I just read an article by Pete Adenny, of Mr. Money Mustache, about finding your happy sweet spot in life. It focused on how to get the balance just right so that you don’t suffer and struggle from a position of lack nor stress, overwork and other excesses. His article has inspired me to share my own personal tendency to tilt just past that happy sweet spot to excess.
In fact, I’d say running to excess is my own natural default setting in just about everything. I eat just a bit too much, I spend a bit too much, I have a bit too much stuff. So, dialing it back, reining in my natural tendencies has been an ongoing personal challenge. It probably doesn’t help matters that the advertising and most media is designed to encourage a body to spend while continually implying that the path to greater happiness is paved with more, bigger and better stuff on all fronts.
What we fail to see is the high cost of maintaining stuff (i.e., taxes, maintenance and repair, mortgages, time involved managing it all). More stuff = more life admin, more hassles, less money, less time to enjoy life. More isn’t always better. In fact, it can actually be worse!
So how do you find that illusive, delicately balanced happy sweet spot and stick to it like glue without tipping overboard into the land of excess?
The answer will be different for everyone. Thankfully, research has been conducted on this topic, as this is a question that has plagued quite a few people. So, I thought I’d share some of this research with you. Don’t take these findings as a strict rule. Rather, use them as a guideline or a starting place (or an ending place if you are climbing up from the land of lack and striving for the land of plenty). Of course, this sweet spot will vary widely depending on your own personal circumstances and desires. So, you should rightly adapt accordingly. This isn’t a rule or a dictate!
What’s the happy sweet spot for income?
Apparently, a household income of about $75,000 a year is generally the sweet spot. You have enough money to go out to dinner occasionally, travel occasionally and enjoy some of the fun stuff of life. But you don’t have so much money that these luxuries are taken for granted and lose their shine. Yes, more money after that is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily add tremendously to happiness. In fact, if you have a long commute (over 45 minutes), or your work takes too much time away from family or friends, then you may find that any excess earnings become less desirable from a total happiness and quality of life perspective.
As reported by Dunn and Norton in, Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending, “…people with more money do not spend their time in more enjoyable ways on a day-to-day basis.” On the contrary, wealthier people tend to spend more time doing stressful activities such as shopping, working and commuting.
Obviously, if you live in an expensive city, the $75K figure may be way too low. Sam, at Financial Samurai, calculates the sweet spot for big city or expensive coastal living to be closer to $300,000 a year. That massive increase would ideally be offset by the much higher income you could get working in a big city. Of course, frugal types, like Pete Adenny, live happily on much a lower income of $27K a year…so it can be done.
What about the happy sweet spot for hours spent working a week?
Working 20-40 hours a week is just about right for most people. Too much time spent working means you sacrifice time spent with family and friends and for hobbies and creative pursuits. You also may be sacrificing your health and well-being. Not enough time working and you may start to miss the challenge and social aspects of working. You may even end up depressed and feeling a lack of purpose in life. This is a problem early retirees often face when they are still full of energy, but don’t have enough stimulation or challenge in their lives. Some productive and fulfilling work, opposed to lolling about on a beach doing nothing, actually makes us happier overall. The key is finding work that is aligned with your natural abilities, strengths and passions.
How much money do you need to reach your happy sweet spot and retire comfortably?
Darrow Kirkpatrick at CanIretireyet.com has polled the comfortably well-heeled. The poll showed that a net worth ranging from $1 million to $2.5 million is the sweet spot range to retire comfortably at any age. His survey revealed that “restrained upper middle class” retirees could live very comfortably on an income between $40,000 to $56,000 a year with a paid off home. If you still have a mortgage or rent, then bump that up to $75,000 a year.
At a 4% withdrawal rate, you’d need investments of $1 million (for the $40K/year life) and $1,875,000 (for the $75K/year life). Big city life at $300K a year would require $7,500,000. That might be yet another reason to head to the smaller towns. But remember, this sum doesn’t factor in any pension, rental, royalty, business or Social Security income. All of those income streams could dramatically reduce the amount you need invested to retire. Learn more reaching financial freedom here.
