3 Big Lessons Reveal the Secret to True Happiness

What is the secret to true happiness?

How can you tell if you’re on the right track to happiness?

My wife and I were fortunate to achieve financial independence at a young age (31 and 42, respectively). We have made the largest downpayment on our happiness by achieving FI.

We realized that in order to do the things that truly make us happy on a daily basis, we needed to buy our time back rather than buy material possessions or be in constant pursuit of “success” by climbing never-ending corporate ladders.

What drives our true happiness?

To reach financial independence, we didn’t just zero in on our goal of reaching FI by trying to save every penny or by stressing ourselves out and working multiple jobs to supplement our income. (We have nothing against people working multiple jobs to make ends meet.)

We ensured our happiness along the way by stretching our dollars and saving without deprivation.

It’s important to enjoy life’s journey. We didn’t rush to get to FI if it meant missing out on the experience along the way. For example, we’re willing to spend more money on high-quality groceries if it means living a healthier life. We’re fine with flying a few times a year if it means spending more time with family and traveling around the world. We recognize that these experiences contribute to our happiness.

What doesn’t drive our true happiness?

True happiness does not come from being an overachiever at work and working long hours. Success in these activities means nothing if our hearts are not in them.

True happiness does not come from upgrading to luxury vehicles or mortgaging the biggest house our budget allows.

And it will not come from amassing vast wealth. A surplus of money beyond our needs and a few desires will not make us happy. As a result, our slogan is “true happiness fueled by financial independence,” rather than “true happiness fueled by millions of dollars.”

We wanted to have enough wealth to not have to worry about paying our bills forever. We now have options, lots and lots of great FU money options, thanks to our financial independence.

Other actions that make us happy include having an unlimited amount of time off work to spend reading, writing, taking long walks by the beach, and simply sipping coffee while the sun warms the day

That’s why we’re working on a plan to retire early, so that work is no longer a large chunk of time that prevents us from being truly happy.

A major study that reveals the origins of happiness

We believe that relationships are important to our overall well-being, and a study conducted by Harvard backs up our beliefs. The study’s main finding is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

This is one of the longest studies on happiness ever conducted, if not the longest, and it has gone through several directors. Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed the lives of 724 men in two cohorts for 75 years. 

Sixty of these men are still alive and taking part in the research. The first group consisted of 268 Harvard sophomores, and the second of 456 teenage boys from inner-city Boston—two groups with very different backgrounds.

These men have reported on their social activities, job satisfaction, and the quality of their marriages and relationships throughout their lives. Based on their findings, Mr. Waldinger describes the secret to true happiness in the TED Talk below.

The study taught 3 important lessons about relationships

1. Social connections are extremely beneficial to our health.

People who are more socially connected to their family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer lives. Loneliness is a killer and can be toxic. Isolation causes health problems earlier in life and shortens people’s lives.

2. The quality of close relationships is important.

It’s not so much about having a large number of friends as it is about having good quality friendships. Living in a high-conflict marriage with little affection can be more harmful to one’s health than divorce. It is protective to be surrounded by good, warm relationships.

3. Positive relationships shield our brains.

It is protective to be in a secure, attached relationship with another person in your 80s. Men in the study who felt they could rely on others in times of need had sharper memories, whereas those who couldn’t rely on others had sharper memory decline.

Where should we focus our efforts after we retire early?

The presentation makes an excellent point about where we can focus our efforts to become happier. We intend to retire within the next few years, and it’s critical for us to consider where we’ll focus our efforts after retirement.

It is easy to get caught up in the routine and continue to hustle on the side without realizing that those actions may not necessarily make us happier. We don’t want to end up living the American banker’s dream in the Fisherman’s Parable.

Below is a summary of this parable:

An investment banker was on the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with only one fisherman docked. The American praised the Mexican for the quality of his catch and inquired as to how long it took to catch them. "Only a little while," the Mexican replied.

The Mexican claimed to have enough money to meet his family's immediate needs. "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" the American inquired.

"I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos," the Mexican fisherman explained. "I lead a full and hectic life."

The American scoffed and said he could help, but he'd have to leave his village and relocate to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and finally New York City, where he'd run his expanding business.

When the time is right, you will announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public, becoming extremely wealthy, making millions!

"Millions, then what?"

"Then you'd retire," the American said. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings to sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

Final thoughts

What a valuable lesson this parable teaches us. We do not want to replace our working hours with other work activities or projects in order to make money. The whole point of retiring early is to enjoy the things we don’t have time for right now.

So we’ll be careful not to overburden ourselves with work that will prevent us from living truly happy lives.

While we intend to stay active after retirement by working on a few fun projects, we would definitely prefer leisure to labor. Aside from staying physically active and making time for hobbies, we will continue to nurture our relationships and, of course, invest in the right relationships.

Early retirement will be a time for us to pause, clear our schedules from a work agenda, and make deliberate decisions as we ask ourselves, “Are the actions we’re about to take going to make us as happy as we can be?”

What truly makes you happy? What were your thoughts on the study? Were the findings surprising to you?


After dedicating 13 years of his career to Vanguard, José retired from the corporate world at the young age of 44. During his tenure at Vanguard, he expertly coordinated the production of both electronic and print educational materials for 401(k) participants. Now, he relishes in his early retirement, cherishing time spent with his family, indulging in his favorite hobbies, seeking out new experiences, and savoring meals in the comfort of his own backyard.

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