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It took me a while to understand this myself. 39 years really. Of course, everybody wants to be happy. Otherwise, what's the point of being alive? My purpose in life is to constantly maximize happiness of me and the people around me. But what does that mean? And how can we get there? In this article, I want to present my perspective about how to live a happy life.
The quote above by psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden, whose most influential work was around the psychology of self-esteem, says it best: it all starts with awareness. In our Western World -- or at least in the socio-cultural environment in which I grew up (Austrian middle-class) -- we are taught too much that happiness is related to external factors. These factors include how much money I earn, which or how many cars I own, how big and expensive my house is, or how many people "are under me". The last one is a phrase often used in Austria and it freaks me out.
On my ride to happiness, I had to unlearn this notion. There are other concepts and ingredients far more important as we will see a bit later. Creating this awareness is an iterative process and parts of it are happening unconsciously. It is a very similar process to the four stages of learning anything new. The result for me was the creation of a constantly evolving model for happiness. This model is certainly not perfect but it works very well for me and is my vehicle to structure things and activities on my way to maximizing happiness.
I am sure we all have a pretty good subjective understanding of happiness. At any given time, we probably all can answer the question "do you feel happy at the moment?" However, a clear and generally useful definition is not so easy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as "a state of well-being and contentment." The term is also used to describe the mental or emotional states of eudaimonia, life satisfaction, and fulfillment.
That's already good news!
Happiness is a state and not a trait. Since it is a state, everybody, in theory, can reach that state. It may require more or less work for some but it's achievable without any special talents or genetic predisposition. Scientists argue that happiness happens on a spectrum of feelings. Everybody experiences a wide array of positive and negative emotions and experiences. You are considered happy if the positive emotions outweigh the negative, which is also often linked to the way you handle the feelings. More often than not you are actually deciding if your glass is half full or half empty.
Related to happiness is also satisfaction with your life in general. This includes areas such as relationships, work, achievements, the grumpy/happy people around you, level of stress, passions in life, and all other things that you care about. You can choose the areas that are important for you and you can actively work on them and influence them to maximize your happiness.
In science, some of the most famous works around happiness stem from the hierarchy of needs by Maslow or the field of positive psychology, whose main idea is to help people focus on positive things to live happier lives.
I follow a model that works very well for me. It's about health and freedom. You will find a lot of the Maslow pyramid ideas in this model too. To maximize my own happiness, I strive to enable myself to do what I want, when I want, and where I want. This model works very well for me. Feel free to copy it. It may or may not work for you. But give it a try and change it if you want. It's worth it.
Without further ado, here is the model that I use to create happiness for me:
I came across this formula when I read Dilbert creator Scott Adams' book "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big." It's a great book BTW with a lot of interesting advice and funny stories. One of the great take-aways is this happiness formula that he coined in the book. Scott Adams also published his thoughts about the formula in another article in The Washington Post.
Let's not get hung up on the mathematics (should it be an addition or rather a multiplication?). Does not really matter. The three main components are important. As I wrote in my intro article, everything I write about in this blog is related to one of these components of this model: happiness, health, or freedom.
Freedom for me means that I am able to do what I want, when I want, and where I want. A key part of this which I spend a lot of time on is to achieve financial freedom. This means that I will still always need some sort of income but I am not depending on an employer who I have to work for. I only want to work for myself.
Health is crucial. Freedom without being healthy to actually being able to enjoy this freedom will not make me happy. Happiness without health is possible but it's very hard. That's why I focus a lot on remaining fit and healthy.
Happiness is the combination of health and freedom. And then there are lots of other aspects that may not be clearly attributable to health and/or freedom but they still make me happy like spending time with friends, learning something new, going on a trip, enjoying the beauty of a beach, or having a BBQ. These things just fall into my general happiness bucket.
Health is our most important good. Everything else is really secondary and worthless if you are sick. Whatever you have or whoever you are, if you aren't healthy, you won't be happy because you cannot use and enjoy it. It also took me a little while to understand that or refocus on that. Maybe this is a consequence of age when all of a sudden risks for serious health problems increase and when the little nagging pains become more. Or maybe (hopefully) we just become wiser ;)
What I mean with health is the ability of my body to do the things I want to do. That requires living a lifestyle that promotes being as little as possible injured or sick -- physically and mentally. I want to preserve that state all the way to a high age.
There are three areas that I actively think about and work on to achieve health and consequently happiness: body, mind, and soul. Let's look at these in turn.
I spent a lot of time (the last ten years) testing and researching what's necessary to build great physical health (fitness). From all my learnings I created a model that incorporates all the key aspects of fitness which are:
I published this model in my bestselling book and also founded the startup 4legsfitness.com. All programs I offer on 4legsfitness.com revolve around this model with its four ingredients. I am convinced that balancing the four legs according to one's goals and circumstances is a recipe for success. I see this working out very well for myself as well as my clients.
I publish weekly health and fitness articles, so I won't go into too much detail here. I do want to highlight two important lessons learned, which you may already know or maybe not.
