When I first started really turning my financial life around, I was of the genuine belief that doing so was going to bring about incredible positive change in my life. I envisioned this glowing future where all of the things I was worried about in life had melted away.
We were going to live in a beautiful house. I was going to have a low-stress job. My marriage was going to be great. My children were going to be great. Everything was just going to be great in this future where I no longer had financial worry hanging over my head.
One of the realities I figured out over the ensuing five years or so is that even though I was making incredible strides when it came to improving my financial state, it really wasn’t making me happier.
Don’t get me wrong – I felt far better about our financial state, and we were undoubtedly in a more stable financial situation with a lot less financial stress hanging over our lives.
But was I happier? Was everything just like that beautiful picture that I envisioned?
Sadly, no, it wasn’t.
Things were better, unquestionably. I didn’t have that financial worry hanging over my head. I had a really flexible job that provided me with wonderful opportunities. I had a great marriage and three wonderful young children at home.
Yet, I still wasn’t really happy. I still didn’t have that “Instagram life” that I wanted so badly.
I had all of the pieces that I thought I could ever want, but I wasn’t happy.
So, I made another series of changes. I sold The Simple Dollar, for one. I dove into some other passions for a while. I tried seeking out new social circles.
The end result of those changes? No change.
I still never had this happiness that I thought personal finance success would bring me. I never found the endless joy that I thought all of this would bring into my life.
What was missing?
If my underlying goal in seeking personal finance success was to achieve personal happiness, was all of that a failure? Was the elimination of debt and everything else just a waste of my time?
Over the last year or two, this has really been at the forefront of my thinking about finances. What have I really gained from paying off all of our debts and saving at a high rate? Am I really better off as a person because of it? Am I a happier person because of it?
Lately, I’ve finally figured out a few things that come close to answering those questions, something that I’ve been hinting at in a lot of posts recently.
First and foremost, personal finance success alone is not a key to personal happiness, but it is a very useful tool for nurturing it. Do I feel happier because I made a ton of personal finance improvements in my life? Not in any direct way. However, have the things that I gained from personal finance improvements put my life in a better place? Absolutely.
Let me spell out what I mean, as clearly as possible.
Finding Sustained Happiness… or Not
I don’t think that sustained happiness – a true day-in-and-day-out sense of existential joy – is something that many of us ever truly find in our lives. My heart simply does not flip over and over again all day long, bathed in a pool of constant joy, and I don’t believe a life situation exists where that can ever be the case.
For a long time, I tried to chase that sense of sustained joy. I believed that a lot of different things would help me find it – my personal finance changes being a big part of it, and things like having a “perfect” marriage or a “perfect” parenthood also were parts of it – but the truth is that sustained joy will never arrive.
It seems like a pretty big disappointment, doesn’t it? After most of an adult life seeking some elevated form of lasting happiness, I’ve come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t exist.
It’s important here to note what I’m actually saying, though.
I’m not saying that my personal finance journey was fruitless. Not in the least.
I’m not saying that life is devoid of joy. Not in the least.
I’m simply saying that I was too busy rushing through a journey with a mirage at the end and, because of that, I missed the real answer along the way.
The real answer is simple: The best life you can build is a fertile field upon which joy can bloom regularly, but it takes work to cultivate that field.
Let me repeat that: The best life you can build is a fertile field upon which joy can bloom regularly, but it takes work to cultivate that field.
Make Your Garden Grow
I’ve come to really think of life as being a lot more like a garden, much like our humble vegetable garden out behind our house. The most joyful moments in the garden are when you stroll out there and find some fresh produce, which turns out to be a delicious result of quite a bit of work.
To enjoy that fresh tomato, one had to turn over the soil. One had to fertilize the soil as well, with compost made over a period of time. One had to start a tomato plant in the house under a grow light, then plant the little plant out in the garden on a warm spring day. You have to weed around it and then, eventually, cover the ground near it with straw and newspaper. You might have to put up a fence around it to keep animals out, and you might have to spray a little bit of soapy water on the leaves to keep certain pests and diseases at bay.
Eventually, though, that work pays off. You find yourself with a bunch of tomato plants, producing a bounty of delicious tomatoes.
Life is like that, in a lot of ways. Most of life is about cultivating a situation so that true joy can spontaneously arise with some frequency from your efforts.
