Happiness as passive income

Happiness as a goal

At some point in everyone’s life they ask themselves what happiness means to them. Happiness for most of us has always been an aim to some degree, but is never the only goal. Happiness is something we hope for, not plan for.

I think part of the reason that this is the case is that we see happiness as an end goal or an end state. We see happiness as something that is achieved, rather than something that happens along the way.

Don Draper in the AMC series “Mad Men” famously says, “Happiness is the smell of a new car.” In his fictional world, and unfortunately in many of our own - happiness is an outcome or destination. Happiness is the acquisition of some object or some status in life that then generates happiness.

After a decent amount of life lived I’ve come to believe that this is fundamentally not true. Like many writers, philosophers, and academics have come to find - happiness - like fulfillment - comes from the journey, the process of getting where we’re going. Happiness will never be *achieved* per se, only encouraged by the pursuit of achievement - whatever that is for all of us. 

I think a helpful way to think of happiness is similar to passive income. 

What is passive income?

Passive income is a form of generating income or wealthy by non “active” means, i.e. not clocking into a job that pays you salary or by the hour, and not completing some specific project within a certain timeframe.

Passive income is the constant flow of income from some program, business or other venture, such as profits from a book you published, or royalties from music you made in the past. 

But first, you must work 

Passive income, like happiness, often involves substantial upfront work. To generate passive income, you must first make a thing, or build a business that will generate you income long term. 

Similarly, to be happy, you need to find things you like, make friendships with people you can lean on in the future, or build routines that will give you a stable doses of pleasure. 

Passive income, like happiness, is rarely your primary focus. By definition, passive income is something that happens in the background without your attention. Income is being generated without your direct effort, and if you set up everything correctly, it will only require your attention if you want more or less growth - or something breaks.

Happiness is the same. Happiness is something that is happening in the background as you focus on what’s in front of you. Whether that’s practicing your favorite musical instrument, getting lunch with an old friend, or pursuing a passion. And like passive income, happiness will only require your attention if you need or want more of it, or yes, if something breaks.


How to apply this mindset

While many of us are new to this idea of happiness as a background process, it’s easy to apply this mindset today. 

First, think about it with a long term lens from the start. Like passive income, don’t think about how much you can grow your accounts in the first 30 days but rather the first 30 months. Don’t think about what shortcuts you can take to be happy today or tomorrow, think about what careful actions you can take that will enable you to allow the opportunity for more happiness in your life.

Second, chase more serotonin, not more dopamine. Video games, Netflix binges, and other thrill chases will only leave you burned out and hunting for the next hit. Meanwhile, planning a big trip to catch up with friends or spending a whole day away from screens will make a much longer lasting impact on your happiness and overall wellbeing.

Lastly, think about how to automate things in your life that make you happier over time. Like passive income, build structures that will reward you even when you’re not focused on them. Have a standing call with a loved one that you never need to think about scheduling because it happens on its own. Make Sunday a day you’re not allowed to check email (unless you enjoy it). Make your happiest lifestyle the easiest one to maintain.