Happiness Through Subtraction

Happiness Through Subtraction

Financial independence isn’t the answer to all your problems and it won’t be the source of all your happiness.

In fact, financial independence is just another shiny object. A new car. The latest smart phone. It’s all the same.

We scoff at normal consumers when they try to find happiness by buying things but are we any better?

I know I wasn’t.

I thought that all my problems would be solved and complete happiness would arrive as soon as I hit my magic number. After all, why wouldn’t it? Once I reached my FI target, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. There would be nothing holding me back from true happiness so I decided to do everything I could to get there as quickly as possible.

Big mistake.

Darkness in Pursuit

When Jill and I were looking for a house in Vermont, we found one that we loved but it was in the middle of nowhere. Although it was right in between her work and my work, it wasn’t around anyone we knew and it wasn’t close to any of the things we loved about Vermont – ski hills, ice hockey rinks, breweries, etc.

We were a bit hesitant to buy it but we didn’t find anything better so we went for it. I figured that even if we were a bit isolated and bored, it’d be good to just buckle down for a few years and really save a bunch of money. I was also about to start my free Master’s degree so I figured a bit of quiet and isolation would make it easier to study.

At first, things were fine and we enjoyed ourselves in our new place. Over time though, the disconnection from our friends and family started wearing on us.

For Jill, she started to get very homesick and for me, I started to get depressed without even really knowing it. Looking back, it seems obvious, but at the time, I just figured I was stressed about being back in school.

No Joy

I remember being on the top of a beautiful mountain in Vermont on a clear January day, skiing with Jill and friends who came to visit us from Boston, and I was miserable. I thought to myself, “What’s the point spending $70 to be unhappy when I could be unhappy at home and at least be saving money and getting some schoolwork done.”

From that point on, I avoided anything that cost money. FI was the main focus so I didn’t want to do anything that would delay me crossing that finish line.

Downward Spiral

As I got closer and closer to my goal, however, the unhappier I became. Isolation was what initiated the unhappiness but I continued to isolate myself more and more, which further increased my unhappiness.

For an already homesick wife who was missing her new niece and nephew back in Scotland, having a husband that didn’t want to do anything besides work, study, and write articles about weird tax-avoidance strategies didn’t really improve her happiness either.

Is This It?

Sometime during all of this, I hit my target number. And do you know what? I didn’t feel any different. The happiness that I thought would arrive didn’t.

It makes sense now that there’s absolutely no reason why seeing $x in my bank account would make me instantly happy when having $x – $1 sitting there didn’t, but I was still surprised.

All that hard work and I’m not any happier?

Snap Out of It

It wasn’t until Jill described what had been going on that I realized how bad it had gotten. The isolation had made me unhappy, the unhappiness caused me to focus solely on the pursuit of FI and abandon everything else, and what resulted was not good for anyone.

Once we understood what had been happening, we immediately decided to sell our house, end our self-imposed exile, and get back to spending more time with the people we love.

We’ve since spent months visiting friends and family in the States and in Scotland, we’ve met interesting new people while traveling through Southeast Asia, and I’m pleased to report that we’re back to being as happy as ever.

Is FI Not Worth It?

You might be thinking to yourself, “Damn MF, why are you talking me out of pursuing financial independence?”

I’m definitely not! Pursuing FI has been an incredible journey and I would recommend it to everyone.

I would just caution you to avoid the FI tunnel vision that can occur and instead focus on the journey. That’s where the magic is.

I’ll explain…

An Aside on Happiness

Humans are terrible at predicting what will actually make us happy. We think a new iPhone will make us happy but soon after getting it, we grow accustomed to it and we revert back to our baseline happiness.

We think more money will make us happier but as our income grows, our frame of reference changes and the Joneses we compare ourselves to change as well.

We think we’ll be happy if we move into that nice, wealthy neighborhood but once we get there, our peers are wealthier than our previous peers and we’re left wanting more.

As Swiss Economist and happiness researcher Bruno Frey describes in his book, Happiness: A Revolution in Economics:

There are many processes that may explain why higher income does not have more of an effect on happiness. The most important of these are that individuals adapt to their new standard of living and that they compare themselves to other individuals. It is not the absolute level of income that matters most, but rather one’s position relative to the past and other individuals.

So we’re bad at predicting what will make us happier and we quickly grow accustomed to bigger and better things so what is the best way to pursue happiness then?


Happiness Through Subtraction

When I was in Thailand, basking in happiness once again, I read a book called Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I plan to write a full review of that book but one of the most impactful parts is when Taleb describes the value of subtraction when pursuing happiness:

happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept…the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is not equivalent to the ‘avoidance of unhappiness.’ Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy…but what to do about it.

This idea is so simple but it is brilliant!

We are terrible at predicting what will make us happier but it’s obvious what makes us unhappy so rather than pursue something that likely won’t actually improve our well-being, focus instead on eliminating the things that definitely make us unhappy and the net result will be increased happiness!

And that is why the pursuit of financial independence is such a worthwhile endeavor. Having money in the bank allows you to say goodbye to all the things that make you unhappier.

Don’t like commuting? Tell your boss you’re working remotely from now on.

Don’t like your boss or your job? Quit.

Don’t like your neighbors? Move.

My Journey

Although hitting my number didn’t instantly make me happier, the pursuit of FI allowed me to eliminate nearly everything that used to make me unhappy and as a result, has vastly increased my happiness.

I no longer have to commute to work, I’m not trapped in the office from 9 to 5, I avoid most of the meetings I despise, and I don’t have to deal with office politics, thanks to FI and the power of quitting.

I had enough money in the bank to leave our house vacant while Jill and I travelled around the States and Scotland visiting our friends and family. Had we not had that luxury, we would have been forced to remain isolated in a place we didn’t want to live anymore.

