The post argues a wild notion that instead of pursuing happiness, we should pursue purpose and struggle.
Grasp that concept for a minute. Happiness is, after all, nothing more than an elusive feeling. It’s the laser pointer we chase like a cat.
We’re nuts about the topic. In a society that has all of the material wealth it could ever need, we continue to come up short. We’re bombarded with countless books on the subject. Gretchen Rubin has seemingly cornered the market. If you haven’t read a book on how to be happier in the last few years, something’s wrong with you…
Here’s the problem: Happiness is a fleeting feeling that comes and goes of its own volition. More poetically than a cat chasing red laser dots, happiness is the sunny day that emerges from time to time but isn’t a constant you can count on.
Contentment is perhaps a worthier pursuit than happiness. Less elusive, and longer-lasting. If you’re content, you’ve managed to accomplish some things, feel loved, or reached some milestones that have you feeling like you’ve checked all the boxes.
But even contentment is fool’s gold. Just when you think you’ve arrived at a “good place”, hedonic adaptation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs crashes the party.
What Struggle Brings Out Your Passion?
With early retirement, it’s a given that hanging up the day job when younger opens up numerous possibilities. Feeling trapped by the cubicle? I reckon you’ll find some form of activity that keeps you from being stuck in front of a screen.
When asking yourself how to find your purpose and passion in life, you may think about being a superstar stay-at-home parent. Or, maybe you’ll travel extensively to volunteer. The world within and beyond your backyard is full of needs.
On the other hand, you could easily fall into the trap of pursuing early retirement simply for the sake of escaping a bad situation. But what are you escaping to? One of the cornerstones of this blog’s existence is the exploration of the “what” after early retirement.
I’ve written before about avoiding a life of no regrets, and I think that’s my way of building up the confidence and assurance I need, to “hang it up” when the time comes… oh… late next summer?
My favorite quote of late:
“The key to a deeper, healthier life, it seems, isn’t knowing the meaning of life — it’s building meaning into your life.”
Thing is, I’m a seeker. I want to know the meaning of life. Being a planner to the core, and one who’s always envisioning the future, the message in this quote keeps me grounded. And in all honesty, who doesn’t want a deeper, healthier life? Yet our society seems hell-bent on eliminating any semblance of a lifestyle centered on struggle and purpose.
Instead, we get 24-hour news, social media trigger happy thumbs and drone delivery by Amazon.
Finding Purpose With Your Job
It’s an interesting phenomenon. As my tenure grows in my career, I’m finding it easier and easier as time passes to tolerate the baloney. Out of the gates after college, I didn’t know jack, but I knew I needed a job.
Throughout the next ten to fifteen years I ground myself into a pulp trying to solve the riddles of EQ and self-awareness. And then somehow, some way, the last ten years have led to mastery.
Yes, it’s true. If you stick with something long enough, you eventually figure it out. Instead of banging your head against the wall in frustration over Dilbert’s bosses and office politics, you start to learn how to navigate the waters.
Stuck on a team with a toxic culture? Get the f**k out of there! Don’t give up the struggle of a day job because you think that toxicity is pervasive.
I’ve come to the point in my career where I can control enough of the variables to make the situation work. It’s honestly borderline tolerable. What’s not to love about having a great boss, good people reporting to you, a strong culture, and a high-performing company?
Sigh. I can even ride my bike to work and shower there with hot water. Compared to life in Yemen, I cannot complain.
It’s still damn surreal, the loss of Anthony Bourdain. Selfishly, I’m torn up about it, and mad that he’s gone. Of course, I never met the guy, and it’s not like I had a poster of him on my cube wall. But if there was anyone in the world that I figured had the ultimate job, it was him.
Travel the world. See the world behind the veneer of tourist beaches and all-inclusive (subversive) resorts. Get to know the people and sample their culture. Become aware of the problems inequality and income disparity propagate. All of those warts are made easily digestible by the wonderful food and social venues depicted.
I think Bourdain was the ultimate seeker. He was in constant search of his anchor. Retirement? Wouldn’t have it. A restless soul and a tireless worker. Exhaustion, fatigue, a body and mind scarred by past addictions. Depression. Maybe the clues were there all along.
In my quest to figure out what makes people “happy” I’ve come to find the best answer in the Blue Zones studies. Want to know what constitutes a thriving, long-lived, and healthy society? I can tell you what they don’t have:
- Social media
- Cable TV and a 24-hour news obsession
- Geographically dispersed extended families
- Cubicle jobs
- Fast food
- Automobile addiction
- Shopping malls
- Travel addiction
How to find your purpose is an easier question to answer when you eliminate the baloney of those nine things. They are supreme distractions from what matters. Want to know something about THIS author?
