The Mindset for Happiness

I have a friend who fantasizes about telling his boss to go f*ck himself. No hugs, boxes or exit interviews. He’d walk out giving his co-workers the finger. Maybe you’d like to do that someday too.

Individuals who achieve financial independence and retire early could quit their careers with that kind of flair. The problem is those who dream of quitting their job with gusto are unhappy at work, and can’t wait to quit or retire. Therein lies the paradox inherent in my friend’s dream: You must be happy at work in order to become successful enough to no longer work.

All puns aside, everyone I know in the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community had a burning desire to achieve financial independence. None of them disliked work. They got along well with their co-workers and supervisors. They were happy along the way. They’re happy today.

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” ― Socrates

Theories on Happiness

Happiness is complicated. We adjust to new realities. Whatever we’ve just experienced or accomplished soon loses its luster. Then we pursue more happiness.

Science has proven we’re not made happy by getting a promotion, buying a fancy car or winning the lottery. So what is happiness, and how do we achieve it?

Like most treasured values in life (love, friendship, spirituality), happiness is hard to define. We might not be aware of happiness if not for sadness.

Some people think happiness is the exclusive realm of feelings, but that can’t be right. It would suggest that someone can be happy in the morning, unhappy at noon, then happy again at tea time (3pm-5pm in England). By that definition, happiness would be indistinguishable from fun and excitement.

If fun and excitement constituted happiness, we’d indulge our most self-serving and ignoble instincts eight days a week; consequently, there wouldn’t be enough “blow” in the world to fuel frenzied orgies. Speaking of “yeyo” and self-indulgence, perhaps Hollywood celebrities’ biggest contribution to humanity is to serve as an example that fame and fortune ain’t happiness.

Limits of Happiness

Each of us has psychological and biological limitations to how happy we can be.

Psychologically, we’re happy when reality matches our expectations. That is the reason we should maintain little or no expectations. Lower expectations means more gratitude.

Expectations aren’t always bad. Dissatisfaction can lead to improvements in crucial areas. The key is to be content with what you have while pursuing more. Operate from an abundance mindset, which stems from gratitude.

On the biological level, happiness is determined by our biochemistry. This means that we don’t react to events in the outside world, rather, we respond to sensations in our bodies.

If a car cuts you off on the highway or a man doesn’t keep his word, it might make you angry. But anger is never an abstraction. It is felt as a sensation of heat and tension in the body, which makes anger so infuriating.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.” — old Buddhist saying

Know How to Compare

Some people can be happy comparing themselves to other people. Though usually we don’t choose wisely who to compare ourselves to. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re likely in the top 1% of income-earners worldwide. Thus, your material well-being is in the the top 1% of humans who ever lived.

We prefer to compare ourselves to those close to us: someone slightly above our income level instead of below. Studies have shown the average man is happier when he makes $70k/year if his friends make $60k, than if he makes $80k while his friends make $90k.

Not even peace and prosperity bring happiness. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, the drug war in Mexico is currently the only major conflict on this side of the world. No man alive can remember the Western Hemisphere as peaceful as it is today.

The share of humanity living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90/day), adjusted for purchasing power, shrunk from 42.2% to 10.7%, in my lifetime. That’s a reduction of 75%! The world’s never seen so many people lifted out of poverty in such a short time. All the more impressive when you consider the world population increased from ~4.5 billion to over 7 billion during the same time span. America, where I live, is the most prosperous country in the world, yet surveys show subjective well-being levels are the same as they were in the 1950s.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

People who are happy make the world a better place. Happy people make better mothers, brothers, lovers, friends and co-workers. They’re also more likely to be successful and help others than unhappy people. Their moods and positivity are contagious.

Happiness can sometimes be found as a by-product of productivity. But if that were always true, we could simply measure happiness around the world in terms of GDP. Singaporeans, with a GDP of $54,000 per citizen, would report much higher levels of life satisfaction than Ticos (Costa Rica residents), whose GDP per citizen is only $14,000. But on survey after survey, Ticos report much higher levels of life satisfaction than residents of Singapore. Pura vida!

Festival in Costa Rica

Bad moods are also contagious, which is why there are Happiness scholars who believe we have a moral obligation to act happy even if we don’t feel happy. They believe bad moods are like body odor. On a micro scale, if someone doesn’t control their own mood/stench, it has the potential to negatively affect others.

On a macro scale, it isn’t happy people who join cults and angry mob political movements. It wasn’t the happiest Germans who became Nazis or delighted communists who ran the Soviet gulag. Nor do contented muslims join ISIS today.

Life’s Tragedies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the enormous suffering in the world. The atrocities committed in the twentieth century alone could fill entire libraries:

  • Nazi Concentration Camps
  • Soviet Gulags
  • Genocide in Cambodia

In visiting concentration camps and torture prisons in Cambodia, I came away with a shocking realization of what man is capable of. Those experiences enabled me to cultivate a deeper appreciation for life.

In Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the author writes that he was able to survive the horrors of Auschwitz-Birknau because he had purpose and meaning. We don’t find meaning in life. We put meaning into life.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Arriving at Happiness

In this unprecedented age of peace and prosperity, life’s greatest battles are fought within. Nothing in life will upset you more than your own thoughts. Peace of mind is peace from mind.

When you view happiness as a choice and a skill to be developed, you can choose to be happy by directing your mind toward pleasant thoughts. Cultivate gratitude. Engage in actions consistently that produce happiness.

In the social media age, people are comparing their lives to other peoples’ lives constantly. But you’re only getting the highlights of someone’s life. Better to compare yourself to yourself. Become the best version of you. When you’re genuinely satisfied with your life, you couldn’t care less what other people think about you. If you’re tempted to compete with other people, try to say “thank you” more than others. Adopt this philosophy: “Nobody will ‘out-thank you’ me.”

George Bush Sr. was once asked, “What is the one thing you would attribute most to your success (Congressman, CIA Director, Vice President and President)?” He said that he’d sent at least 10 hand-written notes to people every day for the past 25 years. What a fine example of a consistent action that produces happiness.

Charles Darwin once said, “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life.” Life is brief even at its longest; don’t waste it being unhappy.

*This article was written for entertainment purposes only. If you’re suffering from clinical depression or have thoughts of harming yourself, please use this link to live chat with someone who can help.

Originally published at on June 24, 2018.

FIRE. Also write about self-development and culture. Visited 54 countries since 2015. Podcast + Blog + Pictures at

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