The Magic Formula for a Satisfying Life

A long-term Harvard research project called the Grant Study has been tracking 268 men since 1938 to see how their lives would turn out.  The study found that the men who flourished did not possess a certain social class, genetic advantage, or place in the birth order.

The men who lived long and happy lives had in common both the capacity for intimacy as well as qualities like persistence, discipline, trustworthiness, and order, says David Brooks for The New York Times in The Heart Grows Smarter.  The magic formula for an enjoyable life, according to the study’s conclusions?

Be affectionate with people and organized with things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Brooks’ comments on the Grant Study since I decided to drop the business side of blogging.  If I had continued my trajectory of pursuing more money and fame, I would have been less capable of giving love to the people in my life and of taking care of the things that I already have.

For a while, I believed success gurus when they said that processing emails and decluttering closets were simply feel-good addictions that would distract me from achieving something great.  But that kind of procrastination — avoiding a challenge by doing something easier — is different from letting your house (and inbox) go for months at a time.

I believed parenting experts who said that I should behave as if I had 12 kids. Too much attention and meddling is bad for them.  But when I was so consumed with getting ahead, my parenting style veered toward benign neglect.

Success in its traditional form — status, money, power, fame — is very alluring.  Yet guarantees are few that we will achieve the kind of recognition we seek, and of course, the pursuit of that status can make us (and the people around us) very unhappy.  Just think of all the great artists and thinkers who were never recognized during their lifetimes, and who died poor and ridiculed.

When I get that nagging feeling that I need to achieve something unusual to make my life “matter,” and that maintaining an orderly home is somehow a lesser pursuit, I need to remind myself that living an honorable life can be an achievement in itself.

A life that is first devoted to the people closest to me, before I attempt to affect anyone beyond. A life where I am not too busy striving to keep things under control.

I’ve always loved that the side benefit of a cared-for (however imperfect) house is that I feel comfortable inviting friends and neighbors in.  And in turn, inviting people over inspires me to keep things clean and organized.

When I am feeling stressed or chaotic, it is much harder for me to be warm and loving with my family.  But when I’ve done what I need to and feel (relatively) straightened-up, I am relaxed and open to giving attention to others.

As we inch toward a new year, I am seeing that “getting organized” is not just a feel-good activity that we do when we have nothing better to do, or only when we “have time.”  Taking care of ourselves and the things that populate our lives has been a principle in many religions and creeds for centuries, from ancient Hebrew traditions to the Amish to the Boy Scouts, symbolized by the proverb: Cleanliness is next to godliness.

So I say, we should go ahead and sign up for those month-to-month, room-by-room organizing challenges that we see in magazines and blogs at this time of year.  Luxuriate in the lull between the holidays, and allow ourselves to attack those kitchen office papers, stubborn to-do list items, scheduling quandaries, and annoying repair projects.

Forgive me if you’ve come to this conclusion long ago, but I am seeing that being organized is not for the “someday” file. It’s integral to my well-being and to the well-being of the people I love, and therefore, should be a part of my philosophy of life.

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  • Candy Lyons January 2, 2013, 11:57 am


    I have always thought that making something of your life really stems from how you treat your family and those closest to you. I’m not really interested in fame and fortune. I want to be the best person I can be to my husband, my family, and my friends. That’s enough fortune for me!

    Happy New Year!


    • Amy January 3, 2013, 11:15 pm

      Hi Candy,

      You are wise woman.

      Happy new year to you too,

  • fan in the 22301 January 2, 2013, 9:02 am

    I have not heard of that author, I will check her out in the library if they have her book. I married a very organized person and our home is quite clean despite the two young children who also live here and like to be a bit messy. My parents are basically hoarders, I haven’t been inside their home in over 5 years and it is a major tension between us. It is also becoming a big problem now that they are older and their health is declining. Shows like Hoarders make it seem like it is an overnight fixable problem, but it is much more complex and complicated that has serious consequences for the entire family. One of my resolutions is to try to accept people for who they are, I do not think my parents will ever change, my having children did not motivate them to clean so their only grandchildren could visit them. So I have to accept their imperfections and move on. Now off to clean my endlessly messy kitchen!!!

    PS if you have a blog room by room challenge you recommend I would love to hear about it.

    • Amy January 3, 2013, 11:15 pm

      Hi there,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your parents and their continuing problems. Hoarding is very sad, and complex as you say, and I do think it is a sickness of our time. We live in an age of cheap mass-produced goods, and it is easier than ever to accumulate lots and lots of stuff.

      I find it a constant battle to keep moving things out of the house. They’re always coming in — through the mail, wrapped as presents, in shopping bags, and out of backpacks.