For example, you might cultivate strong personal finances so that you’re not burdened by money stresses and so that, when an opportunity comes around, you can jump on board that opportunity.
You might cultivate a lot of great relationships by giving freely of yourself, so that you always have friends around and so that when you need a helping hand, at least a few hands will be extended your way.
You might cultivate personal health through diet and exercise, so that your body remains strong and you’re able to enjoy a much wider range of activities for a much longer period of your life.
The important thing to note here is that none of these paths lead to a life of sustained happiness and joy on their own. Instead, they lead to a life where there are more opportunities for moments of true joy.
The journey of a lifetime isn’t a direct path to happiness, because life doesn’t provide that. Instead, life’s path, if given proper cultivation, leads to a place where happiness naturally grows and bubbles up frequently.
This is a huge realization that I missed out on for many years. I kept looking for some kind of ideal life, when what I actually had is a life that was slowly producing more and more joy bubbling up naturally from the work I had put in. I was looking for some kind of perfection, and that was causing me to miss out on countless good things.
Here’s another great realization: There is a lot of inner joy that comes from the process of cultivating, if you look for it. If you look around during the actual journey, you’ll find a great deal of joy along the way. It’s not that different than the feeling of peace that many people get when weeding their garden. You don’t need to directly have that sweet fruit in your hand to know that you’re bringing your garden to a better place, and the process itself is kind of meditative and calming.
All of this thinking has led me toward a few big conclusions about the road to happiness and the role that personal finances play on it.
Building the Road to Happiness, One Brick at a Time
As I said earlier, I don’t think there is a state of perfect, unbridled happiness in life. Instead, we find happiness in individual moments which come about as the result of the effort we’ve put in to build a good life, and finding contentment in that process makes life quite good.
How do you do that, though? What’s the recipe for the road to happiness if that’s true?
I don’t know if the “bricks” in the road are the same for everyone, but I can certainly comment on many of the elements in my own life that are a part of building that fertile ground for happiness and help me to find contentment during the journey.
Choose to spend less than you earn and do wise things with the remainder. I want to start off by mentioning personal finance here. It is a key element for many reasons – it provides foundational resources, it melts away stress – but I’m going to come back to it in detail later on in this article, I promise.
Actively choose to be positive about things and actively choose to look at the glass half full. Most things that happen in life have good things about them and bad things about them. Rather than dwelling on the negatives, deal with them only enough to handle the damage caused and to ensure they don’t happen again. Focus instead on the positives – look at the good things brought into your life.
I make a conscious effort to separate wants from needs and intentionally downplay the wants in both thought and practice. Rather than having a life that’s steered by trying to acquire things that I don’t have, I try to focus instead on using the bounty of things that I do have. If I find myself wanting something new, I reflect instead on the access I have to many, many other things to enjoy, and I ask myself whether I really want that thing and why I want it. I also delay wants by adding those desires to a “wish list.” Those tactics tend to melt away most wants, which in the end mostly just create negative feelings.
Try to nudge your work toward things you care about, so that your work is as meaningful as you can make it. My entire decision-making process regarding The Simple Dollar was to nudge it along a path where I could focus on the things I really do care about – writing articles that were full of meaningful content to help people with personal finance and life decisions and perhaps lead them to reflect on their own lives with a positive outcome – and away from things that I do not, like managing ads and keeping servers running. This can be done in almost any career path by intentionally choosing jobs and projects that are interesting and meaningful to you compared to the other options, while trying to avoid both idleness and overwork. Evaluate things through that lens as often as possible.
Try to cultivate lots of relationships, understanding that not all of them will become deep social connections. Having an abundance of relationships in your life means that you’ll have a constant stream of relationships that are in bloom, relationships that offer up social engagements and opportunities and help when you need it. Relish the fact that you can give those things to your friends as well.
Actively work on maintaining those relationships. Building a lot of relationships is fine. Maintaining them is a different story. It is very easy to allow relationships to wither on the vine, not because of any sort of malice, but because more urgent things pop up in your life. Yet, time and time again, I find that it’s the relationships that I put effort into maintaining that end up bearing wonderful fruit in the long run.
Try to look at most situations through the eyes of other people who are involved in it. Rather than focus on how someone may or may not have slighted me, I try to consider the situation through their eyes. Honestly, most of the time, it quickly becomes obvious that they did not even notice any sort of perceived slight. It’s easy to forget that human beings have a spotlight of focus in their lives and, quite often, you’re not in that spotlight. They aren’t slighting you – you just don’t even enter into their conscious thought. Applying that kind of “put yourself in their shoes” thinking as often as possible is very valuable.
