Do What Makes You Happy? Or Do What Makes You Better?

A few days ago, I saw this tweet from Jocko Willink, an author and former Navy SEAL who has written a few books I’ve enjoyed. The tweet is actually just a short video where he’s monologuing at the camera, and so I’ll simply transcribe that monologue for you:

So, a lot of people will say that you need to do what makes you happy. Do what makes you happy. And, look, I get it, from a long-term life perspective, yeah, fine, find a job or find a vocation that you enjoy, something that makes you happy over the long term. I get it. But that is not the plan to follow for your daily life. At all. Because if you do what makes you happy right now, well, a piece of cake will make you happy right now. Or, laying in bed for an extra forty eight minutes will make you happy right now. So, there’s lots of things that will make you happy right now, but in the long run, they don’t do anything for you. They make you soft. They make you weak. And in the long run, they will not make you happy in life. So, sure, find a job that’s going to make you happy in the long term. But for today? Don’t do what makes you happy. Do what challenges you. Do what pushes you. Do what makes you better.

I strongly agree with the core idea here.

If you want a better life, the key to that life is to do things today that makes you better in the areas in which you want that better life.

What about happiness, though? Here’s the thing: happiness is the flower that grows from a well-cultivated garden of life. It’s just like a garden, in fact. If you spend the spring turning over the soil, raking it, and planting the seeds, and you spend many days watering the seeds and pulling the weeds and adding some fertilizer, in the late summer you’ll have an amazing harvest. The effort you put into the cultivation of your life results in happiness blooming up naturally.

Let’s dig into this idea a little bit.

The Two Roads to Happiness

My belief is that happiness is not a constant state. Rather, it’s always going to be something fleeting, something counterbalanced by ordinary life and by moments of sadness as well. If you attempt to stuff your life with things that make you happy, all that will happen is that many of the things that used to make you happy become ordinary and dull, and can even sometimes result in unhappiness (like buying books over and over until you have so many that they’re unmanageable and you have a big pile of credit card debt).

In my experience, there are two paths to finding those moments of happiness in life.

One of them is what I call short term happiness. It’s when you do something right now that brings you pleasure, like eating a piece of cake or sleeping in an extra hour (in Jocko’s example) or buying something you don’t need on impulse or getting a sweet coffee or playing a silly game on your phone. Those things feel pretty good in the moment. They’ll lift your mood for a little bit. The thing is, these kinds of momentary joys fade really quickly. They’re gone within minutes, and you’re right back to where you started, and often it’s a worse situation because you just gobbled up some time and money and energy on that pleasure.

The other is what I call cultivated happiness. Just like the first kind of happiness, it’s relatively brief and doesn’t last for a particularly long time, but it comes around naturally in your life without you having to expend extra energy or time or money on it. Getting into a “flow state” where you’re doing something that deeply engages you is one kind of cultivated happiness. Feeling really healthy is another kind. Feeling a strong social connection or relationship is another kind.

You can’t really buy that second kind of happiness. Rather, it has to come out of a life where you’ve committed to being better. You’ve committed to challenges and overcome them. You’ve invested time and energy without having that immediate burst of pleasure. Instead, what you have are sources in your life that naturally produce happiness. You have your skills, which can help you achieve a flow state. You have a body of knowledge and understanding that can aid in appreciation of things and can help you in deep conversations. You have your health. You have great relationships. You have a deep appreciation for simpler things. You have a calm inner life. You have things you’ve made over the years.

All of those things have to be built over time. They can’t just be purchased. They can’t be created instantaneously. They require a lot of effort. However, when you have those sources of happiness, they bubble up naturally throughout the course of your day.

That first kind of happiness is like buying a flower at the florist shop. It’s beautiful, but it wilts quickly. The second kind of happiness is like seeing a blooming flower in your garden. You cultivated the ground, but it kind of happens on its own and will last a little longer, and most of the time it blooms and blooms and blooms again, over and over.

The point is simple: the second kind of happiness is much better than the first, but it requires you to spend much of your days in cultivation, not in chasing momentary pleasures.

