You want to know the secret to happiness? I think we all do. I believe there are many pieces to this puzzle, but one key element is gratitude for what you have, not so much for your stuff, but for the natural gifts, and especially for the people in your life. And guess what? That gratitude comes from within. A positive attitude comes from within, not from the outside world.
The most miserable people I've ever met allow the world to dictate their mood, their happiness. That car cut me off, our waitress ignored us, the coffee was too hot, that politician makes me so mad! On the other hand, happy people have a great attitude no matter how the world treated them that day. Happy people know "you can't buy it, gotta make it" and they show every day that happiness comes from within, that a positive attitude will carry you through a lot in this world.
But you've heard that a thousand times haven't you? - keep a positive attitude. There are a hundred ways to say it. Attitude is everything. Look on the bright side. Optimism is a force multiplier. Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. Focus on the positive. Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can't, you're right. Regardless, I do think happiness is something very important to strive for, and that something begins with the right attitude.
Now I must say that I didn't believe it. Not for many many years. Life was simply hard, even given the fact that I'd managed to pay for my college, get an engineering degree (Go Gators!) and get a good job. I had a wonderful wife and kids (still do!), a nice house, nice cars, and all the trappings of modern life. But that good job was also full of struggle and stress. Trying to solve difficult engineering problems, trying to prevent the next ones, and trying to do it all on a tight schedule. The stress levels varied, but very rarely would that stress have been described as "low". And since the job was about solving problems, my brain was focused on problems all the time, which is not exactly a recipe for positive thinking. I admit that I was not a super positive person in those days, at least not at work.
A stressful job is one thing, but if you are also not managing your finances for long-term success it can almost feel like a trap. When people feel trapped, like they have no choices, they will almost certainly become more negative, even crabby. This is as true in Denver or Brooklyn as it is on a tropical island.
Eventually though I started to change, and much of that was because of Deb's great attitude. She always looks on the bright side and helps me to do the same. She'd always ask, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and of course my brain would go to nuclear war, famine, and pestilence ha! But I did see her point!
Now this change didn't happen overnight, it was over many years of living life with eyes wide open and trying to figure out the path to happiness. I actually used to be annoyed with very positive people. "Those dolts, they don't know how bad things are!" "How can that guy be so happy, he must be a fool!" OK, I wasn't really that bad, but I leaned that way at times. So who was the fool? If happiness is the goal (and I reckon it ought to be high on the list), I suppose the fool was the guy in the mirror.
One thing I came to realize was that getting control over the family finances was important. It was more important than just saving a few bucks more each paycheck. It was about taking control of our lives and giving ourselves more options as time marched on. I speak from experience when I say that cutting expenses and putting money away, building that nest-egg over time turned into a life changing process. As it grows, the stress of the job shrinks. The worry of losing the job drops off, allowing you to pursue what you love rather than pursuing what pays the bills. And it can eventually get to a point where the job becomes optional, and that is a feeling that's really hard to describe. That's freedom right there.
In an interesting twist, taking a new job as a high-tech product development manager made a huge difference in my own life. It had nothing to do with the (slightly) higher salary, or the feeling that I was more "in the know" on how the business was being run. It had everything to do with the fact that I recognized, and told Deb before I took the job, that as a leader I needed to be a more positive person. All the good managers I knew were positive people. Even in the face of big problems, in the middle of the storm, they'd come in and convince everyone it was a bright sunny day. Even when I knew the clouds were forming, the thunder was booming, and the hail was about to fall, I liked and appreciated the bosses who were trying to lead us with a positive vision. I also knew that I'd never follow an Eeyore-type person anywhere, so to be effective in my new role, I tried to emulate the positive ones.
The result was that I became a more positive person at work and at home, and much happier. The stresses were the same, and in fact some were made worse. I went from worrying about some technical problem to worrying about telling a good engineer we had to lay them off. Or making a business decision that, if I was wrong, could affect many people in bad ways. So the stress remained, but catching the positivity bug was a great blessing for me, and one I didn't expect. The attitude you bring to the task very definitely affects the outcome. If you believe you can do it, you're halfway to winning. And if you believe you can't do it, you have certainly already lost.
I urge you to try it - to be the person that looks for the good and not the bad. To look for the positive outcome, something to strive for, rather than the negative one that you "just know" is going to happen. Look, I know, I get it, bad things happen. There are negative experiences in everyone's life. But if you look for the positives and try to identify two positives for every negative, you'd be surprised how that works in your favor over the long term. It may not feel natural at first, but fake it 'til you make it.
