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Optimizing a life for happiness

·1609 words·8 mins
Gary <Tolki> Mialaret
Gary Mialaret
Gaming, Software Development, Data Science, Fitness
Table of Contents

This post is aimed at people who meet their basic needs but still don’t feel “happy”, aka most people following me on Twitter and my immediate family. This is definitely a privileged position.

I’ve met tons of people who had everything going for them and still struggled at being and staying happy.

Honestly, I do too. That’s why I researched the subject and applied some of the findings to myself. It has served me decently so far.

The short version #

Let’s start with the conclusion so you both know where I’m going and can stop reading if it sounds like bullshit to you.

Useful steps to increase happiness are:

  • Identifying your life values
    • Helps in decision-making
  • Learning how to have a healthy relationship with money
    • Most people are not properly educated about money and use it in ways that does not increase their happiness
  • Being frugal and saving
    • Low debt = lower stress
    • Being content with little = easier to satisfy
  • Reaching your personal goals
    • Dedicate time for your own improvement
    • Lighten your cognitive load with personal knowledge management
  • Working out often
    • Better health outcomes
    • Better focus and sleep

Possible avenues to do with this are:

  • Saving 10% of your monthly income and investing it in broadly diversified index funds
  • Doing light cardio 3 times and weightlifting 2/3 times a week
  • Reading and listening high quality content

The long version #

Now that the stage is set I will dive deeper into each bullet point with sources. I am not a researcher myself but listening to the Rational Reminder Podcast for the last two years helped me discover quality books and research papers on the subject.

Life values #

Episode 226: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Your decisions offer the only way to purposefully influence anything in your life

Knowing what our values are helps us take life decisions. And taking decisions is the only way we affect our lives.

Ben Felix offered a way to uncover one’s values in episode 237 based on learnings from the following books and papers:

This is a multi-days process but your values should be pretty stable during your life once you’ve written them down. The time investment is worth it.

The method is made of the following 4 steps:

  1. List your life goals

    List all your goals. Take the time to think about what is important to you. Sit down and make a list.

    Your life values incorporate your thoughts and feelings and also involve dreaming about how you want your life to be.

  2. Double the list

    Double the number of goals you identified so far

    To elicit more goals, try to:

    • Visualize the life that you want and the details of it
    • Consider the activities that you spent a significant amount of time doing
    • Reflect on both very good and very bad decisions you've made and recognize what values were achieved/missed
    • Imagine yourself at different ages in the future and think about what you would regret not having done
    • Inquire about the perspectives of your family and friends and think carefully about whether these suggested values are appropriate for you
    • Think about the 6 factors in the PERMA model and how they each affect you

  3. Consult a 'master list'

    Consult a goals master list. This is a list of goals popular with other people.

    This will help you identify any missed goals and after this you should have between 20 and 100 values in your list.

  4. Express your goals

    Finally you need to express that list into a set of actionable values.

    First, cleanup your list by:
    • Ordering goals by category to identify links
    • Grouping duplicate goals together
    • Reviewing goals in the context of the rest and fusing them as needed
    Then express your values by:
    • Stating your goals as actions starting with "I will"
    • Stating your goals as abstract objectives, statements of desirable state
      ✅ I will have enriching experiences
      ❌ I will budget for a trip each year
    • Identifying means-ends relationships, ie goals that are important only for achieving other goals

You should now have a list of values expressed as actions. A list of “I will” that should be the driving force behind your decisions.

You can now refer to it for important life decisions and keep it in the back of your mind for smaller scale decisions.

I did this exercise last week and my personal strategic values are:

  • I will enjoy my life
  • I will maintain strong personal relationships
  • I will pursue intellectual growth
  • I will educate and help others as much as I can
  • I will be strong

My means values, ie values that help me achieve those 5 strategic values, are:

  • I will be healthy
  • I will be financially successful
  • I will be performant

Knowing what those are didn’t make me happier but it’s making some of my decisions simpler and pushes me in the right direction!

Wealth and frugality #

Episode 128: The Psychology of Money

The greatest intrinsic value [of money] is independence

The Psychology of Money - Morgan Housel

It’s unfortunate that money is such a taboo topic in society. People take for granted that we all know what money is and how it should be used. But very few people understand how to use money to increase their happiness.

Common Sense Investing made a great video on the subject:

A short overview of the video is that:

  • Money is a necessity to meet basic needs and reduce stress
  • Income has diminishing returns on happiness so don’t sacrifice your time for it
  • Spending on expensive goods rarely increases happiness because of hedonic adaptation
    • We tend to quickly adapt to our situation, and a bigger home or better car rarely translates into sustained increased happiness
  • The best experiences don’t have to be expensive and frugality has a positive impact on happiness
  • Compounding is an unstoppable force if time is on your side (aka if you’re young)
  • Wealth is the money you don’t spend and helps you face unexpected circumstances

Good things to spend money to increase happiness on are:

  • Saving time
  • Active leisure activities and hobbies
  • Shared experiences with other people
  • Frequent small pleasures

Reaching Goals #

Time management #

As accomplishments are an important part of happiness according to the PERMA model, becoming better at reaching your own goals has a positive impact on happiness.

Those goals could be learning a new language, learning to draw, to play an instrument, to get to Challenger in LoL, … And they’re challenging and time-consuming. So how to reach them reliably?

The 1908 book How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day mostly got it right a century ago. It’s a very short read which you can go through in one sitting.

Simply put:

  • Spend time daily on self-reflection
    • That can be on the commute, in the shower, anywhere really. But take some time to look back
  • Don’t forget that even if you work 8 hours a day you still have 16 hours for yourself on weekdays. Don’t just dismiss those hours.
  • Claim 90 minutes for yourself 3 evenings a week and use those for self improvement and education

Knowledge #

Another important piece of the accomplishment puzzle is being able to offload your cognitive load and reduce stress. We all have many things going on at once so writing information down is the only reliably way to remember it.

This is a field called Personal Knowledge Management and I was introduced to it by the book Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. I wrote a full article on it recently so you can go there if you want a deeper look at it:

My note-taking journey - A foray into Personal Knowledge Management systems
·2332 words·11 mins

Health #

Another key part of happiness is health. Interestingly almost no one follows the basic weekly activity recommendations by the WHO for adults aged 18-64:

  • At least 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • Do muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week
  • To help reduce the detrimental effects of high levels of sedentary behavior on health, all adults and older adults should aim to do more than the recommended levels of intensity physical activity

There’s not much more to say:

  • Do your cardio
    • Find what you like, there are too many options for you to hate them all! Running, cycling, rowing, walking, HIIT, team sports, …
  • Do strength training at least twice a week
    • This can be calisthenics if you don’t have access to a gym
    • It can be lifting if you enjoy it, I personally followed the 5/3/1 program until I reached my strength goals
  • Make it non negotiable and a part of your daily life
    • You should view physical activity as a core part of your life just as important as sleeping and eating

Closing thoughts #

As I started from the conclusion there is not much for me to add here.

Hopefully at least one of the paragraphs sparked some interest in you, and don’t hesitate to ping me on Mastodon/Twitter if you think I’m missing something here!