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Your Money and Your Happiness

happiness gap between what you want and what you have

❝Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have was once among the things you only hoped for.❞ -Epicurus

I'm sitting at my grandma and grandpa's kitchen table, drinking hot chocolate and playing with their calculator. It's 1995, and I'm thinking about what it would be like to make a lot of money. I think of a huge number and imagine how it would be possible to spend so much money. $3,000 in a single month! Who can spend that? I type $3,000 into the calculator and multiply by 12 to see how much that would be per year. $36,000 per year! If I could make $36,000 per year, I would definitely be happy.

Twelve years later, it's 2007, and I make more than $36,000. In fact, my starting salary two years ago was $35,000. I've realized my dreams! However, I'm not happy. I'm not happy because I have bills to pay. I'm not happy because my coworkers make a lot more than I do. I'm not happy because I'm a cubicle jockey with a low-level job title. I start to study for various professional designations so that I could increase my salary, get a better job title, and have an office. If I had a fancy title, a nice office, and made six figures, then I would definitely be happy.

Ten years later, it's 2017, and I'm setting up shop in my new office. It's my first day at my new job where I have a fancy title and a high salary. I feel pretty good about myself, but a week later, I've already gotten used to it. I'm already starting to take the job for granted. In fact, it's even worse because it turns out to be an awful job working for an awful person. Maybe if I had a different job and a different boss, then I would definitely be happy.


You can see where this is going. Whenever I set a target and achieved it, I got used to it. My subconscious strategy for happiness was to try to get what I wanted. Though it turns out I already had what I needed to be happy.


If you ask many people what they want out of life or what they want for their children, you will get an overwhelming response of happiness. People want their children to be happy. People want to be happy themselves. Although people's behavior may not imply this, many would articulate that happiness is important.

The pursuit of happiness has been written about before. The Dalai Lama makes the claim that the purpose of our lives is to be happy. Happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar claims that happiness should be the ultimate currency.

It's reasonable to think that with all this focus on happiness, that people would actually pursue happiness. In a society driven by consumerism, though, it seems people pursue things like wealth, status, and power instead, which seems to be a mistake. Author Bronnie Ware notes that one of the most common regrets of people as they look back on their lives is that they didn't allow themselves to be happier.

So how do you plan on being happy?

everyone wants to be happy and that should be better than chasing money


Many people claim they want to be happy. However, if you ask them what's their strategy for achieving the happiness that they are after, they will likely not have an answer for you. This seems problematic. People want to be happy but don't have a plan for their own happiness.

Some people feel they don't deserve happiness, so it makes sense that they wouldn't have a strategy for happiness. Other people tell themselves a story that happiness isn't possible. Some people may feel entitled to happiness and thus don't think it's a relevant question to ask about a happiness strategy.

No matter the reason, many people do not have a strategy for becoming happy, and those that do are waiting for happiness to arrive at some point in the future.

people want to be happy, but many don't have a happiness strategy


Many people don't have a strategy for pursuing happiness, but those that do tend to say that they'll be happy as soon as they get the things that they want. This could be things like a dollar figure they're targeting for their net worth. It could be things like a particular job, house, car, or the school they send their children to.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that we are very good at getting used to our situations. When something bad happens to us, after a mourning period, we tend to get used to our new situation. The same thing happens with good things that happen to us. We think we'll be happy when we get promoted, move to a new neighborhood, or get a new convertible. In fact, we are happy...for a short time. Then the thing we just gained becomes a part of our everyday routine, and we quickly get used to it. Then we have to look for something new to get in order to try and find happiness.

Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation, the idea that we get used to our surroundings very quickly. Setting a new goal becomes the target that we think will make us happy until we get used to that. It becomes somewhat of a hedonic treadmill where we keep spinning our wheels but never really get anywhere.

So if we can't rely on contingent happiness, happiness that is contingent on getting something, what other option is there?

what you have is what you used to want


The other option is to be happy in the here and now. Trying to close the gap between what we have and want by changing what we have ends with us on the hedonic treadmill. But we can also close the gap between what we have and want by changing what we want. We can adopt an attitude of gratitude.

If you are reading this, you are living a dream life. That is, you are living someone's dream life. Perhaps you are living a life you could never have imagined 10 or 20 years ago. If not, you are still living the dream life of anybody alive 100 years ago. You're living the dream life of most of the world. Several billion people on this planet would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you on your worst day.

You have a lot of good going for you, but you may not notice it—your reference point matters. If you compare yourself to people who have more than you, then you will never have enough, and you will never be happy. There will always be somebody with more than you. You may compare yourself to somebody who makes more money per year, but as soon as you make more than that person, you'll notice somebody else who has more time than you have. Or perhaps you reconfigure your job to get more time, but you notice that other people have more energy than you.

Human wants are never satisfied, but there is an alternative. You can prevent taking your life for granted by paying more attention to all the ways in which your life is going well.

One way to do this is by using a gratitude journal. There are many versions of this that exist, and you may even be familiar with a couple of them. I have a gratitude log that you can use where you reflect each day on different areas of your life that are going well.

You have many seeds of gratitude that you can nurture and cultivate. Money is a tool that can be used to help you design and live a meaningful life full of happiness. However, money can never be a sustainable source of happiness or meaning.

There's a lot going well for you in your life. You just have to pay attention to it.

You get one life; live intentionally.

If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Even Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happiness Studies

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Short Cuts to Happiness

Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness

Delucca, Gina & Jamie Goldstein: Positive Psychology in Practice

Dunn, Elizabeth & Michael Norton: Happy Money

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!

Feldman Barrett, Lisa: How Emotions Are Made

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness

Glasgow, Joshua: The Solace

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient

Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain

Harris, Dan: 10% Happier

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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