He’s still working on 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, and 9. I’ve got a long way to go before I can ascribe to a Blue Zones pattern of living that gives me a fighting chance at thriving.
And to be honest, I’d feel a hell of a lot better about this post if I hadn’t included number 8: Travel addiction. I have dreams of getting out and exploring the world. But just like escaping the cubicle is a dream that could be misguided, I wonder if travel is simply another form of escape, also misguided.
How to Find a Purpose When Times Are Tough
An article that caught my attention this past week, amidst all of the focus on healthcare in D.C., was about the “Deaths of Despair” among middle-aged white Americans. I have some questions and thoughts about how the Deaths of Despair phenomenon relates to early retirement and the frugal-stoic lifestyle many of us bloggers preach.
Does focus on purpose and struggle provide the tonic we need?
The startling finding from the study reveals that life expectancy has unexpectedly decreased for white middle-aged Americans, while European whites have experienced increased life expectancy during the same 15-year period studied.
What’s striking is that for the decades since World War II ended, life expectancy increased year after year, and now, we’re seeing a relatively sudden reversal. The cause?
The study’s authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton are honing in on the lack of steady, well-paying jobs. Many of these jobs, when they existed, were skilled factory or coal-mining jobs supported by unions.
Benefits including healthcare and pensions were typical. The hourly pay rates were relatively high.
These working-class families could afford decent homes, cars, and all the trappings of what we might consider “middle class.” This was the environment I grew up in, in rust-belt Michigan.
Nowadays, good-paying union work is far less prevalent. Since the early 80s, manufacturers have continued to move production outside of the United States, to lower costs and increase profits.
It could be that the strategy to win the Cold War was to outspend our Soviet adversaries on high-tech armaments while maintaining a robust domestic economy. Whatever the strategy or intent, we find ourselves in a situation where the jobs of the past just aren’t there anymore. It’s been almost 75 years since the end of World War II.
Do we still feel owed the spoils of winning that war, or, do we continue to challenge ourselves to compete in new and more complex areas of the global economy? And can we still do that while not allowing extreme disparities to persist between haves and haves-not?
A Happiness Solution from Overseas?
An opposite study of sorts reveals some tantalizing answers. The 2017 study of the “World’s Happiest Countries” puts Norway and Denmark in first and second place, respectively.
The U.S., perhaps feeling the impact of the very real “Despair” phenomenon, comes in at 14. What is so unique about the Scandinavian nations, as compared to the U.S.?
Having visited Norway, I can report that it is a very beautiful country, filled with active and fit people. I reckon if we had pristine surroundings in our backyard, fitness would come easier.
Interestingly, Norway is a very wealthy nation (thanks mainly to its offshore oil production), but you wouldn’t conclude that on the surface if your yardstick were the presence of gaudy homes and shopping malls.
Norwegians, like the Danes, have established highly egalitarian societies that shun overt displays of wealth. Some go to “university” to learn a high-skilled professional trade.
Others go to “college” to learn a highly useful and equally well-paid trade. It may not be too far of a reach to think that the American white working-class of the 60s and 70s compare closely to modern well-off (and happy) working-class Scandinavians.
The Simple Path to Happiness
The answer might be obvious, even if the solution is far from obvious. Stable, meaningful work that pays middle-class wages and provides necessary benefits is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. Without meaningful and well-paying work, social fabrics and support can start to come undone. This is the “struggle” part of the equation.
In the U.S., we’re prone to ever-increasing disparities in wealth. Social constructs are under assault with drugs, alcoholism, and yes, I’ll say it, an overdose of screen-time on devices taking us further away from developing real, community-level support.
Building on this, once you’ve figured out how to provide meaningful work, benefits, and social supports (e.g., health care, education, police, fire, etc.), what can the individual do to find his or her path towards contentment? Stick with the Danes and their concept of Hygge…
The early retirement crowd must have a Danish component to its DNA. Hygge is how the Danish describe their contentment in the simple pleasures of life.
An argument is that the Danes have so few worries, with stable jobs, over a month of paid vacation, a year of paid maternity leave, universal healthcare, etc., that it’s easy to live the “simple life” without so many “clouds of worry” hanging over your head.
