subtract to find happiness

Subtract to find happiness [PMP #192]

I had a great ‘ah-ha’ moment last week.

I was listening to an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast between Tim and Mr Money Moustache (a.k.a Pete Adeney). For those that don’t know, Mr Money Moustache is a pioneer of the F.I.R.E movement (financial independence, retire early). On his blog he deconstructs the numbers behind creating a passive income and living within your means so you can retire early.

Don't want to read this post? Listen to the podcast instead:

Anyway, during the interview, Pete said something that really made my ears prick up:

Happiness is not that much affected by adding positives to your life, it’s mostly accomplished by removing a negative.Click To Tweet

He said this mostly within the context of material possessions.

Now, if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the stuff we buy tends to serve our basic needs e.g. food, water, shelter, security and safety.

maslows hierarchy of needs

But once these basic needs have been met, the stuff we buy doesn’t make us much happier. Often we think we’ll be happier when we get that new gadget, new house, car or pay rise. But what tends to happen through the magic of hedonic adaption is that the shiny new things become our new normal and we are left wanting more. We want the bigger house, the faster car and even more money.

After our basic needs have been met, happiness comes from satisfying our psychological and self-fulfilment needs. From relationships, feelings of accomplishment and achieving our potential.

And if we look at happiness through this lens of ‘removing negatives’, ask yourself: What is causing you stress or unhappiness in your life right now? What can you remove to satisfy your psychological and self-fulfilment needs?

  • Because it’s 2020, I imagine people reading this might be worried about COVID and how this impacts their job, paying the rent or mortgage and health.
  • Maybe you have a boss that you don’t like who doesn’t appreciate your work.
  • Maybe the work you do is no longer challenging you or helping you to grow.
  • Maybe you’re working on a particularly stressful project or client that you wish would end.
  • Perhaps you have a long commute that means you have less time with your family or friends.


Now it’s not always easy or even possible to make some of these negatives disappear. We can’t just make COVID go away. But taking a stoic approach to this exercise, think about what’s within your control.

  • You can talk to your boss about how you feel under-appreciated.
  • You can put systems in place to screen your clients and ensure projects progress smoothly.
  • Maybe you can work from home and commute less often so you have more time with friends and family.

I’d classify myself as a pretty happy person. Life is good and when people ask me where I want to be in five years, I really don’t know what to say. I don’t think there’s anything you could give me that would make me significantly happier than I am already.

There was a time in the past where I felt under-appreciated at my job and I started to resent going to work each day. I tried to improve my situation by talking to my boss and sharing these feelings but nothing really changed. To fix this, I found a new job at a friends company and instantly felt a lot happier having put this negative behind me.

As my business has grown, I’ve learned what to watch out for when talking to new leads so I can avoid taking on clients who are likely to be difficult and cause a lot of stress.

As I write this, I realise this idea of ‘removing negatives’ is consistent with other ideas I’ve shared in the past.

If you want to read more, check out my blog post on the importance of saying ‘no’ so you can focus on what’s essential and avoid over-committing to projects you’re not passionate about. I’ve also talked about why I don’t want to grow my business as the additional overhead and responsibility would likely add a lot of stress for a disproportionate return.

So, what could you remove from your life to be happier?

Let me know your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!