When were you most happy with your life? The most fulfilled? The most satisfied with your days work? Does your point of peak happiness line up with when you were making the most money? Spending the most on cars, houses, or restaurants? I’m willing to bet no. Ours doesn’t either.
After college, I joined the Army while the future Mrs. Grizzly finished her undergrad. I was stationed at Ft. Riley, a surprisingly beautiful place out on the Kansas prairie. We spent a lot of time working hard at a long distance relationship, but for a few blessed months in the summer of 2006, she joined me in Manhattan, KS. I was renting a single room in a little house with a couple other folks. We were cramped, broke, and crazy happy.
We spent the summer exploring that little town – walking the quiet streets, picnicking in the local park, making up great recipes, and drinking cheap beer at dive bars with good friends. Mrs. Grizzly worked as an intern for Kansas Legal Services, helping people who really needed it – disabled veterans, single mothers, abused children. I trained my first platoon – learning from my sergeant and trying to be the best damn second lieutenant I could as we prepared for Iraq. One small moment at a time, one person at a time, we were trying to make a difference in the world.
I remember one night very clearly; we took a detour down a back highway running through the Flint Hills. It was late, around 10:00 or 11:00PM. As we drove, we crested a hill and the most beautiful scene I ever witnessed came into view. There were controlled burns on the prairie that night. Ribbons of fire danced like serpents, lighting up the black hills with an otherworldly red glow. A blanket of stars framed the scene, the Milky Way a pale splash of gleaming light, stretching across the sky. I was able to share this, and many other moments, with my beautiful wife that summer. That summer was the happiest I have ever been.
About a year later I left for Iraq, starting what would end up being a 15-month deployment. During that time I shared a 20ft containerized housing unit (basically a shipping crate) with one of my best friends. I was in the brigade’s engineering unit, planning and building the defenses that would keep soldiers safe in far-flung, tiny patrol bases. He was leading the unit tasked with protecting our brigade commander. We woke early and stayed up into the night, often lying on our cots rehashing what had happened that day, trying to figure out how we could do better. It was the hardest year of my life, but every day I went to bed knowing that I had done something worthwhile. That year wasn’t happy, but it was the most satisfied I’ve ever been with my work, my craft.
Our happiest and most satisfying moments correspond, not to the points in our life when we had the highest salary or the most stuff, but precisely the opposite. To the points in our life when those material things mattered the least. I like to refer to this little relationship as our Life vs Money equation. All our income over the last decade and a half plotted out vs. our life. See that peak? It’s right in the middle of the years I’m talking about.
The valley you see on the right was the next few years. We both went to our respective high priced grad schools. Studying long hours, interviewing for prestigious jobs with powerful companies and big law firms. It did not bring happiness. It brought jobs where we toiled for long hours away from family and friends. There were very few moments like that night on the Prairie.
The uptick on the right is as we’ve started to climb out of this fog. We found out we were pregnant in 2014. Our little Baby Bear was born in 2015. I expect the orange line will keep climbing even when we bring the blue line crashing back down in a little under two years. I do not want to imply that money is not important, at the lowest levels it matters a great deal. You cannot be happy when you can’t feed your kids or keep your home. But above that level, it matters little. The two lines have almost nothing to do with one another. True satisfaction is good work, good friends, and sharing this journey with those you love.
I firmly believe that life is about finding your own point of peak happiness and satisfaction; figuring out where it lies and molding your life to fit that ideal. For some, that may be the pursuit of wealth, status, and power. My wife and I got lost on that path for a number of years. But we’re trying to find our way back to that little town on the Kansas Prairie. We’re hoping that you can find your way too.
First of all, congratulations to pursuit something more valuable than money. I have been working on a similar plan since 2011 with my wife, but as I live in Brazil things are a little more complicated when you consider the long term. Your post make me remember this article: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/09/27/where-is-the-grass-greener-the-economics-of-happiness/
Good luck and keep posting!
Never seen that one before but I like it! Thanks for sharing!
With what you are making you should be able to save and create a decent investment income. You many want to look at rental property, if you want to be more hands off then the typical landlord you can either hire a property manager or invest in real estate notes. With wither path you should be able to get a fairly steady 10% on your invested money. Feel free to reach out if I can answer any questions- Good luck!
Good point we actually already are looking at some options back in my home town. Probably won’t pull the trigger for awhile – but its a great option.
It’s hard for me to identify peak happiness. I enjoyed college. I was in ROTC, so then I spent 5 years in the Navy. I mostly drove a desk in DC, and met my husband there. I worked, played a lot of volleyball, and got my master’s degree. All fun.
Then he got out and moved to CA. Two years long distance, that was not peak happiness. Eventually we were living together in CA – he was in grad school, I was working. We lived in grad school housing. That was pretty nice. But still…I found myself overworked and overweight.
Probably the peak for me has been since then. Since 2002 I’ve lost weight (several times), had two boys (which is why I had to lose the weight 3-4 times instead of just once), and changed jobs. My job really affects my happiness – when I have had a bad boss, or a stressful situation – it’s not fun. Conversely, the right boss and the right culture can really bring me joy.