Every time Deb and I are challenged by life, knocked around, and made to face reality and our own mortality, we try to grow from it. One of the most important motivators for our early retirement path was the passing of several dear, close friends, siblings, and also parents. At our age, we expect our parents' generation to start passing away, statistics will prove that out every time. But when your friends and siblings start to go when you're 50-something, it's a shock to the system. Our response to that shock was to do something different with our lives, to make sure we get to really live. Deb said, "we're not trees, we can move", and so we did. We quit the job, pulled up those roots, and moved to Florida as a launching point for exploring the Caribbean. We tried to make something positive from all those huge negatives. And you know, we did that and we are proud of that.
This retirement transition was a stressful time for me by the way, in spite of the thrill of jumping off that high-tech product development treadmill. Honestly, that was exhilarating and relaxing all at once. But I kept wondering whether I'd thought of all the angles. Insurance, taxes, are my investments diversified and allocated properly? Will the dogs be able to travel internationally? What about this crazy idea of selling the big house and just renting? The questions kept coming into my head, but I kept thinking of that song "Everything's Gonna Be Alright". I kept a positive attitude. I also made that sign out of a piece of driftwood and stuck it on the wall as a daily reminder.
Now, this was not all without planning, we did that in spades. But it was September of '17, and Hurricane Maria laughed at our plans, walloping our little island of Vieques three days before our flight. And I do mean walloping. No power for months, no water, all communications were down, the place was devastated. We had no choice but to go elsewhere so we decided to make the most of it. We went to Honduras, to the Bay Islands of Utila and Roatán. It wasn't our first choice, but our first choice wasn't available to us any more so we went with the flow and enjoyed the hell out of that experience. While there, political unrest caused the country to cancel the 30-day visa extensions that we were counting on as we waited for Vieques to heal.
Not to be deterred, we went to Belize for a few days to reset our visa clock, and guess what? We loved it! Instead of moping and griping (well, maybe a teeny bit over the money) we were piling adventures on top of adventures. There were some tense moments when we tried to re-immigrate into Honduras. While they were inspecting our passports (very, very closely!) it became obvious to them that we only left the country for 3+ days. We were in separate lines and they were talking back and forth in rapid-fire Spanish. Finally, they decided to let Deb in so I guess they felt sorry for her if they were to throw me in jail so they let me through also. That sign on the wall was right, everything did turn out alright and we walked out of that airport laughing! Whew!
When we finally did get to Vieques, we found some of the most pristine and beautiful beaches we've ever seen, and we've seen a lot of beaches! We had crystal clear Caribbean water on one side and the beautiful blue Atlantic Ocean on the other. We couldn't believe our luck! We also had power some days, and some days not. We had no cell coverage except out on the pier where we could see across the water to mainland PR. At first, we had no car, not even bikes, no friends, and only one neighbor we knew who could speak English (we've since come to find a few more here and there). Our propane tank went empty so we couldn't cook. We didn't like our shower curtain. 🙂
That's a big bag of problems, right? Maybe, but it was also a big basket of opportunities to get out there, figure things out, learn about solar power, work on our Spanish (Yo necesito unas gas!), buy bikes and then a car, and make friends with lots of Viequenses (and a bunch of stateside people too). We enjoyed every minute of figuring all this out as we embraced a new life, and a bright and shiny attitude was a big part of that. As Island Girl says, "Put your big girl panties on, identify the root of your issue(s), work on a solution and thank f'ing God you can do all this in a balmy climate where day-drinking is not frowned upon." Her language is a little more saucy than mine, but she makes great points - an island philosopher worth reading!
Now I realize some of you are saying right now "Oh sure, you can be positive, you are on a Caribbean island!". I will say there are negative people everywhere and there are positive people everywhere, and there is no correlation to where they live. I became a much more positive person when I lived in Colorado, and that in itself helped me to get to the place I am now. So believe me when I say that a good attitude will make all the difference in your own happiness. It certainly has for both of us.
This whole "retire to the Caribbean" thing has been exhausting at times. It's pushed us out of our comfort zone in a big way. But it has enriched our lives much more than we imagined it might. We literally laugh every day at this path we've taken and that's a wonderful feeling. A little more philosophy for you:
“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.” - Buddha
Or as my favorite island weather girl puts it: "write that gratitude list, and start with the fact we are all on the right side of the dirt!". Remember, it's not happy people who are thankful, it's thankful people who are happy.
TODAY'S SPECIAL: "Smiles on Faces", by Stick Figure (feat. KBong). "When everything changes I know we're gonna make it".
What puts a smile on your face? Please let us know in the comment section below!