My savings gave me the option to sell our house at a loss, which eliminated the stress of having it sit there empty during the Vermont winter (that amount of stress would not have been worth any amount of money).

The list goes on and on.


Don’t focus solely on the finish line because once you get there, you may be disappointed. The journey is the important part so figure out all the things that make you unhappy and use your FI savings to eliminate them.

A big number in the bank is relatively meaningless but using that money to remove the things from your life that make you unhappy is priceless.

What about you? What’s the biggest source of unhappiness you have been able to eliminate while being on the journey to financial independence?

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109 comments for “Happiness Through Subtraction

  1. brooklynguy
    May 21, 2015 at 10:24 am

    This introspective post was a nice change of pace, MF! You’ve distilled two related issues that we often pay lip service to in the FIRE community but that many of us (including myself) can’t help but succumb to: (1) planning for tomorrow at the complete expense of living for today and (2) perceiving attainment of FIRE as a total panacea. I constantly try to remind myself to enjoy life’s pleasures today even as I plan for my future self’s multi-decade FIRE of “doing whatever I want whenever I want,” but it’s not easy. And when I get there, I’m sure I will have to exercise some “happiness through subtraction” to avoid the inevitable let-down that will occur when FIRE fails to materialize into the nirvana of “puppies and rainbows” that I’ve built it up to be in my mind.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      Haha, I can’t wait for some puppies and rainbows :)

      • Dividend Growth Investor
        May 22, 2015 at 1:36 pm

        I agree that this is a very good thought-provoking article. Kind of reminds me of the slogan that the career center at my school had ” Your career is a journey, not a destination”. Just substitute “Career” with FI/retirement/ and you get the picture.

        The thing is one has to enjoy the journey to reach their goal. If you enjoy the process, then the goal is to reach the objective as slowly as possible. I myself am guilty of rushing through things, and believing that achieving a goal will make me happier. You correctly pointed out that your environment will make you happy, not reaching that goal. Hurray for hedonic adaptation ;-)

  2. Justin @ Root of Good
    May 21, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Well said. After I retired early, I kind of had that “what now?” moment. Where I realized that I was now living the rest of my life that I had worked so hard to get to.

    I quickly realized I was responsible for my own happiness and entertainment and if I wasn’t content, it was my own damn fault! :)

    All I know is that I don’t regret working hard, saving and investing all that money and buying our family the ultimate freedom of time (and of geography and lifestyle within certain bounds).

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks, Justin.

      I’m trying to figure out the “what now” while still working and living a relatively normal life so that I hopefully avoid any big shocks when I finally do quit.

      • Justin @ Root of Good
        May 22, 2015 at 8:04 pm

        Best of luck getting it all figured out. Fortunately you have the rest of your life to do so. :)

  3. Vawt @ Early Retirement Ahead
    May 21, 2015 at 10:31 am

    I think that is a great concept, since we all know the major things that cause us to be unhappy. I am trying to make sure that we still do the things we enjoy during our journey to financial independence. I don’t expect a parade on the day I start early retirement, but I do expect the tingle of ‘what do I do next?’ (which I mean as a positive feeling).

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      Yeah I’m looking forward to that tingle when I finally quit my job but it just didn’t come when I hit my target number, (unsurprisingly, since nothing really changed).

  4. Gwen
    May 21, 2015 at 10:38 am

    For me, knowing I’m not going to be stuck in an office environment for the next 35-40 years is probably the biggest issue. I would go crazy if I had to do something like this for the rest of my life.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      That’s the beauty of pursuing FI…you get an amazing happiness boost like that on day one!

      My good friend had that epiphany just a few weeks ago and she said she already enjoyed her job more now that she knew she wasn’t trapped forever!

  5. Trevor B
    May 21, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Great post MF. You should also add Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert to your book queue. There was an interesting section that represents the yang to Frey’s discussion of how happiness is normalized. Gilbert basically explains that people will drastically over predict how awful they would feel if something bad were to happen to them. I think this further promotes Taleb’s removing negative approach. If you are scared to quit your job or to move and think those things are going to make you unhappy, chances are, you will inevitably adapt to the change once you are there and most likely find something that makes you happy under the new circumstances.

    Your mind is its own immune system, it usually tries to fight off negative feelings and bring your mind back to a healthy positive state.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Trevor. I’ve added it to my reading list so I’ll check it out!

      Frey talks about how lottery winners are only slightly happier after the initial excitement wears off and recent paraplegics are only slightly less happy after the shock of their accident wears off. It seems it’s hard to stray too far from your baseline of happiness for long.

  6. Dave @ The New York Budget
    May 21, 2015 at 10:45 am

    I have heard a lot of your amazing tax strategies (especially the HSA strategy) echoed throughout the personal finance community.

    Some of your posts will likely continue to be much more popular and read than this one.

    But this is by far my favorite post of yours so far.

    We don’t become better people by saving more money, just like we don’t become better people by spending more. It sounds like you have grown a lot as a person, though. And it’s a great point at the end that FI affords you the room to grow.

    It was great meeting up with you and Jill in NY over a delicious burrito! Definitely let me know if/when you are back in the area.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      Dave, that’s really great to hear. I’m not as comfortable posting these types of posts as I am the more analytical stuff so it’s great to get such positive feedback, especially from a fellow writer.

      Man, I still think about that delicious food we had when we met up! We’ll definitely have to do it again next time we’re back in NYC. Let me know if you guys ever make it over to Scotland and we’ll return the favor (although I can’t imagine we’ll be able to find food as good as that Mexican food was!)