If I'd have to pick the most effective of the four legs, it would be nutrition. This is the fuel for our bodies -- for our lives. We only get out of our bodies what we put in. So be very thoughtful about your diet choices.
The second key lesson that I learned is that recovery is way too often overlooked. But if done right, we can actually increase our overall effectiveness and health. This is obviously true for athletes or everyone who pursues a very active lifestyle. But also for others who have kids, demanding households to manage, energy-draining jobs, or any other difficult situations. By balancing our physical or mental strain with recovery and rest, we do become a lot stronger. We can leverage many different recovery techniques and protocols but the most powerful and at the same time easiest is our sleep. I highly recommend getting your sleep hygiene in check.
Here is another quick rant about what we hear and learn way too often vs what's actually right: There are so many stories about supposedly successful people who swear their key to success is getting up early or just sleeping less. I think this is nonsense and -- like everything else -- is highly individual. It may work for one person and his or her circumstances but it cannot serve as a general recipe for success. It is much better to reflect on one's own situation, goals, preferences, and especially circadian rhythm and then build the best possible sleep hygiene around that with trial and error. For myself, I understood that my most productive time is usually between 21:00 and 01:00 at night. No way, I could consistently get up at 05:00 to go to the gym. I created my own rhythm which is a critical part of freedom, which I will discuss a bit later in this article.
The second area I constantly work on and try to grow is the mind. Or in other words to work with my brain and constantly keep on learning, reading, and educating myself -- often about totally new things. A lot of the topics that you can read in this article and others on this blog are the consequence of my self-education process.
As an example, one topic I am currently spending a lot of time with is about alternative investment opportunities to achieve my financial freedom via passive income (more on this later in this article). It is fascinating and every week I discover new tools or platforms to achieve that, all of which require some due diligence before I invest.
The two areas I covered so far -- body and mind -- of course are not two isolated areas. On the contrary, they are strongly intertwined. The concept of the body-mind connection is well established. A healthy mind lives in and amplifies a healthy body and vice versa. Both influence each other which can lead to a self-reinforcing behavior like a spiral. Let's just make sure that this spiral moves us up into healthier and happier spheres.
Practical examples where body and mind both get involved are challenging projects requiring manual work. In the past I've enjoyed repairing everything myself, building furniture, or a traditional longbow. I built my own splitboard and forged a viking axe. A more ambitious project includes a camper van conversation (I love vanlife), which is super exciting but requires a lot of research and planning.
There are a couple of aspects important for our health which I summarise as being part of our soul.
First off: showing gratitude and thinking positively. It's very easy to look around be jealous of what others may have. But we all are someone and have something. It's a good practice to improve happiness by explicitly recalling positive things that we have or did. Positive thinking is strongly related to this. No matter what happens, there is (almost) always a positive angle that can be found. My mother is a master in that. Studies showed that people who wrote down positive things they are grateful for every night a couple of minutes before sleeping improved subjective happiness, and life satisfaction.
Another great way to treat your soul well is to surround yourself with positive people who are good for you. Avoid those that are just lazy, never challenge you, or even worse drain your energy. It's always a give and take with the family and friends around you but on balance, positive energy should uplift the whole community. Jim Rohn once said "You Are the Average of the 5 People You Spend the Most Time With"
Related to being with good people are the values that you choose to be important for you. Be morally good and it will significantly help you become happier. I call these the simple grandma rules. My grandma raised me with a couple of very simple, yet very powerful rules including: be honest, be helpful, be respectful to everyone, be friendly, don't be lazy. Lots of the social-cultural bullshit that we are currently faced within our world, would never occur if we'd all stick to these basic, simple grandma rules. I guess the generations after my grandma are just too spoiled so we need to create some problems.
Research also shows that going through life with a purpose, generally makes people happier. It's related to Aristotle's idea of eudaimonia. It's like a long-term goal that gives direction. If someone asks "why are you alive," you can proudly give an answer. For me, it's maximizing happiness for me and the people around me. Without a purpose, authentic, long-term, intrinsic happiness is not possible. If you don't know your purpose, I strongly recommend starting to think about what you deeply care about. Then make this your purpose and work towards it.
Here are some rapid-fire recommendations. Future articles will cover these in more depth.
Health is the first part of the happiness formula. Let's move on to the second: freedom.
We have established that health is a mandatory requirement for happiness. The other part of the equation is freedom. Generally, freedom is the power or right to act, change, speak, or think as we want -- without constraint.
Freedom for me in particular means that I am able to do what I want, when I want, and where I want. In other words, it's freedom of activity, time, and location. We must not underestimate the role of money in this (I prefer to refer to it as "wealth" which I will explain later). Money itself will not make you happy. It's rather the contrary. Not having enough money to be able to live the lifestyle that you want to live (and be free), will indirectly make you unhappy. That is why I am spending a lot of my time on achieving financial freedom.
This is a huge topic that fills books. It is also a popular movement called FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). I don't agree with all of the FIRE ideas. Instead, I have developed a lot of my own concepts and practices based on some of those ideas. I plan to write a lot about these on this blog. Make sure to subscribe at the top of this page to get these updates. Here is just a primer.
