My stepmother works really hard. Like, bafflingly hard. Although she is retired, and has been for well over a decade, she takes care of three young grandchildren (ages three, nine and eight months) for up to eight hours a day to allow her son and his wife to work.
Whenever they ask for help, my stepmother never says no, even if she is exhausted, and she never asks for anything in return. When she's not babysitting, she cares for her infirm aunt who nobody else in the family will even visit – taking her to the doctor, the shops and to restaurants.
For years, I could not understand how she had the fortitude to selflessly help others out day in, day out. I certainly don't have that sort of commitment. But I've recently figured out why she does it. It all has to do with "the happiness quadrant".
This is a way of evaluating choices and actions more systematically to optimise happiness. A quadrant is composed of four aspects: money, community, purpose and health - both physical and mental. When you evaluate whether or not to take an action, think about how it will impact each aspect. The more it positively impacts as many of those areas as possible, the better it will make your life and improve your happiness.
For me, the less money you have, the more debt and in turn stress you have in your life. If you're always one pay cheque away from not being able to pay your sizeable credit card, mortgage or car loan, then you have to do everything you can to keep your job, even if you hate working. Stress elevates your cortisol levels, and prolonged exposure to this hormone can literally kill you through heart attacks or strokes. It can also destroy most of the systems in your body, giving you ulcers, migraines and a variety of other ailments that significantly reduce your quality of life. Having money gives us options. We can choose alternatives that are more enjoyable or allow us time with family and friends.
Community is the next key component of the happiness quadrant. Lasting joy in our lives comes from the communities we belong to, that we support and are supported by. Our relationships with family and friends are often the main reason for living and are deeply connected to our identities. Those people will help us when we are sick and old and they love us and in turn we can help them. When making key life decisions, analysing how it will increase or decrease our connections to others should be a key component in the outcome.
Purpose is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. Everyone's purpose is different and you need to do some serious self-examination to figure out what you feel most alive doing. For me, as a teacher, my purpose is to help kids learn and to create an environment where they can do so safely and feel supported. There can be a lot of overlap here with the community quadrant. Our jobs give us both community and purpose, but for others, their job is merely a way to make money.
Health is the final part of the quadrant. It is critical to evaluate our actions on the basis of whether or not they will bring us mental and physical health. After all, there are few on this planet who can be happy if they are chronically ill or suffering from mental illness.
For my stepmother, her desire to take care of family members makes a lot of sense when evaluated using this paradigm.
While it may harm her health, it gives her a sense of purpose and community, which are far more important to her than her own health. As my father financially supports her, she doesn't have to worry about money and that allows her to act on her priorities. This illustrates a key aspect of the quadrant: you set your own priorities.
Some people may value their finances over health or community at certain stages of their life but, later on, that can shift. Consider which of these quadrants are important in your own life. A good example in the UAE is the Friday brunch. While this might improve the community aspect of your life, giving you fond memories and friendships, it's probably financially harmful and not great for your health.
Once you know your purpose and priorities, this system can help you maximise the happiness in your life. And after all, the only logical pursuit is happiness.