Overcoming 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.
Generally speaking, we focus almost exclusively on the financial side of the things. This week, I'm going to shift gears and share some of the things I've learned about overcoming fear, finding happiness, and achieving personal freedom. (Don't worry. We'll get back to the hard-core financial talk very soon.)
In December's discussion of wealth habits, I talked about what T. Harv Eker calls "financial blueprints". Actually, I talk about them all of the time. Understanding your money blueprint is a vital part of changing your relationship with money.
Our blueprints are created through lifelong exposure to money messages received from people around us, especially our family and friends, and from our country’s culture and mass media. Eker says the unfortunate truth is that most of us have faulty blueprints that prevent us from building wealth.
“When the subconscious mind must choose between deeply rooted emotions and logic, emotions will almost always win,” writes Eker.
He says that most of us are motivated by fear, especially when it comes to money. We don’t call it fear, though. We say we’re motivated by security. Eker notes — correctly — that fear and security are essentially two sides of the same coin. The tough truth is that money doesn’t dissolve fear.
Fear is not just a problem, it’s a habit. Therefore, making more money will only change the kind of fear we have. When we were broke, we were most likely afraid we’d never make it or never have enough. Once we make it, however, our fear usually changes to "What if I lose what I’ve made?"
Like Eker, I've found that fear motivates a lot of people. Instead of making decisions based on goals and desired outcomes, most folks make fear-based decisions. As a result, they get less out of life than they'd hoped, less out of life then they might if they knew how to overcome their fears. (For more about this, see last week's article about scarcity mindset versus abundance mindset.)
I'm not judging. I've been there. For years, I let fear rule my life. But over the past decade, I've learned how to quell many of my fears. Better still, I've learned how to act in spite of my fear. As a result, my life (financial and otherwise) has drastically improved.
Today, I want to teach you how to destroy fear and build confidence. To begin, let's talk about death.
Note: Long-time readers have seen some of this material in other forms. This is my attempt to gather all of it into one place.
The Regrets of the Dying
Australian singer-songwriter Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care for many years, spending time with men and women near death. As she worked with her patients, she listened to them describe their fear, anger, and remorse. She noticed recurring themes.
In 2009, Ware wrote about her experience in a blog post that went viral. She turned that article into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. When people die, she says, they often express one or more of the following sentiments:
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People (especially men) often find themselves trapped on what economists call the hedonic treadmill. They work to achieve material wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. Instead, they want more. So, they work harder to achieve even greater wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. And so on, in an endless cycle. People trapped on the hedonic treadmill are never happy because their reality never meets their ever-increasing expectations.
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” In order to keep the peace and avoid rejection, we sometimes bottle our emotions inside. But refusing to be open and honest leads to a life of quiet desperation. Sure, the barista at the coffeehouse might laugh if you ask her to dinner; but it’s also possible that dinner could lead to the love of a lifetime. On your deathbed, you’ll regret the things you didn’t say and do far more than the things you’ve done.
- “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” In Aging Well, George Vaillant summarizes more than fifty years of Harvard research into adult development. “Successful aging [is] best achieved in relationship,” he writes. “It is not the bad things that happen to use that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” In The Blue Zones, his book about populations of people that live longer than most, Dan Buettner writes that two secrets to a long and healthy life are making family a priority and finding the right “tribe”. At the end of their lives, people who failed to foster friendships regret it. (Here's my summary of The Blue Zones.)
- “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” Happiness is a choice. Your well-being doesn’t depend on the approval or opinion of others. Happiness comes from one place and one place only: You. This idea, which is well-documented in happiness research, is the key to personal and financial success. (On Thursday, we'll explore this notion at great length.)
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.” Ware says this regret is most common of all. “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it,” she writes, “it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.” We spend too much time doing the things that others expect of us. (Or the things we think are expected of us.) But living for the approval of others is a trap. We can never hope to please everyone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to please anyone – other than yourself.
These regrets share a common theme. In each case, the dying lament having spent too much time seeking outside approval instead of focusing on their own feelings, values, and relationships. This is true regardless of wealth and social status.
Ware isn't a nurse and she’s not a scientist – her observations are based on experience, not empirical data – but from my reading over the past decade, her conclusions match the research into happiness and human development.
Money can’t buy happiness – at least not directly. Money is a powerful tool, it’s true. Abused, it brings sorrow and suffering. Used wisely, it opens doors, delivers dreams, and fosters joy. Although wealth is no guarantee of well-being, the more money you have, the easier it is to flourish.
But here's the truth: You don’t want to be rich – you want to be happy.
On your deathbed, you want to have lived a life without regret. To do that, you need to face and defeat your fears. You need to find joy in day-to-day activities, and use that happiness as a platform to procure passion and purpose. You need to forge freedom, both personal and financial.