The Big Picture

In the long term scale of your life, what you want are pieces of your life that are cultivated such that they naturally produce happiness on their own. The list of things won’t be the same for everyone, but here are some things that people commonly cultivate that bring about regular happiness:
+ Financial stability
+ A meaningful career that challenges you without overworking you and compensates you reasonably well
+ Good relationships
+ Skills you draw upon regularly to solve interesting problems
+ Good health
+ Good fitness
+ A wide body of knowledge and practical skills
+ A spiritual understanding and philosophy of life
+ An abundance mindset
+ The ability to separate internal feelings from external action

Each and every one of those big, long term goals is a regular source of happiness in one’s life.
+ Financial stability means feeling good about your future; it also means little financial stress.
+ A meaningful, challenging career with adequate compensation lets you regularly enter flow state without excessive stress.
+ Good relationships bring a deep happiness every time you connect.
+ A wide variety of skills and knowledge enables you to frequently feel useful and valuable and also helps you understand what’s happening around you.
+ Good health means you feel energetic and healthy most of the time.
+ Good fitness means you feel energetic most of the time and able to handle some exertion with ease.
+ A spiritual understanding and philosophy of life helps you deal with life’s setbacks and challenges and gives everything a sense of purpose.
+ An abundance mindset leads you feeling content with what you have and quells the constant unhappy desire for “more.”
+ The ability to separate internal feelings from external action means you’re less likely to undo the things you’ve built out of an emotional response.

In other words, achieving (or at least making good progress on) big goals brings you to a state where that achievement brings you regular blips of happiness in your life. It’s a part of the garden of life that you’ve cultivated well, and thus it flowers often.

All of those big, long term goals are readily achieved by daily action. If you want to achieve these things, there are some of things you need to do daily (or very close to it):
+ Spend less than you earn
+ Work hard and work smart at your job
+ Invest time and energy into meaningful relationships
+ Take on challenging tasks and interesting problems
+ Eat a healthy diet
+ Get some exercise
+ Read deeply from challenging books and well-researched articles
+ Reflect on the good things in your life
+ Practice spiritual reflection, like journaling or meditation or prayer
+ Do all of these things with intention, focus, seriousness, and hard work

If you do those daily actions, then those long term goals will happen naturally.

However, those daily things are hard – or at least harder than being idle or chasing pleasure. It feels better right now to buy some fun thing you want than it does to make dinner at home and caulk a window. It feels better right now to eat a piece of cake than to eat kale. It feels better right now to take a nap than to exercise for an hour. It feels better right now to play a smartphone game than to study something new. It feels better right now to browse social media than to bring dinner to and listen carefully to a friend who is in trouble.

Yet, the harder choice is almost always the one that cultivates your garden of life a little and makes it more fertile for happiness to grow up on its own. You get more value out of the long term from planting a flower bulb than from buying a flower at the florist.

The Momentary Pleasures in Getting Better

Quite often, when presented with this, people will immediately start lamenting the perceived lack of pleasures in daily life. “This sounds miserable!” “Why would I want a life that’s day-in-day-out work and misery?”

Well, aside from the fact that it builds to a life with a ton of happiness and joy and pleasure in it, there’s a tremendous amount of happiness and joy and pleasure in simply executing well each day. I find lots of joy and happiness in my daily routines if I do them well. Here are a bunch of examples.

I feel great when I leave the grocery store with a lot of groceries and a small bill. I’m feeding my family. I didn’t waste money on a bunch of unneeded stuff and instead I’m keeping it for bigger and more important things. I nailed that grocery store stop, and it feels good.

I feel great at the end of a hard workout. I worked my body hard. A lot of sweat. A lot of panting. A lot of exertion. I’m tired. But those endorphins are rushing, and I can look back at what I accomplished with pride.

I feel great when I’ve really connected with someone or spent quality time with them. The experience itself is a wonderful thing. I feel a deep human connection that I don’t always feel, and that feels good in my core.

I feel great when I’ve learned something useful and meaningful that I didn’t understand or know before. My understanding of the world has improved. I’ve also probably spent some time in a “flow state,” which always feels good.

