It will make you happier.
I could just end with that, but some might feel cheated by a five word answer to what seems like a much more complex question. I guess the long answer is a bit more complicated but will give us a more complete view of the human mind. Let’s meander.
Deep down our ultimate goal is to be happy. This is a universal value among humans, and I would actually argue that this is really the only thing that matters in life. The rest are just details. The details may make it easier to be happy, but they are still just details. Why do we seek love, friendship, freedom, justice, health, success, etc? We seek these things to bring us happiness.
So what do I mean by happiness? I’m referring to deep down, long-term inner peace with life, not necessarily the burst of pleasure we get from winning the lottery or watching our team win the Superbowl. I’m talking about the day to day life satisfaction and sense of well-being. Pleasure and happiness are different, ask any drug addict.
Happiness is like love, hard to define but people know when they are experiencing it. It is the absence of anxiety, fear, anger, shame, sadness and boredom. It is found by living in the present moment.
Although I’m not sure how one would measure these things, research has estimated that 50% of our “happiness level” comes from our genetics – some of us are prewired to be anxious and miserable and others seem disturbingly happy no matter their surroundings. We can’t change our genetics (yet) so let’s ignore that for now. * Only about 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances (which may or may not be in our control), although we tend to overestimate how much this influences our happiness. This is why when we get the things we want (high paying job, new car, supermodel spouse, etc.) oftentimes we are not much happier than we were before, or initially we feel a burst of happiness but over time settle back to our baseline level. This is why people living through seemingly horrible experiences like prison camps, paraplegia or sessions of congress can still be insanely happy, and people who seemingly “have it all” can be consumed by misery. Another curious thing is that we overestimate how miserable or happy we would be in similar situations.
This leaves 40% which is a result of our behavior. If this is true it is fantastic news. We have control over nearly all of our behavior and much of our circumstance. We have control over nearly half our happiness. This is the financial equivalent of being able to decide if we want to make 50k or 100k a year. Now I’m sure some will question the validity of the research or have a problem with the percentages. Maybe you feel this may work for some but your situation is unique. Fine, believe anything you want, but if you don’t believe that you can change your happiness through your behavior then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that you can never be happy at your job or be happy because of a medical condition – you won’t. Belief is the first step. Just like enjoying a good piece of fiction, sometimes it helps to suspend disbelief and take that leap.
I’m going to deviate from this model slightly and lump circumstance and behavior together because they are intimately related. Changing one usually will influence the other. You will see how these are related in a while. Ponder the following model.Three items which I believe are critical ingredients to happiness in most people.
- Health (mental more so than physical)
- Connection/meaningful relationships
I dare you to find an unhappy person who has health, purpose and plenty of meaningful relationships. You may find someone who seems to have these things and is unhappy the same way you will find people that seem to be wealthy because they spend a lot of money and have a lot of things (oftentimes things are liabilities rather than assets and have nothing to do with wealth; more on this in an upcoming article).
Great, thanks for the psychology lesson but what does any of this have to do with finding your freedom? What does that even mean?
Good question. There is no one true path to happiness. Everyone will get there a little differently because we are all unique, but there is a common theme that sure makes things easier and this is freedom. This is the missing link in this ring of cause and effect and really is the one thing you have the most control over. We could perseverate all day over which came first but happy people are free and generally in control of their lives. Happy people are more successful in their personal and professional lives. They are more social, altruistic, have healthier immune systems, are more resistant to pain and have an improved ability to resolve conflicts. Happy people are centers of positive emotional gravity that attract other happy, positive things in the world. Happy people are free.
I know what you are thinking “Wow. That all sounds great but I can’t just wake up one day and be free. I have all these responsibilities; a job, car payment, family, student loan payments. It will take me years to buy my freedom. This is one of those articles that makes me feel great initially and then depresses me 5 minutes later because it’s not actionable. Screw you Happy Philosopher!”
Wrong! And here is the punch line. You can become free right now. Freedom is a state of mind, and once you have decided to become free you have done most of the hard work. Financial freedom is the icing on the cake, something to measure and keep us going towards a goal. One of my favorite quotes from a book which should be required reading for every human being:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Buy your freedom first. It will make you happier. But simultaneously know that you can already be free.
The rest are just details of execution and making good decisions. They are the things written in thousands of blogs everywhere; 20 tips to cut gardening expenses, 14 steps to saving on pedicure insurance, etc. They are just details. Worry about them later because they are meaningless unless you have made the commitment to change and to seek your freedom. Once you are on the path to freedom you will become healthier, more successful, and more purposeful and connected. Once you change your behavior to maximize your freedom you will have more power to change your circumstances and happiness will have no choice but to follow.
We will spend a lot of time discussing personal finance on this blog, which may seem a little strange at first, but there is a reason for this. Freedom makes happiness easier, and most people I meet who consider themselves unfree are most concerned about the financial side of freedom. There are two general ways around this: first is to become more financially free, and the second is to realize we have much more freedom than we think we do. In my experience, moving along the scale of varying degrees of financial freedom is a gateway drug to true freedom. That is our ultimate goal here.
*It is actually a more nuanced discussion. We may not be able to change our genetic code, but we have tremendous power over which genes are expressed based on our physical and mental surroundings. This is an area where we have so much to learn and have just scraped the surface of possibility. Think of your genes as a library. You have no control over which books are inside, but to some extent you can choose which ones to read. So in fact we likely have much more influence on our happiness that we think.