Note: On July 8th, I gave the closing keynote at World Domination Summit 2012. After listening to Brené Brown talk about vulnerability, Susan Cain talk about introversion, Scott Harrison talk about building wells in Africa, and Chris Brogan talk about bravery — after listening to all of these professional speakers, I took the stage. I'm just an average guy. I shared what I've learned about how to change your life. This is the text of that talk.
My name is J.D. and I am an introvert. Or at least I used to be. As a boy, my introversion created problems. I was awkward physically and I was awkward socially. I was strange.
My awkwardness only increased as I grew older. I hung around with the other strange kids. We were nerds. There was a band of us, about six boys, and as we progressed through the grades, we gravitated toward each other. In our free time, we'd hang out to read comic books or play Dungeons and Dragons.
This was back during the late seventies and early eighties, and we were among the first to have computers. While other kids were doing what other kids did, we were home learning to write our own computer programs, reading Superman and Spiderman comics, or pretending to be barbarians or wizards or trolls.
At the time, I didn't know I was different from other kids. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that I liked what I was doing and I liked my friends. Life was good.
Things changed, though, when I got to junior high school. Gradually I became aware of a certain social hierarchy. What's more, I became aware that my friends and I were at the bottom of this social hierarchy.
We were always the last kids picked for kickball teams. Nobody wanted to be our lab partners in biology. When my pal Jeremy carried his Dungeons and Dragons books from class to class, the other kids would knock them to the floor if he got up to sharpen his pencil.
One day in algebra class, the girl behind me — Janine was her name — the girl behind me wrote something on the back of my shirt. I kept turning around to ask her to stop, but she kept writing. The other kids kept snickering. After class, I went to the bathroom to see what she'd written. There, in big block letters, was the word DICK. She'd written DICK on the back of my shirt.
That's who I was. I was the bottom of the junior-high pecking order. I was a nerd. A geek. A loser. The other kids thought I was a dick. And slowly but surely, I began to believe them. In fact, as eighth grade progressed, I sank into a deep depression. I missed school. I withdrew. I became suicidal.
I remember coming home from school after one particularly horrific day — maybe even the same day Janine wrote the word DICK on the back of my shirt — I remember coming home to our trailer house, searching the cupboards for something to eat. I opened one of the kitchen drawers, and there I found a sharp knife. I took it out and sat at the table. For maybe five or ten minutes, I sat staring at the blade. I ran it over my wrist once or twice. “I could kill myself,” I thought. “I could kill myself and this would all be over.”
Fortunately, I didn't have the guts.
Instead, I put the knife away and went to my bedroom to read X-Men comic books.
That was a turning point for me, a key experience in my young life. As I sat at the table with knife in hand, I made a decision. I knew I wasn't a dick. I knew I was a good guy. Why didn't other people? I decided to change. I decided that the next year, when I started high school, I'd do new things. I'd make new friends.
And so I did.
This article is the final installment of a 14-part series that explored the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly.
Here's the opening paragraph from my forthcoming book, Your Money: The Missing Manual. It's the sum of everything I've learned during my five-year journey to get rich slowly:
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...
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:
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.
During the 1990s, my financial life was like a Caribbean cruise ship during hurricane season: I was in a cabin at the center of the ship, unaware of the storms approaching from the horizon. By 2001, I'd wandered onto the deck in the midst of Hurricane Debt and Failure; I found myself in financial and personal trouble. It took a few years, but eventually I discovered that I had more control over that cruise ship than I thought.
In 2006, I shared with Get Rich Slowly readers the circumstances that allowed me to start moving in the right direction. In short, I realized that I could no longer sit by and let external forces — the hurricanes: my bosses, a difficult situation at work, my increasing debt, a deteriorating personal relationship — control my life. I learned how to manage my own money, using the basic approaches of earning more and spending smarter. I removed the negative forces in my life — anything that worked against my long-term goals to improve my finances, my life, and my identity — and replaced them with positives.
In my old life, I put the blame for failure or the credit for success on outside forces, such as luck or the economy. But this just made me feel helpless about my situation. In my new life, I shifted my philosophy from an external locus of control to an internal one: the belief that the circumstances in my life were due to choices I made. (Or worse, the choices I didn't make.) This made all the difference.
I'm fascinated by the differences between rich people and poor people. Are the differences mostly a matter of class and economic mobility? Are people born to wealth and poverty and destined to remain there? Or are there observable differences in attitude and action that tend to lead people to specific levels of affluence?
From my experience, it's some of both.
I believe that there are absolutely systemic issues that contribute to wealth and poverty. But I also believe that there are attitudes and habits that foster wealth and success. These attitudes and habits can be learned. They can be applied to our own lives, allowing us to build better futures.
