“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Have you ever looked at the path you’ve chosen and questioned if your sacrifices have been worth it? If you’ve prioritized the “right” things, pursued worthy goals, and ultimately, made “good” choices?
Have you ever wondered if you’ll one day look back on your life and regret not only what you did, but also what you didn’t do, because maybe you’ll feel you wasted your time or somehow missed out on something important?
If you answered no to these questions, you’re my new hero. I admire anyone who lives with such presence they never question what they’re doing because they’re too busy living it.
But I, a consummate over-thinker, am not that person.
I started thinking about this just recently after listening to the second episode of Next Creator Up, a podcast I’m producing with my partner in many things and show host Ehren Prudhel.
In this interview, LA-based actress and filmmaker Melissa Center talked a little about what she’s had to sacrifice for her dreams. And though she got emotional when discussing the very different lives her friends and family are living—lives with houses, children, and financial security—she ultimately concluded that, for her, all the sacrifices have been worth it.
She explained her reasoning, and I admired her sense of certainty. Because I know how easy it is to doubt yourself in a culture that not only promotes the idea of “having it all” but also bombards us with images of people pursuing alternative, seemingly better paths.
I also know how hard it is to feel confident in our decisions, particularly because of many of us are disconnected from ourselves. If we don’t know what we stand for, it’s awfully hard to ascertain what’s worth prioritizing and what’s worth giving up.
With this in mind, I decided to create this list of ways to know if your sacrifices are worth it. A lot of this comes down to knowing yourself.
If you’ve been questioning your path, perhaps this will help you fully commit to it—or make the tough decision to change directions.
7 Ways to Know if Your Sacrifices Are Worth It
1. What you’re doing aligns with your values.
We all have different core values—things we stand for and regard as crucial for our overall life satisfaction.
When we live in alignment with our values, and honor them through our choices, we feel a sense of peace, even if our lives are sometimes challenging. When we we’re out of alignment, we feel internal conflict.
For example, my top values are freedom, creativity, adventure, family, and integrity.
I could never sacrifice my integrity to make money. Sure, I’d love to roll around on a bed full of cash, but the pain of acting without integrity would override the joy of financial abundance.
I could never choose a lifestyle that leaves little room for spontaneity or limits my ability to visit my family. No matter what the rewards of said lifestyle, I would ultimately feel conflicted and dissatisfied.
If your choices require you to sacrifice the things that matter most to you, regardless of the potential rewards, you will ultimately feel unfulfilled. If your sacrifices don’t threaten what’s most important to you—or at least not beyond the short-term—then they’re far more likely to feel worth it.
2. You’re living your own version of success.
Much like we all have our own values, we all have our own definition of success. Contrary to what our culture might suggest, there’s no one-size-fits-all scenario.
My grandmother, who was one of my greatest heroes, lived a life very different from mine to date. She lived all of her eighty-two years in the same city, married young and had four kids, and devoted every bit of her free time to her family.
She rarely traveled, didn’t have much money, and seemed perfectly content—ecstatic, even—to live the same day over and over again.
If you gave her a table crammed with her loud Italian kids and grandkids, and a big pot of pasta to feed them, she was happy.
Because she valued family, she never complained when caring for my grandfather, who ultimately lost both of his legs to diabetes. Caring for him took much of her time and energy, and she rarely did much for herself.
But this—this love, this loyalty, this generosity of spirit—this is what defined a successful life to her, so ultimately, it was all worth it.
Ask yourself what success looks like to you, and why. What do you do? What do you give? What do you gain?
If you’re living your own version of success, then the satisfaction of enjoying what you have likely far outweighs the pain of accepting what you lack.
3. You’re not trading happiness today for the hope of happiness tomorrow.
You may have read the story of the Mexican fisherman before, but if not, here’s a condensed version:
An American investment banker ran into a local fisherman in a small Mexican village and, seeing the several large tuna in his boat, asked the man how long it took him to catch them.
When the fisherman said it didn’t take long, the banker questioned why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more. The fisherman said he had enough to meet his family’s needs.
When asked what he did with the rest of his time, he answered, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
Hearing this, the banker offered the fisherman his help in creating a business—so he could buy more boats, catch more fish, and eventually be at the helm of an empire. This would require him to relocate, but in fifteen to twenty years, he’d be rich.
The fisherman asked what he would do then, to which the banker responded, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
I think of this often when making life choices. If there’s nothing about an opportunity that excites me and fills me passion and purpose—if it’s solely about creating some ideal life down the road, or worse, meeting an ego need for success or validation—it’s most likely not worth my time and energy.
Stop and ask yourself: Is this is a process I can throw myself into with enthusiasm? Or am I sacrificing potential joy now in the hope of finding joy later?
4. You could be satisfied with your choice even if you didn’t reach your ideal outcome.
Building on the last point, you know your sacrifices are worth it if you could be content with your choices regardless of where they lead you.
