This guest post from Joann is part of the “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some reader stories contain general “how I did X” advice, and others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure.

I’ve been a Get Rich Slowly reader for about a year now, and I can honestly say I’ve picked up quite a bit of direction from you and your contributors. I wanted to share something with you that I feel like people keep missing. I’ve had some difficulties with a couple of people in my life, and I watched and analyzed a long time to try to figure out from where our problems stemmed. It was most definitely the “happiness” issue.

A little background
In 2008 I moved from the East Coast to Portland, Oregon. I’m single, no kids. I have two Master’s degrees and a shiny new BMW’s-worth of student loan debt. (I work in public service so I only have to pay 10 years on it and the remainder will be forgiven.) I have eight college years’ worth of credit-card debt (roughly a Kia), but it’ll get paid off.

My car is paid off and I live in a one-bedroom apartment outside of Portland. I don’t have a lot of extra money rolling around every month, but I certainly have everything I need and quite a bit of what I want.

I landed the exact job I wanted (with health insurance and a decent retirement system), and I get paid to drive around Oregon (in someone else’s car). I go to the coast and stand on the beach because I can. I play tennis because I wanted to learn how. I paint even though I have pretty much no artistic talent. I make sure to appreciate one thing about every single day. My life isn’t perfect, but I can honestly say that I am happy.

A different world
I’ve noticed two things since I’ve been here:

  • One, the people are very different from those on the East Coast. My family is very close — I’m in touch with my parents, grandparents, and at least a couple of aunts/uncles and cousins every week, and I’m always in touch with my brother. This isn’t unusual among my friends “back home.” To my friends here, this is a relatively foreign concept; once you become a teenager, it seems, you call family on holidays and special occasions, and that’s about it. I don’t know if that affects happiness, but being part of a family community, even from so many miles away, definitely stabilizes me and enables me to be happy.
  • The second thing I’ve noticed goes back to my friends and the problems we’ve had. The reality is, I’m happy so I really don’t care about much (if that makes sense). I don’t think I should be either out at bars or joining eHarmony because I’m approaching 30 and “should” be in a serious relationship, I don’t think it matters that I bought my coffee maker at Walmart and my coffee beans at Fred Meyer, I don’t care to wear name brand clothes, it doesn’t matter that I don’t live in Beaverton, I think (for me) that buying a house that I don’t want because of a tax rebate is stupid, and I don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

This last point has endlessly frustrated two of my friends (and me), and I think I’ve figured out why. It’s not necessarily that people are postponing happiness. It’s that they believe there’s a fixed approach to finding happiness. If they do A, B, and C in that order, as appropriate by age, gender, and profession, they will be happy because that’s how people get happy.

There’s no fixed path to happiness
One of my friends is a computer programmer; he approaches all problems with that engineer problem-solving approach. For lack of a better explanation, he can’t just roll with it, figuring out the things that make him happy along the way. For him, there has to be a systematic solution because certain inputs net certain outcomes.

The other friend I’ve had problems with is not an engineer, but she’s very based on this idea that taking the right steps in the right order — college, job, spouse, house — is what leads to happiness.

Along the way she decided, when I bought a couple of paintings by an artist that I am very much inspired by, that she too would be an “art collector” (of the same artist). I love to cook and try new recipes, or even just experiment with the stuff in my cupboards, so she became a new-recipe-experimenter (with her very expensive cookware). I wore a sundress, she wanted to be a “dress wearer.” (My favorite quote here is “They say imitation is the highest form of flattery… I just think it’s annoying” – Pink).

In the meantime, she nags at me that I should be doing eHarmony, I should be moving downtown to the Pearl, I should, I should, I should do all of these things that are not aiding in her happiness. It’s not unlike what my programmer friend says: I should buy different coffee because the internet says it’s better, I should live in a different apartment complex because it’s gated and more expensive — thus, better. And so on, endlessly.

To each her own
Very long story short, it’s not that my friends don’t want to be happy, or that they’re postponing being happy in favor of surviving. It’s that they don’t know how to be happy because it’s not something that can be taught and there’s no fixed set of steps to make it happen.

As a result they’re constantly “renewing” themselves and floundering trying to figure out why they feel something is missing. It has created resentment between my friends and me because I refuse to conform to their misery, and they aren’t capable of understanding that happiness is individual, not fixed. I don’t know if there’s a way to help them — and maybe that’s why people writing about finding happiness don’t really touch on it, since they’re banking on people buying into their steps and it would be counterproductive to say “go forth and be merry on your terms.”

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After nearly a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are.

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