How to be happy and lead a meaningful life

How to be happy and lead a meaningful lifeOvercoming fear is one part of living life without regret. You do that by being open to new people and new experiences, and by acting even when you're afraid. Another aspect of a rewarding life is learning to find happiness in your daily existence — and building upon that happiness to construct a meaningful life.

Today, in the second part of this limited series on mastering your life, I want to share what I've learned about how to be happy.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, "All knowledge and every pursuit aims at...the highest of all good achievable by action." And what is that good? "Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well with being happy."

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said that happiness is "the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence."

To some extent, a good life requires good fortune. Happenstance can undermine the well-being of even the most virtuous person. But Aristotle held that ultimately happiness isn't a product of chance. You can allow misfortune to crush you, or you can choose to bear the blows of fate with "nobility and greatness of soul". Although fate may play a role in your affairs, Aristotle believed that in the end, happiness depends upon yourself.

Modern psychologists agree.

The How of Happiness

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares the results of years of research into what makes people happy. She's concerned with "chronic happiness" (as opposed to temporary happiness), with people who maintain an elevated sense of well-being over time. Based on her work, Lyubomirsky believes:

  • About half of human happiness is biological. Each of us seems to have a happiness "set point" which accounts for roughly 50% of our level of contentment. Because this set point is genetic, it's tough to change.
  • Another 10% of happiness is circumstantial — based on external factors. These include traits like age, race, nationality, and gender, as well as things like marital status, occupational status, job security, and income. Your financial situation is part of this 10% — but only a part — which means it accounts for a tiny fraction of your total happiness.
  • The final 40% of happiness comes from intentional activity — the things you choose to do. A huge chunk of contentment is based on your actions and attitude. You can increase your level of well-being through exercise, gratitude, and meaningful work.

Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can control while ignoring the things you can't.

You can't wait for someone or something to make you happy. Happiness isn't something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.

Just as you ought to become a money boss to take charge of your financial life, you ought to become a happiness boss to take charge of your emotional life. Believe it or not, you can control your emotional responses. It just takes a bit of knowledge and practice.

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More about...Money Mindset, Psychology

How I’m fighting chronic depression and anxiety

Hello, friends! I have four money articles in progress, plus I'm editing several guest posts for future publication. But today I want to give a brief update on my mental health. My depression and anxiety have been tough this year but it feels like I've turned a corner, and I want to share what's helped.

Each week when I go to therapy, I complete a survey regarding my recent mood and attitude. It's about what you'd expect. There's a list of maybe a dozen statements, and for each I fill in a bubble indicating how strongly I agree (or disagree) based on my experience during the previous seven days.

From memory, sample statements include:

  • I feel nervous and/or my heart races.
  • I feel anxious in social situations.
  • I have friends and family I can ask for support.
  • I have trouble finding motivation to get things done.
  • I'm able to complete everything I want to do.
  • And so on.

At my first therapy session in April, my score on this assessment was awful. I felt anxious all of the time. I was having trouble with increased heart rates. (Thanks, Apple Watch, for constantly flagging that.) And by far my biggest problem was getting done everything I wanted to get done. I wasn't doing anything. I was too deep in my anxiety and depression.

Last week, I visited my therapist for the first time in a month. As always, I completed the mental health inventory before our appointment started.

"Whoa!" my counselor said when she saw the results. She pulled up my past scores on her computer. "This is the best you've been since we started working together. You marked that everything's fine except for your ability to get work done. That's great. What happened?"

"What happened is that I got out of my routine," I said. "I've been on vacation. Plus, I've been doing a lot of the things you and I have talked about. They've helped. Right now, the reason I can't get done everything I want to do has nothing to do with depression and anxiety. It's just that I have so much on my plate that I can't figure out how to prioritize it!"

During our time together, my therapist and I have explored a variety of steps I can take to improve my mental health. When I actually implement these things, life is great. (I have a tendency to talk about making changes without actually doing so. This was especially true early on.)

Here are three changes that have helped me cope with my depression and anxiety.

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More about...Psychology

How to get rich and stay rich

How to Get Rich and Stay Rich by Fred J. YoungIn my ongoing quest to build a library of pre-1990 money books, I recently heeded a reader recommendation to buy and read How to Get Rich and Stay Rich by Fred J. Young. Spoiler alert: I liked it! But I almost didn't read it.

You see, everything about this book exudes scamminess. The title is scammy. The cover looks scammy. The amateurish formatting seems scammy. But the book is not scammy. How to Get Rich and Stay Rich is a marvelous prototypical book about early retirement. I enjoyed it.

