Last post, I talked about the ways that we get stuck in loops of chasing hits of pleasure which ultimately end up feeling unsatisfying. Today, I want to get into some of the key things I’m trying to focus on to increase lasting happiness and contentment.
This is first because I think it’s the best and easiest way to find happiness on a daily basis. I’ve seen plenty of successful people recommend taking a few minutes every morning to think about a few things that you’re grateful for and write them down in a journal. I don’t personally do the actual writing, but I’ve found that whenever I take a minute to reflect on all of the wonderful things and people in my life, I immediately feel better. It’s also a great way to get over feelings of jealousy, anger, or discontent. It’s hard to feel any of those things when you’re awash in gratitude for how truly blessed you are.
There’s an interesting twist on this that comes from the ancient Stoics that goes a little something like this: regularly take the time to imagine that everything you have is taken away and everyone you love has died. Sounds a little intense right? It’s probably not for everyone, but the idea is that you’re building up a mental resilience to prepare you for when you do eventually lose the things that you value (nothing is permanent, right?) and you’re less likely to take those things for granted in the meantime. I think it’s especially valuable in reminding me to express my love and gratitude for the people around me (and the happy pup in that picture), each and every day, while I have the chance.
Another corollary for practicing gratitude daily is meditation. This is an area where I’ve fallen short, despite hearing over and over again how great it is. One of my goals was to establish a daily meditation practice and I recently did just that! You can read about my meditation experiment here. Hopefully by putting it down in writing for all of the interwebs to see, I can be a little more accountable and therefore more successful. Check out David Cain’s writing at www.raptitude.com for more on the value of meditation (and lots of other great thoughts).
Progress and Intentionality
I mentioned “goals” in the discussion of pleasure and happiness. Often there’s an assumption that setting and achieving goals will make us happy. The trouble is that goals can end up being just like flashy purchases or specific bank account values, where we think that once we achieve them, we’ll be happy. In reality, humans are really good at acclimating to new conditions and quickly, once we have the thing we always wanted, it just becomes normal and no longer a source of happiness. Then we’re onto the next thing.
I think that instead of focusing on a specific target as a means of being happy, the real mechanism is actually just the feeling of making progress. There’s an old cliche that it’s “the journey not the destination,” but it’s a cliche for a reason. If you look at human behavior and psychology, we just need to feel like we’re constantly moving in the right direction to find something rewarding. Video games do this all the time by giving you consistent feedback of progress so that you’re interested in always coming back for more.
It seems that the key then is to have long term goals, but use the whole “SMART” approach and also break them out into smaller, more frequent bits. This way, you can essentially “gamify” the process and maintain that feeling of progress. I’m also trying to manage my expectations to remember that achieving goals will be useful in improving my life, but won’t ever be a magic bullet. Better to enjoy the process while continuing to strive for more.
We’re social animals, even introverts like myself, and we get a whole lot of happiness from forming and interacting within a community. This is actually one of the main reasons I started this site! The Personal Finance / Financial Independence community is really awesome and I’ve gotten a ton of value from other writers and content producers. I’ve also seen how these people with shared interests and values have been able to form lasting friendships and a vibrant community together.
As far back as 2013, I had planned to start my own site and get more involved, but fear and complacency kept me from taking action until I finally pulled the trigger this year. I’m glad I did! My wife and I are going to Camp FI Southeast this January and I’m definitely going to be looking for more ways to connect with others in this community, both in person and online, going forward.
Something Bigger than Self
This is an interesting one because you see a whole lot of variety in how people fill this need. For some, it’s religion, for others it’s working towards the common goal of a business or of a charitable organization. You’ve also got people like Elon Musk working towards a vision for where he wants to take all of humanity. In each case the individual members of a group have a shared mission that they are all striving for.
I imagine that, like most things, this ties back to our evolutionary roots as hunter-gatherers trying to survive in tribes. Whatever the origin, it’s clear that working in service of something bigger than oneself is a big driver of happiness. I haven’t yet completely found my “bigger than self” cause yet, but given what I write about here, it’s probably safe to say that it’ll involve trying to help people find security in their financial lives so they can get everything they want out of life. Finding out how that ends up happening will be an interesting experience to live through in the next years of my life…
This is a big one for me. There’s a quote I love that says, “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have,” and the power there is in realizing that we have control over what we desire, if we make the effort to control it. This ties in a lot with gratitude, above, where a consistent practice of valuing the things I have is helping create a new baseline where I don’t feel the need to acquire more to be happy, but can find peace in where I’m at today. The tough part has been trying to block out the incessant messaging in society that tells me new things and experiences are the final key I need to be the best and finally be happy. Although, a helpful tool for that is just not having cable and limiting the amount of advertising I run into daily.
Here’s another quote that’s been in the news a lot lately from Einstein, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” At first glance, this would seem to conflict with my advice above to make steady progress in the service of long term goals. How can we be happy with what we have and simultaneously want more? Isn’t that a contradiction? Perhaps, but for me the key is in the end of the Einstein quote: constant restlessness. It’s all about our perception of where we are and where we’re going. If you’re chasing goals because you need your life to be different, it might be all too easy to feel that constant restlessness. However, if you can combine the contentment from gratitude in your life with consistent effort towards an even better future, that’s where I think real peace lies.
This has parallels in the Financial Independence movement where some people want money so they can escape from their working life. I’ve been guilty of this before. The alternative that I try to embrace is recognizing that FI is just a tool that frees up time to build a meaningful life. Escaping from an unhappy scenario is not the same as being happy and the act of buying anything, even if it’s freedom from work, is not enough to find satisfaction in your life.
In the interest of keeping this from running on and on, we’ll end it here and pick back up next time. Thanks for reading and please let me know what you’re focusing on in your life to increase happiness for yourself and others.