      • Elephant Eater
        May 21, 2015 at 10:31 pm


        I just want to echo Dave’s comments. Your tax planning strategies are brilliant, have helped us immensely in our planning and we share your site with anyone who will listen to us.

        All that said, this was your best post. Thank you for sharing. We fight every day with tunnel vision as we are two years from our target date.

        We’ve been talking a lot about just taking the plunge now and quitting full-time work (Mrs. EE already down to 30 hrs/ week), work part time for a while giving us a more gradual transition and enjoying the journey more even if it takes longer to get there, rather than continuing with the plan to work full-time to FI.

        It seems we often get so caught up in efficiency and getting to the goal as quickly as possible, we forget to enjoy the ride.

        Thanks again for a great post!

        • The Mad Fientist
          June 7, 2015 at 3:52 pm

          Wow, thanks a lot, EE. I wasn’t sure how this post would be received so I’m really glad to hear you think it’s my best yet.

          Your plan to transition to full early retirement via a few years of part-time work sounds like a good one. I actually wrote a post about that a while back – https://www.madfientist.com/semiretirement/

          Thanks again!

  7. Chris @ Flipping A Dollar
    May 21, 2015 at 11:09 am

    I’m in a weird state now. I should be fulfilled at work. I get paid well, I have a ton of flexibility (future path-wise). I just feel like it’s too open ended and all I want to do is be home with my daughter instead. If the house was paid off, I’d be home, but we’re not there yet. I’m just trying to pile the money away now while we can to get the mortgage gone so I wouldn’t’ have to worry about it at all.

    • Mike
      May 21, 2015 at 11:28 am

      Chris, you’re in a better place than a lot of people. I’m in a similar situation with you; I enjoy my job, it pays well, benefits are great, and I’m providing financial security to my family. However, there are dozens of interests I’d rather be pursuing than coming to work 40-60 hrs / week. All we can do is find happiness in our every day lives, keep the work / life balance in check, and try to maximize our value at work to earn FI quicker.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      Can you get another job or make changes at your current job that will make you happier? It sounds like you don’t need the job so don’t be afraid to make some crazy demands!

  8. Make7upYOURS
    May 21, 2015 at 11:25 am

    The pursuit of FI has so many adventures along the way! I think of it like leveling up in a video game.

    Level 0: Negative net worth. Superpowers: Determination.
    Level 1: Not living paycheck to paycheck. Superpowers: Credit card bonuses, auto billpay, increased financial spontaneity, buying in bulk
    Level 2: 6 month emergency fund. Superpowers: Max out insurance deductibles to save more. Stand up to your employer when asked to do something unreasonable, without fear of job loss.
    Level 3: 10 year supply of money. Superpowers: Work part time indefinitely without loss in net worth
    Level 4: 25 year supply of money. Superpowers: Never work again, unless you want to!

    The amount of happiness I gained by hitting level two last year was insane. My employer could fire me TODAY and it would hardly put a dent in my life anymore. Compared to the norm (wage slavery), these truly are superpowers!!

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      Great summary! I’m actually working on a post describing the various levels of freedom you obtain on the journey to FI and looking at your levels, we agree on a lot of them :)

    • The Bearded Dragon
      May 21, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      I like this analogy a lot. Of course, I played a lot of RPG’s growing up, so that helps :)

  9. Danny @ Danny MoreBucks
    May 21, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    This is eye opening, MF. This has been proven to me over and over. You just never know what someone might be going through. It’s a lso a wonderful telltale warning to everyone else in the pursuit of FI. FI can facilitate happiness, but take the proper steps to be happy now.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      Absolutely. Happiness takes a bit of work so don’t wait for FI, start now!

  10. Jimmy
    May 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Very nice article. I think we really need to be grateful and enjoy our journey to reach FI. Who knows whether we will still live tomorrow to enjoy it or not. I often reminds myself not to wait until reach FI to enjoy life and live a meaningful life while I have it now.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      The good news is the journey to FI provides many excellent opportunities to be happy

  11. Mrs. PoP
    May 21, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Your comments, particularly those on unhappiness avoidance and simplicity are so similar to others I heard from a friend recently. She just got back from a coast to coast bicycle tour and was recalling how much satisfaction and happiness she found in the simplicity of bicycle touring. (Get up, eat breakfast, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride to new camp, sleep… do it all again.) But it was more than that – she said it was so good to get away from some of the things in every day life that bring her down that she barely used a cell phone or checked email while she was away. She enjoyed being “away from the drama”.

    By some peoples’ standards, we’re aiming for far too spendy FI (and spending too much in the present as well), but we’re trying to balance having fun along the journey with getting to the destination.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      Hopefully she’s in a position to just get rid of those things completely when she returns to normal life.

      Are you heading to FinCon this year? I hope so, since it’s not too far from you guys!

    • Clay Gump
      May 22, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      I spent 8 weeks cycling cross country. It was amazing. Everything I needed in two little bags. Amazing way to get out of your own world for awhile.

      • The Mad Fientist
        June 7, 2015 at 3:55 pm

        Wow, great stuff, Clay. I’d love to do a big trip like that one day!

      • Susan B.
        December 19, 2018 at 10:45 am

        Clay, did you do this trip with a group?

  12. Even Steven
    May 21, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    What’s the biggest source of unhappiness you have been able to eliminate while being on the journey to financial independence?

    I would say the fact that I have a plan to succeed with money, for me it has been difficult to work towards FI because I had so much debt, having a plan to eliminate debt and focus on increasing wealth/passive income has been amazing.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:07 pm

      The feeling of being financially lost and directionless is a great thing to get rid of!

  13. Money Beard
    May 21, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I went to clip this article into my evernote to read later. Evernote autocategorizes Madfientist into my personal finance folder.

