Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and we may receive a referral fee (at no extra cost to you) if you sign up or purchase products or services mentioned.
I remember thinking that finding happiness would be instantaneous once I left my career behind. After all, work was the time-suck in my life that was holding me back.
Back in 2010, I was crushed when I had to go back to work after the short vacation I took once my daughter was born. My 9-5 was in the way of everything and I wanted out.
Fast forward to my first day of early retirement on January 1, 2019, and I was finally there. Finding happiness no longer needed to be a mission because I no longer had 40-50 hours of work and commuting time in the way, right?
Well, sort of.
Without a doubt, I can say that I’m tremendously happier now that work is no longer in the way. However, there’s a lot more to this puzzle of life and it turns out that thinking happiness will just drop in your lap once you leave the rat race is a little shortsighted.
Money can’t buy happiness… or can it?
I recently listened to an episode of Doc G’s Earn & Invest Podcast titled “Has FIRE Evolved?”. The guests were three of my favorites: JL Collins, Brad Barrett, and Jillian Johnsrud.
At one point in the conversation, they were talking about money and happiness. The idea that money can’t buy happiness was being discussed and then JL said something I thought was extremely insightful:
“Money by itself doesn’t make you happy, but the lack of money can make you unhappy.”–JL Collins
If you’re interested, you can listen to this below at about the 50:12 minute mark…
He also mentioned that:
“Once you have enough, it plays an ever-diminishing role in your happiness.”–JL Collins
I was in the middle of working out at the gym when I heard this and had to just stop what I was doing and rewind. I replayed it again and was fascinated – he summed this up so eloquently and accurately in those two simple sentences.
It’s absolutely true – money can’t buy happiness, but it can remove some of the obstacles to make it easier to find it.
Reaching financial independence and early retirement doesn’t mean that everything on the path to happiness suddenly becomes a reality in life. Sure, you now have a lot more time and freedom, but you still need to figure out what makes you happy… that’s the hard part of the journey.
As an aside, JL Collins wrote what I consider to be the best book on investing in the stock market that I’ve ever read. It’s clear, concise, logical, and easy to understand. If you want to understand how to invest intelligently, be sure to check out The Simple Path to Wealth. This is the book I recommend to all my friends and family when asked for advice.
Finding happiness in life
Ok, so if money isn’t the problem, is finding happiness even possible?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. First off, I never said money isn’t the issue. What I’m telling you is that money isn’t the only problem.
Having enough money to cover your expenses (essentially being financially independent) means you no longer have to worry about money. That’s a big deal because the stress of money (or more accurately, from the lack of money) is a big cause of problems in our lives. According to the American Psychological Association, 72% of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time in the prior month… that’s a significant amount of time to have this weight on your shoulders!
So the good news is that financial independence can free you from that burden. And if you’re Fat FIRE (adding even more padding to your nest egg), money likely becomes even less of an issue. For instance, even though we’re financially independent, I still need to keep an eye on our spending and portfolio probably a little closer than someone who’s Fat FIRE.
The bad news is that finding happiness still needs to be on your radar regardless.
You still need to figure out your life’s purpose. For some, that might not be a huge driving factor – maybe you’ll be content with just taking up a few hobbies and spending time with friends and family.
For others, there might be a massive pull to do something bigger… a void in your life. Perhaps that void can be filled by giving back and doing volunteer work for a cause you strongly support.
Or maybe it’s taking things a step further and starting a business or philanthropy to bring you joy. And with many folks, building or creating things can bring that feeling of satisfaction.
I struggle with this quite a bit. I’ve been early retired for over two years now and still have restless nights because I know in my heart that there’s something more that I need to be doing.
I’ve sort of put that on the back-burner right now though because I want to spend as much time with my daughter now while she’s still young. That’s time I can’t get back later and also the reason I wanted to leave the old 9-5 to begin with. Once she’s older, then I can start focusing on a new mission in life.
So my happiness factor has gone up tremendously since I no longer have the burden of a regular job and can spend so much time with my family. However, there’s still something missing – something I’ll need to do at some point down the line. And it will happen, folks!
