What is the key to happiness? I guess many of us ask ourselves that simple, yet so complex question. Some time ago I had an epiphany in the blue sea in the beautiful country of Greece. As I was floating in the sea, the crystal clear water giving way to the sandy bottom of the ocean beneath us, the waves dandling us, I thought ‘Could life get any better?’
Just thirty meters from us, on the beach, a group of newly rich showing off their wealth, ordering cocktails and waving their electronic gadgets. We were in forbidden territory; the adjacent beach belonged to a luxury hotel.
In fact, I have always been struggling with the concept that a hotel could privatize a beach; it is, after all, nature’s gift to all of us and not just a select few who are paying large sums of money to enjoy the most beautiful sights. But that matter little to us at that moment as it did not in the least lessen its beauty.
“Buddy,” I said,” how much would you say the hotel employees earn?”
“Hmm,” one of my best friends replied thoughtful, “I am not sure, I guess ...”
Mrs. Captain Finance and I were on a fantastic holiday in Greece. We experienced some of the hidden treasures, non-touristic beaches and villages, all thanks to my buddy from Greece now swimming next to me in the sea. We had started in the South of this magnificent country and drove from one beautiful sight to another, enjoyed some of the most stunning beaches, and undoubtedly, some of the clearest waters this amazing planet has to offer.
Ten days earlier we had met up with another Greek friend to go swimming at a remote beach. As we were sitting in the sun he mentioned that times were tough. There weren’t enough jobs, particularly for young people, and those that did exist only paid a few hundred Euros per month. I was intrigued to hear that even someone as highly qualified as him could only expect to earn a meager € 700 or 800 ($ 890-1,017 / £ 547 - 625) per month; and that was as an engineering consultant.
Greece isn’t expensive; unless you drive a lot, as fuel prices range amongst the most expensive in the world: € 1.9 / £ 1.48 per liter (or $ 9.15 per gallon) on average during our trip. I suppose that it is one of the reasons why many Greeks drive reasonably small cars and no fuel guzzling monsters.
But even with relatively low expenses, € 800 in monthly income to pay for rent, food, insurance, and all the other pleasures of life is not an amount that has one jump in joy. At least, thus I thought in my naivety. All the Greeks we met on our journey seemed happy and very welcoming.
Happiness without the big bucks
Back in the ocean I looked at the rich and beautiful on the beach (well, at least some of them were beautiful) and wondered again how those working in the hotel must feel not being able to splash their hard earned cash on the premium prices for cocktails and food charged in the beach bars and hotel.
“I guess,” my friend replied to my question, “they earn about € 600 or so; at least the older ones. Maybe even € 700 if they have been with the hotel for a number of years.”
“So they are earning only a bit less than young consultants?”
“Sure, especially the younger people. The older ones will earn more; in the hotel as well as elsewhere.”
As I looked at him in disbelief of the low salaries, he smiled at me:
“Buddy, look around you, this is paradise.”
It was indeed. We were swimming in this beautiful ocean, the hot sun instilling life into everything it touched; the feeling of life only sunrays create. We were surrounded by mountains reaching high into the sky and in spite or because of their might lay peaceful. The green patches covering them were only interrupted by brown patches carrying olive trees. Everywhere we looked the sun reflected on the surface of the crystal blue water and illuminated it, opening up the view all the way to the sandy bottom. It was paradise.
My friend continued: “If you don’t live beyond your means, you can live a great life here. Look buddy, the beaches, the good food comes at a fantastic value for what you are paying. You can come here whenever you please between May and October and enjoy all this for free. You don’t need much money; in fact, to enjoy all this beauty, you don’t need any. And if you want to go out, party, and enjoy quality food and drinks, it is not expensive either.
So you see, these € 700 or 800 are sufficient. You’re life will not necessarily be better just because you earn a multiple of that.
Others work all year long in jobs they hate, towns they don’t love, constantly complaining about the weather, the traffic, this and that. And what for? To have enough money to pay for a one or two week holiday here. Even if you earn €/$/£ 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 per month, you don’t enjoy a better quality of life than those who live here and get all of this for free – every day.”
“And you know what,” he added, “How many with medium or high salaries are not happy with their lives. They compensate by buying expensive cars, spending ridiculous amounts on clothes and other gadgets only to get that short-lived buzz from buying new things. And then once per year they spend huge sums to come here to catch a break from a life and environment that does not make them happy.”
A paradisal epiphany
I reflected on what he said, “I guess you are right. I am having the best time of my life with three of the most important people in my life. I have been eating fantastic food and drinking amazing Greek spirits and beer and I am now swimming in crystal clear water with the sun shining upon us.”
I suddenly had my epiphany: We often strive to have more and more, accumulating possessions that make us happy for a moment to then be forgotten in a wardrobe or on some shelf, taking up unnecessary space in our apartments and houses. We always want more money, and here at Captain Finance we are indeed great believers in saving and investing. Yet all of this is related: Instead of yearning to constantly earn more or striving for greater status through material things, focusing on the really important things in life is what makes us richer in so many ways. Many of the best things in life are free or require much less than those in the luxury hotel had to part with. The most amazing and memorable things in life are free; like swimming in crystal blue water with your best friends. The magnificent mountains did not charge anything for standing mighty and allowing me to admire them. By concentrating on what is really important and looking beyond the status quo, we are able to save a lot of money without even the slightest of sacrifice.
But most importantly, if we are unhappy with where we are and what we do, we should get out, move somewhere or do something that does make us happy, and stop compensating by consuming unnecessary items. If those with € 700 are able to live a fulfilling life, then why can those earning thousands not do likewise? The choice and path is ours.