28 Things I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Happiness

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“What’s the secret, Max? You seem to have it figured out.”

“I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.  For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”


I often get asked what the secret is. So today, on my 28th birthday (the sexiest birthday!), I’d like to share 28 secrets of my own: things that I’ve learned about life, love, and happiness.

Here we go:

1) Politics are an incredibly negative suck of your energy.  Don’t get me wrong — politics can be vibrant and exciting, particularly when things are going well for your chosen candidate.

But immersing yourself in politics means immersing yourself in constant stress and negativity. I used to devour every morsel of news in every major election — every editorial, every analysis of every microgaffe.

Today, I read enough to stay informed and leave it at that.  I’m no longer mired in the muck, and my stress level has gone significantly down.

2) Perfection doesn’t exist.  Stop looking for it.  Whether it’s a job, a place to live, a romantic partner, or something else entirely, there are always trade-offs.  Not cute little trade-offs.  Significant trade-offs that you care about.

Even the Chiang Mai cheerleaders know that as much as they adore their city, they have to deal with unhealthy clouds of smog, smoke and dust every winter.

Life is a long act of compromise, and if you keep looking for perfection, you’ll never be able to settle.

3) It’s not your job to make everyone happy.  There are plenty of people who genuinely enjoy being miserable, though they’d never say so themselves.  Nothing that you say or do can convince them otherwise.  Cut your losses and go.

4) Choose to spend your time with people who lift you up.  This one might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t we all have friends who drive us crazy in myriad ways?  It might seem easier to hold stronger relationships with those with whom you share a history, or who have been part of your group for longer, but a lot of these relationships can be emotionally draining.

I’m not saying cut them off completely — just make sure you’re spending the bulk of your time with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel good about yourself.

5) Having a college degree does not mean that you need to work in a job that requires a college degree. Growing up in a town where COLLEGE-CAREER-SUCCESS! is hammered into your head from a young age, I used to feel that giving up a career for a job “anyone could do” would be a colossal mistake, as well as an embarrassment.

Not anymore.  I have friends who have left the corporate world to become yoga instructors, personal trainers, dive instructors, photographers.  They love their jobs, they make good money, and they’ve finally found work that fulfills them.

6) Being a good listener is something that takes both time and effort.  This is a quality that you should take time to hone.  Concentrate on listening to what someone has to say.  Resist the urge to jump in early and interrupt, or add empty affirmation, or one-up with something that happened to you.  Listen, think, respond.

7) Be kind — always.  When you’re tired and stressed and just trying to get through doing your errands when someone approaches you doing something that annoys you to no end — fight the urge to be rude, to make a sarcastic comment, to do anything that proves, in your own little mind, that you are somehow superior to everyone else around you.

That’s a strong urge to fight, but you have to.  Kindness begets kindness.  Kindness opens doors.  Kindness makes you a better person.

8) The easiest way to be interesting is to read contemporary nonfiction.  There are fascinating books about food, about religion, about cheap fashion, even about crazy subjects like cadavers.  You’ll always have something interesting to talk about — far more than what you can get on TV.

9) Make peace early and often.  Life isn’t fair.  You’re not going to do a fraction of the things you want to achieve.  Undeserving people will reach astronomical levels of success; their more-deserving counterparts will toil. And in most cases there’s nothing you can do about it.

Make peace with these facts, and remind yourself of them frequently.  You’ll save yourself a lot of mental anguish.

10) Entrepreneurship today is easier than it’s ever been before.  Whether you’re a crafter, a writer, a reseller of items, or a gamer of systems, the internet has made it easy to operate a small business on a global scale.  If you are ready to work hard, you can make it happen.  It’s an American Dream for the digital age.

So what’s stopping you?

11) No matter how easily you think you’ll be able to spot one, it isn’t easy to identify a relationship on its way to being abusive.  We always define abusive relationships in their most stereotypical form: a man hitting a woman, a man yelling insults at a woman.

It’s a lot harder to discern a partner who slowly isolates you from your friends, or manipulates you emotionally, or makes you feel shameful.  Movies like Twilight that glorify abusive relationships to a malleable teen audience aren’t doing the world any favors, either.