What about the happy sweet spot for eating?
The very illuminating book, Just Eat It, by Laura Thomas, is all about connecting to your body. It focuses on getting in tune with how much food you actually need. Sure enough, if we aren’t eating enough we feel weak and irritable and may develop a headache. Alternatively, if we eat too much we may feel bloated, stuffed and uncomfortable. Food coma anyone?
Thomas helps you hone in on your natural sweet spot by eating more mindfully. She discusses how to free yourself from counting calories or other dietary regimes (which lead to feelings of lack and deprivation), allowing your body to get to its ideal weight and size naturally. This takes some practice, and I’m working on it myself.
The key is the hunger scale. Imagine 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed to the brim after a huge Thanksgiving dinner. Then the ideal range is to never get so hungry that you are dive bombing into the Ben and Jerry’s in a feeding frenzy. And also, to not overeat to the point that you have to unbutton that top button and fall on the sofa clutching your food baby. The sweet spot is never getting below a 3 or 4 on the hunger scale and never going past 7 (where you become unpleasantly full). If you slow down and enjoy every bite, you’ll eat much less and still feel comfortably satisfied. Do this consistently over time and you’ll achieve the sweet spot for your weight and size—not too thin, not too heavy. Ideal!
What’s the happy sweet spot for stuff?
Dana K. White in Decluttering at the Speed of Life, writes that the answer isn’t a bigger house or renting storage facilities. The sweet spot for stuff is recognizing the real physical limitations of your home and the containers within your home. For example, your fridge is the allocated container for keeping food. If you buy more than fits in your fridge comfortably, you’ll forget things that you later find covered in a fuzz of mold at the back of the fridge.
Your bookcase is the container for your books. If you have too many books that you double shelf them or stack them on the floor, then you’ll find it difficult to find the book you are looking for and you won’t have space for any new books to come into your life.
Your wardrobe is the container for your clothes. If you have too many clothes and they are jammed in too tight, then you won’t be able to easily find and retrieve the clothes you want. What’s worse is that your clothes will get wrinkled, and you may not hang clothes back up because it is too much work to wrestle them in. Your clothes will end up in piles on chairs and the floor.
The secret to sticking to that sweet spot for stuff is to make sure that your things fit easily and comfortably in their allocated container. This is about recognizing the actual physical limitations of your spaces. Combine this with Marie Kondo’s joy filter and keep only the things that give you joy and fit easily and comfortably into their allocated container. Then you’ll be a very happy camper!
And, if like me, you tend to find any recommendation as a restriction on your freedom and self-expression, then you’ll benefit from Scott Sonenshein’s book, Stretch. In the book, Sonenshein describes how companies with financial constraints tend to be more successful in the long run than the companies that have been given nearly unlimited infusions of cash. Why? Wouldn’t the companies with more cash on hand be better off? Apparently not. The leaner companies had to become more resourceful and creative and get more done with less, making them better, more resilient companies. We actually do better with some limitations and are happier with them than without. Not only that, but it forces us to develop the quality of resourcefulness, which is a good thing!
What about the happy sweet spot for goals?
Can you set too many goals and have so many projects that you end up spreading yourself too thin, getting overworked and stressed? Yes, and for that look no further than Leo Babatua’s book, The Power of Less. He recommends you put a numeric limit on goals and projects in order to be more effective and happier. You get one big goal (i.e., one that takes between six months to a year to complete) and up to three smaller projects with the proviso that one of the three projects is supporting your big goal.
Writing a book might take a year. A smaller goal would be writing a chapter, which might take a few weeks. I could have the big goal of writing a book, and three projects, such as 1. Write the outline; 2. Repaint the bathroom; and 3. Plan a holiday. You can have a long list of projects and goals for the future, but never focus or work on more than three at a time or you’ll run the risk of overwhelm, distraction and floundering. Good advice, even for the born multi-taskers.
Life Coaching homework:
Take a few minutes to consider these areas in your own life. Where do you on fall on the spectrum? Is lack the problem or have you slid past the point of perfection into the land of diminishing returns?