Fred J. Young, the author, was born and raised in rural Tennessee during the 1910s. His family was poor, as were all of their neighbors. Young decided he wanted to do something more than be a farmer, so he left Tennessee to become a lawyer. After military service, he worked for Harris Bank in Chicago, where he spent three decades advising wealthy clients.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Young supplemented his bank income by giving motivational talks on how to get rich and stay rich, basing his presentations on observations of his clients. In 1979, after he retired from Harris Bank, Young collected much of this material into a book called How to Get Rich and Stay Rich.

How to Get Rich and Stay Rich

"For 27 years, I worked in the Trust Investment Department of the Harris Trust and Savings Ban in Chicago, Ill.," Young writes at the start of the book. "Most of my time during this period was spent helping rich people 1) stay rich, and 2) get richer."

He continues:

"During those 27 years of working with rich people, I made a number of observations about getting rich, being rich, and staying rich, and about the difference wealth makes. I am delighted to share those observations with you in this book."

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More about...Books

How to find your purpose in life: 12 powerful exercises to help you discover purpose and passion

Happy blogiversary! Twelve years ago today, I launched a humble little blog about personal finance -- this blog, Get Rich Slowly. It was meant as a way for me to share the things I was learning as I dug out of debt. It turned into so much more.

For the next couple of weeks, I'm on the road in the southeastern U.S., speaking to people about personal finance and meeting with readers.

This morning, for instance, I spoke to the 76 people attending Camp FI in Spring Grove, Virginia. My topic? No surprise: The importance of having purpose in your life. As you can see, I am a PowerPoint genius...

PowerPoint presentation at Camp FI

If you've spent any time reading my material, you know that I believe purpose is the foundation on which all plans -- financial and otherwise -- ought to be built. Purpose is a compass. It helps you set big goals, sure, but it also acts as a guide when times get tough. Your mother died? Your wife left? Your husband lost his job? If you know what your primary purpose is in life, these stressful events are much easier to deal with.

For this presentation, I added a new twist. You see, a lot of folks who are interested in money tend to pick things like "getting out of debt" and "becoming financially independent" as their purpose or mission. But I think these are poor choices.

I've seen far too many folks make debt elimination a goal -- then fall right back into debt once they've achieved it. And there are plenty of people who reach FI (or retire early) only to find they no longer know what to do. (It's like aiming to reach a certain weight instead of choosing to make lasting lifestyle changes that lead to weight reduction.)

Instead, I think it's important to recognize that your financial situation should be side effect of pursuing some greater purpose. Financial independence ought not be your aim; it's merely a means to an end.

When I speak about purpose (which is often), I tend to fall back to the George Kinder/Alan Lakein personal mission statement exercise. I feel like it's one of the best available tools for helping people find focus. But it's not the only tool.

Today, to celebrate this site's twelfth birthday, I want to present twelve alternative exercises for discovering your purpose and passion. If you've tried one (or more) of these without success, try another. One of them is sure to be useful for you.

Note: I've done my best to credit sources for these exercises. (Many come from Barbara Sher's excellent book Wishcraft, which is all about crafting the life you really want.) At the end of this article, I'll give you a list of recommended reading -- and tell you what I think is the single best book for discovering passion and purpose.

Your One-Hundred Word Philosophy

The first exercise is one I created myself. It's based on CrossFit's "world-class fitness in 100 words" statement. There's no time limit for this exercise, but it could take a while so be prepared.

Your aim is to write out your life philosophy in exactly one hundred words -- no more and no less. This can take any form you want, from a statement of values to a list of instructions. Begin by writing down your core beliefs and values. It might also be helpful to think about books that have had a big impact on your life or powerful advice you've received in the past. Based on your experience and beliefs, what is your life philosophy?

As an example, here's my own hundred-word philosophy, which I've written as instructions to myself:

One Hundred Words

Some of those admonitions are my own invention. Some come from books like The Four Agreements and The Power of Now. "Refuse to let fear guide your decision-making process," was advice from my girlfriend. "Create your own luck" is based on my friend Michelle's advice to "create your own certainty".

Again: Target one hundred words exactly. It'll force you to spend time thinking and editing and being introspective.

As you can see, I paid an artist friend to create a pretty letterpress poster of my 100-word philosophy, which I've hung on the wall here at home. I look at it every day. Obviously, you don't have to go that far.

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More about...Planning

Purpose and the value of money

I mentioned the other day that my financial philosophy has changed a bit since I left Get Rich Slowly in 2012. One of the biggest shifts is where I believe we should place our focus.

  • In the olden days, I thought money itself was a fine focus. I wanted out of debt. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view debt reduction as a side effect, not a goal.
  • After I got out of debt, I wanted to build my savings. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view savings as a side effect, not a goal.
  • After I built a modest nest egg, I wanted to gain greater wealth. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view wealth as a side effect, not a goal.