Peak for me, I guess, is that sweet spot when I was able to work 30 hours a week, but also when I was sleeping. (30 hours a week with a newborn waking you up 2x a night is still not peak). When I was doing hands-on engineering work and managing a group of young engineers – innovating, training, working for a couple of great people.
I’m reasonably happy now, but not peak. The sheer volume of “things” is what does it to me. It’s not enough to have 20 major projects at work (not an exaggeration, and of course they are *all* the priority – a problem when you’ve been through 3 rounds of layoffs and there is literally nobody “below” you). Then there is the volume of “kid things” – baseball, music, PTA, swim lessons. It’s really only on the days when 3 are stacked on top of one another that I sigh in exhaustion. I feel like I used to be better at managing many projects. Then I remind myself that my # of projects has doubled – both at work due to layoffs, and at home due to, well, going from 1 kid to 2 kids.
In an effort to manage that, we recently started biking to work again a couple of days a week. Even though we are “pressed for time”, there is something relaxing about that 50-60 minute ride.
yeah…that last paragraph… some of us have let our wealth determine how our life is lived instead of the other way around. Just a few months ago i was buying stuff to go-with my new income and live a life according to that income. wow…
I was always trying to balance between time and money. I love the satisfaction I get from working hard. I am retired but there are always projects. We have rentals and they are a pain in the neck but it is good to be diversified. I remember how much easier life was when we were starting out and did not have much to manage. Now, there is always something that needs my attention. For me, a full life involves strong connections with family. I could step back some but that would reduce the quality of my life. There is always something to balance.
Keep up the blog. ☺️
You write with the ability to reach out and truly try to help people avoid the same pitfalls you fell in to. You are learning these lessons way younger than the rest of us. That alone is a huge accomplishment and Baby Bear is a very lucky bear. You write with a sincerity missing in so many other blogs about this topic. Thank you. If you never wanted to be a teacher you may have missed your calling. 🙂
My mom is an elementary school librarian and has been for the past 30 years, and I actually was an ROTC professor during my time in Business school – one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Once Baby Bears in school I’ve actually thought about becoming a teacher – I would LOVE to teach physics/comp sci at the high school level with some football and track coaching thrown in!
Looking forward to following you through this. It’s definitely given me motivation to step back and reassess what I’m doing with my life. I’ve had a very similar journey and have been lucky to been given a great opportunity in consulting at a very large firm. However, it’s almost 11pm, I didn’t eat for the first time today until 8pm and the only reason I’m still awake is to continue working through something that adds no value to society in any way – all because I spent half my day hearing about how 55-60 billable hours/week aren’t enough. I’m tired of the disappointed look my family gives me when I finally get home. I’m tired of missing out on seeing friends, going golfing, hiking, etc. I know there’s so much more to life than billable hours and spreadsheets and I wanted to thank you for being the catalyst for that self-reflection and motivation to start taking some action.
Matt – hope that I hear more from you. You’re describe my life about 3 years ago to a T. I was at Mckinsey. My wife is still living that world at her law firm. I got out of consulting and found that the company life is only marginally better. It’s just not worth it.
I hope you find the right path for you and your family, and wish you luck!
We lived in an expensive condo from 2007-2014 right in the heart of downtown San Francisco. After working 60 hour weeks at stressful jobs, we realized we had no outside life, no time with family, unless VERY rushed, and never ate at home because we were too tired to cook. We didn’t camp ONCE in 7 years. We barely hiked. One day, we realized our condo had appreciated by $250K. Our other house in SoCal was a rental, and had been paid off for a few years. We had virtually $700K+ to work with. We sold the condo and the house. We paid cash for two houses on the OR coast, one for us and one for our daughter, son in law and 2 granddaughters. Not only do I get to see those little gems whenever I want, we have zero mortgage, rental income, a plethora of free time for hiking, the gym, the pool, and extracurricular activities. My husband does all the yard work and enjoys the outdoor time, I sew custom projects for people for “extra” money, collect Social Security, and dabble in the HOA paid duties. I have time for knitting, mah-Jongg, long distance walking, wine tasting, and best of all, introducing the little girls to the beach and hiking. We do get retirement pay and an annuity from previous investments, so we did plan ahead. Our ages when we did this two years ago? Me: 60, Him: 55. Just got back from 3 weeks in Europe, hiking most of our time there. We live much more enriched lives with fewer creature comforts. One does not need a new car or Apple device every year, I’m here to say. There is comfort in living with less: less complicated, less expensive. We are no longer distracted at home by thoughts of the next day’s agenda at work. I cannot tell you enough how this has changed our outlooks on life, and our happiness. We do a touch of consulting here and there, only because we occasionally like a challenge….but we could definitely survive without it. I encourage everyone to re-assess their busy lives, and ask themselves what they could do without. If you can afford to live outside a big city (big cost) and have one parent stay home with kids, DO IT. There’s no substitute for spending time with your kids, volunteering at school, helping with homework. One day, very soon, they will be gone. Nurtured children become productive adults. Good luck and enjoy!
Inspiring story! Thank you for sharing!
Really amazing posting… very heartfelt. Keep this up please!
I couldn’t agree more.