The Pursuit of Happiness

This post was inspired by Mr. Money Mustache, who writes a terrific blog about retiring early and living well for less money. In a recent post about why he likes living in Longmont, Colorado, he wrote the following:

Colorado in general, and old-town Longmont in specific, agree very well with me. The fine balance between warmth and cold, freedom and social order, affordability and fanciness, and even perfection and ugly flaws, seems just about right to keep life vigorous and interesting. After all, the happiest life is not attained by soaking yourself in the deepest possible tub of comfort. Instead, you win the game by extracting the most personal growth from yourself. This means doing hard stuff. Experiencing voluntary discomfort. Getting off your ass once in a while. Colorado seems to have been geologically formed with exactly this ethos in mind.

Mr. MM invited comments about other wonderful places to live, and more than 250 readers had already replied as of my last visit. Evidently, Longmont is not the only place where a desirable balance can be found. After all, it is not a contest, and there is no best place on earth.

The place where I live has a lot going for it (and it shares some qualities with Longmont), but what inspired me about Mr. MM’s post was his incidental observation about happiness and success, which I have italicized above. Some places may be more conducive to happiness, but the lesson here is not about seeking a place that makes you happy, but rather it is about understanding the source of happiness itself.

Happiness is not a random event. There is much to be learned about acquiring happiness, success and satisfaction. If happiness cannot be found in a deep “tub of comfort,” can it be acquired through “extracting personal growth”? And what is personal growth, really?

Personal growth sounds like a good idea, considering that its opposite—personal decay—is an unhappy prospect. If personal growth is a source of happiness, it is worth thinking about.

According to Mr. MM, personal growth requires doing hard stuff and experiencing voluntary discomfort. Happiness is not static and cannot be acquired in a life of inactive balance in all things, riding the razor’s edge where there is neither growth nor decay.

There is no growth without change. Whether change makes you grow or decay depends on how you perceive the change and, more importantly, how you respond to it.

Change itself is multi-faceted. Change can be internal or external. Change may be something that happens to you, brought about by external forces beyond the will. Or, change may be something that you make happen through the deliberate exercise of your own willpower. In either case—whether events move you (external change) or you move events (internal change)—you may perceive change as good or bad, for better or for worse, positive and affirming or negative and destructive.

When change happens—good or bad—it affects you, but most of the time you have a say in the matter. That is, how you respond to change is often something you choose. Consciously or unconsciously, how you respond to change can make the difference between growth and stagnation.

Growth can be the silver lining of adversity when you choose to learn from the experience and not to wallow in misery. Even when good things things happen, there is an opportunity to extract personal growth from the positive turn of events. You can choose to grow in response to good fortune through affirmation of your role in it or you can respond to good fortune by denying your part and dwelling on the notion that if something good happened, it must have been a fluke.

Doing the “hard stuff” and accepting voluntary discomfort is a form of making change happen. It is making a change that, at least in the short-term, is negative. If it were otherwise, the experience would not be perceived as “hard” or “uncomfortable.” Doing hard stuff tends to upset the otherwise comfortable status quo by taking a step outside of your “deep tub of comfort.” The growth derived from doing hard stuff stands out in sharp relief as a positive gain from a negative, or at least difficult, time. Yet, voluntary adversity may not be the only path to personal growth, success and happiness.

How does personal growth bring about happiness, satisfaction and success?

Personal growth has been described as a process of identifying the physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual changes that you desire and working in each of these core areas to improve and reach your “fullest potential.” Personal growth has also been described as a process of developing skills and tools for increasing levels of self-awareness, happiness and success in life.

Personal growth is about experiencing changes in yourself that move in a direction that is positive and rewarding. Personal growth can mean learning something new, mastering something difficult, acquiring new insight, or being moved to joy in some inexpressable way by a work of art or piece of music. It can mean developing physical strength, health or endurance. Personal growth may mean achieving a higher level of emotional or spiritual connection with another person or with the natural world.

There is no age limit on personal growth. Indeed, retirement is a time of new possiblities and new opportunities for personal growth. Retirement itself is a big change, and as with any change, how you choose to respond can make all the difference.

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