Optimize for Happiness

Money can be a touchy subject, so I’m prefacing this with the fact that I’m in a privileged position in writing about it fairly casually.

I would usually hesitate to call an office chair beautiful, but I don’t think twice about it when describing Herman-Miller’s Sayl. This sleek office chair retailing for a mind-boggling $845 minimum price is made by furniture company Herman-Miller, known for their iconic Eames Lounge Chair (one of my favorite chairs, ever) and for producing the golden standard for ergonomic office chairs and artisan furniture for the past century.

Unable to justify paying full-price for this chair, I turned to secondhand markets to find a more suitable exchange. I quickly messaged a seller who was offering the Sayl for $275, and couldn’t help but grin as I saw the faces of shock of my friends and family.

While this may be unjustifiable to 99% of the population, I have clear reasoning for why I’d spend this kind of money on a chair– I’m optimizing for happiness.

While optimizing for happiness” might sound like a gross oversimplification of the human condition, it’s a phrase that has given some life to ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

Whether it be from your upbringing or influencers you follow online talking about needing to save every penny, we may forget what money is used for when obsessing over saving it for a day that may never come.

Spending money is a stressful ordeal for a lot of people, and finding the best bang for your buck” seems to always be at the forefront of people’s minds, even when they don’t need to buy anything. While it is important to save and invest for the long term, how I spend spending money seems counterintuitive to this philosophy of attempting to always maximize value per dollar spent.

For the sake of my argument, I’ll say that discretionary income is an opportunity to optimize for the maximum amount of happiness’ (I’m gonna run with this abstraction so please bear with me) per unit of currency.

The traditional approach that personal finance bloggers espouse is something I’ll call optimizing for price”. This is an approach to spending that prioritizes the price for the thing you’re spending on before anything else. This is like buying the smallest, least expensive cup of tea that has just enough flavor to make you not want to spit it out immediately.

Living this way and optimizing for price in all aspects of your life might leave you with a more savings rate, but is an unsustainable approach to spending money that compromises the quality and enjoyment of things you’re buying for an arbitrary goal of spending less”.

Optimizing for happiness”, as I call it, is an approach to spending that prioritizes the quality and enjoyment of purchase that is in radical alignment with your priorities and values. This is like investing in a cafe-grade tea strainer and importing tea leaves from different parts of the world, in order to make sitting down with a cup of tea a daily ritual that aligns with your belief in the importance of solitude and quiet.

While it would be unsustainable to have this be the spending philosophy when it comes to all of your purchases, optimizing for happiness in alignment with your priorities will help you:

  1. Make intentional purchases that result in longer term satisfaction
  2. Not overspend on things that don’t align with your lifestyle
  3. Potentially have a better savings rate than if you optimized for price on everything

Just like spending more in the short term, spending less money can also be a form of instant gratification.

I’ll preface the benefits of optimizing for happiness with the fact that it isn’t perfect. Our priorities change just as quickly as our life does, and we might find ourselves with a $200 kettle that won’t help you with your newfound passion for beekeeping.

I’ve found that I can justify almost any purchase to myself because I’m buying it for life”, and then once it arrives proceed to never use it (here’s a link to a $80 jump rope that I am seriously underutilizing).

Even when my priorities do change though, I can always focus on making buying less but better. When goods are bought cheaply, it leaves a lot more room for haphazard purchases and makes it easy to simply buy more, more often.

The lifetime cost of ownership for a consumer good is also often ignored when consumers optimize singularly for price. It’d more economical for me to purchase a more expensive kettle today and only have to replace it once than to replace a less expensive item more often.

By choosing buy things that might be more expensive, you can replace the clutter that is associated with cheap, mass-produced consumer goods with high-quality, domestically-made goods that support local economies.

While this kind of longer-term thinking is at the core of optimizing for happiness, is the hardest part to conceptualize. The financial burden in the short term begets financial relief in the long term, and the financial relief in the short term can beget financial burden in the long term. For some, being cheap is also be a form of instant gratification where there is some pleasure to be gained by spending miserly amounts of money.

Ultimately, this is not about having your entire life prioritized today and having every can of beans you purchase be in radical alignment with your perfectly manicured meal plan (but if it is, I wanna hear about it). It is not about never making mistakes with your money and passing every single of your possessions onto your grandchildren as heirlooms. It is however, about working to practice intentionality in a market optimized for impulsivity– and you can’t put a price tag on that.

September 25, 2022