Hedonic Engineering, or Life as Optimization Problem
July 2, 2012 1:24 PM   Subscribe

As a recent graduate, how can I engineer my life to maximize happiness, financial security, and independence (in that order)? What choices did you make that led to suboptimal outcomes in these areas, and what would you do differently given another chance?

I am a recent college graduate who has yet to start a serious career (I just returned from a year of research abroad and a lot of introspection). I graduated without debt, thanks to a generous merit scholarship. This has bought me the brief opportunity to stop and think for a moment.

All lives are path-dependent (past decisions limit future choices), and I would like to glimpse as much of my own decision tree as possible as I embark on the next few years of potentially momentous decisions.

I realize this is a big question (maybe the big question), but here are a few formulations:
  • How can I engineer my life to maximize happiness, financial security, and independence?
  • What choices did you make that locked you into a suboptimal outcome in these areas, and how could you have avoided them?
  • In your experience, what small things offer the greatest returns on these categories?
Advice and anecdotes are welcome, but answers backed by legitimate research get double bonus points. I'd love to hear answers on all scales, from, e.g., "buy the best noise canceling headphones you can afford" to "ride a bike everywhere" to "don't have children."
posted by ecmendenhall to Grab Bag (56 answers total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
  • Make a budget and stick to it
  • Follow new opportunities, even if it's not clear where they'll lead in the end
  • Stay hydrated
Good luck!
posted by morninj at 1:30 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

The following advice assumes you can spend responsibly. I mean that without judgement; some people can, some people can't. If you can, do this. If you can't, this is really, really bad advice to try to take:

You probably don't have much credit yet. Get a credit card that has a reward structure you like (miles, cash back, bonuses on websites, whatever.) Buy everything on that credit card. I mean, like, you go to the drug store to get a Milky Way and a soda? Credit card.

Pay back the balance, in full, every single month. Never spend more than you can pay off in one shot, and never carry a balance over from month to month.
posted by griphus at 1:31 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Live well below your means. I've never made over $40k a year but have an enormous amount of savings and investment income due to my frugal ways -- clipping coupons, not eating much meat, driving an old car, living in eh apartments. I can quit a job and pick up and move at the drop of a hat if I need to. Financial independence is wonderful, and I can definitely see the stress/headaches/lifelong problems it causes my friends who don't have it.
posted by jabes at 1:34 PM on July 2, 2012 [15 favorites]

Learning how to decide where to optimize and where to satisfy is part of the broader strategy of learning to pick your battles.
posted by box at 1:37 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do not go to grad school unless someone else pays.
posted by cromagnon at 1:39 PM on July 2, 2012 [28 favorites]

Don't buy any (material) thing you don't need, for the next few years.

Eventually, sure, you'll have lots more money and there will be certain forces pressuring you to keep up with the Joneses or whatever and you will find that things like cable TV and a flashy car are worth it to you. But as a fresh grad? Develop this skill. Anything you want to buy, ask yourself: do I need it? Limiting your purchases to stuff you need (there aren't all that many) will let you develop financial independence, which I can't really overstate the power of.

However, the flip side of that is: don't ever turn down the opportunity to have an amazing experience. Experiences are what make life worth living, and having had fantastic experiences will get you through the hard times.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:40 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Enjoy your work. Whether that means working to do something ambitious in Your Field, or something more modest like enjoying your day-to-day tasks or making sure you have a good work environment.

Further to that, look for ways to enjoy your work. If you have to get a day job while you wait for something to open up in your field, or do grunt work while you wait to move up into what you really want to do, enjoy it as much as you can. Don't be one of those people who sees every day as an endless grind.

This will maximize happiness because duh, and probably contribute to your financial stability and independence as well.
posted by Sara C. at 1:41 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

maximize happiness? Keep your expectations low.

financial security? Live within your means. Avoid debt (see below) and aim for modesty in consumption (see above and below).

independence? Minimize encumbrances. These can be physical, financial, transactional, situational, or emotional.

