally have started meditating as well, and I find it helps me with the anxiety I occassionally feel due to the current pandemic. I enjoy all books by Thich Nhat Hanh as well. The Dali Llama has written some wonderful works, and a recent one I found insightful was “The Book of Joy.” If you haven’t read that one yet, I highly suggest it.

    1. Well said! Good for you for starting meditation. I also enjoyed “The Book of Joy”. Thanks for reminding me.

  19. I LOVED this post! This year I’ve had a lot of sadness about the world but on a personal level, I’ve been happier than ever. Apparently I am even more of an introvert than I realized and the pandemic has allowed me to give myself more space for journaling, meditation, reading, and reflection. The solitude has been so nourishing. I am so glad you put in a plug for the Insight Timer app. A lot of people talk more about Calm and Headspace but I like Insight Timer the best and their free version is fantastic. Another great resource is dharmaseed.org – has been life-changing for me!

    1. “I am even more of an introvert than I realized”

      I had this realization too, same as you. During the shutdown, introverts be like “I’ve trained for this my whole life!”

      I love the way you put this “The solitude has been so nourishing” and thanks for the dharmaseed rec, I’ll check it out.

  20. A quiet walk through nature, reading the bible and quiet prayer works for me 🙂 Just semi? early retired in Beijing … and things are pretty good here …. when the dust settles we will spend our retired life between Beijing and Canada …. (Ontario or probably B.C.) Reflection is also a calming process that can be done via prayer or writing too! 🙂 God Bless, Beijing, China 🙂

    1. How are things in Beijing? I read that they was a temporary lockdown after a spike in cases. Hope everything’s back to normal and stay safe!

      1. Yes there was a bit of that … but they quickly organized testing and tested 11 million of the 20 plus million residents .. plus several million floating population …. (Yes, Toronto is a countryside village in comparison ? 🙂 … everyone mostly lives in apartment – condo complexes … so it is easier to organize the testing … etc etc … also all these gated communities are easy to limit access to by red-armband community volunteers etc to residents only and check temperatures etc … bars and restaurants will open again withing a week etc …. schools? back in September …. we like to go to the parks which are open … zillions on the roads during traffic rush hour etc ….. so things are good …. house prices are popping and the stock market is way up to here ….. Beijing has the most billionaires and millionaires 🙂 of any city in the world ….? which has been very good for my early retirement this month … 🙂

  21. This is such a nice thing to read “I can now manage my anxiety and just exist and be happy.” I’m genuinely happy for you, congratulations!

    Emotional Independence (EI) and Spiritual Independence (SI) may easily be as big an accomplishment as FI.

    I think this corona crisis has led to many unexpected revelations for a lot of people. A lot of truth was revealed.

    I’ve been able to sleep more, dream more, and generally reach a state of more self awareness. All great trends…

    1. Thank you and kudos for reaching a state of more self awareness! Definitely need that during these strange times.

  22. Life got busier for me after March. Having our son at home is a lot of work.
    I used to meditate occasionally and would love to get back to it at some point.
    Anyway, we are doing pretty well these days. We adjusted to being at home more. It wasn’t a huge change. I’m also less stressed out about COVID. I can’t control what other people do so we just focus on our household.

    1. Yeah, I feel for you, Joe. Our friends and family with kids have described this period as “excruciating”. Being a parent is already so difficult, having the kids home while struggle to also work from home is next to impossible. I’m glad you are healthy and safe, Joe, and less stressed out. Take care!

  23. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your insights and I’m glad you’re doing well. I wish more people had those same thoughts. Sadly, I am surrounded by people obsessed with making money at the expense of their time, family, health and happiness. I have vowed to not be like that.

    I also like the Insight Timer App – I don’t think it gets as much love as it should! – and the 10 Percent Happier App (good for skeptics).

    You might also enjoy Eckhart Tolle’s work, especially The Power of Now. Tolle has a neat instantaneous trick for when you feel overwhelmed with thoughts and anxiety – just tell yourself: “I’m waiting for my next thought.” When I do that, my mind focuses on the now, and my mind clears instantly.

    I also use another trick (not from Tolle, but somewhere randomnly online) for when you’re feeling like you need to fill your day with lots of busy work but you want to slow down. Focus on literally doing nothing, and then what you really need to do will emerge in your mind. All the countless busy work fades away, and only the most important tasks that I can count on one hand (sometimes for me, it’s as simple as sleep or reading a good book, or just one project) remain.

    I hope you get to do your 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in the near future. I think you’ll find it a revelation. A few years, I participated in one and loved it. I mean, I was bored, annoyed, impatient at times, etc. but you just observe your emotions and thoughts, and just go with it. When I returned home, I felt a state of calm I had never felt before. It’s like meditation boot camp – it kicks your ass but leaves you feeling amazing.

  24. I am the A-type like you, but trust me I know from personal experience that A-types can and frequently are ok with doing nothing, or at least nothing truly productive. My father (another A-type) told me there is a reason time off is frequently called reCREATION. I should continue taking yours and his advice, I know I did not take it right at the start of this pandemic.

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