I was in my early 30s and had achieved enough in my life to be considered successful. I earned good money and drove around in stylish sports and luxury cars. House in the suburbs, big screen television, HDTV service. Damn, life was good.
Or rather…life should have been good. Read my previous installment of this two-part blog post.
Okay, so I wasn’t miserable. Life didn’t suck. Comparatively, I was living like a king, doing the things that “successful people” do, buying the things that successful people buy, driving the cars that successful people drive. I was keeping up.
But I also wasn’t happy, and this didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I had so many things, but yet, true happiness remained elusive. Where the hell are you, elusive happiness?
As I stood in my garage taking note of why my things weren’t just burying me underneath mountains of brilliant happiness, like a punch in the face, I finally understood the truth. I had read stories about this, too, but never really believed them…until now.
You can’t buy happiness; okay, you can’t buy everlasting happiness. The human species doesn’t work that way. Happiness is an emotion. It is a deeply seeded element that all of us possess in some form or another. It’s tough to fake happiness because we are real biological people and things are inanimate objects capable of providing nothing of inherent value.
We humans are the ones who assign “value” to objects. The objects themselves provide nothing. Objects are like numbers. Without value and context, for example, the number “10” means nothing.
Alas, I told myself that I just can’t keep this mind numbing charade up. I just couldn’t do it, and standing in my garage that afternoon, I finally allowed myself to acknowledge the truth: “I’m done”.
But early retirement is not the goal
At this point, I realized some crucial details about my life:
- I had a bunch of shit that I thought made me happy
- I had a well-paying job that provided the resources to buy that shit
- I derived absolutely zero satisfaction out of my job, but yet I continue to work it
Naturally, so I thought, the fix was to stop working jobs that I don’t like to pay for things that don’t make me happy. It seemed to make sense, so I accepted it. Boom, done – problem solved.
It only made sense that early retirement was my way out. Early retirement is the road to happiness.
I was putting together a very simple equation: After I retire, I will be happy. Until I retire, I won’t be.
And so I blog. I write posts about Starbucks and expensive cars. I admit to the nonsense I spent my own money on and chronical our drive towards early retirement throughout these beautiful digital pages. In general, very typical stuff.
But as I write, I keep getting deeper and deeper into the softer side of this whole early retirement thing. About lifestyles. About slowing down. This writing forced me to more passionately examine my own situation. The deeper I got into this whole business of early retirement, the more I realized that – once again, something is missing. There’s an element to all this that’s out of place.
Something doesn’t feel right. It feels “familiar”. I want to retire early – I always have since the beginning of this blog, but there’s this nagging pull that continued to make itself known, article-after-article. Like a toddler yanking on his mother’s shirt for attention, this force kept reappearing.
Then, it hit me: I’m falling into the same trap!
Once again, I took the easy way out. I built a very simple equation in my head to get me to my end goal. Once I achieve A, I shall receive B. It’s an easy equation to solve, and that was the problem. My problem wasn’t mathematical at all. It was organic.
Throughout my earlier life, the equations I built were just as simple. Once I make X amount of money, I will be successful. Once I buy X car, I will feel satisfied. Once I live in the suburbs, I will have finally “made it”.
And now, even after I had determined the fallacies of my “success”-driven life, I was building another mathematical equation in my head to keep things simple. Once I retire early, I will be happy.
Life isn’t a series of equations
Not long ago, I realized the startling truth. My life wasn’t right and it needs to be fixed – something that simply “switching careers” wouldn’t be able to remedy. I thought the fix was early retirement because that meant quitting my job in an effort to shake the feeling of persistent hollowness.
The equation that my mind built added up to a very simple answer: “stop doing the things that make me feel hollow”.
But that wasn’t enough. I don’t want to just be “less hollow”. I want to experience happiness. Is that too much to ask?
Happiness. No, how about everlasting happiness? It’s an emotion. It is something that we feel naturally. It means our entire lives are generally “in order”. We feel comfortable with the decisions that we’ve made. We are content with our finances. We don’t worry about what tomorrow will bring. We indulge in the simpler things in life, the basic and most primitive components of being human.
I now realize that my purpose is not to simply “quit work”. My goal is much more fundamental than that. It always has been even though “early retirement” was the well-packaged and easily-digestible phrase that seemed to provide the fix.
What I truly crave is that child-like bliss of having options, waking up every morning with a fresh mind and an open calendar.
I am not dealing with an equation, here – if I do this I will get that. I’m dealing with my own biological happiness, my sense of purpose, my reason for living. This is biology, not math.
In other words, my goal is freedom. Pure, unabashed freedom. The freedom to rise every morning and decide what to do that day. If that means work, so be it. If that’s play, then cool. I don’t want to retire. I want to be free.
The regrettable truth is early retirees aren’t necessarily “free” or fulfilled with life. Some are utterly bored; other previously career-oriented retirees feel like their purpose has been drained out of them like slow drips of water from a twisted wet hand towel.
If you anticipate early retirement being a permanent vacation with bomb-ass house parties every night, “freedom” probably isn’t the right emotion. You will feel drained, hollow and completely unsatisfied. Partying brings temporary happiness, no doubt. But the next day, hung over with a pounding headache, what happens? This isn’t real life.
This is the kind of life that we probably felt during our full-time careers. Dry and vacant, filled only with frivolous and superficial items that murder your well-being. People do not “own” happiness.
We feel it.
Through hundreds of blog posts, thousands of comments and a whole bunch of evening conversations with the wife, I now realize that my goal is not early retirement. My goal is achieving happiness, being free and having options.
The only catch? Full-time jobs tend to destroy those perfectly normal biological feelings. They are opposing forces, each clamoring for supremacy.
Up until this point in my life, the good force rarely won. It’s time to change that.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.