I feel great when I’ve lost track of time doing a challenging task. That’s flow state, and I find that I almost always feel great when I snap out of this. It’s not just because of what I’ve learned or accomplished, but because the simple act of being so engaged that you lose track of time feels great.

I feel great when I’ve written a really good article. I’ve nailed what I wanted to say. I feel like it’s going to help people. It draws upon what I’ve learned and my own life experiences. It’s a good thing going out there into the world.

I feel great after a day of getting a lot of things done. Whenever I go to bed after completing a bunch of things, I feel really good about myself. The other day, I had an amazingly productive day where I wrote a couple of articles, did a bunch of cleaning, rebuilt a computer, made several meals, helped my children with some things, read multiple chapters of a really challenging book that made me think, got some killer exercise, and had a really good conversation with my wife and another one with an old friend. It was a great day, and I felt really great going to bed at the end of it.

The Letdown

On the flip side of this is what I call “the letdown.”

Sometimes – not all the time, but often enough to be noteworthy – if you go for the quick burst of pleasure and happiness in life, there’s something of a “letdown” afterwards, something that much less rarely occurs with happiness that you’ve cultivated.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I impulsively decide to buy something expensive that I don’t really need, like an Apple Watch, for example. It’s fun to buy it, and I have a lot of fun playing with it for a while, but in the end, my life isn’t really changed by it. It’s a watch. A few weeks later, an emergency hits with a $500 bill and I’m not prepared for it, so I have to tap some funds I really don’t want to tap. It feels bad. It feels like negative financial progress. It’s a letdown.

Let’s say I’ve been eating really well for a while and I’m feeling good. For some reason – lack of forethought or bad impulse or whatever – I indulge in a big fast food meal. It’s quite tasty – fast food usually is. However, after I gobble it down, I sit there feeling kind of bloated. I don’t physically feel all that great. Furthermore, I eventually come to the realization that I’ve actually undone some of my healthy eating progress. I’ve walked back that feeling of “healthy” in my life a little. It’s a letdown.

Let’s say I’ve started to slack off on my daily routine of exercising. I skip my taekwondo class or I don’t do my usual exercising at home (stuff like planks and push-ups). I might enjoy whatever else I do instead, but a few days later, I genuinely feel a little sluggish, enough that I notice it. I just don’t feel as good, and I know I’m going to have to work hard to get back just to where I was. It’s a letdown.

In each of those cases, if I made the harder choice to make myself and my situation better, my life is better because of it. I don’t have to panic and stress out about that unexpected bill. I don’t feel bloated and unhealthy; rather, I keep feeling good. I don’t feel sluggish and out of shape; rather, I feel great.

This doesn’t mean you should deny yourself things that are enjoyable in the moment. That’s not the point. The point is that choosing to put in the work to make yourself better makes life better; choosing to undo that for momentary pleasure usually makes life worse over the longer run.

This doesn’t mean all “fun” should be avoided. However, there’s a genuine difference between true leisure and wasting time. There’s a genuine difference between spending a little money on something you’re sure you’ll enjoy and spending a lot of money with little forethought. There’s a genuine difference between enjoying a meal and completely overeating. There’s a genuine difference between spending quality time with people you care about and who care about you and burning time with people you don’t really like and who don’t really like you.

If you want to have fun right now, just do something simple that you like that isn’t going to cost you in the future, like drinking a tall glass of citrus water (water with a splash of lemon or lime juice in it) or stretching or meditating for ten minutes or reading a chapter of a powerful book. Then, get back to making yourself better.

Final Thoughts

A lot of people take this message the wrong way and assume that it’s all about consigning yourself to a life of daily work when they just want to “enjoy life.” In other words, they want to just go to the florist and get a cut flower that will wilt in a few days and call it good.

I’ve done that in my life, more times than I care to admit, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you’re far better off investing your days in cultivating your garden for an array of perennial flowers than going to the flower shop to buy a cut flower.

Spend the heart of your day doing what makes you better. Do that day in and day out, and life becomes better.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.