Pay attention to your intuition.  If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

12) Trying to convince extremists is a waste of time.  Sure, you may be able to brilliantly argue your point until the end of time, but realize that that’s all you’re getting out of it — a won argument and possibly an alienated relationship.

Just don’t get caught up in the myth that if you argue well enough, you’ll change someone’s mind.  That doesn’t work with extremists.

13) Discount site emails will eat your wallet alive.  In the past few years, several major discount sites have popped up: Groupon and LivingSocial for experiences; RueLaLaHauteLook, and Gilt Groupe for fashion; Jetsetter for luxury travel.  These sites warp your thinking by making you think that 80% off Gucci shades is an unbelievable deal, when in reality you’ve just spent $120 for a pair of orange striped sunglasses.

Sometimes, these sites can be very good — like when there’s a major discount on something you were planning to buy in the next few months.  They can also be good for unique birthday gifts.

That said, I unsubscribed to all these emails and I don’t miss any of them.

14) Only you are the person who can change your life.  If you’re happy, that’s fine.  That’s great.  But if you’re unhappy and want to make a change, nothing is going to happen until you make it happen. Stop waiting for the perfect career opportunity or romantic partner to fall into your lap, or for the right person to emulate to appear on your radar.  Go after your own dreams.

15) Accountability is a beautiful thing.  Own your failures.  Not dramatically.  Not with an ulterior motive. Just own them.

16) Solitude isn’t a state of failure.  The amount of hostility that single people face in our society is absolutely ridiculous.  Choosing to be single and without kids does not mean that a person isn’t good with people or has some degree of mental problems.  Am I being overdramatic?  Believe me, this is warranted.

Some of the happiest people I know are single without kids — in part because they never settled for someone else’s expectations.

17) There is an art form to making a formal complaint.  If you’re having issues with a company, know when to complain (after you’ve calmed down), who to approach (a supervisor or someone with similar power), what to do (describe the situation as you saw it without speculation) how to act (polite and respectful), and what, if anything, you want in compensation from the business.

Most importantly, resist the urge to exaggerate.  If a situation warrants complaint, you don’t need to exaggerate.

You’d be surprised at how many people think that a complaint is best lodged with red-faced screaming.  That’s an excellent way to get people to not take you seriously.

18) The American diet is incredibly unhealthy.  I’m not just talking about fast food.  Our portions are out of control.  We eat far too much meat, dairy, carbs, and sugar.  So many “normal foods” are overprocessed.  Even when you grow up eating healthier than most (I didn’t have beef until I was around 8!), it’s still an enormous contrast to most of the world.

Consider eating differently — smaller plates, more meat-free dishes, fewer processed foods.  You’ll be surprised at how good it makes you feel!

19) Magnanimity is an incredibly overlooked quality.  Rise about negativity by being generous in success and generous in defeat.

20) Don’t sweat the small stuff.  99.9% of the stuff is small.  If it doesn’t involve death or serious injury or financial ruin, it’s small stuff.  Let it go, let it go, let it go.

21) Your photos deserve to be treated like the treasures they are.  Back them up online — every photo you take in its original format, even the bad ones, plus the edited final products.  SmugMug is a great place to do this.  Buy a quality camera and take the time to edit your photos.

Trust me — looking back, you’ll be glad you protected your photos.

22) It’s not a competition.  Really, it’s not.  It’s so easy to drive yourself into negativity while racking your brain, trying to figure out how to either one-up or tear down the person next to you.  Let it go, smile, and say, “That’s great.  I’m happy for you.”

23) Splurge on experiences, not possessions.  Several years down the line, you may not remember a handbag or pair of shoes that you got for your 23rd birthday — but you’ll definitely remember the day you spent zip-lining, or a sushi-making lesson, or a weekend getaway to a place you’ve never been.

That said…

24) Having stuff can actually be nice.  There’s a lot of backlash against possessions amongst long-term travelers, many of whom describe the newfound freedom from “stuff” as the ultimate revelation.  I know I enjoyed living out of a backpack.

But the truth is that having stuff can be nice.  Not endless piles of things you don’t need, but a few standouts: a MacBook Air, a nice pair of sunglasses, a fabulous dress that always looks great on you.

