As a financial planner, I query people about their goals—what’s important to you, what makes you happy, what do you want to accomplish? If it sounds straightforward, it isn’t. Most of us aren’t sure what we want, much less what will make us happy. We were never trained to do this, so how do we decide?
We experience a lot of pressure to “want” what everyone else does in order to fit in. Not many kids choose to be different for fear of ostracism…and we don’t tend to outgrow this fear! How often do you (or anyone you know) let your freak flag fly? The desire to fit in and not be left behind is strong. It’s ingrained into our ancient reptile brains and has kept us humans safe from the saber-toothed tigers from time immemorial.
Today we have many forms of media and social media so that both advertisers and friends can show us what “everyone” has. We’re trained to be willing consumers of the goods and services that the advertisers want to sell us. Where does freewill or our freedom of choice factor in? It’s more theoretical than practical.
How do we sort out what we really want, given this challenging context? Our first response to “what do you want from life” may turn out to be a guess, and an uninformed one at that! For years I believed that I would be “happy” when I had the security of a large salary. High income would free me from money anxiety. What a surprise, after many years of college and career-related striving, to discover that the high salary didn’t feel so freeing! In my case, it came paired with a high cost-of-living lifestyle: expensive location and work wardrobe and student loan repayment. There was lots of cash flow, both in and out, but it didn’t quiet my money anxiety. All of those years when I equated high income with security and focused on the prize, I had no way of knowing if it would actually make me happy or even anxiety free—I’d never been there before.
Ask a different question
I’m not that different than most people (a little weirder, maybe)—we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy. Doubt me? What’s the current divorce rate? Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending author Elizabeth Dunn reports that our intuition about what type of spending will make us happy is often wrong. Lots of us think that retiring to sit on a beach sipping a drink with an umbrella in it will do the trick. And we’re the same people who, weeks or months after achieving said nirvana, are feeling restless and depressed and are looking for a little job.
Instead of asking yourself “what will make me happy”, ask “what will give my life meaning”. This almost certainly short-circuits our consumer culture and most outside expectations. We can draw on our experiences to date and then, fairly reliably, extrapolate into our futures. I still remember the day more than 20 years ago we were in a supermarket line behind an older woman whose credit card was denied. We slipped the cashier our card and the grateful lady was on her way with her groceries. Why do I remember those two minutes? I’ve given larger sums and probably in more dire circumstances. But there was something so satisfying about seeing a human need and, in the moment, being able to respond to satisfy it. These are the moments that give my life meaning. As soon as I stopped trying to find happiness, which I had mistakenly identified as a large income, and started seeking meaning, life got dramatically better.
Meaning for you might come from relationships with family and friends, contributing through career or volunteer work, devotion to a cause, some combination of the above, or something entirely different. But you’ll know it when you feel it. Not sure? Take the time to experiment! Rescue a kitten, really listen to your partner’s rehash of the day, show up to stand up for a cause you believe in, volunteer for trail maintenance at a local park, whatever. Does it light you up? If so, you’re getting warmer. If not, try, try again. These can be small stakes experiments. I’m not suggesting you quit your day job to save the world…yet.
I don’t care if you’re 20 or 90, meaning matters! We can find it in our lives, if we’re willing to pay attention. At 97, despite cognitive, hearing and visual impairments, my dad still strives to have a purposeful life. He’s all about giving and encouraging others. He stops to say hello and smiles at some of the nastiest old ladies you can imagine. Sometimes they smile back, but he keeps at it even when they don’t. He’s interested in the lives of his family and friends and offers support and encouragement daily. His wonderful attitude inspires those in his church community who are decades younger.
At the other end of the age spectrum is the daughter of a former colleague of mine. We ran in to him at a recent baseball game and he brought his kids over to introduce them. I told them that Dad would attend all 70 of the Winston-Salem Dash home games this season and had only missed one last year (it was a conflict with a Glenn Miller Orchestra concert and big band music won out). Eight year old Emma was so touched by Dad’s story, she told her own father that she needed to buy him a gift. She returned a bit later with a Dash foam finger, her gift to Dad in honor of his streak. Why would an eight year old spend her allowance on a gift for a 97 year old virtual stranger? The act of giving was meaningful to her.
Meaning shows us the way
As you identify the keys to your meaningful life, you’ll be better able to articulate what you want out of life. Getting on track to our purpose gets us most of the way there. Working backwards from your image of a meaningful life will show you the steps to take. Some deliberate planning can get you on your way to those goals. Meaning may not be the same as happiness (check out these two fascinating articles on the subject: Scientific American: The Differences Between Happiness and Meaning in Life and The Atlantic: There's More to Life than Being Happy), but it’s in the neighborhood, and it’s attainable for all of us, whatever our circumstances.
What gives your life meaning? Does having a purpose make you happy? Let me know what you think. I love helping people navigate to their best lives! Give me a call if you’re looking for a partner to help you reach your potential (336) 701-2612.
Investment advisor representative of and investment advisory services offered through Garrett Investment Advisors, LLC, a fee-only SEC registered investment advisor. Tel: (910) FEE-ONLY. Fair Winds Financial Advice may offer investment advisory services in the States of North Carolina and Texas and in other jurisdictions where exempted.