The whole idea of financial freedom is to figure out what kind of lifestyle you want to live. Then you estimate what that would cost (in terms of monthly expenses). If you manage to live this lifestyle by keeping your expenses lower than your passive income, then you are financially free. Passive income is money that you earn without doing anything for it (like interest).
In order to achieve this, you have two levers. I work on both intensively and I recommend you do the same. The first lever is your expenses. Cut out all the stuff that you don't need. That does not mean to stop enjoying life but for sure you have several monthly subscriptions to services which you probably don't need. Cancel them. Check your bills and try to optimize. Reduce electricity, phone, or internet bills by changing provider or leverage package deals. There is plenty you can optimize. I cut my bills in half. This is now a pretty significant amount per year that I don't spend.
The second lever -- and that's the fun part -- is generating money as passive income. That's money that you earn without doing anything for it. It requires a lot of preparation but once you have it sorted out, it just comes in. You only do some course corrections at times. I prefer to call this "wealth" instead of money. Because you really want to create a whole portfolio of all sorts of different passive income streams. I follow a quite aggressive diversification strategy. This means more work but also reduces my risk. If one income stream fails, there are plenty of others that most likely will compensate for it. I have currently invested in 67 projects that include real estate, stocks, ETFs, funds, pension plans, angel investments (Seedrs is an easy-to-use platform), crypto (including NFT art), and a range of alternative, very different investment platforms (including organic almond farming, wine, art, blueberries, livestock, or solar energy). Especially the last one is super exciting but also very risky. You can find all the details in my article Is Solar a Good Investment? High Returns With The Sun Exchange.
A potentially massive contributor to passive income can be building and selling your own products and services. That's what I want to achieve with my 4legsfitness.com startup and how I automated it. This business is not profitable yet but it will be.
In summary, decide what you really want and need. Keep your expenses low to be able to afford that lifestyle. Generate passive income. As a backup, I am also creating knowledge and valuable services that I could offer and sell if I have a short-term cash demand. What all this means is that I aim to be not depending on any employer anymore. I will work totally for myself.
Hence, I am able to do what I want, when I want, and where I want.
One of these "romantic" ideas of retiring early is that then you simply do nothing. That's not my goal. That's boring. I get bored on vacation after lying on the beach for one day. I always wanna do stuff, figure things out and learn new skills.
Once I am in the state of total financial freedom, I will not stop this. And I will still do things that are considered active income. Like coaching people, running seminars (like climbing camps), or any other wild projects like camper vans or tiny houses. Simply because I enjoy it. The beauty is that I don't have to do it but I choose to do it because I like it. Because it fulfills me, it makes me happy.
The difference is that by being financially free, I can choose the activities that I am doing. If I am employed at someone else's firm, broadly speaking I have to do what they want me to do. And I am tired of endless and pointless phone calls where everybody fills the air with as much noise as possible without getting anything productive or creative done or at least decided.
The next dimension of my freedom is timing. I need this flexibility to choose to do certain things when it works for me. I have my productive and creative times and I want to be able to work on things during these periods. The 9-to-5 mentality is totally outdated and actually stems from the industrial age where we mostly worked manually. But now that so many of us are knowledge workers, this time constraint does not work anymore. You cannot command your brain to produce just because it's 9 am. I noticed that I am way more productive if I actually take a nap after lunch. Timing is so important. I also want to be able to choose the right time to work out or meet my friends and family. This flexibility in time is a huge contributor to my sense of happiness.
The final dimension of freedom that is important for me is location. Another reason why I am not a big fan of traditional corporate life. I cannot imagine (anymore) having to go to the office every day, torment yourself through traffic, lose all that time, just to arrive in the office to be excruciatingly unproductive with all the noise and distractions. There are a need and time for meeting colleagues and socialize but in my opinion, one day per week is more than enough for that. I need to have this flexibility of choosing where to work. That way I am a lot more inspired, motivated, and eventually more efficient and effective.
Thankfully I managed to create my life to allow me to have all these degrees of freedom. I am not done yet, it is not perfect but a lot better than seven years ago. And every month I continue to improve this lifestyle.
Here are some more rapid-fire recommendations to help you improve your personal freedom.
That was a lot to take in. Let's wrap it up.
Alright. This was a fairly long introduction article about "how to live a happy life." This is just the beginning and I am very excited to share my ride with you. I plan to publish a lot more articles picking certain topics and going into more depth (especially around alternative investing). All articles will fall into the categories of freedom, health, or happiness. I will offer concrete, practical tactics that you can implement yourself, too. See what I am doing right now.
What's the key takeaway?
It's a journey and it starts with awareness as I pointed out with Nathaniel Branden's quote a the very beginning of this article. Models (like the happiness formula) help to structure this ride. As Scott Adams said, it's important to "keep in mind that happiness is a directional phenomenon. It’s the direction of your life -- progress if you will -- that influences happiness."
You will find true happiness by figuring out your goals in life and the optimal lifestyle that enables you to achieve that. I recommend experimenting and find that balance that's right for you. And I don't mean work-life balance because if we get it right there will be no "work" anymore. It's all just life.