After I gained greater wealth, I realized something. I'd been chasing the wrong thing. What I really wanted was happiness, and happiness isn't something you can just go out and grab. Just as debt reduction, savings, and wealth are side effects of certain choices, happiness too is a byproduct of our choices and the lives we lead. Happiness comes when our actions are aligned with our purpose.

Gradually, I came to understand that purpose was actually my goal all along. Truly, it's the goal for each of us. When we have a purpose, and when we're able to pursue that purpose with passion, everything seems to fall into place.

A big reason I returned to writing about money after three years away? I realized it's part of my greater purpose. That's also part of the reason I bought back Get Rich Slowly.

None of this is new, really. People have been thinking about this and talking about it for centuries. For millennia. But each of us needs to come to this realization on our own.

Some folks never have this epiphany, and that's fine. But for those of us who do experience it, it can change our lives. It changes how we view our work, our play, our relationships -- and our finances.

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More about...Psychology

Ecuador Chautauqua 2016: Mindfulness, Habits, and Financial Freedom

Kim and I have returned from nine days in Ecuador, where we laughed and learned -- and played too much late-night Werewolf -- with 24 other folks at the fourth annual chautauqua on money and happiness.

For those unfamiliar, every autumn a small group of like-minded people gathers in the Andes to talk about financial freedom and personal well-being. Sure, we spend time doing touristy things and enjoying the jungle, but mostly we sit around and share insights on how to be happy, wealthy, and wise. Although this might sound pretentious -- Mr. Money Mustache calls it "crazy rich-person talk" -- in practice it's educational...and fun!

Each year, organizer Cheryl Reed invites three speakers to present their philosophies to the folks who've paid to attend the retreat. These speakers also meet one-on-one with as many attendees as possible, both formally and informally. And, of course, there's tons of additional discussion outside the scheduled events. (In fact, it's these free-form conversations at dinner and poolside that probably provide the most value.)

I've enjoyed that past chautauquas I've attended, but for my money this year was extra special. This was a great group of people that grew quite close by the end of the week.

I took detailed notes during the presentations from David Cain (who writes about becoming a better human at Raptitude) and Leo Babauta (who writes about mindfulness and minimalism at Zen Habits). Here's what they had to say about being mindful and changing habits.

Quality of Mind is Quality of Life

In his talk, David Cain argued that it's not only your circumstances that affect your well-being.

"The best way to improve your quality of life is to improve your quality of mind," Cain said at the start of his presentation. "The less aware you are of feelings, thoughts, and the present moment, the lower your quality of mind and quality of life. You're more stressed, you're reactive, you're uneasy, you're paranoid, you're needy, and you're envious."

Ecuador 2016 - David Presents (photo by Ryan Smith)

Well-being is elusive because we tend to be preoccupied with improving our circumstances, with chasing future satisfaction. We're never satisfied with what we have now. We defer expectations of ease and peace to some time in the future. It's like we're on a treadmill of dissatisfaction.

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More about...Administration

Slow and Steady: More Thoughts on Physical and Financial Fitness

Last week, Robert Brokamp lamented about his not-ready-for-prime-time bikini body, asking GRS readers "whether it might make sense occasionally to engage in some extreme fiscal or physical fitness in order to see bigger results sooner, which could serve as encouragement to keep going."

Brokamp's post was highly entertaining to be sure, but I immediately fired off an e-mail to J.D. asking if I could answer his question in a follow-up post. At GRS, we recognize the importance of getting rich slowly, doing the boring stuff day-in and day-out to achieve financial success. I believe weight loss is no different.

Crash diets don't work
Research published by UCLA in 2007 concluded that diets don't work. Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, writes:

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More about...Health & Fitness

Slow and steady wins the race

This article is the eighth of a fourteen-part series that explores the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly.

One reason I got into financial trouble during my early twenties was that I wanted everything right now. I looked at what my parents had, and it didn't occur to me that they'd been working their entire lives to get to that point. I wanted the same level of comfort, and I wanted it today. I wanted what I saw in the magazines and on TV. I wanted to start at the end, not the beginning.

In order to afford that sort of lifestyle, I went into a lot of debt. But even then, I couldn't manage for long. I lived high on the hog for a couple of years, and then found myself back in the Real World — but with lots of extra bills to pay. In an attempt to reach the "finish line" of life sooner, I'd put myself further behind. Continue reading...

More about...Psychology

Fiology: The online encyclopedia of financial independence

FiologyFiology is a brand-new site that I believe will interest many Get Rich Slowly readers. It's an attempt to gather in one place related articles about a variety of common topics from the world of financial independence and early retirement.

Here's how Fiology founder David Baughier describes his goals:

My motivations for Fiology are simple – to share the message of Financial Independence while highlighting some of the best and brightest in the Financial Independence community on the internet. At no point will a visitor be charged by me to access the information on the site. Continue reading...

More about...Sites