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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