      Re organizing challenges: Buttoned Up did one last year which is apparently not going on this year, but I did find this one for 2013 which looked pretty good:

      I also noticed that Real Simple magazine is doing a monthly feature on getting different parts of the house organized. This month was the kitchen.

      I hope you like Brene Brown.


  • fan in the 22301 December 31, 2012, 7:03 am

    I grew up in a very loving but disorganized home. I couldn’t have friends over or anyone inside the house without major planning days in advance to clean up. It was stressful, embarrassing and shameful. I have the natural inclination to be organized but never grew up with the skills to actually do, so I am in a state of internal flux. I believe a chaotic setting breeds chaos, if a house is chaotic and too messy and disorganized the mind cannot settle down. I aspire to have an organized home where’ anyone can come in at any time. I really believe the effort it takes into have a tidy home pays off tenfold I reduced stress for the entire family. Happy new year!

    • Amy January 2, 2013, 8:10 am

      Hello there,

      I appreciate so much hearing your perspective. I have new respect for the power of shame — and being vulnerable — after reading Brene Brown. Have you heard of her? She has a great TED talk online, and her latest book is excellent.

      I know that you can achieve what you want, and overcome whatever you learned (or didn’t learn) when growing up. More important than an organized home is a loving family — it’s wonderful that you have that.

      And yes: the everyday effort in keeping things tidy has huge pay offs including peace of mind.

      All my best,

  • Leslie H December 30, 2012, 8:24 pm

    “When I get that nagging feeling that I need to achieve something unusual to make my life “matter,” and that maintaining an orderly home is somehow a lesser pursuit, I need to remind myself that living an honorable life can be an achievement in itself.”

    Our culture wants to assume that we must all achieve something notable to the world at large, but that is not reality. When I get that nagging feeling, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common man. He made so many of them.”

    Indeed, there are many, many more of us who, invisible to the world around us, are achieving an honorable life. Fame is in God’s hands, and for His purposes.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • Amy December 30, 2012, 9:01 pm

      Hi Leslie,

      And thanks for a wonderful comment! I think you are right about how fame is in God’s hands. It’s not really in our control, especially if we want to be known for something great (not terrible).

      We will probably never be congratulated by more than our own close family and friends, but then again, I’m not sure if getting recognition from thousands of people makes people happy. There is so much baggage that comes with fame (often including criticism from thousands of people).

      Plus, the striving for recognition can hijack our morals. I don’t want fear to hold me back, but I don’t want ambition to let me go too far.

      Thanks, Leslie,

  • Sara Tetreault December 28, 2012, 12:29 am

    All I know is that for me, I have clearer thoughts when my home is organized and there aren’t stacks of stuff awaiting me when I walk in my front door. I want a sigh of relief when I’m home and not one of, “Oh, I still need to attend to that.” Having an organized home takes time and effort but it makes for a pleasant one.
    Well said. We all need reminders.

    • Amy December 28, 2012, 9:13 am

      Hi Sara,

      You are so right. Don’t they say, Anything worth having doesn’t come easy?

      Keeping things under control is a constant battle, a never-ending project that requires our persistence and discipline. But one of the big payoffs, as you say, is that sense of inner peace that we feel when our outer environment is cared for.

      Thank you, Sara,

  • Tasha December 27, 2012, 11:06 pm

    I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear. I’m so obsessed with making IT, that I forget sometimes that I already have IT! Thank you so much for the reminder…I am so cleaning out my closet tomorrow! And I am NOT serving fish sticks for lunch…or dinner!

    Thank YOU!!

    • Amy December 28, 2012, 9:05 am

      Hi Tasha,

      I know where you are coming from. I tend to get obsessed with projects and goals too, and it is easy to lose sight of both the big picture, and the little everyday details.

      I’m glad you have some renewed energy — go you!


  • Yvonne December 27, 2012, 2:07 pm

    THANK YOU, Amy. I have such difficulty expressing my sentiments when it comes to this matter, but you always–and this article in particular–articulate my thoughts exactly! Many of us are so lucky to have you so eloquently state what & why these things are so important! ~Yvonne

    • Amy December 28, 2012, 9:03 am

      Dear Yvonne,

      I’m so happy to hear this. I know what that feels like when a writer is able to put into words something I have vaguely struggled with. It really helps to clarify our thoughts and help us figure out what we ourselves believe.