    For this one, I had to click and add it to my motivation/inspiration folder.

    Nice article, it struck a cord. Reminds me of some of the old school lifestyle engineering stuff that used to be posted on early retirement extreme eight years ago when that blog first started.


    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Really glad you enjoyed it! Taleb’s analysis struck a chord with me so I’m happy to share it.

  14. Syed
    May 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    I need to remind myself of this as well, as I have had this tunnel vision problem all my life. Once I was accepted to optometry school, I thought that would be the pinnacle of happiness since my life was pretty much decided. That faded. Then the journey to finish optometry school. Once finished, I thought that would be the highest point of happiness. That faded too. Now I’m trying to get rid of student loans and reach a certain net worth. Will I be happy once that happens? Probably yes. But that most likely will fade.

    But along the way I’ve had great memories with friends and family that will never fade. Thanks for the great reminder. It really is all about the journey after all.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Syed. My wife is an optometrist too, by the way :)

  15. CLV
    May 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    This post is amazing and hit home on so many levels. This is my first time commenting on a blog, so thank you for the inspiration. You never do know what someone is going through like Danny said, you put into words my current situation. I have a tendency to feel isolated in my experiences, to focus on how far I have to go instead of how far I’ve come, and to feel guilty after enjoying myself because money was spent. I am aware of these self-defeating ways and work to better myself daily, I am proud of my progress. It is still is very comforting and encouraging to know that I am not alone in my experience. Thank you for the effort you put into these articles, especially this one that reminds people like me that we are not only the numbers on a screen.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment and glad you enjoyed the article.

      People who achieve early FI are usually people who go 100% into everything they do so I’m sure it’s more common than you think so just keep fighting the good fight and good luck!

  16. marvin mcdude
    May 21, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Thanks for your candid post! Reminds me of this line from Dazed and Confused: “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.” There’s a middle ground between living for now, and living for the future–and everybody has to find it for themselves. I know I’m still looking.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      Man, I need to watch Dazed and Confused again. I had no idea there was so much to learn from a stoner movie :)

  17. Mike
    May 21, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    I found this article very interesting and applicable to me. I’ve worked my whole life and I believe I’ve reached financial independence but I’m frightened about taking the next step.

    I know I have to get my mind in the right place before I stop working. without even realizing it I’ve already begun to remove things from my life that make me unhappy. I’m changing jobs next week to one that will allow a better work-life balance. I’m hoping that’s going to go a long way to making me feel better and enjoy my personal time more.

    I also have to agree a hundred percent about reaching your goal and then having the feeling that you really haven’t accomplished enough to be happy. I wanted $500,000. when I got it I realized it wasn’t enough. I wanted a million dollars. when I got it I realized it wasn’t a big deal. you know what they say a million dollars isn’t what it used to be. 10 years ago I had a friend of mine who is in my position now. he said to me “you think a million dollars is a lotta money don’t you ….well its not!” at the time, behind his back, I ridiculed him for that statement. now I’m in the same position and I’m thinking the same way he did. I’m now at 1.5 million and I realize now no matter how much money I have it’s not going to make me feel safe secure and happy. so I have to find a way to make myself feel that way. I have to start working on myself. trying to get myself to realize my situation and make myself happy.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      That’s it. As Justin said above, nobody else is responsible for your happiness so you just have to keep working on it. Good luck and let me know when you finally feel like you have enough.

  18. citizenk
    May 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for this, it’s wonderful.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  19. ambertree
    May 21, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Hello MF,

    Thx for this interesting article. It defines indeed the real purpose of FI. Until now, for me it was to have options, but now I realise it is to have the option to walk away from things that make you unhappy. And that is something valuable to understand.

    I will give motivation to keep on the journey.

    I also think this insight will help me to take decision that will postpone FI, but that remove happiness out of my life.


    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      Having the option to walk away from things that make you unhappy is truly an amazing thing.

  20. AlwaysBeenASaver
    May 21, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    I love this concept – remove those aspects of our lives that make us unhappy, in order to achieve more happiness! I’m going to put some real thought into this, thanks for this great blog post.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      Glad you liked it! You should definitely read Antifragile because Taleb discusses why subtraction is often better than addition in other realms as well so you’d probably really enjoy it (I did).

  21. Chris
    May 21, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you for this. I am totally in the tunnel right now. Been focused on paying off the house then saving for FI. Been working 6days per week for the last 5 years. On my last holiday, I went to a different town and worked 6 days per week, 50+ hrs/wk…and I wondered why I didn’t feel refreshed after my ‘holiday’.

    • The Mad Fientist
      May 21, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      That sounds pretty rough, Chris. Let me know if you end up dialing it back a bit (sounds like you probably should) and let me know how it goes. Good luck!

  22. Tim
    May 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    You’re post is right on target. I felt the same way when I reached FI and retired, I felt lost. I am a lot older than you, and one day this song popped into my head Be Here Now by George Harrison it gave me perspective and when ever things get out of control again I just remember the song.

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      So I’m assuming you found your stride now, Tim?

  23. middle class
    May 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    I really enjoyed this post and reading a different spin on the FI journey. I admire your determination (and that of your fellow FI commenters) who aim to retire early and escape the cubicle. For various reasons, ‘m not planning to retire early but I enjoy reading FIRE blogs like yours.

  24. The Bearded Dragon
    May 21, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s really easy to put the blinders on and think about every decision in terms of “Is this helping me achieve FI?” But it’s really important to remember that being happy today, not just in the future, is the whole point.

  25. Mich
    May 21, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Always enjoy the great posts! I am a single mom with an internet based real estate business living in China for the adventure with one daughter. We could be living in other places but right now it works for us.

