Death. Unfortunately it is ever present in my day. As a cardiologist most of my time is spent with people who had heart attacks, heart failure, or some type of rhythm problem. Most people do very well and others less so. On any given day there are many people who die unexpectedly. If they are lucky, they have their cardiac arrest in public and someone delivers CPR to them quickly. These people get a second chance. An opportunity to reevaluate their life. A time for some Spring cleaning of their life.
What I find though, is most people don’t bother to change anything. No spring cleaning for them. The near death experience, while scary, leads to little change. I am not sure why this is. Maybe human stubbornness or maybe it is denial. No one wants to think that they just died. Still, these encounters with the “living dead” always makes me appreciate life and reevaluate my choices.
What will be important when I die? Who will be there and what will be said? What decisions am I happy with and which do I often reconsider? Consider it “Spring Cleaning Life Edition”. So here are some of the big life decisions I have made and if it has lead to happiness.
A career in medicine.
While I may have not chosen this career, it did choose me. Years of influence from my father (a happy physician) and an expectation to succeed lead me down this high paying, highly respected work. I know each day that I am making a difference in at least one person’s life. Whether it is to alleviate their anxiety or actually make an important medical decision in their life. This is a decision I am happy with even though I have often thought about “Saying no to doctoring”.
Moving around the country.
This is a mixed bag. As a high school student I was eager to leave home. I subsequently moved to DC, Memphis, Boston, Nashville, Buenos Aires, then New Orleans. My latest move brought me to California.
I truly believe everyone should leave the nest. Get out there and spread their wings. Learn about how different people think in different parts of the country (not to mention the world). It is amazing how different a Northeasterner is from a Southerner. And California is a land all it’s own. So all in all I am happy I have moved around.
There is a downside though to moving. If I had stayed near home, then I would likely have been raising my family near my brother and parents. When I met my wife her family did live nearby in Boston (not where my family is, but at least family was close by). They subsequently moved to Cali (totally unexpected and that is why we live here now). Now I live across the country from my parents and sibling. Seeing each other takes a lot more work and definitely leads to a reduction in my overall happiness. It doesn’t make much for the village mentality of raising a kid. Of course we are lucky to have my wife’s family nearby to help.
I imagine one reason small European countries consistently score higher on the happiness scale. If you live one one side of Sweden, it is still only a 13 hour drive from tip to tip. Family is always relatively near by. In many ways I think my happiness would be higher if I was closer to my family. I grew up with 10 cousins around all the time and I would love for my son to have the same.
That being said, the last move to Cali was a very active choice. While it pulled us further from one set of family, it brought us within driving distance to another. It allowed me to have a job that was family friendly and live in a community with easy outdoor activities and good public schools.
Focusing on my son instead of my career.
This decision, to leave my academic career and work in a relatively small hospital in a rural area has been a very positive change. My son is young only once. There is no guarantee I will have another child. Therefore, focusing on raising him and giving him the attention and love now is key. I do not want to be a 60 year old dad trying to mend a broken relationship with my 20 year old son.
So far so good. Instead of spending evenings at work and weekends writing research papers, I am now home playing with him. Every night we have family dinner. Most weekends (when I am not on call) I can take him hiking or to the museum. This is a definite positive.
Buying a big house.
On the realm of happiness, my house is a mixed bag. I love the view which was the main reason I bought the house. Every morning and every evening I look out my window or sit on my patio and enjoy the expansive view. I have planted my fruit trees and my vegetable garden. I am near friends and my commute to work is only 3 miles.
On the other side, the house is about 700 square feet more than we need (2 rooms). It is about $200K more than I wanted to spend which comes out to an additional $1500 or so in monthly mortgage payments. This is real money that is not going to debt destruction or early retirement investing.
Meeting people from all walks of life.
This is all positive. Through various activities in the community, I often meet people from all walks of life. This is also true in my profession where I see patients from all over. Meeting, talking to, and befriending people whose life experience and life view is so different then mine brings me true joy. My circle was much bigger in New Orleans but that is because I had time to nurture it. Here in Cali, the circle is growing slowly but surely.
Meeting people out of my work and socioeconomic circles is very important. It keeps me grounded and slows down the desire to “keep up with the Joneses”. If I have one piece of advice for happiness it is to meet people in all walks of life. Befriend them. Eat and drink with them. The things humans teach us are invaluable and socialization is the key to a good life.
Living a moderate lifestyle.
Other than the house, which is arguably too big for the three of us, we live a moderate lifestyle. I prefer moderatism to minimalism, which includes not buying tons of crap to fill up our home. Buying reliable cars but not fancy cars. Traveling on a budget but not frugally. Overall just trying to find a middle path. We are not lavish but we also do not deprive ourselves too much (though a little hunger can be good). Living moderately is a positive for happines and I would recommend it for anyone trying to find balance in life.
So when I leave this Earth, suddenly or slowly, I will look back and all in all agree that I most of my decisions lead to happiness. Writing this article I see my few regrets will be distance from my brother and parents, buying to big a house, and needing to expand my social circle in Cali.
All of these are fixable and now that I have written this post, I will make active decisions to improve them. It may include visiting my family more than 3 times a year. Downsizing our home in a few years once we know if we will add a 4th family member. Increasing my activities to meet more people in California. If those are my main hindrances to happiness, then I am doing okay.
How about you? What will you look back on in your life and wish you had done differently? Are there any Life Spring Cleaning you can do now?
Also published on Medium.