Success and Happiness

Please pardon this brief departure from markets and economics, but it’s too interesting and important not to share!

Recently, a client shared the late Jack Bogle’s book, Enough, with me. (Jack Bogle was the legendary founder of Vanguard). It was recommended I start with the last chapter first, which I did dutifully. In that short chapter, Mr. Bogle shares something quite valuable that’s worth sharing here.

Mr. Bogle begins this chapter by quoting Albert Schweitzer,  “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.”

That is fantastic and so true!

I’ve certainly experienced this in my own life. It seems when I am most happy and grateful good things happen. That cycle then feeds on itself. However, at other times in our lives, we may find when we are not happy nothing seems to go right for us. Things can go from bad to worse and that cycle also feeds on itself.

It really does appear to be the case that our mentality / our attitude / our perspective of the world impacts our lives in a meaningful and, even, tangible way. We just seem to get “luckier” when we’re happiest, don’t we?

So then it begs the question, “How do we become and stay happy?”

Certainly, millions of pages and endless debate have been dedicated to this very topic for thousands of years. This is not meant to be a philosophical treatise, but let me share Bogle’s view.. He says,

“According to an authoritative article in American Psychology magazine, it’s not money that determines our happiness, but the presence of some combination of these three attributes: (1) autonomy, the extent to which we have the ability to control our own lives, “to do our own thing”; (2) maintaining connectiveness with other human beings, in the form of love of our families, our pleasure in friends and colleagues, and an openness with those we meet in all walks of life; and (3) exercising competence, using our God-given and self-motivated talents, inspired and striving to learn.”

As a brief aside, point #1 (autonomy) certainly ties directly into political systems as well. The freer a nation is the greater the propensity for happiness and fulfillment of its citizens.

Many people likely experience one or two of these attributes in their lives, but it’s rarer for all three attributes to be present simultaneously. For example, many working people may have attributes #2 (connectiveness) and #3 (exercising competence) present in their lives but may be lacking attribute #1 (autonomy). Autonomy is important, which is why we see companies who allow greater freedom around their employees’ daily decision-making, methods, etc.. tend to receive the best employee satisfaction grades. Conversely, employees working under authoritarian, micro-managers are much less satisfied with their jobs.

Retired folks, on the other hand, may experience attributes #1 (autonomy) and #2 (connectiveness) while no longer exercising their competence (i.e. doing productive work).

Given the nature of my career, I have a front-row seat to witness people throughout the various stages of their lives. I’ve sometimes seen folks retire and quickly “shrivel up” both literally and figuratively. Generally, the most successful, healthy, robust, longest-living retired folks I’ve seen are those who remain active and continue to pursue some meaningful activity in retirement. It may not be the same work they did during their career, but, regardless, we find that work is good. Work is important for positive self-esteem. Work provides us a sense of value and meaning. I know when I’m productive I simply feel so much better.

Work is defined differently for different people. For some it may be continuing to learn and read in retirement, for others it may be charitable work, for others it may be a second career or mentoring, others may find new hobbies like woodworking, etc…

Some people make the mistake of working for retirement thinking they will be happier once they are able to finally retire only to find out that’s not the case at all! This realization can be disappointing and can actually send them into a deep depression. After all, imagine working for something for forty years only to find you were working towards the wrong thing the entire time! You wasted 40 precious years of your one life on something fleeting. You weren’t oriented properly. Your compass was pointing in the wrong direction. It can be devastating when you’ve oriented your entire life around a thing only to find it to be a “false god.” Hence the old adage, “enjoy the journey.”

Exercising competence, to me, means being passionate about your work. Viewing every day as an opportunity to be better, to do better, to become more knowledgeable. It’s a constant pursuit of learning and being better. I find even if we’re doing a job we think is meaningless, by striving to be the best we can be at that task we are happier, more fulfilled and achieve greater self-esteem, which has so many positive benefits on our lives and the lives of our loved ones around us.

Mr. Bogle also quotes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses. Ulysses experiences extreme boredom in retirement and goes on to say;

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

I hope you found this as interesting as I did. It’s a concept I believe most of us know already, but it’s always good to be reminded of it and heard it stated another way.

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