Smoothing Out The Happiness Curve
In June, Mr. Frugalwoods and I celebrated 8 years of marriage, Frugal Hound turned 7, we marked Mr. FW’s first father’s day, Babywoods hit 7 months old, and we passed the one month anniversary of moving to Vermont! All wonderful things, all reasons to celebrate… and the subtext would typically be: reasons to spend money.
I’ve discussed before that Mr. FW and I made the determination not to give gifts to each other on such occasions, but that decision is much more about our broader philosophy than it is about simply saving cash. As we hiked through our land the other day, I realized that our mentality is about smoothing out the happiness curve. Let me explain.
Spikes In Happiness, Followed By Valleys
On one extreme, gifts–or spending more generally–can be used to generate massive spikes in one’s overall contendedness levels. You buy a diamond bracelet (do people actually buy those? I have no idea, but it sounds right for this analogy) and you experience a commensurate jolt of excitement.
It’s akin to giving a kid (or me) a pile of candy corn: huge rush followed by equally huge crash. Essentially, by buying that diamond bracelet/new car/greyhound At-At costume, you’re sky rocketing your happiness graph–for the moment. The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to sustain that level of hedonistic glee.
Rather, it’s much more likely you’ll dip back down and perhaps even feel worse for several reasons:
1) You now need to work more/harder/longer in order to pay for said purchase;
2) You will require an even greater bit of consumerism next time in order to achieve the same spike in mood, which will necessitate working even more to earn even more money so that you can buy even more stuff.
This second factor is hedonic adaptation, which I’ve analyzed previously, and which is the notion of continually upgrading our requirements for pleasure. It’s essentially lifestyle inflation for your brain.
We’re all programmed to return to a baseline mood–what I’d call our baseline happiness level. When blissful episodes in our lives occur–weddings, births, graduations, vacations and the like–we ride those thrilling moments upwards, but after the event is over, we return to our status quo emotional level.
Thus, knowing that we’re destined to spend the vast majority of our lives at our equilibrium, what I posit is–why not do everything in your power to make your baseline level a very happy one?
Hence, your happiness curve would be higher and more stable overall, sans the spikes of joy and valleys of discontent.
What I’m describing is the “avoiding the road-bump opiate” path. I have no idea how I came up with the term “road-bump opiate”–it sounds ridiculous–but what it references is anything that serves to thwart the achievement of a long-term goal. So, buying lunch out everyday would be a road-bump opiate to a goal of saving more money every month. You’re favoring a short-term pleasure (lunch out) over the long-term gains you could realize with your savings (financial freedom!).
Road-bump opiates give us little perks and spikes in our happiness graph, but they usually do nothing to significantly alter our baseline happiness level. Lavish gifts are perfect examples of road-bump opiates.
And I’m not all high and mighty–I absolutely fall victim to road-bump opiates–the key is that I don’t do it very often and when I do, it’s not for anything super expensive. Case in point? After a somewhat harrowing trip to the Vermont RMV the other day (we transferred both cars, changed over both of our licenses, and got both cars inspected… ), I absolutely bought myself a strawberry banana smoothie to drink on the drive home. Classic example of a road-bump opiate: did nothing for my goals of health and financial wellness, but was quite tasty in the moment.
One-off road-bump opiates are not a big deal, but if I were to start buying a smoothie every single week and then every day and then if I started requiring ever-fancier smoothies with–I don’t know–like Reece’s Pieces on top, I’d be falling victim to hedonic adaptation. And thus would commence the cycle of spending more and more money in order to keep pace with my newfound requirements for happiness.
How We Spend Our Days
There are myriad factors extending far beyond money that substantially impact our mood; however, something that profoundly impacts our well-being is how we spend our days. Are we stuck working a job we don’t enjoy because we need the money? Or are we pursuing a vocation/career that leaves us fulfilled and energized for the next day’s work? The difference between those two diametrically opposed camps is–quite simply and most often–money.
Granting yourself the financial freedom to quit a job you’re not passionate about to instead follow your dream of… fill in the blank: teaching yoga, training dogs, farming, starting your own business… is how you get at changing that base, root level of happiness. Money does not buy happiness–plenty of miserable wealthy people sadly demonstrate that for us–but financial freedom grants you the leeway to construct a lifestyle that keeps you at an overall happier baseline. In this way, money facilities a happier life by making you less reliant on it (yay, frugality!).
Don’t get me wrong here–Mr. FW and I aren’t deliriously elated all the time (no one is), but what we’re crafting is a life in which we delight in the simple things and aren’t dependent upon consumerism to deliver highs. It’s about being content with our daily routine. We often joke after a vacation that, yeah we had fun, but we’re ready to get back to our routine!
Our days aren’t filled with riding unicorns in green pastures, but they are filled with the things we find most rewarding: playing with Babywoods, hiking in our woods with Frugal Hound, eating dinner together every night, and trying to figure out how to catch a moose on camera without getting too close to said moose (so far they’ve thwarted our game camera)… you know, typical pursuits like that.
It’s Always About More Than Just Money
Our decision not to give gifts is certainly about the money we save–I’d estimate thousands over the years–but it’s much more about this life philosophy. And it’s not as though we knew this at the outset–we stumbled upon the concept after deciding to not give gifts under the auspices of saving money. But then, as so often happens with frugality, we quickly discovered the tertiary benefits that accrue with not purchasing gifts. We’re taught over and over that buying things is how we extract pleasure from our money. But in our case, it’s through not buying things that we experience greater, more lasting happiness.