Money Buys Freedom, But Freedom Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness

5 min read

Anita Dhake worked as a lawyer for just five years before accumulating enough savings to retire by age 33. Since then, she has been writing books, blogging and traveling the world full-time.

I recently read an article by Anita titled What if I’m wrong about everything? In it, she shares that she has quickly grown tired of the early retirement / full-time travel lifestyle.

“Sooner than expected, I’ve grown weary of the road. We’re disenchanted with each other. I’m having a hard time appreciating the things I love about travel and travel is sick of me complaining.”

She goes on to question whether or not having “roots” in one place is better than having the freedom to constantly travel to new locations on a regular basis, never really planting “roots” in one community.

“What if I’m wrong about everything? What if happiness is more about roots and people and relationships and productivity and less about freedom and flexibility? Maybe it’s good to have something tying you to a place.”

These questions get right to the core of an age-old debate: does happiness come from planting deep roots in one place and becoming a member of a community or does it come from having the freedom to fly wherever you want, travel full-time, and live without restrictions? 

I think the answer is a combination of both. 

The Lifestyle Change Fallacy

As humans, we have a tendency to believe that moving somewhere new, landing a new job, earning a pay raise, or buying a new trinket will lead to a lasting boost in our happiness. In general, these things actually do bring us happiness. Unfortunately, we underestimate just how long this happiness will last.

In a study on the nature of happiness, researchers Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky provide two reasons for why the happiness we get from positive life changes tends to erode over time:

(1) Positive emotions generated by positive changes decline as we become “used” to the positive change, i.e. the initial joy of owning that new car fades over time as you become used to driving it.

(2) As we become accustomed to the positive change, we aspire for more positive change, i.e. we begin to look for an even newer car to buy.

These two phenomenons could explain why lifestyle changes like early retirement and full-time travel don’t bring us lasting increased happiness. At first they’re a wonderful change of pace, but over time (1) we become accustomed to the new lifestyle and (2) we begin to long for a different lifestyle, specifically one that provides the aspects of a life we’re missing.

The Focus Fallacy

If you’re currently stuck at a 9-5 job, it’s easy to focus on all the aspects you hate about it – the commute, the deadlines, the meetings, the monotonous schedule. That’s why it’s so easy to assume that a lifestyle with no commutes, no deadlines, no meetings, and a wide-open schedule must be a recipe for bliss.

On the flip side, if you’re someone who has the freedom and flexibility to work and travel whenever you want, it could be equally easy to focus on all the negative aspects – no routine schedule, no coworkers to interact with, a lack of belonging, etc. 

Anita shares this sentiment in her post.

“I feel compelled to tell you that retired life is not perfect. The longer I’m retired, the more isolated I feel. There’s something about having a job that just feels…safe. It’s how people know you exist. It’s not something I ever considered when I was working, but there’s something empowering about making money and working your assigned job that I miss more than I thought I would. You have a place in the system.”

In another post I recently read, digital nomad Vance from My Latin Life shares that he experienced a similar disillusionment from his lifestyle of full-time travel and online freelancing.

 “But, like anything, the novelty wore off. Working from home became my new normal, and I was bothered by the fact I still had to rely on someone else for my paycheck. I quickly found that unless you absolutely love what you’re doing or building your own business, it will get stale. For me, it took about a year to discover I hated my new job.

I realized that I was no different than an office wage-slave saving up for a new television or iPhone. Only my vices were drinking and partying.”

It can be hard to relate to the feelings in these articles if you’re reading them under a florescent light in a cubicle. It’s easy to think, How on earth could these people not be happy with these lifestyles? They have so much freedom.

The problem comes from our poor ability to predict just how “normal” any lifestyle can become over time and how every lifestyle has its drawbacks. 

So, What Do We Need?

If humans are just adaptation machines who quickly become disenchanted with positive lifestyle changes, does this mean early retirement / financial independence isn’t worth pursuing?

Not at all.

We just need a better understanding of what conditions are needed for lasting happiness. 

Specifically, the field of psychology has identified three conditions:

Connection – a sense of belonging, relationships, a community

Competence – working on challenging tasks, acquiring skills, developing mastery

Autonomy – the freedom to control your time

So, does a lifestyle of full-time travel meet these conditions?

It’s certainly a lifestyle packed with autonomy. You can wake up each morning and do whatever you want.

It can be filled with competence if you’re working on projects you find interesting and developing new skills.

But the one element this lifestyle struggles to incorporate is connection. It can be difficult to maintain deep relationships or feel like you’re a member of a larger community if you’re constantly on the move.

From what I have read by early retirees and online freelancers who pursue full-time travel, I constantly see one theme emerge: having freedom is wonderful, but it can get lonely

This is why full-time travel might not be the best answer to the happiness question.

So, what is the best answer?

Some Things That Seem to Work

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all formula for finding happiness. I have, however, noticed a few things that most happy people I know possess.

1. Some level of financial security. I don’t think financial independence is necessary to be incredibly happy, but I do think some level of financial security goes a long way towards increasing happiness and well-being. The more money you have in the bank, the more freedom you have, which means more lifestyle options.

Related: Mixing Active and Passive Income for Maximum Happiness

2. Active learning and growth. Whether you run a blog, build apps, design websites, take online courses, create paintings, build treehouses, or whatever else, there’s something about actively learning a new skill, building a new thing, and persevering through the discomfort of growth that leads to a huge boost in joy and happiness. Even if you’re someone who hates their day job, you can find happiness in learning, building, and creating things outside of 8 AM – 5 PM.

3. A sense of community. Whether you attend yoga classes, join a book club, coach a soccer team, play basketball on the weekends, or just have a weekly meetup where you and your friends play Fortnite and eat pizza, having some sense of community and social belonging is highly correlated with happiness.

The Takeaways

  • Your “dream” lifestyle probably wouldn’t make you happy for as long as you think it would thanks to the nature of human adaptation.
  • As humans, we have a tendency to focus only on the good aspects of our “dream” lifestyle while not considering the potential downsides (i.e. focusing on the potential joy of full-time travel while ignoring the potential of being lonely).
  • Financial security can help you gain freedom, but freedom by itself isn’t enough for lasting happiness.
  • Connection, competence, and autonomy are the three ingredients needed for lasting happiness.
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5 Replies to “Money Buys Freedom, But Freedom Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness”

  1. What a great post! I had identified 2 of the 3 things: community and autonomy… but the idea of competency is something i had a vague idea of but couldn’t quite articulate when i think about my life after the workforce; funny though… i think having your own business takes away some autonomy for me… if you’re sick or incapacitated…who will run the business? I can’t wait to read Anita’s post… i quickly saw the downsides of long travel after realizing for me short travel lost it luster after awhile…

  2. Great post. It seem that it doesn’t matter when in life people ‘retire’ they experience similar problems. I’ve been talking to my older colleagues (I’m an academic) and they all fear retirement for the same reasons – feeling as if you have no purpose, being isolated and not being valued member of society (and even your family). I suppose, that the way to tackle this would be different for different ages. The important message is to re-focus on ways to integrate and create.

  3. I recently read a takeoff on this phrase.

    It stated “money doesn’t buy happiness, but it allows you to free yourself from misery. After that, happiness is up to you.”

    Mr. 39 Months

  4. Money gives you more options. Whether you are happy with those options is totally up to you and your inner self. I’m finding that out more and more and realizing I don’t even need all that many options. 🙂

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