We’ve got a first this week for Keep Thrifty - our first guest post! This one comes to you from Elsie Brown from GundoMoney.com

Elsie is a blogger, student, and all around cheapskate who writes about how we can all live better on less.

As a personal finance writer you’d think I’d mostly write about saving and investing, maybe a budget here and there. What I end up writing about most often, though, is happiness, contentedness, and fulfillment.

The reason I end up writing about these things is it’s the number one way people get off track with money. They mistake wants for needs and luxuries for necessities.

As MMM puts it, if your life doesn’t suck in a way that that would be improved by an object, that object isn’t going to make you happier.

If I have to walk 5 miles to work everyday any car would improve my personal happiness quite a bit. But if I already have a car, an Audi will not increase my happiness.

We are irrational human beings and we forget this simple fact over and over and over again so I make sure to bring it into consciousness as often as I can.

Happiness and Joy

The other day a wise friend of mine got to talking about happiness. Specifically, he was talking about the differences between happiness and joy. Joy is getting into a new car or drinking an expensive champagne, whereas happiness is just a general theme to your being in the world.

Joy is the little emotional highs, happiness is a state of being.

There are things we do that give us joy; things like helping an old lady across the street or doing volunteer work. There are also other types of acts that give us joy that aren’t so virtuous. Things like buying a new stereo or getting christmas gifts can make us quite joyful.

Of course joy is not just for people with money. It’s apart of everyone’s lives, no matter the income. Imagine, there are some countries where no one has ever seen an iPod. Those people are just as joyful, happy, and fulfilled as we are. Their lack of electronics has not affected their joy one bit.

The Sandwich Taping Technique

In the personal finance community we tend to talk a lot about happiness but we rarely talk about joy. After all, if you aren’t happy what’s the point? 500k in the bank is amazing but if you’re miserable it wasn’t really worth it.

The issue is that the untrained brain can’t commonly differentiate between happiness and joy. We all seem to believe that things that make us feel good will make us happy. Simple concept right?

Not so much

Turns out that seeking joyful experiences will make you joyful. That is, you’ll feel a lighter mood and a sense of exhilaration for a short time. That in itself is not a bad thing. After all, our time on the earth is filled with these small experiences which together make up a fulfilled life.

I think we know innately that short term “highs” from joy won’t make us happy. It’s just that it’s so much easier to seek satisfaction from outside sources. Who wants to look inward and discover they’re not happy. Surely this new Ford F-150 will do the trick.

As I’ve quoted from George Carlin in the past, “trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.” The answers you seek can only be inside you.

Joy Costs $0

So now that I’ve been a downer about happiness and all, I have good news for you! Happiness and joy cost $0.

You know those Beats by Dre headphones you wanted so much for Christmas? Statistically speaking, you’d probably get just as much joy from playing a board game with your family. That just seems terribly unfair, I know.

You’ve been spending a bunch of money on something that was free the whole time.

In those two separate categories of joy I mentioned earlier, which one do you think we commonly pursue?

That’s right, we pursue joy from buying stuff way more often than the simple, $0 joys we get from interpersonal relationships and learning. There is a pervasive joy-seeking mentality in our society. One that encourages us to buy stuff that will give us a joyful experience. The problem is, joy is not a state of being and it will not stick around to keep you happy.

You Are Ok, Really

We are biologically set up to be ok. Every human in history has experienced joy; wealthy and destitute, sickness and health, big house or small house, every human is born with the capacity for great happiness and intense joy.

As young kids we do a great job of getting joy from simple things like playing tag. As we grow up it seems we get deeply complicated. Our contentment gets wrapped up in all this outward gratification. Suddenly we’re jaded to simple happiness. We don’t notice the sunset, we’re too busy to appreciate small pleasures.

In that cluttered state of mind it’s no wonder we suddenly need big purchases to create joy. We get disconnected and it’s not fault of our own. Just remember that the next time you’re not feeling ok for whatever reason, you are ok. You have everything you need to experience joy within you. It generally takes getting your thoughts and expectations out of the way to experience what’s actually there at the moment.

The Present Moment

I would argue that the reason we’re left feeling unhappy much of the time is that our brain doesn’t stick around to experience what’s actually going on. We get very good at planning, anticipating, and problem solving and it doesn’t leave much room to sit back and relax.

It’s kind of a strange concept to consider the present moment. I know I thought I was always present for what was happening. Then I sat down to meditate and realized my brain is in the future about 99% of the time. The other 1% I just stubbed my toe and I’m writhing in pain.

My brain is so trained to go over fears of the future that I don’t even know I’m doing it anymore. I live in a state of worry and panic over things that will never come to pass. That’s an awesome happiness-killing system.

What I’ve learned over the last several months is that the more I can get myself out of the way— my judgements, my plans, my fears— the more I can experience simple joy. The only place I get to experience joy is now.

Joy doesn’t exist anywhere else except the present moment, and so if we’re never “here” we are constantly missing the party.

Super Duper Serious

I’m the first person to point out someone who takes themselves too seriously. If you can’t laugh at yourself come hang out with me I’ll laugh at you.

When getting on track financially it’s really easy to get overly controlled and backed into a corner, so to speak. The core values behind frugality and financial independence are actually freedom and happiness. We want to get into a financial position such that we can make the decisions that are best for our satisfaction and well-being. If you need some tips on how to stay balanced see Balancing Frugality and Enjoying Your Life.

So don’t shut yourself out of joy by being a tightwad. I believe humans are the only beings that fancy themselves to be important. Our little thoughts and feelings are so very pressing.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

Take hold of your own life. See that the whole existence is celebrating. The trees are not serious, the birds are not serious. The rivers and the oceans are wild, and everywhere there is fun, everywhere there is joy and delight. Watch existence, listen to the existence and become part of it.

How much money have you spent taping sandwiches everywhere? How much joy have you missed by not being present? How long are you going to continue missing out on all the happiness and joy you pass up each day?

Hint: none of this will cost money.

Chris here - I love the perspective in this. My latest post tried to pick apart the “experience vs stuff” argument but I think Elsie hit on something bigger:

Whether you spend on X or Y, it’s always important to remember that you can get most of what you’re searching for without spending a dime.

If you liked this post, head on over to GundoMoney.com to see more. Thanks again Elsie!