A simple yet fulfilling life
Happiness has been the subject of many discussions and self-help books.
Most people believe that a happy life must automatically be a wealthy life, achieved through a good education, and consequently, a decent job with a fine salary. In a world where consumerism plays a central role and status is represented by materialistic possessions, our definition of a happy and meaningful life is not surprising.
When I was younger, I dreamed like other students of a successful career with a lot of money that would buy me happiness. However, since moving to Lock Haven and doing research on the environment, my views and understanding of happiness have changed profoundly. If you have followed my various series in The Express within the last few years, you might have noticed that I highly value education while promoting a more modest and less money-driven lifestyle that includes sustainable products and ethics.
Some of you might have thought that as a college professor, I can easily talk about living such a lifestyle because I do not have to worry about money.
But prestigious jobs do not automatically come with a good salary. And enjoying an academic education does not automatically result in becoming a morally and ethically good person.
Although I am usually highly reluctant to talk about myself, I would like to offer a glimpse into the simple yet fulfilling life I have developed based on my little income.
My lifestyle is just one of many and by no means the only correct way to live. While I definitely agree that life is easier with more money because you can afford whatever pleases you, the thought of living the American dream and becoming super rich rather scares me.
I have found values that give me much more pleasure than money: freedom, leisure time, personal growth, a lifestyle that cares about other creatures and our planet, and — despite being without profession of faith — improving my ethical and moral conduct.
I grew up in a fine middle-class home, and being the only child, I enjoyed a wonderful education at a private Catholic school. I originally enrolled at the university in my Austrian hometown because I did not know what else to do (after more than 20 years of free education, the government had just introduced tuition of a few hundred euros per semester).
I was immediately deeply impressed by finding all this incredible knowledge gathered in one place, and I am still truly grateful for having had the opportunity to take a number of classes simply out of interest and despite not being able to use them for my major or minor.
It was back then when I decided to return to school for another degree when the time comes to retire.
To me, studying has never been driven by career options; my mere love of studying made me pursue a doctoral degree. Instead of becoming a journalist in Austria, I moved to Lock Haven and have been employed at Lycoming College as a part-time instructor of German since 2009.
Most academic years, I teach two classes per semester, occasionally three like this semester, earning a salary below the minimum wage. Coming from a country where everyone enjoys health insurance, it bothers me that health care benefits do not come with my job.
If I had not been covered by my husband’s health insurance, I honestly would have been highly troubled living here.
Despite my low income, but due to being without children, a house, and my own car, I have never had money issues, have never been in debt, and am able to contribute an equal share to household expenses while still being able to finance my few passions.
Fortunately, I hate shopping, am completely blind to consumerism, and do not have expensive dreams. I keep electronic devices until they are dead, and only buy items I can use or want so badly that I will treasure them for many, many years.
When I was younger, I collected more than 130 Porsche model cars and dreamed of owning a Porsche one day. Now that I actually live in a country where the car would be affordable compared to Europe, I have lost all interest in it because of having given up driving more than a decade ago.
Another big dream, however, came true before moving to Lock Haven. Since the age of 15, I had dreamed about opening my eyes in the morning and being able to clearly see the world without glasses.
As medical bills are significantly cheaper in Austria and as my vision had finally been stable for two years, I had laser surgery on both eyes for $3,320. Every day when I open my eyes and see this beautiful world without glasses, I think how lucky I have been to have received this wonderful gift.
In the course of the years, I have realized that I do not have the personality to push toward climbing up the career ladder. For many parents, my career choice would probably be a complete disaster: having a doctoral degree and never being able to get promoted or to earn more. But I am a free spirit who absolutely loves her freedom and is happy to have found a job that contributes to education and to making a change in a young person’s life while being able to finance her basic needs, having time to satisfy her own curiosity in this fascinating world, and advancing as a person.
At work, I give my best as a teacher and — occasionally — as a psychologist, which is not easy in a class that most students take without interest but to fulfill their language requirement.
Most of the semester is consumed by grading. As I have been teaching the same classes for years, I devote time to improving them, but this is, of course, less involved than preparing them from scratch.
Although not many students come to see me in my office, I have regularly tutored a number of them throughout the years.
Being able to help others, students and non-students, can be truly enjoyable but just as saddening when some of them barely say thank you or do not even look at you when crossing your path.
Since I am not full-time faculty, I am free of many obligations such as advising or faculty meetings; nor am I under pressure to publish or to prove that I am qualified for promotion.
During the summer, I am technically unemployed and have the unique opportunity to spend the time in my home country and traveling. In addition, my schedule enables me to pursue my own interests of conducting research independent of my subject area and sharing my findings in articles in The Express.
I also can acquire new skills. For a couple of years now, for example, I have been taking advantage of the great courses offered at Lycoming, and because I have time for homework and studying, I can get the most out of those classes. At the same time, I learn teaching techniques from colleagues I incorporate in my own classes.
The lifestyle I have developed meets my budget and yet tries to contribute to a better environment. When you have a small income, you automatically avoid wasting energy, and since I have always disliked air conditioning, this saves a lot of electricity.
I usually walk around Lock Haven instead of being driven by my husband, who fortunately saves gas by not idling. Commuting to work by bus is not only a safe, convenient, and reliable alternative to driving, but it also contributes to the environment and allows me to grade papers or read.
Just drinking tap water or tea saves packaging and reduces emissions while at the same time not ruining my health with soda. Tap water does by no means have to be boring.
Following a trend I discovered in Finland — although it is claimed to have originated in the U.S. — I put all kinds of fresh herbs, lemon slices, ginger, or fruits into my water jug in order to enhance the water with wonderful, literally natural flavors.
Fresh herbs have also become a key ingredient of my meals. I admittedly do not fancy cooking; nonetheless I cook a lot because it is the healthiest option of consuming food as I have learned during the research for my next series and because it allows me to choose sustainable products.
Although sustainable products are often more expensive than conventional ones, decreasing my ecological footprint, fighting animal testing (e.g. of cosmetics), and getting electricity through wind power is highly important to me and thus makes them a priority in my life.
With a small budget, you certainly have to set such priorities.
My other two priorities are two fairly expensive passions: books and traveling. Books, especially non-fiction, are wonderful friends that patiently offer you a paradise of fascinating perspectives. And traveling through the U.S. and different countries, in particular through small villages and nature, far from tourist-flooded cities, can be inspiring and mind opening.
Both worlds, books and traveling, can teach you, enlarge your horizon, and have the power to influence your moral and ethical views.
To me, this is a life of happiness: trying to have a positive impact on some young lives in a work place without pressure while having the freedom to spend a significant time in two countries, to educate myself in a constant effort to grow as a person, and to improve my ethical and moral actions.
I am truly grateful for the privilege I have been given and shall never take it for granted!
Dr. Daniela “Dani” Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has been a resident of Lock Haven for the past seven years and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport.