FI, happiness, mid-life crisis & depression

FI doesn’t lead to freedom if it’s not making you happier. I’ve realized from the last couple of podcast episodes and blog posts of Mad Fientist that in fact, FI can lead you to unhappiness or even depression. Mad Fientist went the ERE way and got into FI in 5 years but he made himself and his wife really unhappy by doing this. He didn’t want to spend a cent, so he isolated himself from other people. He focused only on working to earn more and cutting spendings to reach FI quicker.

Interestingly, even after reaching FI, his life didn’t improve automatically. As he wrote in one of his brilliant blog posts:

"Financial independence isn’t the answer to all your problems and it won’t be the source of all your happiness.

In fact, financial independence is just another shiny object. A new car. The latest smart phone. It’s all the same.

We scoff at normal consumers when they try to find happiness by buying things but are we any better?

I know I wasn’t.

I thought that all my problems would be solved and complete happiness would arrive as soon as I hit my magic number. After all, why wouldn’t it? Once I reached my FI target, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. There would be nothing holding me back from true happiness so I decided to do everything I could to get there as quickly as possible.

Big mistake."

He also interviewed a guy who developed a depression after reaching FI and went back to work to fix his mental health issues.

He even invited a Ramit Sethi (from “I will teach you to be rich”) to help him to unwind the deeply rooted habits of ultra-frugality because he realized that time is more valuable than money. For example, investing 3 additional hours to find a $10 cheaper ticket flight doesn’t make much sense unless you’re really poor. These 3 hours could be spent on things that make you happier (a walk in nature, playing with your kids, reading, meditating, sports, music, talking to friends, etc, etc).

He has basically built up his savings, but he hasn’t built his life. And FI won’t get you a dream life magically. If you have bad habits that during your free time (weekends, mornings before work and evenings after work) slip you into unproductive in terms of happiness behavior - you’ll have just way more of that post-FI and it will make you even more unhappy than you’ve been before.

Since I experienced a little bit of a burnout (check this forum post and the following discussion) last year, I started thinking more about the meaning of all of this exercise in reaching FI.

I started thinking that FIRE is a means to a more important end - self-improvement, personal development, the good life, happiness, meaning, internal peace, purpose, flourishing, or eudaimonia (as Aristotle was calling it). It’s really important in my opinion to build happiness skills and mental muscles that will allow you to enjoy your early retirement. Otherwise, it will lead you to misery - both the process and the result.

And if your additional savings and investing are not making you a happier person, then down with them. Being rich and depressed is not a better situation than being average but happy.

Alternatively, you can try to re-frame the savings as something positive and contributing to your life, but I think this technique has its limits. Living a hardcore frugal way requires tons of discipline and it’s getting overwhelming and stressful, so eventually you have to slow down and rethink if you don’t want burn out.

I think it’s important to progressively pump up your savings, but it should be balanced with your general well-being and happiness (one example of this for me is a gym membership - it’s expensive but it makes me happier; I just wasn’t able to exercise on my own, it made me miserable). From Ramit Sethi (check out the Mad Fientist podcast interview with him), I learned that it’s important to spend (even extravagantly) on things that make you happy while focusing on savings mercilessly on everything that doesn’t - that might be a longer way to FI, but it’s way more healthy psychologically.

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Very valid observations you are sharing.

There are dimishing returns from every kind of optimization. The thing is, you only notice once you take step back or you have a good social network of people making you aware of it. Also writing in a forum like this where most of the topics are about saving another 0.1% or so may trigger some introspection.

Studies show, that after a certain level of income, extra money does not increase your happiness. Unfortunately, happiness is determined to a large part by your genetics. However, there are many levers you can pull to increase your happiness and contentment and most of them are for free.
A good overview into the topic is provided by the course The Science of Well-Beeing.

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“Spend (even extravagantly) on things that make you happy while focusing on savings mercilessly on everything that doesn’t - that might be a longer way to FI, but it’s way more healthy psychologically.”