Above all, be open to new perspectives and realize that nothing is ever black-or-white. There are no absolutes and you will never truly know the full circumstances surrounding others' choices. If you are lucky, you might get a glimpse of the circumstances surrounding your own.
posted by gyusan at 1:42 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

As a recent graduate, how can I engineer my life to maximize happiness, financial security, and independence (in that order)? What choices did you make that led to suboptimal outcomes in these areas, and what would you do differently given another chance?

I'd start by looking forward to making 'suboptimal' choices. That's what helps us learn and live. You can't avoid mistakes. You learn best when you make the errors and accept your mistakes.

so says this old man.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:46 PM on July 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Buy the good toilet paper.
posted by theodolite at 1:47 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Riffing off Ironmouth, be careful that the cost of determining the optimal allocation of resources does not exceed the marginal benefit to be accrued from said optimization.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 1:48 PM on July 2, 2012 [12 favorites]

Do not get into debt. Avoid a home loan and mortgage until you can't anymore; maximize flexibility. Choose jobs by your level of interest, how much you like the people and impact on the rest of your life. Take every opportunity to travel with work, live overseas, and meet people who are doing cool stuff. Build savings by spending money on experiences, not things. Prioritize health - if you smoke: stop, if you are sedentary: move, eat clean. Live in a smaller place to minimize your commute and the opportunities for accumulation of stuff. If you want children, have them early - this is slightly better advice for women than for men but overall I think the arguments work for both. Trust your own judgment about what you want to do. Try everything. Choose to like people until you have reasons not to (a lot of people do it the other way around). Don't own a TV. Have a short commute. Don't economize on fun or dentistry.
posted by yogalemon at 1:48 PM on July 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

Tidy. Learn to tidy right now and it will save you backbreaking cleanings later.

Are you in your apartment and there is a thing that should be in another place? Put the thing in its place. Now. Right now. Not after you do whatever. Right the hell now.
posted by griphus at 1:50 PM on July 2, 2012 [12 favorites]

Biggest suboptimal choice: Consciously (and arrogantly) deciding to neglect my social relationships in favor of working on my skill sets. I assumed that people were a distraction, but I experienced the most happiness, growth, and productivity when I had an active social life with people who were true peers.

Biggest optimal choice: Being willing to make mistakes in order to learn.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:51 PM on July 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Leaving aside the obvious "If you want to hear God laugh, tell her your plans" snark...

Do you have/want a significant other? How willing are you to compromise your life plans to include him/her?

Do you want to have children? They will be horribly costly in terms of both money and time but also (one hopes) incredibly rewarding. They will also dramatically effect your ability to take risks in your employment and with your health.

Recognize that sometimes happiness, financial security, and especially independence may be mutually exclusive. Not that you shouldn't strive for them all, just that you won't always get them.

That's what I've got so far. I'll get back to you in fifty years. Also what Sara C said.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:52 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't lose touch with your old friends. Life gets busy and it gets hard. Nowadays people move around a lot, switch jobs a lot, some have kids and some don't, some move far away and some stay in their hometowns.

I guess what I'm saying is, people don't have much of an opportunity to have lifelong friends anymore. My dad's been playing tennis once a week with the same guys for fifty years. They've seen each other through weddings, funerals, kids, job changes, cancer, and retirement. On the flip side, I don't even keep in touch with friends that I went to college with twelve years ago. I wonder about what it will be like when I am old, and realize that there's nobody around that knew me when I was young.

BRB, going to email old friends now.
posted by Elly Vortex at 1:53 PM on July 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

Start putting money away for retirement as soon as you start your job.

Stay debt-free

Spend only 25% of your Gross on your abode, less if you can get away with it.

Become incredibly flexible.

Never let your weight get out of control. It's easier to lose 5 pounds than it is to lose 50.

When choosing to purchase things, think only of yourself and the utility and beauty of the object as it relates to YOUR life. Don't buy a new car if you like your beater just because people give you shit about it.

If you can live without a roommate, do that.

Don't "drink the kool-aid" on your job. Even if you're not self-employed, you work for yourself. The decisions you make regarding your job are only made with your self-interest in mind. Don't put all of your retirement funds in company stock, don't pass up a promising new job because you're in the middle of a project.