25) Higher education doesn’t always pay off.  YIKES!  That’s something I never thought I’d say, especially after having If you don’t go to college, you’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life! drilled into my head from the age of 5.  I’m not exaggerating.

And today, many of my college graduate friends have been unemployed for a long time.  Many more are underemployed.  And lots more are in debt up to their eyeballs, owing upwards of $1,000 each month.

Higher education isn’t the ticket to guaranteed success that it once was.  So many people I know, both college grads and not, have found their success as online entrepreneurs — either teaching themselves from scratch or from free and cheap resources available online.

Don’t get me wrong — higher education is NEVER a waste of time, and it can lead you down a path to making smart decisions about business and life.  But sometimes, it’s a waste of money.  Spend wisely.

26) Dan Savage is an angel sent down from heaven.  Yes, this man is a sex and relationship columnist — and I guarantee that reading his columns and listening to his podcast will both improve your life greatly and make you a more open-minded person.

27) Don’t spend too much time in negative environments.  A lot of seemingly benign places are surprisingly negative.  Some examples?  Snarky political and celebrity web sites, friends of yours who spend more time gossiping about others than anything else, family members who complain about everything.

Spend too much time in negative environments or around negative people and bitterness will come more easily to you.  You don’t want that.

28) Forgive yourself.  As many attempts as you make to turn yourself into a better person, you will make lots of little mistakes and some very big mistakes.  Recognize this, plan for this, but above all, forgive yourself for everything that happens along the way.

What is the wisdom that you’ve gained at your age?

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119 thoughts on “28 Things I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Happiness”

  1. I beg to differ…29 is the sexiest birthday…Jane Austen said so! But if at 28 you’ve got so much good wisdom to share with your readers, you’ll be sexy as hell until you’re 90.

    Because this is TRUTH. All of it. And oddly enough, I discovered many of these truths during the same year of my life: when I decided to give up a life of “faith” because I realized I didn’t really believe in it. When I stopped working at jobs I hated. When I made peace with the fact that life isn’t fair, and being considered intelligent doesn’t guarantee success. Thanks so much for sharing—these truths are a great reminder.

    Happy Birthday, Kate! Here’s to many “sexiest” years ahead.

  2. #16- As a single 24 year old living in the Midwest, with all of my close friends married, people think I’m nuts for not being in a rush to be in a serious relationship. We are still so young.

    #18- So true, the SAD (Standard American Diet) is terrible, after watching Forks Over Knives at the start of the year I’ve switched to a 70ish% plant based diet and I feel great! I still drink too much sweetened coffee and cheat occasionally, but life is too short to not enjoy the good stufff :).

    #23- I spent June in Bangkok and China (a trip I had been dreaming of and thanks to your blog I finally did it!) and came back with only 3 very small “souvenirs”. My family and friends couldn’t believe I didn’t buy more, but I just didn’t care (or have room in my backpack) and wanted to spend my money on experiences not stuff.

    Your blog is so inspiring, I’m joining the corporate world in a few days, but I’m considering working and saving for a few years then travelling for a year or two. After meeting a ton of other young people doing that, it’s just so tempting!! Thank you for sharing all of your awesome tales!

  3. Happy Birthday!!

    You are such an inspiration! I am still working up the courage to travel as much as I have always wanted to, but I am a lot closer than I have ever been!

    Thanks for sharing your amazing insights!!

  4. Kate, this is a wonderfully inspiring post, with lots of great nuggets of wisdom. I hope 28 brings you even more joy and wonder and new places to discover. Cheers!

  5. Happy birthday! I like #14, that you’re the only one who can change your life. So often we make up excuses as to why we can’t do something when really, we can if we try hard enough. We’re in control and if we want it bad enough (a new job, a new life, a new relationship), we’ll make sure we get there. Great tips!

  6. Thank God I don’t have to come up with 63 (next birthday) “Things I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Happiness”! I would be her all day. I would offer just ten mantras.

    1) Find a soulmate that has approximately the same philosophy as you (my wife and I will be married 34 years this September).

    2) Learn to compromise at work, in life and definitely at home.

    3) Live life like you will be here forever and party like you will perish tomorrow!

    4) Eat healthy (as you state, not like we do in the US) and exercise regularly.

    5) Understand that wealth and material things aren’t necessary for happiness.

