There was a period in my life where I was very poor. Definitely not poor the way that most South Africans are poor — I always had a roof over my head and I had a social network that, quite literally, helped me to survive this time. But poor enough that I couldn’t afford electricity and only ate once every few days.

After this period, I entered two years of the stereotypical “student experience” (although I was not a student for all of it). While I never went back to struggling to meet the basics, I had to sell what few assets I had and work three jobs to pay the rent.

The effect of these two periods was to create in me an unhealthy obsession with money. It’s not that I was obsessed with making it but, rather, saving it. Even once I had graduated from university and landed a good, full-time job, I obsessed over saving every penny we could. (Coincidentally, both the adults in my household are extremely impulsive so this saving rarely resulted in actually increasing the money we had saved…)

Combined with anxiety, depression and ADHD, I was miserable, despite having a pretty decent life.

In addition to this obsession with saving, I obsessed and stressed over every  element of home-keeping and “adulting”. I spent every spare minute of my time cleaning a house that never seemed to actually stay clean. I cooked elaborate meals, sewed clothes and curtains, obsessed over keeping things just right and failed at every one of those things.

On top of that, I never had time. That oh-so-valuable and precious thing that allows you to do what you actually enjoy. There was just never any of it. The question “How did you spend your weekend?” was only ever met with “cleaning” and “house things”. “How are you going to spend your evening?” was met with “I need to [insert some annoying task here]”.

Many of these traits — like keeping a clean house or saving money — are generally positive things. They should, in general, result in less chaos, more freedom and greater happiness, overall. So why weren’t they? Why was I still depressed, anxious and always busy?

When I was diagnosed with ADHD, I spent some time working with an occupational therapist. During one of our sessions, we realized that a big part of my problem was figuring out how to prioritize my resources. Keeping the house tidy is important for managing both my ADHD and my anxiety. But so is spending time drawing or in the garden. Saving money is necessary for both financial health and some of our short- to medium-term goals. But is it more important than replacing my stove because I love cooking and the one that I have can barely fry an egg?

I found it difficult to justify spending resources on things that felt like, and in many cases are luxuries. A key realization for me was that it’s okay to spend time and money on the things that you enjoy. On its own, this was a big step forward but it didn’t help me prioritize things.

The big question remained: when is it okay? And then, somewhere in one of my OT sessions, the answer hit me in the form of a simple, beautiful sentence.

Stop prioritizing things you won’t remember over things that make you happy.

This sentence became our Happiness Heuristic. We don’t take it at face value — we use it as a way to question our decision-making and our priorities. We investigate where we spend our resources by how necessary and how important they are and also by how much they make us happy. At the end of the day, I’m neither going to remember a day spent cleaning nor will I remember that my house was slightly dirty for a period of time in my life.

But painting? That makes me happy. As long as cleaning isn’t necessary, choosing between it and other things has become easy. So what if the floor is a little dirty, I’m going to go outside in the sunshine and get covered in dirt.

We use it for spending too. At the end of the day, spending is relative and there are definitely things that are a waste of money or we can cut back on our spending. Takeout doesn’t really make me happy (unless I’m severely craving Kung Pao chicken) but other types of spending do. Three or four times over the past two weeks, I’ve wished I had a blender. They’re expensive but, really, not the kind of expensive that I’ll remember next month. So I’m buying a blender. In contrast, a new car would make my partner very, very happy. But that’s the type of spending that (a) we don’t have the money for right now and (b) we would definitely remember the lost savings in six months when we’d like to start building an extension on our house.

The funny thing is, after we started using the happiness heuristic, we began making more progress with our savings and the house has generally been cleaner (along with a host of other things getting done faster). Overall, this simple sentence has made me a better, happier, more resilient person with a cleaner house, happier spouse, prettier garden and a lot of bad paintings I can continue giggling at for a good few years yet.

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