Don't buy a house unless you plan on putting down roots. Home ownership is NOT the American Dream!

Always do the math.

Travel like crazy. I don't regret one dime I spent traveling.

Don't get back together with someone you broke up with.

When dating, the bigger the bag, the bigger the crazy. Beware of the person with a huge purse.

I agree with yogalemon, if you want kids, have them in your twenties.

Don't own too much stuff. It weighs you down in so many ways.

Don't live more than 15 minutes away from your job. If you can walk, even better. Long commutes are for the birds.

Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to eat in that weird restaurant, don't be afraid to quit a job in a fit of pique (you only get one of these, make it count), don't be afraid to sell all of your possessions so you can take that job in Tokyo. Don't be afraid to change careers. Don't be afraid to fail.

Don't panic and carry a towel.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:56 PM on July 2, 2012 [27 favorites]

Remember that we don't live in the best of all possible worlds, so therefore you will have some hard choices. Demanding career or a family? Living in your ideal town or staying close to parents who need you? Lonely traveler or someone with a stable home?

You can't have it all; the hard part is being ok with that and deciding what you can go for. Sometimes the choices will be easy and sometimes they will be very very hard; so hard that you will never know for sure if you did the right thing.

Welcome to life. There is no Big Evaluation at the end to tell you whether you got it right or not.
posted by emjaybee at 1:59 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

When you need to acquire furniture to furnish your first new place, assuming you are renting:

- Buy/splurge on a good-quality mattress.
- Acquire everything else secondhand/Craigslist. Ikea if it makes sense, i.e. you anticipate moving, especially far away, after a couple of years since most of the inexpensive stuff isn't designed to last much longer than that. On the other hand, keep inertia in mind; you can end up staying someplace far longer than you anticipated. (I planned to stay in Chicago for one year tops when I moved here. I am beginning what will definitely be my third year here.)

This will maximize your happiness -- you spend a lot of time in bed, and sleeping on a bad mattress and getting back problems is the worst -- as well as your financial status, since there is no point buying new furniture when your resources are limited. And when you move you can often resell used furniture for very close to what you purchased it for.
posted by andrewesque at 2:02 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Credit cards are a great way to get/stay poor, and a terrible way to get rich.
2. Otherwise, make all the mistakes you can.
3. Puppies!
posted by sportbucket at 2:02 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

sunscreen and veggies are about the only things left with good ROI these days, realize that most other things are to an extent beyond your ability to correctly predict or control.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:03 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The biggest mistake I made in life was getting married for love.
posted by Ardiril at 2:03 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

All lives are path-dependent (past decisions limit future choices), and I would like to glimpse as much of my own decision tree as possible as I embark on the next few years of potentially momentous decisions.

I recognize the way you're thinking about this. But it doesn't really work that way.

There are far too many hidden variables, and too much is up to random chance, for such a decision tree to be at all useful. All you can do is try a lot of things that might work and see if any of them do. Or pick one thing and try even harder at it to increase your chances. That might work better. Or it might not. Probably for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

On the brighter side, the only truly path-dependent part of your life pretty much just ended; post graduation things are a lot more freeform and less limited than you think they are.
posted by ook at 2:08 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you! These are all great responses so far. Here's one more formulation:
  • Of the decisions I face now (or soon), which will have the greatest impact on future branches of the tree (i.e. eliminate or open up future paths or options)?

posted by ecmendenhall at 2:08 PM on July 2, 2012

Learn how to cook! Saves money, improves your quality of life. There are tons of cookbooks out there, but fortunately, there is only one that you will ever need. Get it and have a ball working through it.
posted by jbickers at 2:09 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

To maximize your financial security I would suggest that you max out your retirement every year, that is your 401(k) and IRAs. Putting those away early from the beginning of your career has tremendous advantages over time. Allocate into less risky assets and dividend paying individual stocks.

One other thing: go to grad school before you're so old that other students mistake your dust-farting wearing-work-attire ass for a professor. Let's say before 26-27.

