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Building a Happiness 401k

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

While Tax Day is still a couple of months, one of my new year’s goals was to get on my taxes early, so I won’t be scrambling come April. As I was sifting through receipts and 1099 forms, it got me thinking about Arthur Brooks’, the Atlantic contributing editor and professor at Harvard, theory on a Happiness 401k.

For our younger readers, a 401(k) is a long-term retirement plan offered by employers to help individuals slowly build a robust savings portfolio they can utilize when they stop working. While doing that with money is all well and good, wouldn’t it be great if we could invest in our happiness, perhaps even tax the joy we experience now to use later? Brooks says we can, that there is a way to invest in your happiness when you are young to enjoy the fruits long into life.

The Study of Long-Term Happiness

I have mentioned this pivotal study before in my podcast, but I will take a quick minute to reiterate it here. In 1938, Harvard started a study following a group of men from youth to adulthood, asking every so often how they felt they were on their happiness scale, among other things, to understand their well-being. Each participant had all different walks of life, relationships, and life goals, so no two people were the same.

This long-term study, of course, evolved over time, and they greatly expanded the number of participants beyond the small group of men from Harvard. As results began to fill in over the decades, researchers categorized participants into a spectrum of happiness describing their happiness with life and their physical health. For example, one end of the scale would be “happy-well,” with the opposite being “sad-sick.”

It comes as no surprise that some factors of happiness were beyond participants’ control, such as generational wealth or DNA-based health conditions. However, what was within participants’ power is the most fascinating, and as Brooks says, “[this] can teach us a great deal about how to plan for late-life happy-wellness.”

Researchers discovered that seven specific buckets affect our happiness into our 70-80s that we can start to fill now. Those seven categories are: smoking, drinking alcohol, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education (i.e., lifelong learning), and relationships.

The 7 Buckets of a Happiness 401k:

How you adhere to these buckets in your youth and even into mid-life will drastically determine your long-term happiness. Let’s analyze these, shall we?

1. Smoking

It comes as no surprise that smoking isn’t good for you. You likely know that if you are a smoker, but I encourage you to quit. Smoke-free years can increase longevity, reduce health risks, and even lead to more money in your pocket! Plus, it removes the emotional strain placed on the loved ones that want to see you live a long and happy life.

2. Drinking

Similar to smoking, drinking isn’t good for you either. While an occasional glass of wine or a night on the town will have minimal long-term effects, excessive drinking can lead to a plethora of physical, mental, and emotional conditions. If you feel as though drinking has become a heavy aspect of your life, or you recognize that alcohol abuse is a shared family trait, it would be wise to ease off in your youth and keep that practice maintained throughout your years.

3. Body Weight

Obesity is a common problem here in the USA, but it often goes unaddressed. Maintaining a healthy body weight is critical to your long-term health, with the CDC citing that the medical costs for adults with obesity were $1,861 higher than medical costs for people with a healthy weight in 2019. As you know, maintaining a healthy weight can be tricky, but a regular diet of quality food and moderate serving sizes is the place to start.

4. Exercise

As discussed in my podcast episodes 239-242, exercise boosts happiness. Making an effort to practice daily movement starting when we are younger will have exponential benefits as we age physically, mentally, and emotionally. Whether you want to dance around in your living room, go on a walk, or (my favorite) play tennis, making an effort to incorporate daily movement into your routine is critical.

5. Emotional Resilience

Life can be tough; I certainly don’t deny it. There are days when happiness can seem just out of reach or so far away that you can’t even see the light. A critical effort we can put into our happiness buckets now is creating and practicing coping mechanisms. If you live long enough, you will face hardship. That unfortunate fact of life can be an accident, a death, an illness, and other unfavorable situations. By building these routines in our lives now, we will benefit in the long-term as we will be adequately prepared for when ill luck strikes rather than taking a less healthy alternative.

6. Education

A friend of mine’s dad used to tell her, “the day you stop learning, you put one foot in the grave with the other soon to follow.” To keep learning through the years means to engage the mind. Continued lifelong learning is a pillar of happiness we have discussed before. Not only does this help to prevent age-related cognitive declines, but it keeps people passionate. When you learn, you act, keep moving, and dream.

7. Relationships

Lastly, it comes as no surprise that relationships are on the list. Here at Everyday Happiness, we talk about building social bonds and connections all the time. Having a close network of individuals provides you with an invaluable support system that can aid you through the most challenging aspects of life and celebrate all the joys as well. By continually building and maintaining good relationships throughout life, you can benefit here and now as well 50 years down the line.

How to Build These 7 Buckets of Happiness

As you go through the years, filling these buckets may be easy or hard. You might be able to fill some of the buckets but not the others. That is okay! Just like with a monetary 401k, there are going to be days, weeks, months, and years where you can only add so much. You can only do what you can, and every effort will benefit you in the long run. If you can only work on one bucket, Brooks recommends the last, building relationships. Healthy relationships may have been last on the list, but they are the most potent factor of happiness.

Can You Use Intentional Margins to Aid Your Happiness Buckets?

Absolutely! If this has inspired you to make some small changes or tiny habits, I encourage you to build them into your intentional margins. You don’t have to do all seven at once, but you can add one at a time until you have a healthy routine. Some will be easier than others, but I believe in you!

Along the way, I encourage you to add a little kindness to your happiness mission. Get a dose of happiness delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our newsletter, delivered twice a month, today!

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