If you’ve been reading here, it will come as no surprise that we care a lot more about happiness than we do about money. Money is definitely an important tool that enables happiness by letting us work less, theoretically — theoretically because we’re still in the working more phase of things, and working less is, as they say, still but a twinkle in our eye. But we trust we’ll get there.
In the meantime, because it wouldn’t be especially helpful just to spend all our time checking our account balances (certainly not after last week’s Brexit vote), we’ve been spending a lot of the lead-up to our early retirement reflecting on happiness — what it means to us, and what it will take to achieve it in a lasting way.
Finding Lasting Happiness
If there’s something we know — more than all the financial wisdom we could share, or investing advice we could post (truly there’s not that much: live below your means, invest the rest in low-fee index funds) — it’s that happiness doesn’t happen by accident. Or, at least, lasting happiness doesn’t happen by accident.
Happiness is something we choose, and something we create for ourselves by our attitudes and how we interact with the world. And, like so many things, it’s something we can practice and get better at. It’s not a destination — something we magically achieve when we reach financial independence. That we also know because we technically hit FI and didn’t become happier overnight. Instead, it’s a journey.
And instead of viewing that journey in two parts — first, we’ll save up to retire early, and then, we’ll find happiness — we’ve been seeing it more and more as all one thing, a process that’s happening in our financial accounts and within us on parallel tracks.
For us, happiness right now means not waiting to become our best selves.
It’s why we decided last year to stop complaining about work, because we don’t want to be complainers, it’s why we moved to the mountains to make it easier to get outdoors, and it’s why we’ve been trying to treat free days and weekends as an early retirement dress rehearsal instead of a chore fest. But there’s even more that we’re doing — some things more successfully than others — to be our best, happiest selves now.
A lot of what we’re currently working to improve in ourselves sprung out of the first quarter of this year. We had a pretty kick-ass 2015 financially, we exceeded our goals for the year and got ahead of schedule, and yet we were borderline miserable in the first quarter because work was so busy and we were traveling so much. We didn’t get to ski much this winter, we weren’t being active enough in general, we weren’t spending much time with our friends, and we were basically collapsing into the weekends. Seriously, if you found us anywhere else but asleep on the couch at 9 p.m. on a Friday, you’d have our permission to be shocked.
It was a wake-up call. We’d made some good improvements in recent years, like the choice not to kvetch about work, but we realized that we needed to make some very conscious decisions about how to be happier if we weren’t going to burn ourselves out en route to early retirement.
Embodying Our Happiest Selves
I so often think back to Maggie‘s line that “retired you is still you” that I couldn’t even tell you anymore what post she wrote that in. But it clearly struck a chord for me. It’s a reminder that I need, especially in my stressed or angry moments, that there’s not working me who is one person, and retired me who will be a different person. If there’s something I’m doing now that I don’t like or which doesn’t bring me happiness, that’s not going to change automatically at retirement just because work is gone. I know I use the word “magically” a lot, but there’s truly no magic: if I don’t choose to change those bad habits and reactions, then retired me will be essentially the same as working me, just minus the work.
In that spirit, we’ve both been working hard to curtail our bad habits and replace them with good ones. It’s definitely a work in progress and probably always will be, but it feels good to take ownership of our own happiness in the present, and not view it as some far-off finish line that we hope to reach at some future date.
The Attributes of Our Happiness
Does this happen to anyone else? You see someone in public do something, maybe it’s something like sigh exasperatedly when they see someone else do something inconsiderate, and you think to yourself, “I never want to be the type of person who does that!” And then not long after you find yourself doing exactly that thing. No? Just me? Okay, well that definitely happens to me.
I could let it bug me, but I try hard to use those realizations as teachable moments when I resolve to do better. Even recognizing our own bad habits, or the things we do that defeat our own happiness, can be really tough. So any moments of awareness like that are a gift, as uncomfortable as they might be, and I try to be grateful for the insights. (“Try” is the operative word — it’s never easy to see ourselves in an unflattering light!)
One thing that we’ve both been doing is thinking not about the negative qualities we don’t want to embody, but instead thinking about the positive ones we do. By making a mental list of them, it’s easier in the moment, especially in the crappy moments, to come back to that well of positivity and respond the way our best selves would.
