This week I listened to a fantastic podcast episode of The Minimalists. It featured Dan Harris, ABC news correspondent and author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. The episode focused on happiness. In response to a listener’s question, Harris talked about how ‘happiness’ is actually a poor word to describe what we all strive to attain. He explains that there are more precise attributes, with higher thresholds, that better encapsulates our objectives: kindness, well-being, self-awareness, patience, fulfillment. Most of us conflate ‘happiness’ with these other traits, but they are not the same thing.
This made me think about how ‘happiness’ is valued to the financial independence/retire early (“FIRE”) community. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s a movement that seeks to achieve financial independence much earlier than sixty-five.
At its core lies the penchant for freedom. Freedom from the constraints of an unfulfilling job. Freedom from a schedule that we have no control over. Freedom from a boss that bears unrealistic expectations. Freedom to make decisions without financial constraints.
‘Happiness,’ in this context, becomes synonymous with ‘freedom.’ So, are we guaranteed ‘happiness’ once we achieve financial independence? Perhaps. But is that equivalent to love, respect, purpose, well-being and compassion? No.
We could attain financial independence at 40, but find ourselves in the middle of a divorce. Or suffer a debilitating accident and lose important cognitive function. Or experience the sudden death of a loved one. At some point, there is no amount of money that can compensate for the things in our life that simply matter more.
But before we get there: What happens to us in the decades leading up to FIRE?
One, we are unable to truly appreciate the present. The gifts of today, tomorrow and the day after, become overshadowed by our tenacity to reach our ‘perfect future.’ The small, and big, moments of now get moved to the corner, while we fervently hammer out email after email, revise budget after budget, and analyze investment return after investment return.
We start to talk about early retirement to our friends, family, co-workers, and spouses. We become a one-dimensional robot, pruned for a singular goal, unable to connect to others with varied interests and experiences.
What will define our twenties, thirties and forties? Our generation and subsequent hoarding of money. Nothing more.
Second, we subconsciously conflate the importance of money. Suddenly, this one goal becomes our only goal. A sacrifice now brings bounty later. I know what it’s like to forego small pleasures in order for a better financial future. I also know what it’s like to take that to an extreme, which created debilitating anxiety. To consider each purchase, whether it’s a cup of coffee or a much-needed vacation, will always be placed within the context of your FIRE goal.
In striving for financial freedom, we unknowingly allow money to control us now in exchange to be free from its control in the future.
But all we have is now. That early retirement date will, eventually, be now. And we will not be satisfied when now comes knocking at our door until we learn to be full with what we already have.
This is not to suggest that FIRE is an unworthy goal. Everyone can appreciate the idea of financial freedom. But we should be wary about ascribing more meaning to money than we already do. Money can be a useful tool to get to where we want. But it’s only one tool of many.
Alternatively, practicing gratitude and pairing down your wants can relieve some of the stress that builds inside us when we feel we are lacking.
This technique of mindful evaluation is also accessible to everyone. Minimum-wage earners. C-suite executives. Social workers. Auto mechanics. Digital nomads. Regardless of what’s in your bank account, you have the power to make peace with your circumstances (no matter how great or crappy they are).
After all, happiness should not be qualified: Once I’m financially independent, I will be happy. Once my investments reach $800,000, then I can create my own schedule. Once I quit my job, then I can spend more time with my children. This is simply a reincarnation of the grass is greener on the other side perspective, and one that will lead us farther away from our goal: inward satisfaction.
There is another way: appreciating the good and the bad that lies here and now, implementing sustainable habits that’ll lead to an improved future, and deriving meaning from things that can’t be bought. Live for the present, not for some perfect future. Because, really, when it comes down to the wire, now is all that we have.