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Happiness and Life Planning

❝I'm killing time while I wait for life to shower me with meaning and happiness.❞ -"Calvin" in Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I'm at lunch mindlessly scrolling through my social media feed when I come across a meme about a tough decision. The meme states, "I'm stuck between YOLO, and I have to pay my bills."

I make fun of this meme in my head because I can easily tell that whoever made it is confused. The person who made this meme presents a false dichotomy; we can either be happy now or happy in the future, but not both.

Suddenly it dawned on me, though, that I'm doing the same thing. I recently took a job with a high salary, thinking that that's what you do. I thought having a high salary and a fancy title would make me happy. When I realized that the job I took turned out to be awful, I had a decision to make - I can quit and turn down the money, or I can put my head down, be miserable, and retire in 10 years.

Whereas the meme I was making fun of highlighted the difference between having fun now and having fun in the future, I was stuck in a pit of endlessly pursuing things that I thought would make me happy only to find out they didn't, and then entering the cycle again.

I learned this far too late, but there is a way to use your money to be happy both now and in the future. The quest for money is not it.


Any talk of happiness has to start with defining what happiness even is. Some people equate happiness with having fun. Therefore, happiness happens if you can get to a point where you are only having fun. Other people interpret happiness as the opposite - they think that to be happy is to be in a state where you never feel sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion. Still, others believe that happiness is simply an endpoint; a place that you have to get to once, and then you're there. Others feel guilty about being happy, while some people feel ashamed that they are not.

With so many interpretations of what happiness is, it makes sense to define it upfront. My views of happiness are based in part on Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Positive Psychology, including the writings of author and happiness expert Tal Ben-Shahar.

Happiness is not a singular point; it's not the end destination. Happiness is a spectrum as well as a way of life. Although happiness is not about only having positive emotions, it is about experiencing more positive emotions than negative emotions. Happiness is not about having fun all the time, but experiencing joy is necessary. Our joy in the present moment has to be combined with a bigger picture journey, though. This is where purpose and meaning come in.


Human beings are awful at predicting how happy or unhappy we will be in the future. For example, almost everybody believes they will be happy after winning the lottery and miserable after becoming paralyzed. However, not long after winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, people tend to revert back to their baseline level of happiness. This is counterintuitive for many of us.

Because it is counterintuitive, many people put their heads down and work too hard, hoping for some future that they think will make them happy. They convince themselves that if they just struggle enough now then it will eventually pay off. So they work hard in high school to get into a good college, thinking that will make them happy. Then they work hard in college to get into a good graduate school. Then they work hard in graduate school to get a good job. Then they work hard at their jobs they can get promotions. Then they put in the work so that they can finally retire. Then they wonder where the happiness is.

This is a case where people have entered the rat race. In the rat race, we sacrifice happiness in the present to get happiness in the future.

Other people, perhaps people who have seen friends or family members struggle in the rat race, focus on the here and now at the expense of the future. They tell themselves that life is short and we only live once, and therefore we need to have fun. People eat bad food now that will cost them years off their life in the future. They engage in risky behaviors today, not caring about the future repercussions. They will spend too much money in the present and not save for the future. People in this camp not only lack impulse control, but they sometimes promote their refusal to delay gratification with pride.

This is a form of hedonism, a focus on pleasure today above all else. With hedonism, we sacrifice the future so that we can have fun today.

Others have written off happiness altogether. This can be something that author Martin Seligman calls learned helplessness. This is where people are so pessimistic that they do not plan for the future. But unlike the hedonist, they don't see any point in attempting to find happiness in the moment either.

We might call this a form of nihilism, where we don't pursue happiness in the present nor the future and instead are stuck in the negative experiences we've had in the past.


Try to see if this journey sounds familiar. You first find yourself in the rat race, thinking that you need to put your head down and put in the time so you can get some happiness in the future. You're putting in long hours and dealing with the stress. You're putting off hobbies and spending less time with your family than you hoped. You're doing what you think is expected of you. Then, when you finally get there, you realize that you can't find that happiness that you were chasing. You might realize that you've been living somebody else's life all this time.

You think to yourself that enough is enough; you're going to start having fun now to make up for lost time. We might call this a midlife crisis in our culture, but I call it moving from the rat race quadrant into the hedonism quadrant. The quest for happiness has moved you from hoping for happiness in the future and towards trying to be happy in the present at all costs. This is when you have a lot of fun, buy a lot of toys, and do a lot of traveling. You think that this is finally going to be your time to be happy. Except you aren't happy. You realize that this "live for today" lifestyle is exhausting. You don't like dealing with the repercussions you give yourself.

Then it hits you. You weren't happy working hard to get to some future bliss, and you weren't happy living for the moment. You start to wonder whether you are even meant to be happy, and you slip into depression. This happens when we leave the hedonism quadrant and enter the nihilism quadrant. The nihilism quadrant is filled with crushing existential terror.

It is hard to get out of this quadrant once you're there and thus worth your time to do everything you can to not get there. If this journey doesn't describe you, it's a good bet that you know somebody similar to this.


You might be wondering what to do if nothing else works. The antidote is to balance your focus on both the present and the future. The people in the rat race quadrant have part of it right, in that it's important to have a purpose that will give your life meaning. What the rat racers get wrong is that it's up to you to find your purpose and meaning and not society.

What's a hedonist get right is that it's important to have some fun. What the hedonists get wrong is that you can't have fun today at the expense of tomorrow. There has to be a balance. We need to be able to find joy in the journey while heading in the direction that we want to go.

It's not necessarily easy, but it is simple, and it's worth your while.

Many people believe that money will make people happy because they've noticed that people with money tend to look happy. Similarly, people think that finding the right group of friends or marrying the right person will bring happiness because they see people with good relationships who are happy.

What if you turned that idea upside down? What if instead of money making people happy or having the right relationships making people happy, happy people make more money and attract better relationships?

Happy people are easier to like. Happy people take more risks. Happy people are more resilient and able to learn from any mistakes that happen from taking those risks.

It makes sense to set up your future self to be happy and have direction. It makes sense to live for the moment and have some fun. You can do both; this is not a binary choice.


Mindfulness and gratitude are simple ways to take steps towards being happier. Mindfulness is simply deliberately paying attention to what is happening in the present moment without judging or interpreting. Financial mindfulness is paying close attention to your financial life without judgment. It leads to an acceptance of how things are right now. You can't chart a course to where you want to go if you don't know where you currently are.

Once you've accepted how things are, you have a choice. You can be grateful for what you have and what's going well, or you can be irritated about what you don't have or what's going wrong. Practicing gratitude is simply the deliberate act of noticing and being thankful for those things that are working out for us.

People have a tendency to not appreciate what they have until what they have is taken away from them. They don't realize that they've taken their life for granted until something in their life is taken away. Accepting how things currently are and being grateful for all the good in your life helps prevent you from taking your life for granted.

Spending some time to find your purpose that will bring about meaning in life helps you prioritize your life. It helps you find the things that matter to you. Additionally, getting clear about the things that are inside of your control and doing everything you can in that realm will help you let go of the things over which you have no control.

Keep your focus on the intersection of things that matter and things that you can control.

Money is a tool; it's not a goal. Living your life in a way where you pursue money is a mistaken philosophy of life. A better philosophy is to pursue happiness instead. To pursue happiness, you get to use money as a tool to design a life that you would be happy to look back on. It allows you to live a life without regret.

And it helps you be happier. What more could you want?

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Until next time,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Barker, Dan: Life Driven Purpose

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient

Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin: Flourish

Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core

Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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