    6) If you have children teach them well and then learn to let them fly away.

    7) Set goals always and work toward some end, at all times in your life.

    8) As you state in #7, “Be kind — always”. Things have a way of coming full circle–always.

    9) Believe in yourself even when nobody else does.

    10) Don’t worry. Be happy!

    Happy birthday young lady. Now go party like you are going to die tomorrow!

  7. I love this, Kate.

    The one realization that stroke me most is that college education doesn’t mean that you need to work as what you’ve studied for. Coming from Spain, where University education is usually quite traditional (engineering, medicine, law, etc), I was surprised to come across so many other alternatives that I had never thought of before.

    Now at age 28 and after spending years over in the financial industry, I’ve decided to give myself a second chance at something that I’ve always wanted to try. It’s actually never to late for a career change!

    1. Yes, Katherina, that’s another big difference between North America and Europe (or the rest of the world, for that matter). Good luck to you with your career change!

  8. #5!!!!!!!!!!! This is so true. I’m still battling this idea (Oooh, wine vendor! But that’s a waste of my art history degree.)

    Maybe I’ll make peace with that in time for my 28th birthday (the 11th). And/or find a job.

    WONDERFUL list! It really boils down to this: live for yourself and not for others’ expectations.

  9. I love #27! I actually didn’t realize how negative my family was until I moved away. With a trip home it drove me crazy and realized that all we ever did was talk about other people’s lives and critique them……so confused on how that ever seemed like a good idea or that I contributed to those conversations greatly. So happy for my time away. 🙂

  10. Great post, Kate! Happy birthday!!

    Since I just turned 30, I guess I’ll add two more:

    29. Learn to listen to and trust your gut. I’ve ignored my gut countless times, and I’ve regretted it nearly every single time.

    30. The only way around most things is through them. This is similar to your No. 14, but more along the lines of the idea you will face tough stuff in your life. Ignoring them will usually make them worse. You just have to suck it up, face it and get through it.

  11. I love this post! It is so great to know what you have learned in your 28 years. I have to admit that I agree with almost a 100%. And by the way, Happy Birthday Kate!

  12. Happy birthday! Love this post and agree with so much of it–I used to read the newspaper from front to back every morning, now I just read the “important” bits and don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. Hope to catch you in the USA this summer!

  13. Useful lessons 🙂 Found it ironic that I read #1 right after deciding I was 10000% fed up with politics, so I definitely agree!

  14. Happy Birthday Kate. Interesting to learn 28 is the sexiest birthday – I turned 28 a couple weeks ago. I don’t know about you, but things seem to get better with every birthday I have, so I hope your 28th year is the best yet. To the very smart advice you’ve given I’d like to add:

    1. Being right isn’t everything.

    2. Hatred (as in a passionate and complete loathing) is like a black hole – it takes a lot of times and energy to hate someone or something – and the only thing hatred will do is pull you further and further down into negativity.

    3. Along the “don’t sweat the small stuff” last night I was thinking how worrying is a useless emotion. It doesn’t solve anything. It can’t change the past. The only thing worrying does is make you more stressed, and anxious.

    4. The world, as bad as things can get, is not as bad as what the media makes it out to be. Relying on just the media for information will only give you a skewed and fearful view of the world. I’ve found or all our differences people are very similar.

    5. Everyone has a story, and talking to someone is the only way to find out what their story is. Every place has value, and the only way to really know what it’s like is to go there.

    6. Finally I’ll end with a great quote by Louis C.K, “I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”

  15. 1) A person who is nice to you, your friends, his boss, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person. Observe how people treat those who serve them.

    2) To be successful and happy in life, choose to do something that is rare and difficult.

    3) You get more than one go-around at life. Young and flexible; family/career-building; post-kids, job security and flexible, but probably with more means to do things. Enjoy them all.

    1. GG, that first point is like LIGHTNING! All three are great, but I’m now wishing I put the first in there! I don’t have many dealbreakers, but being rude to a server is an immediate dealbreaker for me.

  16. Kate,

    I am at least two generations removed from your demographic, and understand a lot of things better now than I did when I was your age. I have grand kids ALMOST your age. Nonetheless, I wish I had had your wisdom when I was 28. A great post. Is there another forum for it?