Bonus round: no matter how desperate you get don't go to law school.
posted by godisdad at 2:13 PM on July 2, 2012

Spending too much time worrying about "having it all" is a good way to make sure you don't enjoy what you do have.

Lower your standards. Don't expect too much.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:23 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ignore the sunk costs in any long-term commitment that you want to leave (relationship, job, grad school, apartment, etc). Sunk costs are really good at making you stay in a situation you should leave. Always ask yourself: if I was making my first decision today on whether to be in this job/relationship/city, would I choose it? And then act on that.
posted by permiechickie at 2:27 PM on July 2, 2012 [21 favorites]

Develop a location-independent stream of income (or several).

The ability to make money from anywhere will give you a lot of mobility and choice about how you spend your time, for the rest of your life. To do so, you'll have to develop your creative and entrepreneurial skills. Start early with freelancing or building a business and the dividends will pay off handsomely.

When you are free to live anywhere and still support yourself, you can solve many of the unanticipated problems and indulge the unlooked-for desires that come along.
posted by alicat at 2:30 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an older pup than you OP so I'm using experience and how I can look at the actions I've taken from the time I was your age and then onward 20 years later and now can assess and say that this made me very happy or WHY DIDN'T I DO X and I will pay for this for the next 20 years?"in addition to conversing with friends and seeing how they made different choices. Also reading metafilter has made me re-evaluate a choice or two.

Things that maximized happiness (for me):

• Selecting experiences over things. I stumbled on this by doing the Peace Corps early in life, and it gave me the perspective on other countries/cultures and life outside one box (the place that you are born). This awakened a desire to travel more and I made a point of selecting this option many times in life, even over the choice of buying things. If I were younger, try these things - travel, etc., then you decide if you like it/don't like it but you know what you selecting not to do. I've known people who did not have this option when they were funding the giant house.

• Learning whether it be academically on someone else's dime this was a key part of the enjoyment or work opportunities . Time was lost, but it makes me happier now.

Suboptimal choices:

• Maximize your retirement options at work at every job.I often neglected this because I didn't do the paperwork at the start of a job. I would have taken 30 minutes max and since it was a new job/new paycheck, I never would have noticed the $.

• The perspective that you can negotiate for what you want at a job, including your salary (not something ridiculous, but a bit higher than the initial offer).It is important to do because this action often determines what you get at your next job. I learned about this by talking to coworkers who earned more than me and finding out they negotiated before the job even started. Didn't learn to do this for 15 or so years, which sets you back.

• Spent the time to research and learn about investing and sock away whatever I would have been able to afford starting in my 20s. Read Mutant for what you could achieve if you thought about this earlier and learned about it earlier. I actually am doing this now, but for me, it will not equal financial independence for another 10 years and in reality will probably= retirement. It could have equaled independence by my age if I started earlier. Oh if I could find my younger self and give a small smack to my head and ask "what are you thinking?"
posted by Wolfster at 2:38 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are no absolutes (do or don't have children, do or don't buy a house). Everything depends on your situation.

Invest in your friends. The ones who always email you back, the ones who help you move, the ones who teach you things. Good friends are priceless, and with them, you can have a wonderful life; without them, you won't.

Travel when you can; cultivate your bookshelf when you can't. Living in a foreign country, even just for a bit, is revelatory.

Don't stop learning and challenge yourself. There is always something you can learn.

Mistakes will be made. Forgive yourself.
posted by seachange at 2:40 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Prioritize emotions; leave situations that don't feel right. If you're not sure, sit alone in an empty room until you know what you feel. Solve the problems of the past. If you don't, you can easily spend 30 years hitting your head on the same wall. Get therapy if you can't solve it on your own. Eat healthy. Floss. Learn how to cook delicious meals (Jamie Oliver). Meditate daily. Drink a lot of water. Abandon all toxic substances. Never let fear hold you back. Learn how to speak in public. Never stay in a bad relationship.