    We recently ended up relocating to a less developed area closer to her school, which moved there because they were pushed out of prime real estate. Now she bikes to school and our subdivision is filled with her teachers and friends so I no longer need to arrange for weekend play dates or even private tutors, we just access our resources right here.

    I gave up being close to the other expats and friends we had made during our earlier stay. So like you, I had to take a leap of faith, and for us, it did. The roughly 70sqft 2 bedroom apartment, a gorgeous recent build with several security measures including round the clock guards and numerous cleaning staff costs me about $300/mo.

    I wanted to share my story too, I agree that we do need to be attentive to happiness in order to pursue savings and to find a middle ground, and that in this case we lucked out. I rather enjoy this puzzle of life now, how to look at both and come out a winner, as our move to China was of the same nature (make live easier and happier, and live on less on top.)

  26. Kyle Simmons
    May 21, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Any plans for new podcast episodes?

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      My next post will be a podcast episode :)

  27. Lewis
    May 21, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Happiness is not something that comes from outside. If you try to change it externally, you will stick to that baseline happiness, or even decrease in happiness because of the frustration of disappointment. Baseline happiness can increase, but it requires practice and time. Focus on being in the present and accepting what is and is unchangeable clears up a lot of the haziness and allows you to work on changing what is changeable and unpleasant, such as the need to go to work every day.

    We are not FI yet, but we worked hard to for the freedom to quit our jobs and cycle to South America. It was scary to quit, but the first work day after my last we wandered around Manhattan as in a dream. We just wandered where we wanted, slept in a park, watched some kids playing frisbee and took photos of some flowers. I felt as if a giant weight was lifted from my chest.

    We have been out for a year now and have been dealing with some of the emotional issues that arise from constant travel – the desire for stability, friends, a place and the need to do something productive – but I still feel the removal of the great unhappiness of having to plan my life around seven hours in a cubicle five days a week. Waking up early to drag my ass over to the office and stare at a screen, even at a job I enjoyed, was always a source of misery. We usually wake up earlier than we ever did when working, but we feel so much better doing so and don’t feel the dread when the night is coming to an end. Sometimes I realize it is Sunday and smile to myself knowing that I do not have a new week of work looming over my head.

    Another great source of happiness on our journey is having a much greater understanding of finances and feeling like I am completely in control of my money. I know that when we finally return from our ridiculous journey we can jump right into the early retirement train.

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      Great stuff, Lewis. Sounds like an incredible trip!

  28. Andrew
    May 21, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    This is a great article and it touches on some very important things that, in my opinion, get shoved on the back burner a bit too much especially in the FIRE community. Really the key to happiness is balance. Having a healthy balance in life is so often disregarded, in favor of longer hours work, a longer commute for more pay, too many extracurricular activities on the weekend leaving no time to truly relax and center yourself, or too much focus on a single aspect/motivation such as aggressively saving for early retirement. It is so true that it’s more about the journey than the destination, but so often the journey is diminished for the sake of the destination. Great post, MF.

  29. dddenham
    May 21, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    Not to be a broken record but great post, it really hit home with me.

    One of the things that attracts me to the idea of FI is the rejection of the pursuit of material possessions for the sake of keeping up with those around you. I’m a big believer that buying something only makes you happy for a short period of time and then you need to buy something else to keep that feeling going. In my mind I see FI as the gateway which will allow me to break free from the restraints of spending half my waking hours doing something I don’t particularly like (working) just in order to maintain a certain material lifestyle. Once I get to the end, then I’ll be happy.

    However sometimes I worry that the pursuit of seeing my savings increase has become twisted into being the goal instead of a means to the end. This isn’t the same as “keeping up with the Joneses”but it operates on much the same level. Instead of getting an endorphin rush from buying that new BMW, perhaps my mind has become addicted to the rush of seeing my savings tick up to to the next $100k level. Then of course I won’t be happy again until I reach the next level.

    Part of me rationalizes this way by reminding myself that I’m pursuing a clear goal but I do worry that I will get to the finish line and keep running just because I’ve become unhealthily addicted to the race itself.

    I said earlier that I tell myself when I get to FI I’ll be happy. Well the nice thing is that I’m under no illusions that I’m unhappy right now. I have a wonderful family, a good secure and challenging job with co-workers that I respect, and close friends (though I just moved to a foreign country which has presented its only social challenges but that’s unrelated). My wife keeps me grounded on our spending habits and prevents me from straying too far over into being a cheapskate and not enjoying spending money to enjoy the present (though she by any normal standard would be considered frugal herself). So I am enjoying the present while saving up for what I know will be the inevitable confusing “what now?” moment after achieving FI. I just hope I can overcome what I see as a dark tendency to replace material obsession with obsession with accumulating money.

    Anyways this was a bit rambling but I really appreciate your post making me be a little more introspective about exactly what is motivating me and to hear from another person’s perspective.

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Sounds like your thoughts/concerns were very similar to my own. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  30. Brian
    May 22, 2015 at 4:21 am

    Thank you so much for this candid article. It’s your best one to date. I respect everything you’ve done for the FI community with all of your technical articles, but I needed to hear this article more than the others.

    My wife and I have a ways to go in terms achieving fi, but we are living our lives now. Enjoying it now. We did go through a dark phase where we were too focused on saving money at the expense of living.

    FU money has played the biggest part in remedying that. We no longer have to do things for money that we don’t enjoy doing. It’s the mini retirement I can take when ever I feel like it. I’ve found that having that option has made me make bolder moves for my happiness and in turn increased my income?!

    Look forward to more articles along these lines.

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Haha, it’s amazing how f-you money can unexpectedly lead to even higher income, isn’t it?