      Thank you for saying so,

  • Samantha @ Digital Zen December 27, 2012, 11:49 am

    This really resonates with me. A general rule of life seems to be that “gerbil in the wheel” activities consume everything – all my time, energy, resources. Any attempt to go beyond or make my mark on life requires digging deeper, and shuffling priorities. Less sleep. More fish stick dinners. Less exercise. More TV babysitting.

    Since I’ve chosen a life of family, getting the balance right is the biggest challenge. When I read about those who have achieved something special, it’s often someone who chose a life without children, or had a family but did not participate (like the story of a surgeon, whose name I forget, who made ground-breaking strides in his field but ended up divorced and estranged from his adult children).

    You could say oh well, I’m not a surgeon – but even moderate achievements require sacrifices and shuffling. I don’t have any good answers, but I really love your statement that “living a good life can be an achievement in itself.”

    Thank you Amy for a wonderful reminder to help kick off 2013 with more peace and acceptance in our lives!

    • Amy December 27, 2012, 2:05 pm

      Hi Samantha,

      I totally know what you mean about how doing anything extraordinary requires upsetting the balance in our lives. Love the part about: Less sleep. More fish stick dinners. Less exercise. More TV babysitting. Because I’ve been there.

      You may be onto something about how having a family is a choice that may preclude other choices. Being a present and loving parent and running a (relatively organized) household is a big job, and when we take on new projects, something must give.

      It’s like they say, when you say yes to something, you have to say no to something else. Something is always lost when something is gained. It’s one of those bittersweet truisms about life.

      The hope is that the things you lose are not as important to you, or can be temporarily put aside for a while.

      I loved hearing your thoughts,

  • Alison @ L is for Latte December 27, 2012, 10:19 am

    Love the picture and the essay. Still mulling over the second part. :) I agree about being affectionate with people, but I think too many people use the pursuit of organization in a way that results in yelling and unrealistic expectations–which is certainly not being affectionate with people. I am quite sure you could balance the two–but not so sure about everyone else, including myself.

    • Amy December 27, 2012, 1:59 pm

      Hi Alison,

      I hear where you are coming from. That uber-organization that we see in stores magazines (also known as “org porn”) can be over the top. And when organization or cleanliness is taken to an extreme it can be destructive.

      One of the problems of our modern age is that we have too much. Too much of everything — emails, trinkets, digital photos, activities, STUFF. It’s overwhelming to try to keep it all under control, but I think it has to be done or we become ruled by our things and our technology, instead of the other way around.

      I think the study is mainly saying: Pay attention. Slow down. Take care.

      It’s good to hear from you,

  • Chara December 27, 2012, 9:09 am

    I want to paint that on a plaque and hang it on the wall! “Be affectionate with people and organized with things.” Simple.

    • Amy December 27, 2012, 1:53 pm

      Hi Chara,

      I know, I love the simplicity of it. Also, for a magic formula, it seems surprisingly doable.

      Take care,

  • Marian December 26, 2012, 9:28 pm

    I think you are on to something, Amy. Having an organized household has become a prerequisite to my being able to be creative and productive in my professional life. I find that once the household is organized, it doesn’t take much to keep it that way if you if you spend just a little time each and every day.

    • Amy December 26, 2012, 10:22 pm

      Hi Marian,

      That is so interesting that you think that organization is an integral part of being creative. We often think of creative people and artists as being very disorganized and almost crazy. It’s nice to hear that one can lead a sane life and also be extremely productive.

      Thank you,

  • Amanda December 26, 2012, 8:59 pm

    Well said! I agree entirely and have been slowly coming to similar conclusions in my own life. While I do think everyone’s definition of the good life life is Different I also think for most of us it has little to do with the world’s definition of success.

    • Karen December 26, 2012, 9:36 pm

      “Like” :-)

    • Amy December 26, 2012, 10:20 pm

      Hi Amanda,

      You are so right. Even though we may not agree on what a “good” life consists of, it’s probably very different from what is often held up as the ideal.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Karen December 26, 2012, 7:25 pm

    Amy, I love this! It’s a fresh discussion about balance, personal success and real-life character traits that can affect our happiness. I heard the saying somewhere that one’s unorganized life is a real-life example of the unorganized mind the person is experiencing. (something like that) I guess being anally organized might have it’s own negative connotations too but that’s where balance comes in – whatever that balance is, is unique to each of us. Great thought-provoking post!

    • Amy December 27, 2012, 2:00 pm

      Hi Karen,

      Yes, isn’t there a saying about how external peace reflects inner peace — and I think it works the other way around too.

      Thanks for your nice comment!

  • Beth December 26, 2012, 6:51 pm

    Love this. Thank you.

    • Amy December 27, 2012, 1:59 pm

      So glad, Beth. Thank you to you,