There’s an affinity there, I think, with the early retirement crowd. We find our contentment in meeting basic needs and nurturing relationships, rather than fulfilling a quixotic quest to amass a large fortune in nonsense (McMansions, jet skis, private school degrees, and BMWs.)
Early retirement types put a full-court press into building safety margins with our investments. We focus our “worries” on helping our kids with their homework and keeping rabbits out of our victory gardens.
How to Pursue Purpose in Your Life
That all sounds good, right? If only we could copy what the Danes do, we’d be just fine. The problem is, we’re not Denmark. We’re our own amazing, albeit far from the perfect nation.
The early retirement crowd might appear to have their act together, but they’re (with certainly some exceptions) a very small subset of predominantly college-educated whites. There is real and awful pain going on in too many American communities, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.
Is the solution to the problem of our despair to institute some new policies? Perhaps, but only if we can agree that good policy is an essential component of solving problems.
There’s a strong bias by some, including those who stand to benefit from programs, against anything considered Big Government. Yet we expect our leaders to provide for us AND solve our problems for us.
Is the right combination a blend of smart policy that doesn’t coddle us, but gets us off our feet and then empowers us to improve? I’d love to get your thoughts on that question. It’s probably a question worth its blog post, but for someone else to tackle!
I am an optimist. I’ve been depressed, but have never suffered from depression. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have avoided an illness that seems to be ever more present in our lives. Some useful quotes that I will refer to often, as I continue my search, are words that hit the mark quite well from Carol Tavris:
“…As the popularity of television increased in the 1950s and ’60s, the number of inventors and do-it-yourselfers declined precipitously. This sad phenomenon reflects the paradox of the pursuit of happiness. Given a choice, many people choose narcotic pleasures that dull the mind and quell its restless search for meaning. Yet in so doing, those people give up the very activities that, in their complexity and challenge, offer the promise of real satisfaction.”
“…the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in the mindful challenge, not in having unlimited opportunities but in focused possibilities, not in self-absorption but in absorption in the world, not in having it done for you but in doing it yourself. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the unlived life is not worth examining.”
I want to avoid any readers thinking I’m drawing some sort of connection between Anthony Bourdain’s depression and any unintended judgment that he lacked a sense of purpose. Oddly, this guy did a TON to build understanding and compassion for under-exposed communities around the world.
And he seemingly had fun doing it, despite the incredible exhaustion he experienced to produce “Parts Unknown.” He had a great deal of purpose in his life, and his struggles were mighty. And still, depression knows no bounds.
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freddy smidlap says
well said, mr. cubert! my father, who was a pretty tough guy, used to tell me i’ve had it too easy for too long. he was right and there was wisdom in that tough love. i miss the struggle and having a nemesis. the nemesis need not be a person but maybe a situation worth defeating. for me it was debt and then getting finances and job stuff good and straight and barreling to victory. then something happened: all those things ended up straight and even my job is now more than tolerable and it made me soft and bored. it’s hard to figure out the next nemesis worth fighting once you’ve “won.” i miss a good struggle.
oh, i think i’m 0 for those 9 but still watch some sports on cable tv. go dodgers.
Hi Freddy. Thank you! Funny. I think many if not most of us have/had fathers with that same mindset. Life was ALWAYS harder “Back in my day…” 🙂 The wisdom and tough love are priceless. It’s important to manufacture struggle when things are nice and tidy. Could be volunteering time or other sacrifices. Getting into great shape through physical struggle. Building an addition. I dunno…
Allow me to turn it a bit on its head. In my belief you can’t have hapiness without purpose. Hapiness is the outcome, these other things are part of the action to get there. But… hapiness is still a scale. It’s relative to the day before so no one is ever happy all the time since each day is judged by the last. Instead the goal is to raise the midpoint.
I think that jives really well, FTF. I’d also argue that to create more opportunities for happiness, you need to remove barriers to negative energy. Bad health (of the avoidable kind), bad financial health, bad relationships. Anything within your volition to change – eliminate the variables that lead to problems. And then you can focus fully on pursuing your purpose and struggle with all the energy and intent in the world – happiness is sure to follow.
I think finding purpose in life is key to finding some level of happiness and contentment, but those two things are very different things in my opinion, and to me finding contentment is so key in our “everything now” culture.
To me happiness is based on our present circumstances. It’s all about the feelings we are dealing with in the moment, and they’re fleeting. Contentment looks past the present moment and sees things within a bigger picture.
When content, we can experience satisfaction and peace no matter what we are going through, whether it’s happiness and wonderful life experiences, or the sadness and the struggles we all eventually have. It’s saying I’m OK, no matter what comes my way because I’m living with a strength and a purpose that is outside of me and my circumstances. For me that means living out my purpose and doing my best to serve others.
