Two Buckets, One Life: Happiness and Unhappiness in Financial Independence

Many struggle to attain financial independence thinking it is the key to unbridled happiness. After all, the freedom to escape the clutches of a job and the daily grind should naturally translate into a perpetual state of bliss, right?

But alas, things are never that simple and happiness is nuanced.

As someone who did leave a job, thanks to achieving some level of financial independence, I can say it definitely helps to have the freedom to ditch the 9–5! But, since leaving my W-2 employment, I’ve learned a lot about happiness.

Here’s some things I learned recently that have changed my day to day approach to living.

Happiness is NOT the lack of Unhappiness

Thanks to podcaster extraordinaire, Tim Ferris, I was recently introduced to the work of social scientist and author Arthur C. Brooks.

His recent book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, changed the way I conceive of happiness.

According to him, happiness and unhappiness are not opposite emotions dwelling in a single space within our minds. Many people, myself included, seemed to think that if you got rid of unhappiness, like nature abhorring a vacuum, the space would naturally be filled by happiness.

Instead, Brooks explains that the two actually reside in separate realms within the brain, requiring distinct efforts to manage. So, essentially, you have two buckets, one for happiness and one for unhappiness.

Two Bucket Approach

Brooks goes on to explain how you have to work to empty the unhappiness bucket while you actively fill up the happiness one. 

However, it is no accident that he says “happier” not, “happy” in his book title. Some unhappiness, it turns out, is quite necessary. So, the unhappiness bucket is never meant to be empty.

His explanation made a lot of sense to me intuitively. And although, it seems like a relatively minor “reframe” of how to approach happiness, it was actually extremely helpful. I’m now able to be more tactical about how to spend my days, managing my buckets.

Money Empties Your Unhappiness Bucket?

I left my job about a year ago. Removing the stresses of working life was a huge win in terms of emptying my unhappiness bucket!

No more dealing with disagreeable colleagues or working on uninspiring projects. Sunday night dread, gone! And certainly no more uncomfortable “work appropriate” outfits.

The “unhappinesses” I bailed out of my bucket with financial independence were basically the easy, low hanging fruit in there. What remained in my unhappiness bucket was like sticky tar residue, difficult to budge.

You know, the fun stuff like mortality, uncertainty, and the unavoidable suffering intertwined with existence — remained. 

But knowing that these things are there, and not meant to ever fully go away, was somehow liberating to me.

I could spend days managing fears and angst, rather than thinking I should be free of them. Looking at them now as well meaning monsters, I could embrace them, use them to propel me forward.

Money will NOT fill your Happiness Bucket

As frustratingly futile as it is to fully empty the unhappiness bucket, the happiness bucket seems to leak like a sieve. 

It always needs to be topped off!

The things that money can easily buy, like fancy houses and new cars seem to only fill up the happiness bucket fleetingly. Whereas the dense, sticky happiness that helps to plug the holes in your bucket, are more rare and not easily procured with money.

I couldn’t get Doordash to deliver me up some sense of accomplishment, meaning, or deep relationships! There was no virtual assistant that I could outsource to work on these tedious tasks for me.

What Financial Independence Really Buys — Time!

But, since leaving my job, what I did have was more time! With that time, I could work on filling the happiness bucket. I could:

  • Get outside and experience awe inspiring nature.
  • Travel to spend time with friends and family.
  • Give attention to deepening my relationships.
  • Focus on health and exercise.
  • Work on projects more meaningful to me, like writing or volunteering.

Not that having more time will automatically make you do these happiness bucket filling activities. That does take some habit building and effort.

Far from perfect, I did document how I spent my extra time over the past year trying to work on the happiness bucket. After years of focusing on things that had become rather easy to me, like working, saving and investing, I had to make a concerted effort to diversify my portfolio!

Its still a daily struggle, but thanks to practical, well presented information like Arthur C Brooks serves up, I think I’m on my way to “happier.”


So, what getting financially independent really gives you is time freedom. Having money is necessary to live, and having enough, is definitely helpful in terms of getting rid of some unhappiness!

With new found time and less unhappiness to drag you down, you can hopefully focus on the really hard work of filling up your happiness bucket. But, don’t wait til you get to a certain number in your bank account…

Pay attention to your happiness bucket now!

How’re Your Buckets?

If you need some help, maybe check out some of Arthur C Brooks work?

Or, if you have strategies for filling your happiness bucket with good, long lasting stuff, tell me about it!

Master Your Money, Live a Truly Prosperous Life!

Want to live a truly prosperous life? Don’t waste time. I can help!

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