When talking with clients about retirement, I almost always hear some variation of the following sentence: “I just want to be happy.”

The more I heard the “H” word, the more I asked myself “What actually makes us happy?”

There’s certainly no single answer to that question.  In fact, the answers seem limitless.  Not only that, but we don’t seem particularly good at knowing what will make us happy.  The things we choose—say, money for example—often provide a short-term, fleeting sense of pleasure rather than a deep, abiding sense of happiness.

With that said, I decided to do a series of posts (300 should do the trick :)) on well researched, quantifiable things that have been proven to make us happy.  When I come across a particular fact, idea or action that is likely to make us happy, I’ll write about it.

Happiness Principle #1: Balance Pleasures and Comforts

In his book The Joyless Economy, Tibor Scitovsky argues that there are two kinds of potential experiences in life: pleasures and comforts.  By pleasures he means risks or pursuits.  These are the new experiences in our lives.  The things that get us out of our comfort zone and stimulate our minds.  Pleasures include things like meeting someone new, exploring an unfamiliar city, ordering something new off the menu or learning a new hobby or skill.

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
~William Shedd

Then there are comforts.  These are the things that we know and are used to.  They’re safe and predictable.  They provide stability.  Comforts are things like our home, family, longtime friends and the job we’ve had for years.

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
~Abraham Lincoln

Every day, we’re presented with choices between pleasures and comforts.  Left to our own devices we tend to choose comforts.  In fact, many times we’re so reluctant to embrace the unknown that we will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.  We’ll persist in a bad job or a bad relationship, simply because we’re afraid of what would happen if we didn’t.

Not surprisingly, Scitovsky argues that finding balance between pleasures and comforts will ultimately make us happier than if we have a lopsided tendency toward only one.

Choosing the safe, predictable path (comforts) too often will leave you feeling unchallenged, uninspired and bored.  Always taking the risk and stepping outside your comfort zone (pleasures), however, can leave you feeling stressed and unmoored.   The key is to find a balance.

So how do we apply this to life and retirement?  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but what I have tried to do is lay a solid foundation of comforts that give my family a sense of stability.  Our home is not opulent, but it’s comfortable and meets our needs.  We have great friends, a church where we feel connected and our daughter is in a good school.  In addition, we’ve tried to manage our finances in such a way that we’re not always stressed about money.

What those things do is provide a sort of safety net so we can feel more comfortable (and sure footed) when taking a risk and pursuing pleasures.  If we take a risk and it doesn’t work out, the foundation is still there.  We can travel and know that we have a warm bed to go home to.  We can go back to school (as my wife is doing now) or learn a new skill without feeling like we’re out-punting our coverage.  Our daughter can join the soccer team or take up piano lessons and know that she can crash and burn and still have a family that loves her.

How about you?  How are you doing balancing pleasures and comforts?  Is there an area in your life where you’ve gotten too comfortable and you know it’s time for a change?  Has the dogged pursuit of something left you feeling like you’re on shifting sand?  If so, spend some time this week thinking about balance and you’ll be well on your way to achieving the happiness that we all look for.


Ten years is not enough
Will you spend less in retirement?