  31. David (thegoblinchief)
    May 22, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Really great post!

    Removing the unhappiness is a fantastic strategy. We didn’t consciously employ that when we made the decision to have me quit my job, but it’s definitely worked in our favor. Being a SAHP who gardens, homeschools, and DIYs is not without it’s bad days, but it has improved both our happiness levels and allowed us to better focus on the journey – even though we’d have reached FI faster with me still working.

  32. Steve@EscapeVelocity2020
    May 22, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I like trying to read Taleb’s books, but I enjoy listening to him even more. He is a very engaging speaker and has been on EconTalk a few times. Here is a link to his discussion on Antifragile – http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/01/taleb_on_antifr.html

    On a related note, he is also an inspiration in the FI-sphere. He made so much money on the 2008 collapse that he can do whatever he wants. In one the podcasts, he muses that it just so happened that what he likes to do is exactly what he was doing before he got rich – researching and putting his theories into the world. I love that message!

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks for the link, Steve. I look forward to checking that out tomorrow!

  33. KRFP
    May 22, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Great post. Very thought-provoking. Thanks.

  34. Johnny W.
    May 22, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Wow! This is the best MF Post ever.

  35. Lucas
    May 22, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing. It is difficult to talk about the challenges that potentially unlimited choice brings. I am not quite as far along as you are, but have already been dealing with many of the same feelings and trying to answer the overall question of what do i really value and how can i fulfill those.

    couple thoughts, hope they are useful.

    1) MMM had some good thoughts recently on changing focus to “what would i do if i didn’t care about being paid, and what would i spend money on if i didn’t care about the cost”. This does free you up to either enjoy your current job more (willingness to take more risks and speak up) or explore and figure out what you really do want to do.

    2) Motivation is very similar to happiness. learning about motivation has helped me make a big difference in my company and self (good starter video if you haven’t seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc)

    3) I don’t know exactly what you believe about ultimate truth and reality. But the search for the truth is very valuable. If your world view framework is that there is only the observable universe and no outside actor (God), then you are ultimately left with a universe devoid of absolute meaning or purpose, everything is relative and meaning can only be self generated. I find most people fail to understand this and how it affects them in a universe that echos of purpose.

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      I actually chatted with MMM about that recently and I’m working to get to the stage where money doesn’t factor into my decision-making but I’m not there yet, sadly. After so many years of money being the single biggest focus, it’s pretty hard to just now disregard it completely!

  36. Clay Gump
    May 22, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    I think this is probably your most important post.
    I really like how you hit the issue head on.

  37. Red to Riches
    May 22, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Very interesting post. I feel like I may be headed toward your same situation of focusing too much on the end goal. I’m at the beginning of my journey with a large amount of student debt. Once the debt is gone, I will be able to take a more fulfilling job due to lower minimal living expenses. However, until then, I am very focused as you were (not spending money, etc).

    Very insightful. My journey is going to be many years, need to enjoy it!

  38. Phil
    May 24, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    I really appreciated this post…puts things in perspective. If I’m honest with myself, I’m similar. I spend a lot of time planning for the future, but could/should be putting more emphasis on enjoying the present.

  39. Fervent Finance
    May 24, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    This is so true. I don’t really like my job too much. Yet I believe it is the shortest path to financial independence so I stick with it. Why am I putting myself through this? Why punish myself for 10 more years when I can be more happy now, even though FI might take longer… Thanks MF!

  40. Kurt
    May 25, 2015 at 10:07 am

    What seems to make me unhappy is ‘stuff’ and complexity. I like to go through life unfettered, you might say, with few things that require my attention and few hoops to jump through with regularity. So you might say I’m constantly trying to rid myself of ‘fetters.’ :-)

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      Haha, I’m the same

  41. Derrick
    May 25, 2015 at 11:00 am

    what a great post! This gives me insight and to make sure FI is a family endeavor with a reminder to enjoy our journey towards it. Thank you.

  42. Adam @ AdamChudy.com
    May 25, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    That’s a fantastic way to go at something that we all struggle to figure out how to reach. It’s always a good idea to come at something from another when you’re stuck.

  43. Peachy
    May 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Hi Mad Fientist. While I think the spirit of this article is sound I have to say that it did dissapoint me a little. I’ve been reading your blog over a year and have been waiting for you to make the big jump and finally retire. One of the reasons I liked your blog so much is due to your extremely analytical approach to personal finance and taxes. Don’t take this the wrong way but it sometimes has felt like reading your posts was like reading a computer printout with the exact instrucitons on acheiving early retirement. I’ve structured my taxes, my earnings, much of how I manage my money around your recommendations. This post seems way to emotional, way too touchy feely compared to the rest.

    I understand the importance of enjoying the ride but in the back of my mind I always know that every dollar spent is a dollar not invested and in that sense it’s potential has been somewhat frittered away. Maybe I’ve just been reading ERE too much or have idolized the life of MMM too much but this post seems to say “I was unprepared for a life of early retirement and so decided to continue working”, honestly that reads like failure to me.

    Maybe I’m just too early in my accumulation phase and too naive but its a little sad to see someone finally reach the moment of FI just to decide that working life is somehow more fufillng or interesting. Literially the only thing keeping my going at work some days is the dream of FI and the freedom it brings with it.

    Thank you for the tax advice, thank you for the stories, but honestly I can’t thank you for this post.

    • Marla
      June 3, 2015 at 10:09 am

      Peachy – It is disappointing to me that you value “the dream of FI” more than honesty. No one has a perfect life, happiness is not static but rather a continuum. Calling the Mad Fientist a failure for continuing to work after hitting his number is judgmental. Like everyone, the Mad Fientist is on his own journey. He’ll retire when he is ready and not because you think he should. He’s sharing a heartfelt story that obviously resonates with many of us in the FIRE community. If it doesn’t resonate with you now, it may later. MF, I congratulate you for sharing this personal story. Like all your posts, it makes me think. Happy to hear your happiness is only increasing. Looking forward to post #60!

