Two years ago I came to the realization that my life was dangerously unbalanced. Okay, to be honest, I had known it for a while but was in some serious denial. If I ignore it, it will just go away, right?
I had neglected my health for far too long and was bouncing between periods of extreme stress. Chances to catch my breath were growing too infrequent. I wasn’t taking enough time to pause for reflection and appreciation. My body was on the verge of collapse and I was risking my long-term health.
Thankfully, I had a wake up call before it was too late and was able to recover. It’s taken a couple of years of living healthier, forming lifelong habits, and a re-balancing of my priorities but I’m in a much better place.
Still, I don’t yet trust my intuition on maintaining balance without some built-in precautions. Old habits die hard. In order to help protect myself from growing neglectful I decided to put together a personal report card. I wanted to focus on four areas of my life: health, wealth, wisdom, and happiness.
I didn’t want to go crazy with too many metrics on my personal report card. For one, even the most exhaustive of lists will fail to capture every important aspect of my life. Secondly, I’d simply go mad obsessing over too many data points. It’s just not practical.
So instead, for each specific area in my life I selected a few key indicators to signal if I was straying too far off balance. Better to have a few data points I can track faithfully than an overly ambitious list that I abandon in a few weeks.
HEALTHY – CURRENT GRADE: B
Depending on your current health situation other points might be important for you to track. I’ve chosen a few metrics that aren’t too onerous for me to track on a weekly basis. I’ve been doing it consistently for over 2 years so I think it’s fair to say it’s become habit at this point.
The combination of weight plus percent body fat1 should keep me honest about whether I am maintaining those numbers in a healthy fashion. Staying under 180 lbs by starving myself or using dangerous health supplements would not be an acceptable solution for me. Good nutrition is table stakes. So is dessert.
It’s important to note that these are my aspirational targets and should not be taken to be what a doctor would recommend. For example, a BP of 130/85 is indicative of pre-hypertension2 and would not be a healthy number to sustain. Considering that 30% of Americans have full-blown high blood pressure3 I think I’m sufficiently motivated to stay out of my C grade.
I should also mention that I get a full blood panel done every quarter and schedule regular visits to the doc just to stay on top of other things these factors wouldn’t highlight. An ounce of prevention, ya dig?
WEALTHY – CURRENT GRADE: C
Again, these are my targets. Some folks will want to have way more cash in reserve. Others might consider saving a year’s worth of income in cash unrealistic. My friends in the Netherlands probably think me insanely irresponsible choosing a 35% DTI ratio as a C but considering that the average American household currently has something north of 80%4, I think I’ll be alright. Choose the numbers that make sense for your situation.
My definition of automated income is that which I earn with fewer than 4 hours of effort each week. That could be investments, self-sustaining businesses, and so on. Just so long as I don’t spend more than 4 hours each week on it.
I choose to grade myself as all-or-nothing. Even if my cash reserves were at 200% of my annual salary but I hadn’t automated any of it then I couldn’t claim anything above a C. Similarly, my debt-to-income ratio may be way below 20% but I’m still a C if the other objectives aren’t achieved. I’m deliberately setting aggressive targets for the financial aspect of my life.
WISE – CURRENT GRADE: B
“Wise” is probably a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps knowledge or lifelong learning are more appropriate but they don’t roll off the tongue as easily as “wise.” I thought about how I would measure my pursuit of wisdom for quite a while. The points I’ve chosen by no means guarantees wisdom. What’s missing from this picture is the actual content. If I’m just reading drivel then I’m not making the right investments in gaining meaningful knowledge. If I’m not writing about and discussing thoughtful ideas then attaining wisdom is a bit dubious. Talking to strangers isn’t in itself a path to learning.
What these things do, however, is create an opportunity for learning. Selecting books that enrich my mind, sharing ideas in my writing and inviting conversation, and taking the time to connect with another human being in our shared human experience all help create opportunities for learning.
HAPPINESS – CURRENT GRADE: B
This one is sure to be a point of debate. After all, how does one measure happiness? Originally, I only had healthy, wealthy, and wise on my list with the thought that if I deliver on those areas of my life happiness would follow. Perhaps it will. But I was uncomfortable with leaving it out because I could see a scenario where I get A’s across the board and still be unhappy. They also fail to capture the things that I do for no other purpose than pure joy. The Dalai Lama said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” Why else be healthy, wealthy, and wise if not to be happy?
I’m generally a really happy person. Spend fifteen minutes with me talking about my passions and purpose and it would be hard to deny that I’m very happy where I am. My concern was allowing contentment to keep me from pursuing my potential for greater happiness. Through that lens, then I suppose my happiness grade is more about the degree of happiness since unhappiness would be fairly apparent.
I decided that the best way to track my happiness was to see how well I was living up to two of my values: turn potential energy into kinetic and part ways leaving others feeling enriched. I’ve found I feel most happy and fulfilled when I am living up to my values and purpose.
I’ve got 360 Things I’d like to experience in life. Making sure that I experience two of them per quarter seemed like a good practice for happiness.
Some research suggests that the act of smiling can positively influence mood and health. At the very least I’m pretty sure smiling won’t make me less happy. It’s fun to smile. It’s infectious. Plus, if you smile mischieviously people think you’re up to something. That makes me giggle inside.
I like the idea of tying random acts of kindness to my happiness. I’ve been very blessed in life. Spreading a bit of that blessing to others without agenda or expectation of reward brings me happiness and increases the happiness out in the universe. Karma, son.
I’ll admit, the measures I’ve selected can seem insubstantial and a bit like sandbagging but they can also be a forcing function to be mindful of my happiness. That’s good enough for me. I’m fairly certain that their opposites would make me unhappy. At present I’m a B. That doesn’t freak me out it’s just a relative degree of happiness that says I’ve got room to get to an A. Though I’m blowing my 360 List out of the water this year, I need to be doing more smiling and random acts. All-or-nothing, remember?
People way more brilliant than I have thought about the nature of happiness more intently. I don’t know if these are the right measures or if I should even bother. I just wanted to take some action to ensure I wasn’t defaulting to, “I’m happy…ish.” If you’ve got other suggestions on how I might better track my happiness, please share in the comments below.
My report card is meant to be a tool of empowerment. A reminder of intention. An impartial observer to help me avoid drifting into complacency and neglect. A chance to be grateful and celebrate my blessings. A scale to measure balance.
What it’s not is an inflexible blueprint of my life. Nor an exhaustive measure of the quality of my being. Nor a roadmap to Nirvana.
Perhaps it might even be unnecessary in the future. For now, it’s data and mindfulness. How I define each grade level will change over time and will be subject to the ups and downs of my life. I will have my good days and bad. I may only get a passing grade once in a while. And that’s okay. At least I’ll be in a better position to understand why.