Happiness is an interesting little puzzle. It seems like happiness should be an easy concept to understand. The desire to be happy is one idea that almost all human beings can relate to. Our Founding Fathers recognized the pursuit of happiness as a most basic human right in the Declaration of Independence. In reality, many people struggle to actually achieve happiness. It’s not always easy to recognize the things that really make us happy, so we often go about pursuing happiness in all the wrong ways.
It’s impossible to talk about happiness in our modern culture without also talking about money. No doubt that seems cynical to some, but the truth is that many Americans are unhappy because of their financial struggles. Many people believe that happiness is just a raise or a bonus away, yet they feel no more satisfied with life when the extra money comes in. The relationship between money and happiness deserves a deeper analysis than hackneyed expressions like “money can’t buy happiness.” This expression is trite and does nothing to tell us how to put money and happiness into proper perspective.
So let’s get some perspective. Money is not an entitlement. We don’t deserve high salaries; we earn them. We earn money by using our abilities and talents, but also by giving up something else, whether it’s our time, relationships, freedom, or some other intangible that has value to us. How often do we consider the sacrifices we must make to earn more money?
Consider the following set of sentences:
I want to earn a big six figure salary as a corporate executive.
I want a 5,000 square foot home in an impressive neighborhood.
I want all the clothes in my closet to have designer labels.
I want people to know that I make a lot of money.
Now consider this set of sentences:
I must work 70+ hours a week.
I must be willing to have a much higher level of stress than the average person.
I must make work my highest priority and the primary focus of my life.
I must miss out on doing things with my friends and family because work comes first.
It’s fun to dream about being rich and buying fancy things. It’s not fun to think about what we have to do to actually get rich quickly. Therefore, we’re naturally inclined to think only about the first group of sentences in the sets above. Each of these “Wants” is unattainable without the kind of work and sacrifice described in the second group of sentences (the “Musts”). When we focus on the Wants only, unhappiness is the inevitable result. If we also consider the Musts, we immediately gain perspective and feel much more content with the things we already have now.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who is rich and working long hours is unhappy. A lucky few really do love their jobs and maintain a passion for their work over many years. Most likely, these individuals are motivated by that passion, not by money. Their happiness derives from spending their time doing something they truly enjoy; the money that comes with it is like a really nice side benefit.
For most people, financial happiness can be achieved by making a conscious decision to build wealth slowly through disciplined spending, saving aggressively, and making well thought out investments. For those of us who are content with our jobs but not in love with them, a slow and steady approach becoming wealthy allows us to devote more of our time to the people and activities that truly make us happy. Keeping our Wants and Musts in proper perspective allows us to be content with what we have now as we pursue long term financial stability and happiness.
Stay tuned for Happiness Part 2: Experiences. This post will explore the differences between experiences and material goods as sources of happiness.