Putting in the work
Here’s something you might not have considered… even though you leave one job, you still have another. That job is to put in the work to reach your goals, whatever they might be.
Finding happiness isn’t going to just drop in your lap.
My daughter, Faith, can’t stand it when Lisa and I discuss the details of where we’re going to move, things we’ll need to do, and other considerations. She doesn’t want to think about leaving Boquete, which is fair. But like I tell her, things don’t just happen – you need to plan and take action first.
One of my goals to do once I retired was to get in better shape. Lack of time was always the excuse while I was working. With the former career by the wayside, I was ready to get fit.
Now, I’ll tell you, I hate working out with a passion. But I’m seeing results (finally!) and it boosts my happiness level to know that I’m in better shape. So I head to the gym and work out 5 days a week.
Would I rather just sit around, drink beer, and watch some action movies, romcoms, or chick flicks all day? Absolutely. However, that might make me happy for a short while, but over the long run, I’d just be disappointed in myself for squandering away my time.
Uh, and yes, I do love old chick flicks and romantic comedies – “Mean Girls”, “The Notebook”, “She’s All That”, “Can’t Hardly Wait”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, “13 Going on 30”, “A Cinderella Story”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, whatever. In fact, I’ll just go out on a limb and say that any old movie with Rachel McAdams, Meg Ryan, Hilary Duff, or Lindsay Lohan is an automatic winner in my book.
But I love any good movie. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”, “Raya and the Last Dragon”, “The Mitchells vs the Machines”, and “Soul”, are some of the more recent ones I’ve enjoyed (can you tell we watch a lot of family movies?). And I’ll take a “Die Hard” or “Expendables” movie any day.
So yes, I do take some time periodically to watch a good movie or to have a beer (or two!), but that’s a small portion of my life. Knowing I’m working to get better at something is generally more fulfilling to me.
Even if there’s something fun to do, you still need to be the catalyst to make it happen. A perfect example of this is traveling. We love to travel and we do a lot of it. We have a blast visiting new places by car, plane, or boat… but we still need to put in the work to plan it and make it a reality.
We use credit card rewards to pay for a lot of our travel – free flights, free hotel stays, etc. That in itself involves some strategy and planning. But then there’s coordinating everything to fall into place correctly (planes, hotels, etc.), the actual booking of the travel, researching to have some ideas on what to do at the destination, and more.
Traveling is fantastic but you still need to put in the work to make it happen. The good news is that once you’re booked, the happiness shows up even before the actual trip as one of my wonderful readers commented in an earlier post:
“While most of us know that buying experiences is better for happiness than buying things, the less talked about thing is that anticipating those experiences is a big part of the enjoyment as well.”— Mr. Life Outside the Maze from Life Outside the Maze
Any new hobby needs the same attention. I’m excited to learn to play the harmonica in the near future, but I also know that I’m going to suck at it for a while and will need to work at it to get better. I know it’ll be fun because I’m looking forward to it, but I still will need to practice a lot.
Financial independence is phenomenal but finding happiness once you get there is up to you.
Finding happiness requires balance and compromise
There’s no doubt that finding happiness once you leave the rat race is going to be a different journey for everyone. Some folks will be content with less on the agenda whereas some will need more. Some people will be content with keeping things as they are while others want to experience more adventure.
In my case, I thrive on change. I think it’s the only way to grow and become a better person. Lisa, however, doesn’t like change – she’s good with it when she does it but would usually prefer not to take the plunge at all.
Moving to Panama is a perfect example. I came up with the idea but I left it alone after our visit in 2017. After a few days back in the U.S., Lisa randomly just said, “Yeah, I think I could do this. We should try living in Panama.”
That was a lot for her… but it’s all about compromise. That’s also why I suggested that we take things just one year at a time. It’s all about balance and compromise.
It’s also the reason why I still have so many things I want to carry out in early retirement but feel like it’s going so slow. If you have a lot you want to accomplish and also have kids you want to spend an abundant amount of time with, you’re going to struggle trying to fit it all in.