Good luck! I am 45 now and regretting most of my life.
posted by hz37 at 2:54 PM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Always take things people say in the best possible light. Many times when people say things you have an opportunity to interpret them as either negative or positive. Always choose the positive side.
posted by TeknoKid at 3:00 PM on July 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

Have you considered prioritizing your life around something other than your happiness? Like a purpose or mission? Not a criticism but a question. Many have given you good advice on the three objectives you listed already but i want to encourage you to shift your priorities around principles and purpose rather than happiness.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 3:25 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

my friend got his first job at age 22 and lived with his parents until he could fill two investment accounts with $10,000 in each one. His dad advised him to do this for his potential possible kids' college funds. He did this, we all laughed, and now he has two big accounts, with 18 years of compound interest, and the rest of us are starting now. it was really smart. i spent a heck of a lot more than $20,000 on stupid crap over that period.
posted by wurly at 3:38 PM on July 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you want children, have them with a good, clean, sober person who will love them and try to do right by them. Remember, in this case you are not just choosing a spouse, life partner, or fling (whatever the case may be) - you are giving your future children a parent. Don't give any kids of yours a parent who YOU wouldn't want as a parent.

Don't let your life get entangled with addicts. Not only should you not give any future children of yours an alcoholic or addict as a parent, these people are toxic in general and leave trails of destruction behind them. Addicts are not worth having in your life.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:39 PM on July 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Develop basic good habits starting now. Most of your life is out of your control. You career, money, love, etc. mostly happens because a butterfly flapped its wings in Tokyo. So, ignoring for a moment all of the philosophical stuff about will and whatnot, learn to control the simple and small daily things that are directly within your control and that you'd be foolish not to do (we all struggle with many of these from time to time, but the sooner you just get into the habit, the easier it will be for you).

-Cook for yourself.
-Eat whole foods and a wide variety of them. Mostly plants.
-Keep your drinking in check and do it responsibly. (This doesn't mean you can't get drunk now and then.) If you, like me, like to drink, learn to appreciate quality alcohol and not the quantity of it.
-Don't smoke.
-Exercise. Choose one you like and learn to do it in a way that doesn't hurt your health in the long run. Do it regularly.
-Practice good hygiene (brush your teeth at least twice a day, keep your ears clean, use decent quality soaps and toothpaste, etc.)
-Always be reading something.
-Develop some kind of mindfulness practice. Meditation, chess, whatever. Something that brings you to the present every now and then.
-Walk whenever you can instead of driving.
-Don't be late.

Other then these types of things, not much is in your control. Don't follow weird rules. Don't go to grad school after 27? Why the hell not? Follow basic maxims that will let you keep your health, because in the end that really is all you have. Throw out all the other measures of success and supposed rules for your life and do what you want so long as it doesn't harm.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:45 PM on July 2, 2012 [13 favorites]

my friend got his first job at age 22 and lived with his parents until he could fill two investment accounts with $10,000 in each one. His dad advised him to do this for his potential possible kids' college funds. He did this, we all laughed, and now he has two big accounts, with 18 years of compound interest, and the rest of us are starting now. it was really smart.

That said, this is probably a really great choice if you value your financial security over either your independence or your happiness (unless you're someone who would be really content living at home with their parents as an adult). This sort of thing works for some people, and I don't want to knock it or anything, but in my book it's exactly what you shouldn't do if your goal is to have a life of harmony between happiness, independence, and financial stability.

Frankly, while I wish I had been smarter about money in my early twenties, I also wouldn't trade my days of being broke but happy and independent for anything. If you can swing two out of three, great, but if you've gotta pick one, in my experience financial stability is the easiest to sacrifice.
posted by Sara C. at 3:53 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