That’s how I’m rolling. Driving to Germany and buying groceries there saves me hundreds of francs and changed nothing about my hapiness. But reducing my vacation budget from 6k to 3k a year? Keep delaying to buy a new smartphone and living with a device that drives you mad? No way.

I think living frugal doesn’t mean that you don’t spend money at all. It’s just about spending money where you have real personal benefits.

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I think no one will disagree with all the point raised (and that will be raised) on this topic. Everyone has his own ideas. I know someone that keep using the same Health insurance because “they helped him and it feels good to be with them” even if it’s logical to change. Is he coming to ask for help on how to save more? Yes. Will I always mention that Health insurance thing? Yes. Will it change? No.
I think Mad Fientist was somehow different. He wanted to push hard in a more american way (I just read somewhere that americans tend to “brag” when they work an all nighter or 60-90 hours per week). As long as you are not hardcore, you’ll be fine.

If you feel bad, maybe it’s because of something else.

The real “depression” you can get are either those fears about inflation or bad returns (will I have to go back to work?) or the worst one “I don’t know what to do with my life now” issue. The latter can happen even while having a job, for example on weekends and holidays. We (as human beings) tends to go into habit mode and forget that there is more than the working/sleeping cycle. So let’s get ourselves some hobbies or passion and build up a big enough cushion to avoid being scared by the inflation.

Maybe we should open an anonymous poll to see if there are people here giving up to stuff to save more. I wonder if we’ll see big stuff (“I gave up to my holiday last year”) or just small stuff (“my phone abo doesn’t have roaming, but I won’t go more than twice a year abroad…”)

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That’s why I do appreciate Ramit Sethi (from “I will teach you to be rich”) approach very much. Be focused with your budget on big things and the not so important things. On the other hand stuff you really like, appreciate and brings a smile to your face - do them even bigger and make them a great experience and memory in your life…

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I think this is a huge one. It’s getting more discussed as more and more people in US achieve FI and they realise that they lost their main thing that forced them to socialize (that is work) and thus kept them in mentally sane state. People often not only don’t know what to do on retirement, but what’s worse they isolate themselves, and this, by very evolutionary nature of our brains, makes them miserable.

I think the problem has three aspects:

  • first is asking ourselves what we want to do with our lives (which not only is not obvious, but what’s worse, as Cal Newport shows in his books, following your passions and dreams not necessarily will make you happy - in fact, most likely it will just spin the hedonist treadmill)
  • second, once we know what to do, we have to figure out how to motivate ourselves without external incentives (build up self-discipline to show up every day)
  • three, once we know what to do and we keep ourselves motivated to execute it, then the question arises how to combine it with meaningful social interactions to maintain our brains healthy (especially that while you’re FI, everybody else is not and they are not available during working hours)

This issue by no means is trivial. And I think we should all pay attention to it. Without solving the riddle of meaningful activity full of social interaction, it’s very probable that we will get depressed. It might happen before FI, but it will surely happen after FI if we’re not prepared.

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Thanks for the resource man! By the way, can you tell what these levers are? I’ve seen once a TED talk about longest happiness researched that concluded that healthy close relationships (family) has the biggest impact. I guess meaningful work (e.g. saving lives) can be another huge one.

Some examples:

  • Close relationships
  • Doing something good for others (I try to do something nice every day for a stranger, only takes seconds but goes a long way)
  • Invest in experiences instead of stuff
  • Sleeping enough (a big one for me, recommended reading: Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker)
  • Savoring (the act of stepping outside of an experience to reivew and appreciate it)
  • Negative visualization (Praemeditatio Malorum)
  • Make this day your last
  • Gratitude (the quality of being thankful and a tendency to show appreciation for what one has)
  • Work with your signature strenghts (those character strengths that are most essential to who we are)
  • Having a growth mindset
  • Resetting your reference points
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Some of the stuff we say were already analyzed a while ago… anyway, it seems that you all love to read as much as you can on anything that could help. Sometimes it’s better to get hints and then try to find your own way. We are not talking about finance here, but something more “internal” (spiritual if you want).