That lesson took me over a year into early retirement to understand and it’s something I still struggle with periodically.
Finding happiness means finding the right balance and enjoying the moment… every moment you can. If you master that, you’ll one day die with few regrets and a smile on your face.
Financial independence doesn’t guarantee happiness – the ball’s in your court for this. But taking the money factor out of the equation knocks out part of the battle. We all want to be happy in life but it’s up to you to figure out what you need to do to make that happen.
I thought I’d end with a quote that sums up a lot of why we enjoy doing new things on our journey of happiness…
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”— Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens]
Do you think finding happiness after leaving the rat race can be easy or is it something you need to work at to make happen?
Plan well, take action, and live your best life!
Thanks for reading!!
28 thoughts on “Finding Happiness Once You Leave the Rat Race”
Jim, it’s amazing how almost everyone who FIRES ends up realizing, after the fact, that achieving FI doesn’t automatically result in happiness. It’s a lifelong quest, and one of the things I find most fascinating about life.
It seems like you and Jackie have it all figured out, Fritz! 😉 It’s definitely a journey and I hope to continue enjoying the here and now while searching for more happiness as the years progress.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. At 3 months into “retirement” I’m just getting used to it and looking forward to what’s next.
Congrats on retirement, Barak! It took me a long time to get adjusted (though it was a journey I didn’t mind being on!). I hope you find your way much quicker and fall right into your new life! 🙂
Wow, honored to be quoted with JL and even Mark Twain 🙂 yeah it’s funny because if I look back, I wrote a lot about money early on when realizing FI but then started writing and thinking more about happiness. So far I’ve learned that for me it’s not a permanent state like happily ever after but more like fitness and staying in shape. A practice and a focus to maintain. Jim thanks for sharing your insights so far and fun to follow along.
It was an insightful quote so it definitely earned its place in this post! I like the comparison of happiness to staying in shape – it’s a journey that never ends. The great thing is that the experiences along the way can be wonderful!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts…these are universal issues that most of us struggle with, but rarely verbalize because we are too busy “making the donuts.” Sometimes I hear people say in regard to someone that has passed that they had “a life well lived”. I wonder if that means that the person was happy most of the time, or if there are other qualities, and characteristic that define “a life well lived.” After having lived 60+ years I don’t think it is in mankind’s basic nature to be able to maintain an emotional state of happiness at all times. So I guess what you are saying is that when you look back at your life, you want to be happy with your works and accomplishments, and to be able to see that you had a positive impact on others and in particular your family.
So I guess what you are saying is that when you look back at your life, you want to be happy with your works and accomplishments, and to be able to see that you had a positive impact on others and in particular your family.
I think you framed that rather well, David! It’s a lot to ask out of life but a mission I’m willing to take on nonetheless. 🙂
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing not enough, enough, and then more. I think you have it right. It’s quite a struggle when there simply isn’t enough to put food on the table, but once we reach “enough” happiness isn’t guaranteed.
I absolutely agree that finding and doing that purpose is so fulfilling. Spending time with your daughter is a beautiful purpose.
No doubt about it, Bonnie – the time with my daughter wins over everything. Blessed to be in the position we’re in for sure. Hope all is well with you! 🙂
I’m not RE yet but from my experience even while working I think I’m happiest when I can look back and feel proud about something I did, even if it was simple. I definitely plan on slowing down when I RE but I want to make sure that when I do that I use my time in a way that I’ll be proud of (spending more time with the kids, fixing / improving the house, learning new things, etc).
Sounds like we’re pretty similar in that, Mr. NMW. Personally, I feel like I need to be doing something productive (including family time) or it’s time wasted. Regardless, when I look back years from now, I want to feel that I made a difference in the lives of others.
A couple nuggets…
Frustration is caused by unmet expectations….
Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson- Learn to be idle and just be
Happiness isn’t the right word- Contentment is…
Scott, you nailed it. I 100% struggle with contentment. While working, that was almost impossible for me to do but over the past couple of years of early retirement, I’ve been retraining myself to just enjoy the moment more. I think I’m doing a better job with it, especially with family time, but it’s still very hard for me.