Here are the attributes we’re working to embody:
Ready with a laugh — We are both people who laugh easily in general, and it’s one of the things we each love most about the other. At this point, more than a decade into our relationship, we have developed such an intricate system of inside jokes that we are basically just laughing at all times when we’re not in stressed out mode. But stressed out mode is hard to fend off sometimes. We’ve been working to stay ready with a laugh more of the time, and I’ll give you my best example. Sometime last year, I decided that I wasn’t going to let work travel stress me out anymore. Worst case, if I missed a flight, I’d get stuck overnight somewhere, and even that rarely happens. Most of the time, some snafu results in nothing more dramatic than a worse seat on the next flight. No big deal in the scheme of things. But I decided to go a step farther, and treat all travel as one big comedy of errors, and to laugh off things like delays for mechanical issues (which, by the way, I’m in favor of — please don’t fly me on a broken plane. I’ll wait while you fix it). I know that travel is stressful for most people, and so I try to spread the love, helping people see the humor in the situation and pulling up info from my app, like that the flight they are connecting to is delayed, too, so they won’t miss it. And for the little, mundane stuff, like getting whacked by someone’s suitcase when they pass down the aisle, I could do that big exasperated sigh, or I could laugh about it. Choosing laughter has made things so much better.
Active — Being active in the mountains is pretty much our reason for being, or at least a major component of our life’s purpose. But this past winter’s wake-up call was a moment of realizing, “We’re not currently active people. We’re people who talk about being active.” And that realization sucked. But we’re glad we had it, because it’s gotten us off our butts. Now the unwritten rule is, if we think, “Oh, I could go for a bike ride right now,” or “It’s great weather for a hike,” then we have to go do those things, even if we only do them for 10 minutes. And so far this spring and summer, we’ve been crushing it. I’m averaging six miles a day of hiking over the last two months (!!), though I’ve also basically stopped reading books and have not had a lot of time to see friends. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to make these trade-offs but, you know, no magic.
Patient — Patience is a virtue I definitely don’t possess in excess, though Mr. ONL is better on this front. I am bad at playing the waiting game to early retirement (Are we there yet???), I’m bad at waiting for people at work to do things right, and customer service… let’s just not even go there. But I’m trying to get better at this because I know my impatience doesn’t bring me happiness. In those moments when I can channel my inner Maya Angelou and be the gracious person that I aspire to be, I come away feeling much better. So, this one is definitely a work in progress, but thinking forward to early retirement helps a lot. Instead of getting frustrated when a junior staffer at work isn’t getting something, I try to remind myself, “This is a great mentoring opportunity that I’ll miss once we’re retired.” It helps.
Not stressed about money — This one is seriously Earth-shattering for me. Since the Brexit vote, I haven’t looked at our account balances at all. Not one peep. What’s crazier is I haven’t even been that tempted. It’s just been a moment of “Yep, I know we lost a whole bunch of money on paper, but it’s meaningless. Markets go up and down.” (How I feel about the actual Brexit vote is another story, and I am deeply sad about it, but we’re just talking money right now.) Even six months ago, I would not have thought it possible that I could get to this level of comfort with market fluctuations, being as naturally risk-averse as I am, but practice really helps. So if you are in still in that place where you can’t go long without looking at your account balances, just keep reminding yourself that numbers on any given day are fairly meaningless, and trust that it gets easier. It does.
Not stressed in general — This one is the biggest attribute Mr. ONL has been focusing on, and the results are definitely noticeable. He has always felt the pressure to be the “provider,” even though we both work and earn good livings (full disclosure: he has always earned significantly more than I have), and we could definitely get by just fine on my income alone. But he has long tended to internalize work stress and to get into his head a lot when work is busy, and this year he’s making the conscious choice not to bottle that stuff up, or even to let it get to him in the first place. I honestly didn’t think it was possible, just because I believe strongly that partners shouldn’t try to change each other, and that seemed like a quality that was intrinsic to him. But, turns out, it’s not, and his conscious choice to be a more chill guy even in the face of other stressed out people is something I deeply admire. Now just gotta keep that up for the home stretch…
Grateful — Embracing gratitude is not new for us, but it would never be a complete happiness list without talking about being grateful. We totally buy into the adage that it’s not happy people who are grateful, it’s grateful people who are happy. And we can always find new things to be grateful for. Even simple things like being grateful for the cool river on a hot day this past weekend, or small personal kindnesses. Of course I’d rather if today was another weekend day, but I’m determined to be grateful that I get to do meaningful work for a good salary — and that gratitude will make the day better.
The Attributes of Your Happiness
So many questions we’d love to hear from you guys on! Do you ever find yourself falling into that trap of thinking, “This will be better/easier or I’ll be happier after I reach FIRE?” Have you made any strides toward embodying the qualities that equal happiness for you? What qualities do you wish you could embody more, and how can you take some little step today to be embody them? Let’s discuss in the comments!