      • The Mad Fientist
        June 7, 2015 at 6:07 pm

        Marla! I’m glad to see you have room in your life for more than just one personal finance blogger :)

        My happiness has been increasing over the years but it will increase even more if you figure out a way to join us down in Ecuador this fall so make it happen!

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Peachy, I also enjoy the analytical posts more but sadly life can’t be fully explained by a simple mathematical equation (it’d be amazing if it could). This article generated my second biggest traffic day ever so it obviously resonated with a lot of people. I imagine as you get further into your FI journey, it will become more meaningful to you as well.

      While I can understand why you didn’t like this post as much as some of the others, I’m not sure how you view my current situation as a failure. I’ve eliminated nearly everything that I didn’t like about my job but kept the parts that are interesting and that I enjoy. I have plenty of time and freedom to explore my other interests, I’m happier than I’ve been in years, and I’ve also accumulated enough money so that I can quit working whenever I want so if this is failure, it sure does feel great!

  44. DS
    May 27, 2015 at 11:05 am

    MF – thanks so much for the insightful post! It sometimes gets buried in my mind that the point of all the saving is to increase happiness, not just to increase $.

    Your post reminded me a lot of a post from Living AFI’s blog that I read a few months ago. If you have some free time, this may be of interest. http://livingafi.com/2015/01/20/midlife-fi-sis/

    • The Mad Fientist
      June 7, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      Wow, that was a great series of posts so thanks a lot for sharing the link!

      I’ve added him to my list of future podcast guests so hopefully I can get him on the show to chat about everything.

  45. Jason@Islands of Investing
    May 30, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    I’m still so far away from FI it’s not funny, but I’ve been exploring these ideas of what FI will mean for happiness quite a lot in the last couple of years, to get my head around my priorities now. This is a beautiful insight that just helps me shape my own journey and priorities a little more – thank you Mad Fiendist.

    • Edifi
      June 9, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      Keep up the good work, Jason! Achieving FI tends to demand a long-term mindset, but it’s always important to seek the joy in the everyday.

  46. Smart Money MD
    May 30, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Great post. I, too, have to remind myself what goals I’m shooting for, and what really makes me happy. For me, it has always been aiming for the next step, almost to no end. I finally have a job, albeit unstable, but no permanent home (still renting), and planning for kids. In a way, I’m a long shot from FIRE, but I’m trying to figure out how to grow my retirement accounts and funds. It’s also been a little tricky working out my timeframe to FI simply because I haven’t gotten a good handle on how much expense I’d need for kids or paying off a house.

  47. Daniel
    June 8, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable to us and write something so true. I too catch myself falling into tunnel vision. I think the same discipline that is required to pull off financial independence can be be both a gift and a curse, unless I’m okay arriving at the finish line with no one else beside me. I’m still searching for that medium with my wife, since I have not sold the concept of FI in a way that she understands or sees value. I think the concept is just so foreign that for some people, and even for myself 5 years ago, there has to be a seismic shift – but i’m sure that trigger is different for each person.

  48. Edifi
    June 14, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Reading a book now talking about Failure pyschology. Recognize, be alert to it, then be happy by removing it. The feelings are (an acronym)
    Aggressiveness (misdirected)

  49. TheMoneyMine
    June 28, 2015 at 10:34 am

    MF – This is a great story that resonates with many of us.
    Where I think you’ve done very well is that one day you realized what situation you were in and you were able to change course.
    Thanks for the note of caution, you are ahead of me in the pursuit of Financial Independence, I appreciate that you shared your story with us!

  50. theFIREstarter
    July 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Very late to comment on this one but very much enjoyed it. I’ve read a couple of Taleb’s other books so will have to get Antifragile on the reading list!

    As other comments above have mentioned, I’ve only got about 1 year worth of expenses saved up (actually a lot more but most of it is in pension accounts I can’t access until 57) but the freedom that has already given me is immense. I took the risk of asking for part time hours at work and it got granted, so soon I’ll have 33% more free time to build up some side work, do projects around the house or even just chill the heck out… Boom! :)

  51. Jay A.
    September 15, 2015 at 1:50 am

    Wow, another great article, and I absolutely identify with it too.

    Even before I discovered the “shocking simple math behind financial independence”, to paraphrase Mr. Money Mustache, I had been increasing my happiness by subtracting from my life what was making me unhappy. I have even stepped up that effort in the past year as well.

  52. mike
    February 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    can you put the date each article was written at the top of the articles? thanks

  53. Erin
    February 12, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    This post and some of the subsequent podcasts that arose from it seem to point out a failure of financial bloggers (and their readers!) to appreciate the difference between “optimize” and “maximize.” They are not the same. In the context of money, maximizing the portion of our income to help us meet our goals means that every penny is allocated toward that goal. The result of this that any opportunities or entertainment that deduct money away from the ultimate goal are not compatible with maximizing strategies and implies that the best happiness comes only after the goal is met. Alternatively, optimizing our income to help us meet our long-term goals as well as enjoy a pint or vacation or some other diversion along the way suggests that happiness lies both along the path and at the end of the journey.

    The beauty of “optimizing” is that the path to FI will be different for everyone. For some, maximal strategies are fulfilling enough such that they are the optimal strategies. For others, an optimal strategy is for us to determine and will come in as many forms as there are pursuers of FI. For me, I think your articles provide ideal opportunities for finding my perfect blend of saving and enjoying, as well as inspiring a bit of experimentation to allow me to change the mix over time and still chart my path to FI.

