A HAPPY LIFE can’t be built solely on relaxing, having fun and doing exciting things. To be sure, there’s pleasure to be found in all of these. But I have come to believe that, to lead a life that’s full and satisfying, there is an ingredient that is even more crucial: We need to devote our days to activities that we think are important.
Or, to frame it slightly differently, we want our life to count for something. Arguably, this is a tad delusional: In a world brimming with 7.4 billion people, nothing that any of us do is of great significance. But even knowing that, we find it immensely satisfying to do work that we feel is important. We can become totally engrossed and the hours just whiz by. This is the state of “flow” described by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
We also experience the opposite—the irritation when we’re forced to waste time on the unimportant and unproductive, like sitting in traffic or waiting for the doctor to see us. As we tell ourselves, there are so many better things we could be doing.
But what better things? I think that changes as we age. When we’re early in our careers, what’s important is often defined by our boss. As we grow older, we care less what the boss thinks—and become more concerned with what we judge to be important. That can prompt us to make a midlife career change, perhaps swapping to a job which might be less lucrative, but which we hope will be more fulfilling. By saving diligently through our initial decades in the workforce, we can buy ourselves the financial freedom to make this sort of career change.
Our financial freedom is even greater upon retirement, when we’re now free to spend our time as we wish. But I fear many retirees squander this freedom. If we aren’t careful, we’ll focus on the conventional notion of a happy life, and try to spend our retirement relaxing and having fun—and end up with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Instead, we should think long and hard about what’s important to us—and then design a retirement that allows us to focus on these activities.