If you need to make a certain amount of money, or reach your ideal goal exactly as you visualize it, to justify what you’ve given up, then you’re setting yourself up for potential heartache. Because there are no guarantees in life.
No matter how hard you work, how much time you devote, or how smart or talented you are, you could one day realize that your efforts didn’t pay off in the way you hoped they would.
Or, they could pay off for a while, and then something could change—you might have to switch gears to care for a loved one, or could lose everything due to circumstances you couldn’t possibly have predicted.
If you could look at the time spent and conclude it wasn’t wasted—because you enjoyed yourself, felt a sense of purpose, or made a difference for other people—then in the end, your sacrifices are more likely to feel worth it.
5. You’re still able to meet your needs, despite your sacrifices.
When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama said, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
No rewards—monetary or otherwise—are worth sacrificing our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
If you’re working so hard that you have little time to eat well, exercise, and get sufficient sleep—and you end up overweight, exhausted, and on track for a heart attack—would any reward or glory really justify it?
There are many things I would sacrifice for a cause I believe in or a dream that excites me—I don’t need luxuries, I don’t mind buying used, and I also don’t care if I own a car or a home.
But I won’t sacrifice the things I need to function at my best. I can’t be present, and I’m no good for anyone or anything, if I’m physically weakened and so stressed that I’m constantly ready to snap.
6. You only or mostly question your sacrifices when you compare yourself to other people.
Though I’ve sacrificed a sense of community because I’ve chosen a free-spirited, nomadic life of adventure, I don’t often regret the path I’ve taken for all the reasons listed above.
But every now and then I compare myself to other people and question if perhaps I should have what they have.
I see people on Facebook who are a lot like my grandmother—lifers in one town, well connected to many, dialed into local causes—and I wonder if I’ve prioritized the wrong things.
I’ve lived the life George Bailey fantasized about in the 1940’s holiday classic. But wasn’t his life lauded as somehow more wonderful than the life of an adventure-seeking dreamer and wanderer—and also far more meaningful?
I see old friends on Instagram building new memories with people they’ve hung around with for decades, and lament that, unlike them, I’d have a hard time creating a large bridal party if I were to ever get married.
Aren’t connections the most important thing in life? And do mine really count if they involve less face time—if I’m not at every family dinner, every holiday, and every milestone?
But when I put my phone down and dig my heels into my own life, I remember that no matter what I choose, it’s a choice not to do something else. No one has it all. And those who have what I lack likely envy and glamorize what I have at times, just like I sometimes romanticize their circumstances.
If you feel happy on the whole when you’re fully present on your path, and only question it when you take your eyes off the road, then odds are, your sacrifices are worth it.
7. Your current path brings you meaning.
We are all wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain—what positive psychologists refer to as hedonic happiness.
This is what we feel when we do something that boosts our mood, and it’s why we often chase varied highs. We sometimes think “the good life” means abundant leisure time, fun, and excitement. And those things are definitely awesome, which is why we’re often willing to make sacrifices in the present in the hope of having more of them in the future (see #3).
But there’s another kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on hedonistic pleasure. It’s called eudaimonic happiness.
This is what we experience when we have meaning in our lives. When we devote ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. When we take on new challenges, grow, and use our strengths to contribute to the greater good in some way.
If you’re doing something that feels deeply meaningful to you—if you’ve dedicated your life to a cause, you feel engaged in your devotion to it, and you feel proud of the impact you’re making—it will be a lot easier to make peace with sacrifices.
This might mean working at a non-profit that pays you very little but enables you to make a tangible difference in other people’s lives.
Or volunteering during your free time, which limits some of your social options but fills you with a sense of pride and purpose.
Or raising children and going without sometimes, knowing your sacrifices are directly benefitting them and enabling them to grow into strong, healthy people.
Ask yourself: Do I feel a sense of meaning? Am I proud of the person I’m being? Am I doing something that matters not just to me but also the world at large? Odds are, if you answer yes to these questions, you’ll look back without regret for what you gave up in order to give what you gave.
The number of realities we each could be living is absolutely mind-blowing if you think about it. Change any one choice and, through the butterfly effect, our lives could look completely different.
And each of those little worlds would have its own gifts and challenges. In every possible scenario we’d have some rewards, some sacrifices, and some occasional doubts about whether the former justifies the latter.
The good news is, as long as we’re still breathing, it’s never too late to change directions. If ever we recognize we’re not being the people we want to be or doing what we really want to do, we can take a new path, or even pave one where there is none.
At any time we can decide to rebuild our lives around what we value, live our own version of success, and create a life of joy and meaning.
If you’re interested in listening to Melissa’s interview, about her experiences with her short and first feature film and the sacrifices of being an artist, you can find it here. And if you haven’t heard the first episode yet, with singer/songwriter Kelley McRae, you can find it here.