When were you most happy with your life? The most fulfilled? The most satisfied with your days work? Does your point of peak happiness line up with when you were making the most money? Spending the most on cars, houses, or restaurants? I’m willing to bet no. Ours doesn’t either.
After college, I joined the Army while the future Mrs. Grizzly finished her undergrad. I was stationed at Ft. Riley, a surprisingly beautiful place out on the Kansas prairie. We spent a lot of time working hard at a long distance relationship, but for a few blessed months in the summer of 2006, she joined me in Manhattan, KS. I was renting a single room in a little house with a couple other folks. We were cramped, broke, and crazy happy.
We spent the summer exploring that little town – walking the quiet streets, picnicking in the local park, making up great recipes, and drinking cheap beer at dive bars with good friends. Mrs. Grizzly worked as an intern for Kansas Legal Services, helping people who really needed it – disabled veterans, single mothers, abused children. I trained my first platoon – learning from my sergeant and trying to be the best damn second lieutenant I could as we prepared for Iraq. One small moment at a time, one person at a time, we were trying to make a difference in the world.
I remember one night very clearly; we took a detour down a back highway running through the Flint Hills. It was late, around 10:00 or 11:00PM. As we drove, we crested a hill and the most beautiful scene I ever witnessed came into view. There were controlled burns on the prairie that night. Ribbons of fire danced like serpents, lighting up the black hills with an otherworldly red glow. A blanket of stars framed the scene, the Milky Way a pale splash of gleaming light, stretching across the sky. I was able to share this, and many other moments, with my beautiful wife that summer. That summer was the happiest I have ever been.
About a year later I left for Iraq, starting what would end up being a 15-month deployment. During that time I shared a 20ft containerized housing unit (basically a shipping crate) with one of my best friends. I was in the brigade’s engineering unit, planning and building the defenses that would keep soldiers safe in far-flung, tiny patrol bases. He was leading the unit tasked with protecting our brigade commander. We woke early and stayed up into the night, often lying on our cots rehashing what had happened that day, trying to figure out how we could do better. It was the hardest year of my life, but every day I went to bed knowing that I had done something worthwhile. That year wasn’t happy, but it was the most satisfied I’ve ever been with my work, my craft.
Our happiest and most satisfying moments correspond, not to the points in our life when we had the highest salary or the most stuff, but precisely the opposite. To the points in our life when those material things mattered the least. I like to refer to this little relationship as our Life vs Money equation. All our income over the last decade and a half plotted out vs. our life. See that peak? It’s right in the middle of the years I’m talking about.
The valley you see on the right was the next few years. We both went to our respective high priced grad schools. Studying long hours, interviewing for prestigious jobs with powerful companies and big law firms. It did not bring happiness. It brought jobs where we toiled for long hours away from family and friends. There were very few moments like that night on the Prairie.
The uptick on the right is as we’ve started to climb out of this fog. We found out we were pregnant in 2014. Our little Baby Bear was born in 2015. I expect the orange line will keep climbing even when we bring the blue line crashing back to near zero in a little under two years. I do not want to imply that money is not important, at the lowest levels it matters a great deal. You cannot be happy when you can’t feed your kids or keep your home. But above that level, it matters little. The two lines have almost nothing to do with one another. True satisfaction is good work, good friends, and sharing this journey with those you love.
I firmly believe that life is about finding your own point of peak happiness and satisfaction; figuring out where it lies and molding your life to fit that ideal. For some, that may be the pursuit of wealth, status, and power. My wife and I got lost on that path for a number of years. But we’re trying to find our way back to that little town on the Kansas Prairie. We’re hoping that you can find your way too.