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Giving To Others And Finding Your Marginal Propensity For Happiness – A Recap Of My Interview With Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom’s books have sold more than forty million copies worldwide. But, if you ask me, that number is too low.

He’s the successful author of many works, but the one that first transcended the American zeitgeist was Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. It’s the story of Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor, and mentor. Nearly twenty years after losing touch, Mitch saw Morrie on an episode of Nightline with Ted Koeppel discussing his battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After seeing the shows the two rekindled their relationship. One phone call became fourteen life-changing in-person meetings during which Morrie spent his final days sharing lessons with Mitch. “The last class of my old professor’s life had only one student. I was the student.”

I was beyond grateful to get the opportunity to pick Mitch’s brain about his life, his work, and his wisdom on an episode of my Retire Sooner podcast. Specifically, I wanted to ask him how current and future retirees can plan for the future while living for today. Luckily, he was able to pass on some tips he learned from Morrie.

First, he said, imagine having an omnipotent bird on your shoulder that knows which day you’ll die. Each morning you ask if “today is the day?” The bird will answer “no” every day of your life but one. On that day, will you be at peace, or will you lament all your unfinished business? Mitch says to live life as if you expect the bird to say yes. Stop putting things off for tomorrow.

Next, consider the misnomer that work is the only obstacle preventing your happiness. Mitch knows plenty of retired folks who don’t work and are still miserable. “It is not the work that makes you unhappy. It’s being unfulfilled in your work that makes you unhappy,” he says. “It’s not the leisure that makes you happy. It’s finding meaning in the leisure that makes you happy.”

Mitch related this to a well-known economic concept called “marginal propensity,” which measures how much more an individual will spend for every additional dollar he saves or earns. In other words, if your marginal propensity is 70 percent, you spend 70 percent of your money, whether you have ten dollars or $10 million. Mitch feels someone with a higher marginal propensity will find more ways to be happy than someone with a lower one, regardless of career, income, etc. People who unhappily float from job to job aren’t going to find happiness simply because they quit. I agree, which is why I spend so much time pushing my retirees to find a purpose and pursue their core pursuits before retirement.

What’s important is your marginal propensity to find happiness and meaning. Once you get that in check, the external forces of your situation won’t dictate your well-being. Instead, the key to your contentment is internal— it’s inside of you.

Mitch says you can improve your marginal propensity for happiness by eliminating things that create negativity.For example, remove yourself from gossiping, complaining, etc., before they become habits. If you forcibly change your behavior to something more positive, that becomes a habit, and you’ll soon find yourself naturally seeking out the positive aspects of life.

Mitch noticed a phenomenon with Morrie that exemplified the power of purpose. As his friends visited to cheer up their dying companion, Mitch saw the opposite often occur. The friends coming to visit would actually be the ones leaving feeling better about their own lives. Feeling like Morrie had earned the right to soak up the cheer rather than dole it out, he confronted him. “I don’t get it. If ever anybody had finally earned the right to say, ‘Let’s not talk about your problems. Let’s talk about my problems; it would be you! You’re dying from Lou Gehrig’s Disease!” Morrie looked up and said, “Mitch, why would I ever do that? Why would I ever take from people like that? Taking just makes me feel like I’m dying. Giving makes me feel like I’m living.”

Mitch has never heard more truthful words in the twenty-five years since Morrie uttered them. He says that giving makes a person feel alive. So when searching for an enjoyable retirement, don’t think about how many golf games you’ll play or how many cruises you’ll take. Instead, find ways to give to other people, and you’ll continue feeling significant and vibrant until the very end.

Mitch admits he has a beautiful and privileged life. He’s been fortunate enough to earn a lot of money and has a good house in a good neighborhood. But that hasn’t stopped him from finding ways to give. In 2010 he founded the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage in Port-au-Prince. It is dedicated to the safety, education, health, and spiritual development of Haiti’s impoverished children and orphans. “I never sleep better in my life than when I’m on a four-inch mattress in ninety-something degree heat down in an orphanage in Haiti because I wake up to the sound of children outside my door and knowing I am needed there. That sense of peace and giving allows me to sleep better than the fourteen-inch mattress and the foam pillow and the perfect temperature and all the rest of my very comfortable home. There must be something to be learned from that.”

All my research confirms that there certainly is. The number one core pursuit for the happiest retirees on the block (HROBs) is volunteering. Giving is living. It’s that simple.

Did Mitch set out to teach people how to live with purpose? No. He wanted to be a musician but accidentally fell into writing. Then the Morrie situation presented itself. It was going to be one phone call, then one visit, but he kept returning. At one point, Morrie told Mitch that his biggest fear was the debt he was leaving his family due to the immense medical treatments. So, Mitch decided maybe he could help him by writing a book and donating the profits. He went to publishers, but there was little interest. Mitch would’ve given up if it had been a personal project. But, because it was for Morrie, he kept pushing until he finished. They printed 20,000 copies at first.  Now it’s the highest-selling memoir in the history of publishing. It was done purely as an act of love for an older man who had been kind to him. The lesson is that when you do things for the right reasons, they become their own reward. There it is again: giving is living.

I can’t close without mentioning that despite all of Mitch’s accomplishments, the coolest one might be that he plays the keyboard in a band with Stephen King. That’s right; The Rock Bottom Remainders get together yearly to rock. Though they’ve been called “one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent,” their concert tours have raised more than $2 million for charity.

For someone like Mitch Albom, his epiphany may have happened on a Tuesday, but his happy journey goes on each and every day. If you decide to live your life without regret, giving to others and seeking purpose, yours will, too.

Listen to the full interview here.

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