Break Even on Happiness

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Recently I’ve had a lot of friends talking about how much their lives suck. Most of these people are in their late 20’s early 30’s, and on the one hand, I get where they are coming from. I see how a lack of contentment is fostered in our way of life; having graduated a state school where I had a 75% scholarship with $80K in debt (primarily student loans), starting out working long hours for barely enough money to survive let alone pay bills, fighting to move up in an over-saturated market, having very little time for home and friends, etc. On the other hand, I think it’s absolutely B.S. to let the challenges we have no control over to affect our overall happiness. Instead of focusing on what’s not quite right with our lives (and I don’t mean ignore it, but to put it on the back burner), put attention on what is within the realm of personal control.

happiness-flowchartLast year when I decided to leave the position I was with for almost 4 years, I sat down and really thought about what I needed to truly be content with my life. I based this concept largely on my financial breakeven – what is the minimum of funds I need to take home in order to support my life. Money is great, and it makes a lot of things much easier, but it absolutely is not everything. So I thought that if I can set a benchmark for the level of happiness that I need in my life overall and be content. This list showed me where I was failing myself and what areas of my life I had to get back on track.

So how do you create this list of benchmarks? First, you have to ask, “What would make me happy to have but miserable without?” Really consider both sides of this question when qualifying your minimum standard. Of course we would all be happy with $1 Mil in my bank account, but I’m not actually miserable without it. More within this dynamic, I do need to be able to pay my bills and have a little left over for fun and emergencies. Topics to consider can include:

  • Living Situation
  • Financial Health
  • Independence
  • Health
  • Spirituality
  • Relationships

Happiness Message BoardWhen you first start this process, I recommend keeping a pretty open mind and just write whatever comes to you. A lot of topics will overlap and can be combined later on. Once you have a list, refine it by asking, “What control do I have in this area of my life?” Keeping with the earlier theme for example, I don’t really get to dictate what my salary will be. What I can do, however, is know what my financial breakeven is, and not accept anything below it when considering a position. I can also control my performance, and take the opportunity to leverage myself to receive a raise/better income whenever it’s possible.

Overall, someone should have a list of 8-10 factors that play a considerable roll in their overall happiness. This spreads the weight equally so if one or two parts of your life aren’t quite there, you’re not devastated. It also keeps your focus on a pretty manageable number of factors. Once you have the list in place, and have defined exactly how you can move from your current position to the standard you’ve set, focus on 1-2 issues at a time until you’ve reached your benchmark.

Once you’ve reached them, you can decide if you need to up the ante, or you are content to leave the bar where it’s at. Personally, I re-evaluate my list every six months, if not more. Overtime, what’s important will change, and overall, this will give you a compass to determine if you are headed in the right direction for you.

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