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It’s maddening, but sometimes Forbes readers dismiss the wisdom of a life coach. You tend to pay more attention to the life lessons delivered by billionaires. The problem is that while most life coaches are not very rich, most billionaires are not tremendously happy.
So you can imagine my delight when, about 30 minutes into his most recent “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, Bill Gates, the world’s second-richest man, was asked two very personal questions. “Are you happy?” and “Through it all, what makes you happy?” His answers were not only wise, but surprisingly affordable.
As a life coach, I don’t believe in the idea of happiness—I’d have preferred it if he’d been asked about balance, fulfillment or gratitude. Still, to the first question Bill Gates, 63, responded: “Yes! When I was in my 30s, I didn’t think people in their 60s were very smart or had much fun. Now I have had a counter-revelation. Ask me in 20 years and I will tell you how smart 80-year-olds are.”
To the second question, Gates said, “Some recently said that when your children are doing well it really is very special, and as a parent, I completely agree.
“Sometimes following through on commitments to yourself, like doing more exercise, also improves your happiness.”
Unlike me, Gates—as far as I know—is not a qualified coach. However, as I am not a billionaire, I thought it would be great if the two of us combined our experience. So, here are Bill Gates’ 5 secrets to happiness, universalized in a relatable way by me.
1. Ditch your 20-year-old self and talk to your future self
There is no surer way to gain a fresh perspective on any thorny problem than to speak to yourself in 20 years. Your future self is very wise. They know what will bring you peace, ease, and joy. As Bill Gates admits, most of us at 40, 60, even 80, remain in a dialogue with our 20-year-old. This is not a life-affirming dialogue, because at 50, your 20-year-old self thinks you are old and past it. Your 70-year-old self, on the other hand, will tell your 50-year-old person, correctly, that you will never be so young, powerful, vital or fit again. Yourself in 20 years is wise. They know not to sweat the small stuff. They know what will bring you joy.
When you have 15 quiet minutes alone, do this easy future-self visualization. A word of advice: If you are at an age where you do not feel, realistically, that you will be alive in 20 years from now, but still want to access a wisdom that eludes you, try imagining speaking to yourself from beyond the grave. What would your long-dead self tell you to do or say right now?
2. Follow through on your commitments
Nothing gives you a greater sense of your power than when you do what you’ve said you’ll do. Empowerment coaches call this “manifesting.” Gates probably calls this “making things happen on purpose” or “being your word.”
None of us are in control of every outcome, but we can each be absolutely in control of doing what we’ve said we’ll do. And this makes us feel powerfully alive. It draws others towards us.
To be your word, it may mean reducing what you commit to, but if you do not follow through on commitments, not only will others stop trusting you, but you will stop believing in yourself. And how joyful is a life where you can’t count on yourself?
3. Give to others
He didn’t include this in what he said, but charitable giving is so much a part of who Gates is that it would be wrong for me to leave this out. As of December 31, 2017, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had an endowment of $50.7 billion. Giving makes us feel good, is beneficial for our health and evokes gratitude. Remember, “it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy,” according to TED talking monk, David Steindl-Rast.
4. Do more exercise
As a tennis player, Gates will know firsthand that exercise is good for improving his mood. And it has been proven that exercise helps chronic depression by increasing serotonin, which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. Exercise increases the level of your endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. It also limits the effect of stress on your brain and helps get your sleep patterns back to normal. Exercise gives you a focused activity that can help you feel a sense of accomplishment.
5. Put love first
Gates’ observation that “when your children are doing well it is rally very special,” makes perfect sense. One of the five greatest and most common regrets of the dying is “that I did not spend more time with the people who I loved.” Paired with regret most common among men, “that I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at the office,” and suddenly the “work-life balance” takes on a whole new urgency.
I know you’re probably thinking: “This is all very well, but a few hundred million dollars sure would help me to feel happier.” Perhaps. But as Gates’ answers would suggest, when you can count on yourself and others can too, when you feel good about yourself physically and emotionally and prioritize those you love, you could well end up a whole lot more fulfilled than an unfit, selfish, lonely billionaire.