I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down five things I’m grateful for that I noticed or that happened to me that day. Some days, I’ll write even more. Why do this? It’s a day-in day-out reminder of how many good things my life already has for me. It really breeds appreciation of the goodness of my daily life.
Make a consistent effort to show gratitude toward others. This can take the form of simply saying thanks for the things that people do for you during the day, but it can also take the form of writing thank you notes for bigger favors and just for being a good influence in your life. It can also extend back to doing those things for people in your past who mentored and helped you.
Choose positive things to say in conversation, almost all of the time. Rather than dwelling on negative thoughts and perspectives about things, look for positive things to say. Jump in when the conversation is a positive one, or avoid saying much (or find an easy way to redirect) if the conversation has a negative tone.
Carve out time for the things that interest me. In my case, I literally block out times for my hobbies and passions and interests. On my daily and weekly schedules, I devote a little time each day to hobbies and a significant chunk of at least one day a week to them.
Try to take care of your body. A healthy body you can rely on is invaluable. Be more thoughtful about what you put into your body, and spend some time and energy exercising as well, in whatever way works best for you.
Try to take care of your mind, too. You can achieve this by getting adequate sleep. Another invaluable technique is to practice focused meditation, which is like doing bicep curls for your mind. Just simply focus on your breath for a couple of minutes – breathe in, breathe out – and bring your mind back to your breath when you notice it wandering. Do this a few times each day. It really is like bicep curls for your mind.
Try to find positives in each of those things, even when it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s hard to find positives when you’re doing something that isn’t really fun or when the outcome isn’t what you hoped for. It’s very easy to get lost in a sea of negative feelings. Don’t let that happen. Look for the positives in your most difficult outcomes. You might be sore, but that’s your body getting stronger. A friend might not be communicative, but you have a lot of other friends and that might just be that one friend’s style. Look for the positives, above all.
The Key Role of Personal Finance
The thing to remember in all of this is that personal finance might not be the absolute key to happiness, but it is a really powerful foundational layer. Having your finances in order is like putting an extremely rich batch of compost into your garden of life.
Having strong finances dissolves stress, which helps your mind and body. A lot of modern stress revolves around money concerns. How will you pay your bills? How will you afford this or that? If you take a better approach with your money by trimming down the unnecessary and asking yourself what you really want or need and putting money away for the future, that stress melts away. Low stress encourages positive health outcomes (both mental and physical), helps build relationships, makes it easier to rest, and makes it much easier to focus and to see the positives in life.
Having strong finances creates opportunities. It enables you to take on challenging career moves (like, say, walking away from a career in research to be able to write from home so you can spend more time with your family and write things that feel meaningful… not that I know anything about that). It enables you to actually reach out and touch big dreams, like taking your family on a truly amazing vacation. It enables you to take advantage of things that pop up, like buying a $10,000 collection from someone selling them at a fire sale price of $2,000 because they need cash.
Having strong finances creates a positive “snowball effect” of financial health. When your finances are strong, you can do things like buying a car with cash so that you don’t have to pay interest on the loan. You can pay off your credit card in full each month because you’re spending less than you earn, so you’re never accruing interest on there. It becomes easier and easier to save for the future because you’re not losing money to interest, to late fees, and so on.
In other words, being strong in the personal finance department doesn’t create happiness itself, but it is a huge part of a strong foundation upon which happiness can grow. You just can’t expect to be happy simply because you have money in the bank.
The Road Forward
It takes a lot of time to do the things listed in this article. Quite often, you’ll find yourself investing a lot of time and energy into things that don’t seem to be bringing any immediate joy. I have two suggestions there.
First, think about both your progress to date and the positives of where you want to go. In the middle of getting in better shape, for example, consider where you started and how you look and feel now, then think about what things will be like if you stay on this path. Things are better now, and they’ll be even better then.
Second, seek out joy – or at least contentment – on the path itself. Find exercise that you enjoy. Find products that you enjoy. Find low calorie foods that you enjoy. Find joy even in the hard work, because it is a joyful thing to create things you can be proud of. Don’t worry so much about outcomes – think instead about the moment and what you can do that’s good right now that happens to also be good going forward.