Happiness is tricky. You need to work toward it, but if you push too much, you’ll be unhappy. It can be elusive.
For me, ER was the key. I got out of an unhappy situation. I’m a naturally happy person so it was pretty easy after that. My wife doesn’t like changes either. I wonder if that’s a female thing.
I saw a huge boost in happiness with ER as well. If I remember right, you were actually getting physically sick from being your situation at work so I can see how retiring early would put you back on track. Being able to spend more quality time with family is a huge piece of the happiness level for sure. I’m looking forward though to being able to spend more time trying more things once Faith is older and sick of hanging out with dear old dad. 😉
I think it was Charlie Munger that said, “The secret to a happy marriage is low expectations.”
This useful maxim can also be applied to many other areas of life. Don’t expect to live in a mansion, drive shiny new cars, buy anything you want, and so forth. Do that, the ability to be content with life is *much much* easier.
Conversely, if you set too-high expectations you’re likely to be very disappointed when life doesn’t deliver. That’s not a recipe for happiness.
I agree with you on the level of being content with what you’ve got. Trying to find happiness with “stuff” is a recipe for failure. You keep buying more and more hoping that’ll make you happy and it just doesn’t work over the long run.
When it comes to making a difference in the world through some kind of giving back though, I have a feeling that I’m going to keep striving for more than I’m likely to achieve. Probably not the best idea for happiness, but I think that’s just the way it goes.
Great Post @routetoretire!
Have you read Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn? She brings up many points you touched on. For example, the “anticipation of the experience” research is really interesting as sometimes you end up enjoying the “anticipation experience” more than the actual experience.
Re: early retirement and happiness, at least for me, TIME and having the AUTONOMY to do with it as I choose seems to be my “why” for early retirement. Have a great time on ALL of your well-deserved travels with your wife and daughter! Aren’t we all so blessed and lucky?
Well, I just added that book to my reading list, DocToDisco – looks really interesting. Here’s a link for anyone looking to check it out: https://amzn.to/2SPweTJ
Time and freedom are wonderful benefits of early retirement. The hard part is finding what makes you happy with all that extra time and freedom – I hope you’re finding what makes you happy! 🙂
Although I am in the earlier stages of getting to financial independence, I constantly think about what my life might be like once I’m there. I also feel like there is just something more that I need to be doing, but have yet to put my finger on it. It’s nice to think I will just suddenly jet off and see the world and sit in cafes every morning catching up on the news and enjoying a latte, but even after quitting the rat race I can see that there will be more to it than that. I am not a person that can just sit still or do nothing. I often think that perhaps volunteering or coaching others or something like that may be in my future once I have reached FI and call the daily grind quits. Thanks for sharing. This is really some good stuff to contemplate from someone who has reached FI to someone who is still on the journey to get there!
I love every second of the freedom that early retirement provides, Chad, but like you, I need to stay busy as well. Volunteering and coaching sound like perfect avenues to keep yourself busy and give back once you bail on the old 9-5!
Money can’t buy happiness but it certainly does hope some. But there is a point where you hit the point of diminishing returns.
Without a doubt. We hit the level in our household where money is a help in our pursuit of happiness, but we’re not at the point of diminishing returns yet.
One of the things that I am considering on the journey to financial independence is that I built it up to this magical land where unicorns and rainbows are everywhere but once I reach it… Will I regret reaching it?
You definitely have to actively work on being happier. Money certainly can buy the avoidance of unhappiness but there are other things you have to do to get there.
I can’t imagine you’ll have any regrets about your new freedom once you’re there… I love every second of it! That said, it won’t take you all the way there – you’ll still need to figure out what makes your happy. But the good news is that with money out of the way, that’s one less hurdle in the way of finding it. ?
I have so many hobbies. For me leaving the rat race provides time to really focus on other things that bring me joy. Writing, gardening, coaching, sleeping, etc are all things that I wish I had more time for while I was working. Now I have the time and love it!
For sure – time is the greatest asset to be gained from leaving the rat race. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to be able to choose how each and every day will go! 🙂