We all know that happiness isn’t about stuff. Big houses and fancy cars may make you temporarily happy, but then you get used to them and all you have left is a supersized payment and more to worry about. Most of us can agree on this. Let’s move on.
But Wait, What About Experiences?
It has become popular to say this:
It’s about experiences! That is what life and happiness is about!
I’m going on a trip to Hawaii!
Here is our kid at Space Camp!!
Here we are hiking in Yosemite!!!
There are some problems with experiences:
The experience will end. Your trip to Hawaii or Space Camp can’t last forever. These experiences are only a small part of your existence. You have to come back home and get back to real life.
A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell. –George Bernard Shaw
Experiences get old too. It’s fun to see new things and be in a new place, but being on vacation gets old and tiring. The planning gets tedious. Hedonic adaptation applies here too.
Work makes us happy. At Greece Chautauqua, Jim Collins said this:
Work is part of the human soul.
I couldn’t agree more. And I’m not talking about a job with a micromanaging boss and a rigid schedule, but work optimized for happiness. This blog makes money, but not much. I made at least 8x more per year at the end of my career as a software developer, but I’m happier doing this. One of the great gifts of FI is that it allows you to pursue the work that’s close to your heart.
So, if happiness isn’t about stuff and it isn’t about experiences, what is it about?
It’s About Daily Life
A happy, fulfilling life comes from enjoying your daily routine. That’s where you’re going to spend most of your time, so that’s where you should focus on creating happiness.
Here are some ways that I strive for happiness in my daily routine.
Work! Here it is again, that scary four-letter word. But it’s true, work is central to happy, well-adjusted people. Humans are happy when they’re accomplishing and building.
Creative work is fun. I’m not an artist. I can barely draw a stick figure. However, I still find creative work is the most fun. I spent many enjoyable hours creating this post you’re reading now. But my creative work isn’t limited to blogging.
Here are planter boxes I built over the summer. Instead of copying a design from the book or library, I made them unusual shapes and varying heights to fit the contour of our yard:
Instead of installing a boring railing system to protect the stairwell, I built a bookcase:
Why grow up and be a boring adult? In a past house, I built a dinosaur bathroom:
I’m not a creative person by nature, so all of these ideas took work. However, it was totally worth it. It’s incredibly gratifying to look back on something you not only built, but also designed knowing that no one else in the world has something exactly like it.
Know how to inspire creativity.
- Go for walks. Walking is underrated. I come up with my best ideas when I’m wandering around town or down by the river. Take a different way every time. Close your phone and open your eyes. Bring a pen and notebook to take notes. You never know where inspiration lies.
- Be bored. A bored brain is a creative brain. When you’re at the stoplight or in line somewhere, resist the urge to pick up your phone. Instead, have a look around.
Working on your own terms is the best. If you have to do something for money, often you have to answer to someone else. The need to earn money often informs your decisions too. Once you don’t have to perform a task for a paycheck, you often do your best work because you’re in it for all the right reasons. And when that happens, often the money starts flowing anyway.
Without a healthy body, all of the money in the world doesn’t mean a damn.
Stay fit. A good workout has an amazing, positive effect on your short-term state of mind. Over the long-term, you’ll have better quality of life if your health is in order.
Get enough sleep. I’ve noticed that lack of sleep puts me in a state of depression. I thought that I was alone here, but then I read The Art of Happiness. In one passage, the author (a psychiatrist) mentioned that he was able to cure a significant amount of depression just by helping patients get healthy amounts of sleep.
Alcohol: I like beer, but I’m not much of a drinker. In a normal week (NOT FinCon!), I max out at around 3 or 4 drinks. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that alcohol messes with my body more. If I go to bed soon after drinking, I’ll often wake up in the middle of the night overheated from vasodilation. Then, I can’t fall back to sleep.
Clean up the house. Messy environments make me depressed and anxious. I’m not alone here. While it may not have the same effect on you, clutter is a distraction and a time waster (Where is my wallet? Where are my keys? Where is the f***ing screwdriver?). Having a house in order bumps up my baseline mood by a couple points.
Put your phone in airplane mode. Every time you look at your phone, you’re pulled out of the present moment and into a land of meaningless crap that won’t matter a year from now. Hell, it probably won’t matter tomorrow. Don’t clutter your home with trash and don’t clutter your mind with it either. I find that when I put my phone on airplane mode, I look at it much less.
It’s OK to be sad. Life isn’t always dinosaurs, chocolate, and beer. Being sad is a part of life and it makes us better humans. Sadness allows us to relate to others and also appreciate the good times more. When bad things happen, embrace the sadness full-on and move on.
Money. The best part of having money is that it frees us from having to worry about money. Wealth allows us to be who we’re meant to be. I’m a better person because I’ve left my job. I’m healthier and have more time to figure myself out.
Find meaning in every moment. My friend Brandon has a tagline on his blog which I quite like:
Sometimes, life is great. Sometimes, everything breaks at once. But when something breaks or a situation doesn’t work out how you expected, there is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Unplanned time. Having every minute of the day planned out is tedious and overwhelming. Leave time for spontaneity. This is important while on vacation too.
Let your true, authentic voice rise to the surface. I can usually tell when people are not real. I can quickly detect it in their voice and actions. I know because I used to be this way.
I’d act like who I thought others wanted me to be. Of course, this usually has the opposite of the intended effect; people see through it and distance themselves. This article from Wait But Why is one of the best things you can read on the topic. There are over 7,500,000,000 (!!!) people in the world. There is someone for everyone, even if you’re a bit of a nutter like me.
Live in the moment. Dwelling on mistakes of the past or planning for the future are both recipes for unhappiness. Learn from your past, but then forgive yourself and move on. If you plan too much for the future, you’ll neglect the present.
Good people are really important. I’m fortunate to live in Colorado where there are a lot of like-minded people. I call this the MMM-tractor-beam effect. FIREy people read the Mr. Money Mustache blog and then move here. Having a fun network of people that you can hang out with and depend on goes a long way to increased happiness. Not everyone can live here. so if you’re still looking for your tribe, the local Choose FI facebook groups are a great place to start.
Know that FIRE (or other external circumstances) probably won’t cure your problems. Reading something like this always makes me cringe:
I have just 384 more days until I quit work! I can’t wait!
Again, I know from experience why this is a bad idea. When I left work, I thought that I’d be instantly happier. And then it didn’t happen:
Life was certainly better. I had more time to spend with the kids. I finally had time to pursue personal projects. Everything was less hectic. However, my baseline happiness was about the same.
It was at this time that I figured out that it was up to me to create happiness. Relying on an external event to be happy was silly. Don’t wait to work on yourself.
Be thankful for where you are right now. I have my health. I have a fine family. I like where I live. I don’t need anything else. Someday, one or more of these things will go away. Appreciate what you have instead of lamenting what you don’t.
Be Here Now
Your daily life is where you’re going to be doing most of your living, so be there. Look around. Smile at other humans. Listen to your children. Watch the sunset. Life is probably pretty great for you right now, even if you don’t realize it.
It’s great to have things to look forward to, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, dwell in the now. The now is the only thing you can really depend on anyway, so why live elsewhere?
Epilogue: Joe over at Retire By 40 wrote a pretty great post on happiness recently too. Definitely worth a read.
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