- Learn how to listen well.
- Poorly-behaved people often act that way simply because others let them, if you care then let them know (firmly and honestly).
- People very rarely change, never hang around waiting for that to happen.
- Become tough in that you are not totally shattered by tragedy - your parents will probably die before you, pets will die, you will probably be fired from a job at least once, you will be stolen from, you will be lied to - you need to cultivate some resilience and learn to mourn and then move on.
- Learn to move on when there is nothing that you like where you are.
- You cannot medicate away an awful job, an abusive spouse or bad living circumstances.
- Only have children if you really want them, there are few things as bad as being a kid that your parents did not really want.
- Your thoughts are your own and you should never feel guilty about them, your actions are what is important. Many people would be locked up if they shared all or some of their thoughts, if you have a good filter about which translate into actions and are shared it doesn't matter what you think.
- Keep current on world events and have opinions and be able to talk intelligently on a wide variety of topics. Boo to people who avoid learning about the world because its scary!
- Don't be a spelling or grammar snob.
- Don't save yourself for marriage for no good reason, experience can be very valuable and is easier to get while young.
- Don't sulk or mope.
- Never throw things in anger.
- Stop trying to understand why people do things, they often have no idea either.
posted by meepmeow at 4:25 PM on July 2, 2012 [14 favorites]

Always have medical insurance.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:40 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

- Don't start or stay in a long-distance relationship without a clear plan for how and when you will eventually live in the same place. If the plan keeps changing or the goalposts keep shifting ("Sure, I'll move, just as soon as I'm financially stable/professionally successful/emotionally healthy..."), end the relationship. Even if you love them. Even if they're perfect for you. A partner who seems right in every respect but doesn't want live where you want to live is... actually not perfect for you. The emotional toll of always wishing you were somewhere else, with someone else, can be devastating. While you're busy waiting for your faraway beloved, you'll be missing out on opportunities to connect with people in the place you're actually in.

- Find a form of exercise you enjoy. Not one you can force yourself to do, but one you enjoy so much you'll get cranky if you can't do it. I've dragged myself to many a miserable gym session but my workouts always tapered off when I was unhappy or busy. Then I discovered I really, really like riding bikes. The excuses have evaporated and exercise no longer feels like a chore. Your magic activity could be swimming or yoga or riding a unicycle, but try to find it before you hit 30 and your metabolism starts to crumble. If you want to stay healthy as you age, exercise really isn't optional. (This will probably mean spending your 20s trying a bunch of weird new stuff, which is also good).

- Spend a few months tracking your spending. Look at the results and consider them in relation to what you want out of life. Say you spent $100 on takeout one month... did it bring you $100 worth of pleasure? Did it save you $100 worth of time? (The answer could be yes, and that's just fine). How else could you have spent the $100? What if you cooked at home but had one meal at a really nice restaurant? Would you be happier then? This isn't meant to be a punitive exercise; these are your decisions to make. The point is to make them conciously. I try to do this every year or so and I'm always surprised by what I learn. The $50 I spent on a moderately nice dinner set? Totally worth it. It makes every home-cooked meal feel a little more luxurious. The $50 I spent on coffee and snacks? Meh, I could live without them and be equally happy (and probably healthier). Fancy shampoo? Extravagant, yes, but worth it to finally have manageable hair. Fancy moisturiser? Meh, the cheap stuff does the job just as well. Whatever your priorities are, aligning them with your spending is a good way to maximise both your happiness and your financial stability.
posted by embrangled at 6:59 PM on July 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

If you are a woman and you want to have a career and be a parent someday, consider living near where you grew up (if there are decent career opportunities there and you have a good relationship with your family.) You'll be more likely to meet potential partners who are from that area, and raising children with family nearby can be a lot easier. (Although I didn't take this advice and I'm glad I didn't because Mr. McTodd is perfect.)
posted by Ralston McTodd at 7:15 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't under-value the job opportunity that is mildly enjoyable, stable, and offers good benefits. (For all that is holy, do not under-value health and dental insurance! Lots of us do in our 20s.) Especially when you're young, that "boring" job can give you a lot of the security and stability to do all the other crazy, life-affirming stuff that people will (rightfully) suggest that you do.

And...be kind to yourself.
posted by ninjakins at 7:21 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

How can I engineer my life to maximize happiness, financial security, and independence?