I grew up in a family that had always been poor, a family that had lived for nearly 100 years in rural Oregon, barely getting by. The things we had and said and did were "lower class", even if I didn't know it at the time.
I was raised in this trailer house:
My father was a serial entrepreneur and the primary breadwinner for the family. Occasionally his businesses did well. Mostly, they didn't. But even when our family did have a decent income, Dad spent that money on boats and airplanes and computers. He didn't save. Then when hard times came -- and hard times always came -- he had to sell those toys to put food on the table.
The boom times were rare though. During the 1970s and 1980s, Mom and Dad spent most of the time living paycheck to paycheck. They fought about money. When Dad's businesses weren't doing well (which, again, was the norm), he worked as a salesman for various industrial companies. Or he was out of work. He spent long stints unemployed. We had to have help from extended family and from our church. (I can't recall that we were ever on government assistance, but it's certainly possible.)
Just before he died in 1995, Dad pulled me aside to apologize for how poor we were when I was a kid. "I remember that one Christmas when we didn't have enough money for presents," he said, "You and your brothers wrapped your existing toys and gave them to each other. I felt so ashamed. I'm sorry I couldn't give you guys a better life."
So, I've experienced poverty. Maybe not poverty as extreme as some others, but poverty.
I've also experienced wealth.
Today, my life is very different than it was when I was growing up. I'm fortunate (and grateful) to have a solid financial foundation. I achieved that financial success through a combination of hard work and luck. (And make no mistake: There was definitely good fortune required to get me where I am today.)
My brothers too have managed to work their way to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. We have it better than our parents did. At the same time, it's clear that the three of us retain some of our old habits and attitudes. (So too, I think, do other members of our extended family who also grew up poor.)
From my experience, I believe that poor people have certain habits, attitudes, and expectations. I think that these habits, attitudes, and expectations differ from those of wealthy people. Sometimes these qualities are a result of being poor (or wealthy); sometimes these qualities lead to being poor (or wealthy). In other words, it's neither the "chicken" or the "egg" -- it's both.
What do I mean? Let's take some time today to explore the types of habits that foster wealth and success.
Important note: Before we go any further, I'd like to acknowledge that this is a complex subject, one weighted with political, economic, and social issues. I don't expect for one blog post to be a definitive exploration of the topic. I do, however, hope that this article can highlight some insights from myself and others -- including you. This piece is not meant as a takedown of the rich or a takedown of the poor. It's meant to highlight habits and attitudes that can improve the odds of success.
At the end of January, I had an epiphany.
Kim and I were sitting in the living room one evening, relaxed in our easy chairs, both reading books. All four of our beasts were nestled nearby. The house was quiet. For the first time in forever, I felt completely content.
For maybe twenty minutes, I paused what I was doing and simply savored the moment. I stopped. I looked around. I made time to be present in the Now.
Eventually, my mind began to wander. "When was the last time I was this happy?" I wondered. I thought back to the late 1990s when my ex-wife and I lived in similar circumstances. Kris and I would read together in the evening, each with a cat in our laps. Life was simpler. I felt no anxiety. I was happy.
Then too, I achieved a similar level of contentment as recently as 2013. Soon after Kris I got divorced, Kim and I began dating. I lived alone in an apartment. My life wasn't filled with obligations and Stuff. Again, things were simpler. Simpler and saner and more filled with joy.
"But what really is the difference between those two periods of time and the last few years?" I thought. "Why have I been so anxious recently?"
The difference, I realized, has a lot to do with my expectations.
You've pulled yourself out of debt, are saving a reasonable amount of income for your retirement, have built an emergency fund, and your daily needs are easily met with your income. Congratulations! Now what?
That's exactly where I was in 2007. I sold my business and generated a huge windfall — over a million dollars. I paid off all my debt. And then I looked around and said, "Oh, crap."
I had absolutely no idea what to do with my money. Previously, any extra money I'd earned was immediately stuffed back into my business, and I had been running deficits nearly everywhere. This was the first time in my adult life I'd ever had my head above water, financially speaking. Continue reading...
One of my core beliefs is this: It's more important to be happy than it is to be rich. My personal experience bears this out (though I'm fortunate to be both), as do the anecdotes I receive from GRS readers. In fact, of all my fourteen philosophies, this one is most important. It's so important that I chose to open Your Money: The Missing Manual with a chapter on happiness.
No surprise then that for the past couple of years, one of my favorite blogs has been Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. Rubin is a former lawyer who abandoned her promising high-paying career to follow her bliss: She decided to become a writer. She started her blog as a part of a year-long experiment to find new ways to be happy. She's now turned that experience into a best-selling book.
The Happiness Project (the book) was released in late December. I'd hoped to review it when it was published, but work on my own book got in the way. Last week, as I was happily soaking up the sun in the jungles of Belize, I finally found time to read Rubin's book. It's fantastic.