Many people have asked me in the past few months, “How in the hell can you be this happy when you don’t make nearly as much money as you used to?” Almost a year ago I left a high-paying job that allowed me to take crazy trips around the country and the world, buy plenty of things I didn’t need; lavish dinners, a nice car, a great apartment, the best drinks, and of course a bunch of brand name clothes. I left the American dream to live a “harder life” and follow my specific dream, one I’ve had since 2014: running and owning my own business. My monthly income went from around $5k to almost zero and the worries of money hit me hard for the first time in my life. This caused stress and worry on a scale I had never experienced before. Even though this stress was strong, and continues to be, I have found that I am happier now than I ever was in my “follow the plan”, “successful” career. I realized that once I didn’t lean on money as my main marker of accomplishment and external source of happiness, I was forced to find other things to derive happiness from, which in my experience, as brought me far more joy than money ever had. My most important realization almost a year out of leaving the life-most-traveled is that focusing on what really matters in the human condition like physical health, relationships with community, friends, and family, and doing something that truly matters to you breeds a sense of wholeness and happiness that today’s society tries to sell you, but can never truly deliver on. I have found that through some mental shifts and perspective changes, happiness can’t be bought. Happiness can only be found, and I found it in my everyday life, once I looked a little harder.
The Big Shift
Before I go into some of the elements of daily life I lean on for my daily dose of happy, I wanted to share some of the basic shifts in thinking I’ve gone through to make the more tangible changes work so well. These are small mental shifts that have allowed me to be happier with what I have and what I am able to do.
Trigger Dopamine Early
Everyone has their daily routine, we get up, shower (hopefully), eat, drink a caffeinated beverage and go off to work. While I too have a similar routine, I make sure I do something in the morning that makes me happy. Or more accurately, I have embraced an activity in my morning routine that now brings me happiness.
I am obsessed with coffee. I love making it, smelling it, and of course, drinking it. Because of this, I have made a conscious choice to not use a Keurig or a traditional coffee maker in the morning. I use a manual brewing process, like a V60 pour over instead. This makes the activity more intentional, and for me, more enjoyable because I am a much larger part of the process, hell, I am the process. This means when I get to drink that cup of black caffeinated gold, I know that I had a hand (literally) in making it taste the way it does. So within the first 30 minutes of my day, I feel like I've already done something for myself that brings me just a little hit of dopamine. I’m ready.
Diversity in Activities
Routines are great because they allow us to shed a lot of distractions and unknowns out of our day, making our lives seem easier to deal with and to get through. However, I found that a constant routine that rarely differs from day to day is a great way to breed complacency and a sense of stalling out. I don’t mean to convey I never do the same thing from day to day, or need to completely change what I do from week to week, I simply mean that by adding in small elements of change into my daily life that isn’t preplanned in detail, I find myself getting out of my shell, spurring more growth, and discovering new things I enjoy in life. In addition, I found that preplanning these “new” things takes away from the excitement and impact they have on my day, so instead of framing these small diversions as “Thursday I’m going to go to this specific coffee shop that I don’t normally go to” I instead frame it as “I’m going to switch up my coffee shop selection today” or “lets try a different flavor combination tonight for dinner”, or “I’m walking a different way to the gym today”; none of these are profound, but adding small elements of the unknown or unfamiliar lead me to take notice of more things in my city, and more importantly, in myself. Diversity is the spice of life, and sometimes you just need a little bit of a kick to make a dish really pop.
When I say practice acceptance I mean acceptance of other people. This one can be a hard concept for some (myself included) based on how you were raised, your circumstances, and your current perspective on life. It’s hard to accept people you don’t understand. For instance, I may not agree with or understand why some people choose to live the way they do, wasting time, and more often money on things that don’t matter, but I found accepting people for who they are and what they do, as long as they aren’t hurting others, is a much more fulfilling way to go through life. I realize that I can’t change nor control anyone else but myself, and if I harp on how everyone else isn’t the way I want them to be, more often than not, I’m causing myself more stress and a great deal of unhappiness over things I can’t, and really shouldn’t be able to, change.
Hedonic treadmill shift
The hedonic treadmill is a marketing and economics term for the feeling of always wanting more. This is typically in reference to material items: if you purchase a nice coat, eventually you’ll get used to that coat and want an even nicer one, this also applies to cars, houses, jewelry, and so on. This phenomenon is something almost all humans face. Everyone wants more, better things than they already have, it’s human nature. This creates a challenge for me, since my buying power has drastically decreased over the past year, I found this natural state of always wanting more to be impossible to satisfy, so I was forced to make a shift. Instead of always giving in to buying more material items, I’ve tried to put the emphasis on acquiring more intrinsically valuable things, like experiences, relationships, and most of all, knowledge. I have been making an effort to replace “buying those awesome Taft boots” with learning something new, like how Taft boots are made or figuring out what the best binding method for a shoe sole might be. While this activity doesn’t fully replace the satisfaction of buying those dope ass boots, it does give me something that in the end actually lasts longer, and gives me something no one else can take away- knowledge. This replacement strategy saves me cash, gives me something I didn’t have before, and makes me better at my job, which in turn makes me happier (and loaded with fun facts for parties). This has by far been the hardest shift, but being knowledgeable on a myriad of topics comes in handy more than you’d think, and gives me a base feeling of accomplishment.