    Frank Cloutier

  17. Thank you for posting these, Kate. There were so many that I felt I needed to hear, and a few that were really affirming for me! Great insights and advice. 🙂

  18. Great lessons, Kate! It has been such an amazing year for you and we loved following along and seeing how you turned your blog into a successful business, and we’re looking forward to seeing it thriving in your 28th year and hope it’ll be just as awesome as the last 12 months. Happy birthday from Dani & Jess

  19. As one would expect i don’t agree with every one of the 28 but I do with many. Very insightful for a young person (How I hate to say that) but alas it’s true in comparison to me.

  20. Happy Birthday Kate!

    This list is so inspiring. I should have thought of it too! Every year during my birthday I feel grateful and appreciative for being able to make it through another year. Here’s wishing you many more happiness and adventures.

  21. There’s some great lessons here. Thanks for sharing them. So many ring true and are interlinked. Only over the last few years did I really start to notice the effect being in negative environments could have on me, but it was sometimes hard to break away from those places without feeling guilty. It’s been great to slowly break free from that. And yes, having a MacBook Air certainly is nice – after much deliberation, I’ve just ordered one! I’ll definitely be checking out Dan Savage. Happy Birthday.

  22. Thanks, Kate, for sharing these lessons! I really enjoyed reading the list and I think I took some valuable tips from a couple of them at least. I hope you’re having a wonderful birthday 🙂

  23. happy birthday, kate! you’ve reached the return of saturn!
    at my age now, which is 33, I’ve learned to be more patient and understanding, though it’s been a long way 😛 And thanks for sharing your 28 lessons, I can learn much from them too 🙂

  24. Happy birthday!

    I can’t fault this list! This is the first time I have commented but I have been reading your blog for over a year and have found it extremely inspiring throughout my travels!

    Thank you!

  25. Happy birthday Kate! I started following your blog when you were planning your trip to SE Asia, and you were a big inspiration to me as I planned and went on my own first solo trip as well. Your blog is always so funny and helpful–I have to say that #5 is especially relevant to my life right now. I went to a college I couldn’t really afford my freshman year, and now I’m unsure of what I want to do and where I should go next. But I definitely agree that I need to think about what I want to do with my life rather than focus on other people’s expectations of me.
    Thanks again for inspiring me, and I hope I’ll be as happy in what I do as you are some day!

  26. “You are the person who can change your life”

    So true. happy birthday! you are an inspiration to young female travel bloggers (from Boston!)

  27. Nice post Kate! My favorite: “Perfection doesn’t exist. Stop looking for it.”
    Though I myself am a perfectionist at times, I totally agree that not looking for perfection can make one’s life content and happy!!

    Happy Birthday Kate!! 🙂

  28. worldtraveller2

    Wow, what a great list you have compiled! and to have learned it all at such a young age! only disagreement is with #26. Saw him on bill mahr… not cool.

  29. Wow…that’s a very powerful & inspirational list. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve listed here and have been practicing a good handful as well. My strongest agreement is with the very last one #28 to Forgive Yourself. For some time I’ve had difficulty with this but I’ve also learned that you need to forgive others just as much as yourself. Thanks for a great write up!

  30. Hi, I’m new to wordpress and your blog inspires me and is encouraging me to make my own blog just as successful – I am adding you into a page on my blog called ‘inspiration’.

  31. Happy Birthday!

    Some great advice there and a few that I can personally relate to. I couldn’t agree with you more about surrounding yourself with positive energy through the friends you choose and the situations you place yourself in.

  32. Happy Birthday Kate!

    I honestly enjoyed every idea in your post, I’m 27 and I didn’t have the opportunity -until now- to do this exercise in my mind. You have inspired me to go deeper in the way I live and I’m grateful for it.

  33. Kate – Happy belated birthday and thanks for all the great articles! I thoroughly admire you for taking the risks necessary to enjoy your life! I am living vicariously through you and your travels!

  34. One thing i’ve learned that’s true for all ages is: never be afraid to change your mind. There are so many different opinions out there and way of doing things, there’s never just ONE right answer. But if you’re too afraid of admitting that you might be wrong, you’ll never open yourself up to a new way of thinking.

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