How to Gain a Better Understanding of the Things That Bring You Joy


6 min read

In my mind, there are two ways that you can enhance your quality of life:

(1) Spend less time doing things you don’t like.

(2) Spend more time doing things you do like.

Many people are drawn towards the idea of FIRE (financial independence/early retirement) because it gives you the means to (1) spend less time doing things you don’t like and (2) more time doing things you do like.

It’s obvious that FIRE can help you do less of the things you don’t like. Namely, if you don’t like your day job and FIRE gives you the means to quit, then suddenly you no longer have to :

  • Commute to and from work, five days per week
  • Spend a huge chunk of your waking hours doing work you may or may not find meaningful
  • Spend most of the day being away from your significant other and/or family

It’s easy to identify the things you don’t like and FIRE gives you the means to remove those things from your life.

However, as odd as it may sound, it can be trickier to identify the things that you do like. If you’ve been living in the fog of work for too long, you’ve probably become used to the daily routine of commuting to work, spending most of the day at the office, commuting home, and spending the rest of the evening either running errands, doing household chores, or watching Netflix.

It’s possible that, due to the time-consuming nature of a day job, you’ve slowly forgotten the things that used to bring you joy when you were younger and had more free time. As evidence, just consider how many people you’ve heard say something like:

“I could never retire early. I don’t know what I would do with all that free time!”

Consider how bizarre that phrase truly is. Given complete freedom over your time, you can’t think of anything you would rather do than spend the bulk of your week in an office?

Sadly, the eight-hour, five-day workweek has made this sentiment all too common and it’s something that I actually experienced myself after being in Corporate America for a little over two years.

Rediscovering Things That Brought Me Joy

I’ll never forget that one day last summer I had just finished a workday and had decided to go to the gym to lift some weights.

As soon as I walked in I was met by a coworker who also happened to be there. He asked if I wanted to play in a pickup basketball game that was just starting. I said yes and spent the next two hours sprinting up and down a gymnasium floor playing a sport that I loved as a kid, yet had played so little of since I had picked up a full-time job in Corporate America.

Once the game ended, I had a bit of a realization. “Wow, I forgot how much I loved basketball. I should start playing way more often.”

That set me off on a path towards realizing just how many things I used to love doing when I was younger, yet had stopped doing because I had significantly less time in my schedule because of my day job. This included things like:

  • Playing piano/keyboard
  • Going hiking
  • Swimming
  • Drawing

Over the months that followed, I made an earnest effort to spend more time doing these things I used to love doing when I was younger. Not only that, but I started jotting down notes in my phone of things that made me happy in the moment as I was doing them. This included things like:

  • “Drinking my morning coffee”
  • “Reading articles about people who achieved financial independence”
  • “Listening to podcasts on the way to work”
  • “Eating Chipotle with my friends”
  • “Reading a book on the porch as the sun sets”
  • “Hanging out at the pool with my girlfriend”

By jotting these things down, I was able to better understand what brought me joy. And by reflecting on these notes every so often I was able to remind myself to do these things more often.

Although this manual system of note-taking on my phone was a decent way of keeping track of the things that brought me joy, I was overjoyed when I found a simple free app that helped me do exactly what I had been doing, but in a more convenient way: Cactus.

Cactus: A Simple App for Guided Reflection

“Being thankful is not always experienced as a natural state of existence, we must work at it, akin to a type of strength training for the heart.” –Larissa Gomez

Cactus is an app that, as described on its homepage, helps you “discover a happier, healthier, more focused life.”

The premise of the app is simple:

1. You enter your email address.

2. Cactus sends you one prompt each morning, asking you to reflect on questions like:

  • “What are three things you are looking forward to experiencing this week?”
  • “What are moments or sources of play in your life?”
  • “What food brings you the most joy?”
  • “What are three benefits you have received in the past week for which you are grateful?”

3. You type your response and Cactus saves it in your own personal Cactus Journal. Then, you can read through your past responses in your journal whenever you would like.

I use very few apps, but Cactus is one that I keep in my arsenal for a few reasons:

1. It’s easy to get started. You literally just type in your email and nothing else. The app is free and doesn’t require your name, address, credit card details, or any personal information.

2. It’s easy to use. The daily prompts show up in my email inbox, I respond with a few sentences, my response is automatically saved, and I move on with my day.

3. It helps me start each day in the right frame of mind. Since the prompts show up in my email inbox first thing in the morning, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on something I’m grateful for before I even start my day. This naturally puts me in a good mood and offers a nice start to my day.

4. I love the guided nature of the reflections. When I used to jot down things that made me happy, I had to actually wait until something made me happy to reflect on it. Now, with guided prompts, Cactus offers me something specific to reflect on each morning.

Cactus: How it Works

At the time of this writing, there is only a web version of the Cactus app but an iOS app is actively being developed. Here’s a quick overview of what the app looks like and how it works:

1. Each morning, I receive an email from Cactus. For example, here’s an email I received a couple days ago at 5AM:

Each email starts with a brief little message that provides the context for the prompt being asked. Then, I can respond to the prompt (e.g. “What food brings you the most joy?”) either directly as a reply to the email or through the Cactus Journal that is automatically linked to my email.

2. Once I respond to the prompt, I can view my response along with all other reflections I’ve made to past prompts in my own Cactus Journal.

This is probably my favorite aspect of the app. I love that I have my own personal online journal that I can access whenever I want to read my past reflections.

I highly recommend checking out the Cactus app. It’s free, it’s easy to use, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to practice daily gratitude and keep the things that bring me joy at the front of my mind.

Be Mindful of the Things That Bring You Joy

It’s so easy to slip into a weekly routine that revolves around spending the bulk of your time at work and then spending your free time unwinding from work that you start to forgot what activities and moments actually bring you joy.

The antidote, of course, is to actively reflect on the things that bring you joy on a daily basis. That’s why I’ve found a simple free app like Cactus to be so useful. It helps me reflect on exactly what types of things give my life meaning.

No matter where you are on your financial journey, whether you’ve achieved financial independence or are actively working towards it, it’s a good idea to get in tune with the things that actually bring you joy and happiness in life.

Remember, the whole point of optimizing your financial life is to give yourself the means to spend more time doing the things you like. And the best way to actually know what things you like doing is to practice self-reflection on a daily basis.

Zach

Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.

Zach's favorite free financial tool he's been using since 2015 to manage his net worth is Personal Capital. Each month he uses their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track his investments and ensure that he's on the fast track to financial freedom.

Although the bulk of his net worth is invested in index funds, his favorite place to invest in individual stocks is M1 Finance, a site that allows you to build a custom portfolio of stocks for free.

His favorite way to save money each month on his recurring bills is by using Trim, a free financial app that negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone bills with any provider on your behalf.

His favorite micro-investing app is Acorns, a free financial app that takes just 5 minutes to set up and allows you to invest your spare change in a diversified portfolio.

His favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.

Zach

Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.