My Happillars (Think Happy-Pillars)
Is this a dumb name for these? Yes, but I’m happy about it.
These are the activities I’ve learned help me keep a much higher state of consistent happiness as I go through the ups and downs of starting a new business.
I have found that increased physical activity has been the best and easiest way to better my mood and my general sense of happiness over this last year. Physical activity helps twofold. Firstly, we release a healthy amount of dopamine during aerobic and anaerobic exercise as a natural response to physical stress and since dopamine is the happiness neurotransmitter, getting in more activity makes me happier. It’s science. Secondly, after exercise comes a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that I’ve done something good for myself that has an added benefit of making me healthier and more confident, which keeps me feeling better for longer.
Nutrition and Shared Meals
We all know the feeling that comes after eating a bunch of junk food that tastes good: sluggishness and regret (side note, I really want to make a junk food brand called regredibles). These feelings lead to less motivation to move, go to the gym, and make better decisions. Keeping a healthy diet gives me more energy to do the things I need to do, and the things I like to do, which leads to fuller days of activity and more feelings of accomplishment and, you guessed it, happiness.
Outside of what I eat, I’ve started to pay attention to how I eat. I have gone from eating breakfast, lunch, and most dinners at my desk or alone, to eating away from my computer, and timing my meals so that I can share as many meals as possible with those I love (friends, family, etc). The act of sharing food, especially food I’ve made, gives me great pride and satisfaction. Knowing I get to participate in fulfilling the basic needs of those in my life, while creating some sort of experience that I’ve personally orchestrated brings a great amount of satisfaction. Looking back, I’ve found that the weeks I’ve shared more meals with my people, the happier I was that week. New mantra: Share your food, share your life, share your happiness.
Building Healthy Relationships
Building healthy relationships and removing unhealthy ones have made a huge impact on my life. Because I don’t have the crutch of a bank account with 5-6 zeros to make me feel “OK” at the end of the day, I have become acutely aware of things that make me uneasy and in turn, unhappy. I used to ignore my unhealthy and toxic relationships which gave me an underlying sense of turmoil for years. Coming to terms with these people and essentially removing or phasing them out of my life was a difficult process, but an important one everyone needs to execute. Conversely, my healthy relationships have brought me some of the greatest moments and consistent feelings of happiness in my life. A fleet of healthy interpersonal relationships that bring support, trust, and healthy challenges can be the platform on which you build a beautiful life. Close friends and family that I can help when in need and who I can count on when I’m not doing so great, have been what I relied on when times got tough mentally, emotionally and sometimes financially. Friends, family, and community have all played critical roles in generating happiness for me, but in different ways:
Friends are the family you choose. These are people that give the most honest feedback and offer the most unwavering support. Building and investing in these relationships, while sometimes hard and taxing, have almost always paid out way more than I thought they would. The more I invest here, the happier I’ve been. My only struggle is over-extending. While it isn’t possible to know too many people, it is possible to try to have too many close friends. People come and go, get closer and fade away, this is normal. I highly recommend you recognize this and don’t fight the natural ebb and flow of life, it will make things a lot less stressful.
I am blessed with a very loving and supportive family. I have likely spent more time with them in the last 9 months than I had in the past 3 years. Leaning on them for advice, emotional support, and encouragement has helped me gain the confidence I need to pursue what I really want to do. Having their support has been a blessing and fuels a lot of happy times. Spend time with family, they know you best and are great for tough love when you need it.
Looking out for those in your community and actively participating in the world around you feels like something I totally forgot about once I left college. We millennials tend to keep our heads down, look out for our own, and seem to give back less than our parents did at this age. I realized a few months into my journey that I wasn’t really doing anything for my community. I was simply enjoying the benefits of others’ efforts. Lately, I’ve started to give back in my own small ways. Picking up trash on the sidewalk, buying coffee for a stranger behind me, leaving a note on a random car wishing it’s owner to have a great day are common examples. None of these are super influential, but I feel if I do something nice for a stranger in my community at least once a week, I feel better about myself because I (hopefully) made a positive impact on someone else’s day.
Achieving Flow State
Flow state is the feeling you get when you’re working hard on something and everything seems to be clicking. Achieving peak productivity (flow state) makes me feel good about my work and myself, regardless of my views, click-throughs, or purchases that week. When I'm good at what I do, and I do what I like, what could be better? I haven’t found anything that rivals this feeling. It’s the ultimate confidence builder and productivity mechanism. Flow state can be achieved at work, during hobbies, in the gym, and many other aspects of life, which all benefit me in the end. More flow states= more happy times.
Happiness Begets Happiness
If you go out in the world looking for happiness, you’ll see more happiness in it. The happier I’ve gotten the easier it’s been for me to stay that way. Regardless of how my business does, or how many views I get on this site on a given week, I rely on my shifts in thinking, participating in physical activity, maintaining my diet, leaning on my relationships, and continuing to chase a state of high productivity to keep a smile on my face, and bring some positivity into my life and the lives of those around me.
You can’t buy happiness, but you can find it in your daily motions if you know where to look. So search until you find them, you’ll be happy you did.