This comes down to:

1. building financial resources -- a.k.a., saving money (for those of us not marrying rich)

2. maintaining your health

3. doing something you find satisfying (not to be interpreted as "do what you love") -or- do something that pays so well it is a huge accelerant for (1)

4. leading your own life

With regard to (4) first, I mean specifically do not get swept up in some "life plan" that dictates what you need to do next. You don't need to do whatever it is your mom/dad/grandma/friends/etc. say you "should." Take a risk or two but it's always going to be easier to do that *after* you've nailed down a financial cushion.

There are many things that show up for both (1) and (2). I cannot speak to (3) for a number of reasons.

Some 1+2 examples:

Stop drinking for entertainment (if you do). Seriously, it's bad for you, a total waste of money and time, and stopping drinking is the best way to quick filter your friends when you are young (hint: anyone who gives you grief about it is not worth hanging onto).

Stop smoking. It's bad for you. There is no good reason to smoke. None.

Drink a lot of water. Water, not soda. Drink when you are thirsty. Don't drink when you are not thirsty. This is not hard. Drink coffee, but not after noon.

Sleep enough every day. Every day. If you are getting enough sleep, you can learn the joy of waking up without an alarm clock because you .. just ... will.

Wear sunscreen.

Don't gain weight (which is aided by eating right and sleeping enough, it's a hell of a lot easier to never gain weight than it is to lose it)

Do weight-bearing exercise (read: lift weights, properly -- not that flailing around nonsense); do this whether you are a girl or a guy.

Learn to actually "do the math." This has lots of associated rules:

Spend wisely. In five years, the new car will be five years old. Cars do not become "money pits" at 4 years necessitating replacement. Going into debt for a car is stupid; avoid it if you can.

Avoid all debt. You already have debt so pay it off.

Live modestly. Save money.

... and so on.
posted by rr at 8:25 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

All lives are path-dependent (past decisions limit future choices), and I would like to glimpse as much of my own decision tree as possible as I embark on the next few years of potentially momentous decisions.

Don't just glimpse at your decision tree. Plan it out. What are your big life goals? What is your dream career? At what age do you wish to retire? Where will you live? How will you live? Is that because that's what your family or society expects of you or what you really want to do?

Close all decision branches that don't lead to that outcome. Don't float through life trying to "keep your options open" so "someday maybe x y or z will happen." Be an active agent in your own destiny.

Noise cancelling headphones are overpriced nonsense, regular earbuds block plenty of noise.
posted by j03 at 4:11 AM on July 3, 2012

-Marry the right person

-Always check that the cap is on tight before shaking the Orange Juice
posted by jpdoane at 5:25 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

-Try not to view life as a decision tree.
posted by benbenson at 5:37 AM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Financial security seems to be:

- be happy with what you have, and stop envying what the neighbors have. don't buy what you can't afford.
- be *enormously* frugal with credit cards. They're a trap that is hell to escape. only take on debts that *earn* you money.

That said, early career, I found enormous luck in job changing every 1-3 years; it gave me a wider set of experiences to draw upon, and equally importantly, gave me a notable raise every time I moved. Staying in the same job for 40 years is something our grandparents did; being flexible is what wins today.
posted by talldean at 6:44 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding cromagnon, with this small revision: Don't get a Master's degree, unless someone else is paying. Don't get a Ph.D.
posted by jcatus at 6:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of the decisions I face now (or soon), which will have the greatest impact on future branches of the tree (i.e. eliminate or open up future paths or options)?

There's really no way anyone can know this. Chance plays a large role in our opportunities and futures.

The best decision is the one you make. The worst outcomes often happen when a decision is delayed. Deadlines blow by, people make other plans, the cake burns in the oven.

Stay open to opportunity. Try to say yes more than you say no. The best things in my life have happened when I said yes. My main regrets are choices I did not make.
posted by bonehead at 7:46 AM on July 3, 2012

As John Lennon said: Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.

Trying to "engineer" or "optimize" your life and treat it as a series of decision trees is per se going to give you a certain kind of experience of life, and probably not one that is full of fun and happiness.

According to you, you've just spent a year doing a lot of introspection, and yet now have a "brief opportunity to stop and think for a moment". Be careful you don't spend your life in over-thinking it rather than living it.

Also beware of not making choices out of concern for being "locked into a suboptimal outcome".