Some of the problems about reaching FI happens because some of you are really pushing hard the concept of reaching it, even by simply being in a foreign country and feeling in a foreign country. If you feel like a polish that came here to make money and go back later, it all will feel like a task to accomplish FIRE, isn’t it (sorry for using your example). I wonder how it will feel if you “decide” that you have just changed your “home country” “forever” and feel like a swiss. It doesn’t mean that you won’t go back, it just means that you are now here and live here and feel like you belong here. You might change your mind later.

When FIRE, I suppose the best idea will be to find other FIRE people or something else that make you feel useful or that at least make you move out of your house. You might even go to the autonomous school in zurich and teach something. (budgeting?)

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Thank you for starting a discussion on this topic!

After reading it, it seems pretty obvious that living like this could end in depression. But without taking a step back to look at our lives, it’s easy to miss.

I think we all try to optimize for happiness. (Unless you listen to the likes of Jordan Peterson, who will tell you that instead you should focus on a meaningful life: a job that you’re proud of, kids, family.). But happiness is hard to measure, so FIRE people optimize for money and time.

I often get the feeling that we focus too much on saving a couple of CHF on some funny deals or tricks instead of thinking big. Someone will tell that it costs you nothing. Sure, once youve figured out the cheapest option, you can say it! But mulling through the discussion to get the right answers can be pretty time consuming.

It’s cool that it works for you. But of course for this you need a car (or a friend with a car), then you have to know in advance what you will want to eat, then a place to store it, then make sure it doesn’t get wasted. And of course you need to drive to Germany for no other reason than to do shopping. I do my shopping every day in a coop next to my house. I only buy what i want to eat that day and I often buy some half-ready food which saves me time too, because I’m not a fast cook.

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Did we? Where? In my journal thread?

This is true. I have tendency to read about something (let’s say meditation) for months and then fail to practice it for longer than a week. I have a very weird personality.

That was the case for me as well. In the begging I pumped by savings rate to 50-55% and I was not able to implement free alternatives to some important things (like exercise, going out for a beer, etc). I just lacked the self-discipline to maintain healthy life without spending any money and this to some extend made me miserable.

I’m not sure I get your point. You’re saying I need to spend like a typical Swiss to feel like home here? And if I’ll maintain my “Polish” lifestyle, then it means I’m focused solely on FIRE and I will make myself unhappy?

I think this is very important. And I think it even makes sense before FIRE - going out and socializing should be a daily habit to maintain a good brain hygiene. Also finding a work (or other activity on FIRE) that make you feel appreciated and useful and important and contributing is very helpful, but it’s not easy to figure this thing out.

You’re very welcome. I think this topic might be even more relevant to you because you’re one of the first to FIRE here.

It’s like depression or addiction - you usually don’t know that you’re in the trouble. You don’t look in yourself, you focus on external “causes” of problems.

I think the good question is what happiness really is. For me meaningful life is one of the most important (if not the most important) part of happiness. Outside of my family and friends, to some extend my hobbies, i don’t find happiness in anything else (the least my job and my career).

Ramit Sethi has a good rant about this on Mad Fientist podcast. He says that we’re Excel people - we focus only on our spreadsheets instead of the things that are really important in life.

I used to think that money optimization is more important. Now I think it has to be balanced with time optimization. So it makes sense to save more but not at the cost of time that we could use for really important things (these include: health, close relationships, peace of mind and other things that more money can’t fix anyway).

I guess that’s the beauty of this approach that it’s flexible - everybody will identify different things that are less important and thus have room for cuts, and other things that are important and contribute to happiness and thus should be pumped up. For different people it can be even inversed.

Well, half-ready stuff usually is highly processed so it won’t serve your health long term.

My point is that you don’t have to think “I have to resist this bad job/weather/people/whatever because I will soon go back home”. That feeling of sacrificing 100% of your time is bad. If you say “I have to resist this bad day at work” it’s waay better because once you get home, you will instantly feel better. See the difference? 8h of dread once in a while VS 24/7/365 of dread-ish. In the night you sleep at home, not in your temporary-home-until-i-fire-in-poland.

I hope it makes more sense.

Maybe you should really stop reading how to ride a bike and try to ride one.