It can be easy to slip in the culture we live in though, and find ourselves looking to fleeting mists of un-satisfying consumerism, search for a hazy feeling of happiness or hoping for things or experiences to fulfill us.
For too many if they don’t find a purpose – and a struggle – it can mean they are left feeling empty and unsure of the reason for it all.
Great post, with lots to think about.
Thank you very much, Peter. Very kind words. Your comparison between happiness and contentment really resonates spot-on for me.
There is a bit of stoicism at play, where your struggle is to detach from comforts and attachments.
Matthew in Michigan says
wow, really well written and something to ponder…
Sorry we never made it up to your rental, perhaps next winter!
Thanks, Matthew. I’ve been pondering a LOT lately, to say the least. Hope all is well back in the mitten!
Accidental Fire says
Challenges, hardship, and suffering are part of life, there’s no way around it. Those of us in the first world who have things easy often need to pursue these things, instead of having them thrust upon us. Those who do that are the ones are going to get ahead. Great post
Thank you, my brother from the land of turnips! Well put.
Tread Lightly, Retire Early says
“Thing is, I’m a seeker. I want to know the meaning of life. Being a planner to the core, and one who’s always envisioning the future”
Well that just about sums up me. And some part of why I struggle with anxiety and depressive thoughts as well. Eloquently written, my friend.
Thanks, Angela. We’re birds of a feather! Anxiety and depressive thoughts suck. I am familiar. Always looking for ways to channel those little pests elsewhere. Early retirement / FI being one arrow on my quiver, but I anticipate them being constant companions to some degree.
The things that have mad the biggest difference to my base happiness levels are:
– Practicing gratitude every day. By being deliberately thankful I have removed the neverending desire for more
– Simplifying my life. Being more deliberate about what I say yes to. I used to be a yes man trying to please everybody. Now I am much more selective and that has resulted in a much better quality use of time
– Increasing my productivity. Removing so much TV watching from my life and replacing it with exercise, sport, social interactions and work projects has added much more purpose to my life.
These are things that can be achieved by anyone for FREE. You are right in saying that the key is to remove all the bullsh*t material distractions to free up time for truly important things. There is nothing more important in life than purpose, connections and health. And maybe the NBA 🙂 Everything else is just a distraction from achieving contentment.
I think the problem is we chase short term happiness from things like social media, TV, unhealthy food and material goods. Our focus should be more on long term contentment.
Gratitude! Someone at work just yesterday brought that one up. A glorious salve for so much of it all.
A good all around list YMB. Simplicity is a cornerstone. How often do we find people in desperation – any they’re surrounded by complex schedules, complex collections, and envy over what they don’t have.
Ben Zabulis says
Of course the secret would be to inject some happiness into your purpose and struggle. I’m very happily retired and living in an interesting place, do a few jobs to add purpose though my only struggle would be combating sticky summer temperatures of 38C+ which does bring a smile to my face when I remember those awful British winters! On the whole, I would say keep life simple – more chance of finding happiness that way, make no demands and just accept what comes your way. We don’t have a car or TV and must be one of the few households who do not use a telephone (we have an old mobile but it’s in a drawer switched off and for emergencies only). Our focus is on enjoying an interesting, stress-free and healthy existence which our local environment, together with good food and moderate exercise certainly help.
Hi Ben! Those are useful words of advice. The lifestyle you describe is closer to a Blue Zones existence than most I know. No phone? No TV or car? And no cubicle job to keep you tied down? Well-played?
I don’t know if I can agree with the idea of “injecting” happiness, since I think it’s more a byproduct than something to be acquired. Still, keeping it simple will afford more opportunities for contentment and helping others along the way. Always good to have you stop by!
Miguel (The Rich Miser) says
Lots to think about. I mainly agree with you on an individual level, but I also look at history and fear what happens when societies become too spiritual and “seeking”. Like Tibet today and the people that were in the Americas when Columbus arrived, they tend to inevitably get crushed by more materialistic cultures.
Perhaps the answer lies in having a good blend of both. I dunno – I have to think about this more.
Sir! Thanks for raising that point. I don’t know that I’m arguing for too much spirituality per se. I can see where to your point, too much leaning in one direction can cause more harm than good. Balance seems to be the best approach. I still have hope for the Tibetan people. They at least weren’t subjected to the “germs” part of the “guns, germs, and steel” equation.