Most of us have a skewed view of what it means to be happy and successful. But… it’s not really our fault.
Our cultural regularly expresses:
- Working harder and longer hours than anyone else leads to success.
- We can’t be happy or successful until we’ve achieved the “American dream” – defined by the big house, the right car in the driveway, fabulous vacations, and fat bank accounts.
- Success and happiness are a situation we reach – they are a destination.
Are these really true? Are they helpful understandings?
Countless studies – including one from the American Heart Association – have shown that working harder, longer hours does not take us where we expect. It leads to a higher risk of stroke, premature death, and depression. It ruins our health. It can ruin our relationships. It sucks the joy out of important aspects of our lives.
According to Thomas Stanley, a surprising percentage of successful millionaires have lived in the same home for many years, drive older cars, and live relatively modest lives. Chasing after the trappings of wealth often make the success and happiness we seek ever more elusive.
So, if these culturally accepted paths don’t lead to success and happiness, then how do we get there?
I believe there are six elements of true success and happiness. There can be no authoritative list for this sort of thing… This is my list and yours might differ slightly. Also, these aren’t necessarily distinct categories. If you were to argue that there is overlap or that these flow into and through one another – you would get no pushback from me.
The six elements are:
Before can make any real progress toward success and happiness, you must first know who you are and, perhaps more importantly, who you want to be. Figuring this out helps you decide on what you need to do or even where you need to go to be happy and successful.
Self-awareness starts with understanding your values – the core beliefs that guide your life. Unlike goals, which may change, your values should remain pretty stable over time.
For example, if one of your values is to understand people from different backgrounds, one of your goals may be to go to travel through South America. If one of your values is financial independence, one of your goals may be to pay off your credit card debt in six months. After you have completed either of these goals… new goals can be formed aligning with the same value.
The goals change over time, but the values stay the same.
Action Step: Start by defining your values and what matters most to you. These will guide you to your true version of success and happiness.
The second element, knowledge, links the values derived from self-awareness with potential action steps. Once you know yourself, you can begin to know:
- Your goals. These are the things on life’s menu that you prioritize. They align with the values you defined in #1.
- Your Trade-Offs. The items on life’s menu that you trade away in favor of your priorities from #1.
- Reality. This is how the world actually works (as opposed to how you want it to work).
All three of these pieces work together to define your version of success and happiness. Goals and trade-offs are probably obvious, but knowledge of how the world works is equally important. In the marketplace of ideas, there are lots of people selling easy paths to happiness and success. However, when you interview successful and happy people, almost NONE of them will tell you it is easy. You have to know – going in – that becoming successful and being happy are neither easy nor simple undertakings.
Action Step: List out your value-aligned goals. Next, jot down the trade-offs you’re willing to make to accomplish those goals. Read many perspectives of history to get a dose of reality.
This is where you map out the incremental steps you’ll take to accomplish your value-aligned goals.
Let’s look at an example.
If one of your values is financial independence, one of your goals may be to build your 401(k) to a $1 Million value.
In planning for this goal, you know you’ll to need to contribute the maximum to your 401(k) for many years. You find out that the maximum contribution limit for a 401(k) is $19,000 in 2019. You do the math and figure out that you’d need to contribute $1,583.33 every month to accomplish your goal. If you make $126,000 / year, this is roughly a 15% 401(k) savings rate.
The planning part is laying out the action steps you need to take to build the bridge between your current situation and your desired outcome.
Action Step: Just like in the example above, write down the incremental steps you’ll take to accomplish the value-aligned goals you defined in #2.
#4 is all about turning your thinking and planning into the realm of immediate action!
Going back to our example in #3, if your plan was to contribute $1,583.33 into your 401(k) every month, you put this plan in action by setting up auto-pay and having the money automatically taken out of your paycheck every month.
But here’s a quick warning on actions.
Don’t try to do everything all at once. Build slowly and deliberately. Think about sustained, incremental change over long periods of time… or else you may suffer burnout (which typically leads to unhappiness). Small, everyday actions lead to greater success and greater happiness than trying to force it all at once and giving up with a sense of failure and even shame.
Almost anyone can run a marathon if they train for it. Almost no one who hasn’t previously trained can run a marathon.
When it comes to investing – most of us dollar cost average our way to success. Making consistent, incremental investments toward your financial security yields incredible rewards.
It’s kind of like the compounding effect. It doesn’t seem like you’re making much progress now as you chip away at your financial goals. But fast forward 5, 10, 15 years from now, and you begin to see monumental progress.
Never give up. Tweak the direction if you need to, but keep making those small, incremental actions and… they will lead to success and happiness.
Action Step: Take a moment and evaluate your plan so far (the plan you made in #3). Can you realistically accomplish your goals in the given timeframe? Or will it lead to burnout? Remember, incremental actions lead to massive change.
“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.”
― Dieter F. Uchtdorf
The truth is, you’ll hit bumps in the road as you journey toward success and happiness. You will fail at some things. People will tell you that your path is impossible.
How will you react in the face of adversity? It may take you way longer than you thought to reach your destination. There may be much larger mountains to climb than you expected. There may be illness, pain, and even meanness on your path – but don’t be discouraged.
Hold onto patience, discipline, and faith – stick with these through all the ups and downs.
Action Step: Think about all the “what-ifs” you may encounter on your path to financial freedom, success, and happiness. Ponder these scenarios and what you’d do to remain resilient in the tough times.
6. “Journey” Attitude
This is the most important element of success and happiness.
You have to have joy in the journey… not just at the destination. You can’t tell yourself you’ll be happy once you get to the other side. Where’s the fun in that?
The truth is… you may never reach your destination. It’s harsh, but it’s true.
The important things – Life, love, meaning, joy, happiness, and satisfaction – these are all journey things. These are the things you receive when you are living your true wealth life. When your values, goals, and actions align authentically you find happiness in this moment.
The journey is where you find true success and happiness.
Action Step: As you begin your journey to success and happiness, I encourage you to start a gratitude journal. Every week (or every day if you’re disciplined enough), write down 5 things you’re grateful for. This can be something as simple as having a healthy body, or breathing fresh air, or the coffee in your hand. Or, it can be the final student loan payment you just made. Reflect on everything you’re grateful for in life, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from being happy.