Finding Happiness for Free

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast episode – I’m truly sorry, I don’t know which episode or even which podcast it was, as it was one of many I was sampling that day and I’m having difficulty tracking it down – where the podcast guest made a suggestion that stuck in the back of my mind.

She suggested starting a simple list or spreadsheet on your phone or your pocket notebook and every half hour or hour or so make a very brief note about what you were doing and how happy you feel at the moment. Do this for a week or two, then look at the results and actively choose to fill your life with the things that make you happiest.

That day, I was feeling pretty down in the dumps. I’d been going through a period of writer’s block and had spent most of my April spending allowance already on foolish things (note: this was in early April, and I budget a certain amount of money each month for me to spend freely). I felt pretty behind on my writing responsibilities to boot. I just wasn’t feeling very good about things.

So, I took her advice. I started a fresh page on my pocket notebook and started taking little notes, something of an ongoing diary of my day. I jotted down little entries like this:

7:45 AM – got kids off to school – happy but apprehensive


11:30 AM – wrote 1,000 words in about an hour – kinda happy


2:00 PM – processed emails – tired & a bit sad


4:00 PM – went geocaching with two oldest kids, found two new – very happy


7:00 PM – played Agricola with Jim and Ian, walked to taco stand – happy

You get the idea. These are actual entries that I jotted down, though they’re not all from the same day. Some are from the weekend – like the geocaching trip – and others are clearly peeled from work days.

After about two weeks of writing down entries like this, I took them all down and sorted them out. I made a list of all the things I was doing when I was happy and another list of all of the things I was doing when I was feeling some kind of negative emotion.

Then I started looking for patterns.

I found that three things really triggered happiness in me more than anything else. First, anything that required me to think a lot or required me to make something raised my happiness. Working through a problem brings me joy. Second, being physically active or simply being outside raised my happiness. I was consistently at my least happy at the end of a sedentary period. Third, being around other people raised my happiness.

I figured out those things due to a few patterns. I was almost always quite happy when I’d spent the last hour doing two of those three things – going on a walk while listening to a thought-provoking podcast/audiobook, or playing a strategic board game with friends, or even spending an hour kicked back in a hammock outside reading a book.

I was at my absolute peak of happiness when I managed to complete the trifecta — when I was geocaching with my children one day: I was thinking at least somewhat intensely, I was being physically active, and I was spending time with people that I enjoy.

On the flip side, I was almost always at my lowest when doing none of those three things – when I dealt with emails, for example, or when I’m supposedly “spending time” with people and it takes the form of watching a boring television show.

This whole thing really is pretty easy to do. A dozen or so times a day – every half hour or hour – make a note of what you’re doing and whether you’re happy or content. Keep it up for a week or two, then look for patterns. Make a list of all of the “happy” moments and all of the “sad” moments. Did they have anything in common?

So, what was my next step? Once I figured out the three ingredients to the things that brought me the most happiness, I tried to do them as often as possible without spending money.

I spent a lot of time outside, at every opportunity. I took my laptop outside and tried to work out there on cloudy days. I went on a lot of walks and listened to podcasts while walking. I prepared as many meals outside as I could, too.

When my children got home after school, I came up with things to do with them, usually outside if possible. We went geocaching and played Ingress and played backyard soccer.

I made a conscious effort to go to as many community board game nights in the area as I could, meeting up with some old friends and playing some strategic games with them.

I started reading a couple of really challenging books, and I made an effort to read them outside whenever possible.

I made some things, including some food recipes from scratch (I finally made a decent cinnamon roll out of nothing but sugar, flour, butter, cinnamon, and yeast) and a strange homebrew beer recipe (a sahti, which is basically a juniper berry beer).

Some extended family came to visit, and I tried not to over-stress about the preparations and just enjoy their presence and do some enjoyable things with them, including touring Rieman Gardens in Ames with them (enabling me to be outdoors).

I did some volunteer work, too, that involved encouraging some kids to work in the garden and also to play some outdoor games.

The end result was a lot of personal happiness. I feel much more together than I have in a long time – and I haven’t exactly been down in the dumps. I just feel good about things – not stressed, emotionally content, and so on.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t really write a post about this, but there was an interesting additional effect. After those past two weeks, I genuinely feel like I have too much stuff. I want to get rid of a lot of things and I have no desire to buy anything other than items to meet basic needs and maybe a few supplies for making things.

I feel like having a gigantic yard sale, where I sell off a bunch of my stuff. I want to go through the closets and go through the garage and just downsize, so that there’s less stuff to own and maintain and worry about.

I guess this brings me to another conclusion: Being happy makes me want to own less stuff, while being unhappy makes me want to own more stuff.

Now, that’s a personal observation more than anything else, but I can definitely see that pattern echoing throughout the history of my life. During times in which I was happier, I spent less money and accumulated less stuff, like during my college years and during most of my children’s childhoods. During times in which I was sadder, I spent more money, like my very pressure-heavy early professional years.

Here’s a completely unsubstantiated sidebar: Part of me can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a bigger pattern in society.

Do people buy more on the whole when they’re feeling unhappy? If so, wouldn’t it make sense for large companies to encourage a bit of unhappiness in people in order to get them to buy more? And wouldn’t it be a really good general solution to personal finance problems to seek out things that make us happy that don’t involve spending money?

I know that, within me, I can feel those kinds of things at work.

So, here’s my prescription for you. Spend some time figuring out what actually makes you happy, not what you think makes you happy. Do this by keeping track of what you do for a while and noting whether you feel happy or not, then use that to figure out what things make you feel happy without spending money.

Fill your spare time with those free and joyful things. Bring up your sense of personal joy. Try new things that are in line with those things that bring you actual personal joy. Just do it without spending money.

Then, see where it all leads. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find a far smaller desire to spend money and perhaps even a desire to minimize your possessions.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.