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Having GFs/BFs, a spouse or children obviously makes a huge difference because the chance of them sharing your long-term vision or low-cost hobbies 100% is null. With all of the great stuff you can do in Switzerland for free, I can’t imagine why a single person would have to spend much to get a feeling of enjoyment. But I think the key is finding a balance, because if you don’t enjoy your lifestyle, it isn’t sustainable.

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My feeling with FIRE is that it focus too much on the future and not enough on living the present. “Seize the day” and “live in the moment” are philosophical statements which resonates still today, from ancient greek philosophers and Latin poets (Horace) to modern western gurus (Deepak Chopra). So key here is finding our own balance in implementing FIRE. If hardcore FIRE should mean alienating yourself from the world and contributing to the alienation of your family (in case you have one), to me it’s not good strategy for a life well spent. In the very end , this is the core of the issue: FIRE as one of the ways for a meaningful life. My plan is not retiring early: my plan is not working for money but finding an (lucrative) activity which I would never want stop doing until I die. I am no Paul McCartney so I cannot live on the music I play, nor J.K.Rowling so I cannot survive on the book I write. But I might build step by step a solid financial basis that allows me to quit my day job and go into self publish and /or play in pubs and make the ends meet anyway. Or to accept less paid jobs but personally more fulfilling. Moreover FIRE implies the very healthy concept that you are not the stuff you buy, and getting rid of unnecessary shiny objects which clogs our modern lives. Anything with a price tag on it gets boring quickly.

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Eh, let’s see how the market performs. But I do get anxious sometimes. I don’t think my FIRE value is set in stone, it’s more like “achievement unlocked”. I don’t know if I would have the courage to just quit my job. I know my parents would freak out and say all the possible what-if scenarios. I think I will only have an answer when I get there.

I just hate such criticism. A spiritual person criticises analytical people - such a cliché. We focus on something concrete, something we can measure. I don’t think it’s bad, just don’t overdo it.

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There is a certain risk to get into the extremism of FIRE because you can do it like a sport. That there is only ONE right way and you need to be super frugal in any direction of life. And when you do it to extreme, you might end like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol.

FIRE for me is a long term vision, a marathon to keep a certain compass direction. But I don’t want to miss my life the next 20-30 years, just to be a richest corp at the cemetery some day.

PS. Just booked some tickets to the Europapark. Normal standard hotel rooms? No, let’s do “big suite” rooms and it costs me like €50.- more but will be fun for sure for the whole family. Showing the hotel to the kids - everybody was smiling like crazy! Lets make this a great memory (and be from Tuesday on back frugal…:slight_smile: )

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I fully agree with that. A lot of the sadness/isolation/depression ultimately results from loneliness (there is a reason why the UK government has a minister for that topic!)

Jobs have a very important aspect, which is forced socialisation plus ideally giving someone purpose, the ability to achieve mastery, and ability to have autonomy within the job and outside the job world (thanks to the salary).

So if you don’t have a full-time job you need to get these things in a different way. A good partnership, family that you can help out / coach, etc are a good way to address this.

Finally, I like the notion of “swinging for the fences” or “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. By being financially independent, you are effectively in a mostly risk-free space. Go for that master degree in X, join that super early startup with unclear potential, spend that 1 year in costa rica and make friends at the beach over $1 beers, etc.

Not being in financial shackles means that you are the master — and that also means that you have to make orders for yourself.

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I’d say that the FIRE mindset relies on 3 simple principles, and of course it can be harmful if you make an overkill out of each of them, just as it is not a good idea to brush your teeth every hour.

1. Control your spending

  • wrong: spend all your income, because you can “afford” it
  • right: be mindful your spending, think about utility of the things you buy
  • overkill: get obsessed about every penny, live like a monk

2. Increase your income

  • wrong: be content about a low income job, change nothing
  • right: perfect your skills, look for opportunities, plan ahead, don’t be afraid of change
  • overkill: work crazy overtime, take more responsibility than you can handle

3. Invest your savings

  • wrong: keep your savings in the bank account
  • right: invest in an index fund, buy and hold
  • overkill: pick stocks, time the market, use leverage, constantly check market news
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Thanks @1000000CHF for creating this thread, this was needed on the forum :slight_smile:

A lot of good stuffs have already been said. However, I feel that there are many questions involved, and sometimes people try to answer one while actually answering the other, namely:

1. What makes me happy?
2. What will FIRE bring me? (Or more generally, what will money bring me?)
3. Why am I pursuing FIRE?