I've done my fair share of such things, and those would be chief among what I'd do differently given a re-run.
posted by philipy at 11:24 AM on July 3, 2012

*Don't smoke. Except that sometimes a cigarette is just so satisfying and the trails of smoke make everything look really romantic and it gives you an excuse to sneak away from the crowd and talk one-on-one with people.

*Don't drink. Except that sometimes you'll do things while drunk that you would never say yes to while sober and those things can be fun and eye-opening. Drinking promotes dancing.

*Save for your retirement. Except that sometimes you need to spend all your money on a sailboat.

*Eat well. Except that sometimes that cheeseburger is just so good.

The point I am trying to make here is that sometimes the most sensible choices aren't the most fun and I am wary of people who are too much about clean living and never do anything irresponsible. I find that people who know how to enjoy the moment and aren't only thinking about future are often the best people to have around. Of course this can go too far too.

I do regret not flossing more though. Dental work is unpleasant.
posted by mai at 12:39 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can keep your first house and your first wife you can be wealthy, healthy, and wise. And financially secure also!
posted by snowjoe at 1:15 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

The point I am trying to make here is that sometimes the most sensible choices aren't the most fun and I am wary of people who are too much about clean living and never do anything irresponsible. I find that people who know how to enjoy the moment and aren't only thinking about future are often the best people to have around. Of course this can go too far too.

In reality people who generally attempt to live clean and frugally, taking appropriate risks and not engaging in stupidities are not driven by an OCD-like fanaticism and do not actually achieve 100% of the goals 100% of the time. They'll be able to make informed decisions and have a buffer to allow them to do what they really want to do rather than following whims.

By trying, they will be far better off, if only for having an end game in mind, engaged in a little planning, and most of all, having built up a willingness to actually do math. Look through ask.me at the uncountable "I am making|havemade this big expensive life decision and now I'm stuck with debt|childcare|... that I don't know what to do with, help!" and despair.
posted by rr at 1:45 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

  1. Take care of your teeth. Not kidding around on this.
  2. Spend less than you make. DO NOT GET INTO DEBT. The key to wealth isn't making MORE... its spending LESS. Which leads me to...
  3. Do not become encumbered by liabilities. (Oh, I can't quit this job I hate because I have a car payment and a mortgage).
  4. Be a good listener.
  5. Favor accumulation of experiences over things.
  6. There is no rush to "settling down." If you want a wife + kids + dogs + house + car someday, those things can bring you infinite happiness—if you're prepared for it.

posted by teriyaki_tornado at 2:26 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Look for a helpmate. Be active about it. Don't just latch on to the next person drunk enough to go home with you. When you weigh all the good and bad things about a prospective spouse, sexy is great, but sexy just does not matter compared to smart, kind, honest, faithful, sober, and hardworking. Find someone with character and then hang on tight. This person will help you through all the rest of your life. (And you will reciprocate.)

2. If you're going to have kids, have them early. Do not wait. It's a lot easier to be a parent when you're young. Kids a bit of a speed bump until they're in school -- one of you (or both of you in turn) will likely need to take some time off the career and wipe a lot of bum -- but then both parents can go full speed on their career tracks if that's what they want.

3. Be wise with your money. Save. Be frugal. Continue to avoid debt. Put money away for retirement. Recreational shopping is dumb.

4. Stay healthy. Eat right and get exercise. Get started on a long-term diet and exercise now, not after you get fat or sick. Dump the bad habits now, not after you're aching and wheezing.

5. Do what it takes to understand each other and stay together. Divorce is a big negative for everyone.

6. Woohoo. After your kids reach adulthood and move out, you're a happy, healthy spouse and parent, not to mention a successful professional, and you have a lot of years ahead of you to enjoy it. You can go crazy on the career, you can sell the house and move where you want to go, you can do what you like. With hard work and a little luck, you have no big debts, no major health problems, and no impediments to doing what pleases you. You have your retirement funding all worked out and funded already. Now you can think about buying that vacation home or sailboat.
posted by pracowity at 4:33 AM on July 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

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