  54. Art
    March 8, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    I jsut got back to reading FI stuff recently after being focused on starting a business last year. THis came at just the right time, as I tend to do stuff like saving,etc in a unbalanced fashion. Great article that inspires me to …..do less! Yayyy!

  55. Melissa
    December 19, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Great post. I agree you can’t focus on the outcome. If you live in the present, while planning for your future, you allow for your perspective of what you desire to change with you. Thanks for sharing.

  56. QAFaker
    June 11, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    MF, this is the first post I’ve read after my boss introduced me to your blog. I see so much similarity in your story with my own.

    I was 21 when I reached a level of FI (on my own, and then with my wife) that I was comfortable with (not rich or retired haha). Soon after, I just stopped keeping track of my finances, investments, bills, etc. I’m now about to turn 24, and even though I’m not in a bad position, I feel as if I’m back in square 1.

    If I did it once, I can do it again and I feel that, with this new found community, I will get back in track towards a better financial future.

  57. Edward
    July 17, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Well I just hit my Portfolio number back in September and I am still working. What I have realized about happiness is that it is not about the money, it is about your experiences. Do you have good stories to tell while sucking down beer with someone? Now I need to get the heck out of here.

    BTW, please reconsider using the abbreviation MF.

  58. Dan Larson
    April 26, 2018 at 9:30 am

    This was an eye opener that FI is not necessarily Shangri La. This post has reminded me, “The Journey is the Reward.”

    Another old phrase, “The endless road goes on and on.” I might as well enjoy it.

    This kind of fits too:

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost

  59. Miguel
    June 26, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Hello MadFIentist,

    I loved this post.I completelly agree with the ideas shared here. FI has to be a part of the way, a tool to be / keep on been happy and not the goal. Otherwise the whole thing would be pointless.

    Im from Spain but live in Germany for 5 years now, working as an engineer. I started to earn “real money” 4 years ago and discovered the whole FI movement 1 1/2 year ago. Never was a huge spender but I was not conscious about money itself. Now been saving > 60% and hope to get to 70 by the end of the year. I first met MMM and then discovered your podcasts.

    I guess because of taxes (43% in Germany for my current salary) it takes a bit more time to reach the FI-level in the EU Region but it is definitely more than possible (no f****** excuses) and I hope to be reaching it in 5 years. I love my job though but freedom to decide is priceless.

    This whole stuff is pretty exciting and amazing, thank you for sharing so much valuable information!

    It would be nice to meet you at a time



  60. Kay
    September 6, 2018 at 3:48 am

    Wonderful post.

    I’m a freelance artist and brand new saver, so for me, happiness at the moment is the pure wonder of not having to worry if I spent the rent this month. My net-worth is literally doubling before my eyes every month and staying there!

    It’s really extraordinary how happy saving has made me and how it’s allowing me to deal with a whole spectrum of other underlying issues that were leeching away at my productivity and happiness – you can’t worry about creative blocks and unfinished projects when you’re worried about paying rent, can you?

    For creative booster shots, I highly recommend checking out the books The Artist’s Way and The Prosperous Heart by Julia Cameron, who writes so beautifully on the subject of using our addictive behaviours to creatively block (she would know) and the emotionality of money.

    The point about accumulation obsession is well made too – I want to be careful to chill out this new anxiety to save and do it all ‘right’ with the wonderful freedom of just not having to be financially insecure ever again. There’s no doing it perfectly, and that initial leap from being our own worst enemy to being our best ally is so enormous it should never be taken for granted.

  61. Gerry
    November 28, 2018 at 7:31 am

    I like your post very much. I found the same idea in Mary Kondo’s book: feeling if things bring you pure joy or trash it or donate.

  62. The FIFO Fireman
    November 29, 2018 at 2:20 am

    Great post this one. It is very easy to be a depressed person on the way to reaching your FI goals if you are not careful. The mindset can consume you. If you don’t use the FI journey to also figure out what are the things that really drive you and give you happiness, then when you finally get there, you may realize that nothing has really changed at all!

    This article really hit home for me, and this was a struggle I had to deal with on my FI journey.

  63. Jay M.
    April 14, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    This was a great post! I feel like many people can overlook the mental aspect of financial independence. Which can easily be one of the most important aspects of one’s Fi journey.

  64. Justin
    February 25, 2020 at 8:38 am

    Hi. I saved this post a long time ago because it was something that I had been deliberating for a while and it resonated with me. I like the soul searching that goes on here for the pursuit of happiness and I think these are worthwhile ideas to explore. I was a little confused when you got to the part on Taleb when you said that “the pursuit of happiness is not equivalent to the avoidance of unhappiness” but then later went on to say that we could increase our happiness by removing things from our life that made us unhappy. I have not read Taleb but I came to a different conclusion based on that quote…if trying to avoid unhappiness is not the same as pursuing happiness, then wouldn’t that stand to reason that we could become happier by not avoiding unhappiness, rather by fully opening up to, honoring, and embracing whatever unhappiness may come? This latter type of approach is a very Buddhist or advaita vedanta type of philosopy. I recommend checking on some of Rupert Spira’s books. Being Aware of Being Aware is a great foundational book that he has that speaks on this subject. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post! It’s good to get clear on what is really meaningful in life, which I what I believe you were trying to do here!.


  65. Karl
    June 18, 2024 at 6:23 am

    Hi Mad Fientist

    Great idea to revisit old article by read it as a podcast. Thanks

    Love to listen all of comunity of FI.

  66. mike wheeler
    July 7, 2024 at 11:38 am

    Thank you for putting this on a podcast. It fits in so well with what I’ve been hearing lately (use your money, don’t let your money use you), and also it’s such a great length for a podcast.

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