Of these three questions, the second one is by far the easiest to answer:

  • money solves your money issues (if you are really poor, having more money will remove any unhappiness related to not having enough to live, however I bet it does not concern anybody on this forum)
  • money buys time. And indeed FIRE allows you to buy a lot of time that you would otherwise spend working for your employer. Note that it does not say anything about how you can fill this time, this is totally up to you. If you have an interesting life (by your own standards), you can fill it with more interesting time. If your life is void, you will have a lot of time getting bored.

From this, you can see that FIRE is only loosely coupled to happiness: if you are already happy, FIRE will provide you with more happy time, but if you are currently depressed, being FIREd won’t be a lot of help.

That means you need to figure out your answer to question 1 (What makes me happy?) before reaching FIRE. This is an individual quest, but the below elements may help.

  • I’d focus first on removing all elements that are sure to make you unhappy (“Tell me where I am going to die, so i’ll make sure i don’t go there”), whatever else happens in your life. So make sure to remove these first:

    • alcoholism and drug addiction
    • chronic stress
    • noise
    • poor health
    • a lengthy commute
    • a job you despise (more about this later)
    • a dysfunctional marriage
    • stupidly high expectations
    • loneliness
    • spending too much time with people who are always complaining
    • over-reliance on external validation
    • constant self-comparison with others
    • thinking like a victim/self-loathing
    • chronic sleep deprivation (+1 with @ElMago on this one, and +1 with Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker. This book had the highest impact on me this year)
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • rage
    • envy
  • Once all the negative elements have been removed, focus on what really makes you happy. This is obviously personal, so I’ll share what works with me, which may or may not work with you…

    • Being in the nature
    • close relationships and family
    • learning new skills and new concepts, and apply them to my life
    • performing a task that is neither too easy (so i don’t get bored and it keeps me challenged) nor too hard (so I don’t fail or feel discouraged). This keeps me in a state of flow, where i am in focus, time is irrelevant, and i forget about everything else. For more about flow I would suggest reading this book, which introduced the concept.
    • having the mindset that i am responsible for my life. I am not responsible for what happens to me (shit happens) , but i am responsible with how I respond to what happens to me. Whatever life throws at me, I can always choose my answer. This is part of stoic philosophy, i can give more references if someone is interested.
    • physical activity (sports and co)

You will note that none of these elements involve money. I would argue that as long as you don’t live in abject poverty (when you cannot provide for your most basic needs), you don’t need money to focus on happiness. What money will bring you is more time to do what makes you happy (provided that you already found it).

In my case for instance, looking at the above list, I realized that if I reach FIRE, even if i don’t officially work, I will need for sure an occupation, else i will be likely to be extremely bored.


I want now to talk about the third question, namely “Why do I pursue FIRE”. I can see at least two categories of reasons why people usually want to FIRE:

  1. To do more of what make them happy (this is obviously fine, see above)
  2. To escape their current situation, very often a job they dislike

If the reason is the second one, the endeavor is flawed: FIRE looks like freedom, but a freedom from, not a freedom to. And this is very comparable to the mechanisms that people without money use to escape their reality: alcohol, drugs, mindless spending to get a rush, going to the night clubs to feel important… The process is the same, but when it fades off people realize they are still not happy.
And I guess this is exactly what the Mad Fientist went through in the article linked by @1000000CHF.

To finish this lengthy post on a better note, I tumbled by luck this morning on an article that is very relevant to this topic: Jakob, from ERE, shares as a guest post what he has been up to in the ten years since he has FIREd. The article is available here. Very cool to see how interesting a retired life can be, without spending much money (and yes, this includes boat racing…)

My 2 cents!

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