When Are You Happiest?

When Are You Happiest?

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. -Pharrell Williams

Happiness.

It’s not a word you hear all that often in the world of personal finance.

My fellow money nerds and I love to talk numbers. How much should you be saving? Do you have enough insurance? What’s the right asset allocation for your 401(k)?

The numbers are important. If you think of personal finance like a human body, the numbers are the muscles. They do the hard work of moving us from where we are now to where we want to be.

But our muscles don’t act alone. Before they do a thing, our central nervous system evaluates our environment, responds to stimuli, decides on the path we want to take, and tells our muscles what to do.

It’s our central nervous system that sets our purpose and direction. Our muscles are just there to execute whatever it is our brain decides to do.

But when it comes to money, we often toss the idea of a central nervous system out the window. We skip right past the question of “why?” and dive straight into the question of “what?”.

And while that type of approach can lead to good outcomes from a numbers perspective, good numbers do not guarantee a happy life.

And if happiness isn’t the end goal, then what IS the point of all these financial decisions?

When are you happiest?

A little while back I listened to my good friend Kate Holmes give a fantastic talk to a room full of financial planners (read: money nerds). She urged us to stop talking about the numbers and start asking our clients one simple question:

When are you happiest?

Not “what are your financial goals?”

Not “what do you want to achieve in the next 5 years?”

Not “when do you want to retire?”

When are you happiest?

It’s a powerful question. It takes the focus off the numbers and puts it on your life. It allows you to let go of the idea that you always have to be racing ahead to the next thing. It makes it okay to simply enjoy where you are right now.

And your answer to that question acts as the central nervous system for your financial plan.

If you know which parts of your life make you happiest, you can make spending and saving decisions that allow you to experience those parts more often. The number-crunching becomes an exercise in accumulating more happiness rather than accumulating more money.

Your happiness becomes the purpose behind your financial plan. The numbers are just the muscle that helps you get there.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you throw caution to the wind and spend all of your money today on immediate pleasure. While there IS happiness to be gained from certain types of spending, especially on experiences, there is also a lot of freedom that comes with building long-term financial security, and that freedom can lead to happiness as well.

There’s still a balance to be struck between enjoying the moment and planning for the future.

But when those decisions are made with the broader goal of maximizing happiness rather than maximizing money, you’re more likely to end up with a life you actually enjoy.

Happiness IS the goal

As you go about creating your own financial plan, I would encourage you to ask yourself this same question:

When are you happiest?

Or maybe it’s “what things have you done in the past that made you happy?” If those things aren’t part of your life anymore, it may be time to bring them back in.

Above all, remember that the end goal of all this financial stuff really IS to create a life you enjoy.

And while smart financial decisions can help you get there, it’s your personal values and your personal happiness that define what “there” is.

When are you happiest? How can you use your money to create more of that happiness in your life?

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22 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Great topic! I love the subject of happiness and even took a free science of happiness course last year and loved it (and plan on taking it again). I have one person in my life who is contributing to my unhappiness. It’s been a thorn in my side for some time, but since he is the main source of income I’m in a bit of a catch 22. I realized that I could be doing just about anything and be very happy (reading, watching tv, beach volleyball, running) as long as he isn’t calling me, but as soon as he does. So the important info here is that I need to focus on moving away from that source of income…even if it takes baby steps to get there.

  • Done by Forty July 7, 2015

    I’m happiest when berating the homeless.

    Kidding. Sort of. I need to stop commenting after drinking.

    I honestly don’t know exactly what makes me happiest. Maybe hanging out with friends and playing games? Kickball? Chilling out at home with the missus? A lot of different things, but mostly leisure, I guess.

    • Matt Becker July 8, 2015

      Well according to the book Happy Money (more on that in next week’s post), people who spend a higher percentage of their money on leisure are generally happier than other people. So it sounds like you’re on the right track!

  • Brian @DebtDiscipline July 9, 2015

    Great post! I find I’m the happiest when I’m spending time with family and helping others, now if I could just figure out a way of making money while doing that.

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      Sometimes the making money side of things can simply be a means to allow you to do the other things that make you happy. It’s great if it’s all the same thing, but it doesn’t have to be.

  • This was a great read. I feel the happiest when I’m living in a place that has friends and family. I move around a lot, so I’m usually away from all the people I’m close with.

    I need to sacrifice my happiness in the short-term so that I could meet my financial goals and achieve long-term happiness 🙂

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      I’m with you! My wife and I very specifically decided that we would only live in one of the two locations where our family lives. Obviously circumstances could eventually force our hand otherwise but for now we’re happy with it.

  • Heather @ Simply Save July 9, 2015

    Great post! I really enjoy books and blogs on the topic of happiness and personal finance. They aren’t aligned the way we would immediately imagine! I find I’m happiest out in my gazebo, with a good book and my dog. Not when I’m buying the latest fancy technology or hitting the mall for a shopping spree. If we really stop and consider about when we are happiest, we may be surprised to find it rarely has to do with material things!

  • Kurt July 9, 2015

    I’m happiest when I have a clear schedule to spend a day sipping tea, getting outdoors, and pursuing what interests me. A hike or kayak or cycling outing always makes for a great day. Barring flat tires. 🙂

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      We just spent our morning walking around a new city (Chicago). It’s amazing how good being outside can make you feel.

  • Mrs. FI July 9, 2015

    “The number-crunching becomes an exercise in accumulating more happiness rather than accumulating more money.” The mister and I completely agree with this. Earning money just to earn money has never been our goal. With every paycheck added to our savings/retirement funds/investments we think of how much closer that money will bring us to feelings of security and opportunities for happiness – our real financial goals. It’s so important that people find the reason and purpose for their desire to have money instead of blindly earning without considering the meaning behind the action of doing so. Thanks for a great read!

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      Great points! I try to balance the short-term and the long-term, though not always successfully. It’s definitely true though that more money doesn’t necessarily mean to more happiness.

  • Free to Pursue July 9, 2015

    Happiness is absolutely it. The book Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton is a great resource to help us get it right. (Take it from a happiness book junkie).

    Food for thought from this book: housing and transportation are the two largest categories in almost everyone’s budget, but they are categories least correlated to living a happy life. Does that every go against popular belief.

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      Great book! Next week’s post actually makes heavy use of some of it’s main points. I think it’s a must read.

  • Happiness is definitely the goal for me. So much so that I chose it over earning pretty decent money in the IT world. I’d got to the point where not only was I not happy but also unable to fake it.

    We need to stop being focused on the destination and start making the most of the journey.

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2015

      Good for you! Way to walk the walk. I love that last point too. It’s not always easy for me to keep that mindset but it’s definitely a good one.

  • Chella July 15, 2015

    While it is true that every person has their own definition of what true happiness is, we cannot deny the reality that having a stable financial future is one of those that make one happy. This isn’t actually about the money alone but the sense of security that you get from it.

    • Matt Becker July 16, 2015

      I totally agree. Financial security is huge when it comes to happiness and peace of mind. But security alone isn’t enough. There are plenty of people who have more money than they could ever possibly need but are still unhappy. All of that money needs to have a greater purpose.

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