I listened to this podcast recently, and it rang true, confirming what I’ve experienced over and over again—the happiest people are the ones who value time over money. Doing things brings us more joy than having things.
If we are scraping by, we certainly aren’t happy, and it’s more money that will make us so. There is no way around that, and it’s why I make a monthly donation to The Poor People’s Campaign. Amazingly, poverty is still the great unacknowledged scourge of American life.
But even those who live at or below the poverty line still need and want time, and a well-paying job with benefits pays for more time with friends and family. One of my favorite lists is the Five Regrets of the Dying. No one on their deathbed ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” When it comes down to it, we want our lives to have meaning and we want our lives to have pleasure.
Turns out you can put this on a grid (yay!), and that we actually need to spend a little time in each quadrant over the course of a week or a month. This concept comes from Ashley Whillans, but the labels come from me:
- Essence of Life: High meaning/high pleasure. These are things like family vacations or seminal work projects. If you tend to spend all your time in this quadrant, you might end up The Manipulator, trying to extract maximum meaning and pleasure from everything.
- Vital Extras: Low meaning/high pleasure. Like a massage, nap, or giving yourself five minutes on Instagram. Camping out here, you could end up The Monarch—pleasure all the time.
- Maintenance: Low meaning/low pleasure. Bills, housecleaning, invoicing. Necessary, usually not fun. Getting stuck here long-term, you could become The Minder, so dutiful that you miss out on the sweetest things in life.
- Citizen of the World: High meaning/low pleasure. Staying informed, activism work, caretaking and service. Getting stuck here, you can become The Martyr, prone to self-righteousness.
Of course, the lines between these aren’t so clear, and it really varies from person-to-person in terms of which activities we would put in which quadrants. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed about my own tendencies:
- These four quadrants need one another. A life where all maintenance is outsourced can easily lack meaning. A life where vital extras are ignored can lack joy.
- I have spent too much time on the left side of the grid—The Minder and The Martyr. I’m trying to experience more pleasure and fun in my life, and I suspect many women might relate.
- I’m learning to offload maintenance by funding or reframing it— “I’m doing this so I can have more fun later” or “I’ll pay someone to do this!”
- Being in the Essence of Life takes being present, but it also takes money and planning sometimes.
- The unhappiest combo seems to be perpetually living in the bottom two—some pleasure, little meaning. It’s why self-care has limited efficacy.
- High meaning/low pleasure (Citizen of the World) often results in pleasure later—those are the pursuits we remember with the most pride and fondness.
Writing yet another reflection (sheesh!) about how we can use our time to live a good life, I feel compelled to remind myself that the pursuit of happiness for its own sake will not produce happiness. I described it to a client recently as “endlessly fiddling with the happiness dials.” I don’t want to live that way. Another client shared with me that he felt a deep sense of awe and wonder last week as he was taking out the garbage before nightfall. That’s free, it’s unbidden. It just requires our openness. May you experience a moment like that soon.