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Money, Happiness, and Life

aligning money and life equals happiness

❝Thomas Jefferson was a real poet. He was slick with that 'pursuit' of happiness because the 'pursuit' puts it back on you.❞ -Will Smith

I feel pretty good as I move into my new office. It's 2017, and I just accepted a job with a fancy title and a high salary. I make more money than I've ever made in my life. I have no worries about money whatsoever. My life right now is a complete 180 from where I come from.

Not only do I not have to worry about money, but I'm also never going to be behind on bills, I can afford anything that I want, and for the most part, I can do anything I want. But I'm miserable. I'm miserable because my new job comes with a micromanager, which is the opposite of autonomy, one of my core values. My new job comes with expectations of working evenings and weekends with very few vacation days. This doesn't satisfy my value of adventure. Other core values, like creativity, curiosity, and learning, can't be met at this new firm either.

I find myself in a position where I have enough money to afford everything I want, but I can't meet my core values.

Money didn't provide the happiness I thought it would.

money doesn't bring the happiness we hope


We can't talk about happiness without first defining happiness. This is a more difficult task than it seems on the surface. Before we can even define happiness, we have to know whether or not it's an emotion, a mindset, a lifestyle, a choice, or a state of being.

If I ask 100 people on the street what happiness is, I'll get close to 100 different definitions. However, based on my experience, many people will answer with some version of smiling, having fun, or laughing. Indeed, if you heard somebody say, “I'm so happy right now,” I imagine your mind's eye painted a picture of somebody with a big smile.

Perhaps we think that maybe having fun all the time doesn't create a happy life. Maybe, instead, a happy life consists of being free from negative states of mind or negative emotions. In this point of view, you don't have to be having fun all the time, but as long as you minimize the amount of sadness, anger, envy, anxiety, regret, or any other negative emotion, then we might say you're leading a happier life. Maybe this is on the right track, but having a state of mind where you don't experience anger, for example, is not the same as suppressing anger when it comes up.

Perhaps happiness lies in satisfying your purpose. It's easy to see how a life with purpose has direction and will make for a more meaningful life. On the other hand, it's easy to imagine somebody who spends too much time focusing on the future. They may be so absorbed in fulfilling their purpose that they fail to live in the present moment, letting life pass them by. That doesn't seem like a happy life.

You might even have your own vision for what a happy life entails. There are too many definitions of happiness, and it's essential to define what we mean by happiness before talking about it.

there are too many definitions of happiness


As a society, we spend less time thinking about what it means to live a happy life and more time imagining what will make us happy. This is precisely the aspect of our minds that gets taken advantage of with get-rich-quick schemes.

The underlying assumption is that money is the ticket to success. If we have money, the idea goes, we can buy ourselves out of any bad situation we're in and therefore don't have to worry. Not having to worry may be one definition of happiness that somebody has. This is why we play the lottery or get involved with pyramid schemes. We imagine a world where we don't have any financial troubles anymore, and therefore we will be happy.

Perhaps it's not the money. Maybe we think we're above all that money-brings-happiness business. We instead focus on pursuing success. We think we will be happy as soon as we get that promotion, start that company, or sell the business. We think we'll be happy as soon as we publish that book or get booked on that Ted talk. Success means that we are in a higher position in our tribe, and if we were still living in tribal times, we would probably be more successful if we moved it up the ranks.

Maybe it's not so much success but fame we’re after. People imagine that once they get enough followers or enough likes, they'll be happy. Indeed, there is a release of dopamine - the feel-good chemical in the brain that comes from hitting a reward - that feels really good in the moment. Being famous means many people think you are important. This is related to success in that way.

However, with more money comes more trouble. Each successful endeavor will lead us to want yet another success. The joy that comes from going viral only lasts for a short time.

It's easy to find wealthy, successful, and famous people who are unhappy. This is perpetuated by the fact that they believe they should be happy and that there must be something wrong with them for not being happy.

The reverse is also true. You may know unknown people with little money that nobody would consider successful who are very happy.

There must be something deeper going on.

what we think brings happiness and what does bring happiness are different


The definition of happiness that I prefer says that happiness is whole-person wellbeing, meaning we are healthy in every aspect of our lives. Happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar writes about happiness being separatable into five areas of our lives. He uses the acronym SPIRE to help us understand the various areas of our lives that we can aim to improve.

S stands for spiritual wellbeing. Spiritual wellbeing means that we are able to be present in our lives. We're not hung up on the past, and we're not too busy focused on the future. We are mindful of what we do. Additionally, it means that we've done work to understand our purpose in life so that we can work towards meaning.

P stands for physical wellbeing. Physical wellbeing means recognizing that the mind and body are related. Taking care of your body helps your mindset. It's about making sure you're active and eating right, as well as making sure you can recharge your batteries through rest and sleep.

I stands for intellectual wellbeing. Intellectual wellbeing means using your mind. It's about solving interesting problems, whether for your job or in your personal life. It's about being open to new experiences and being curious.

R stands for relational wellbeing. Relational wellbeing means that we spend time with people we care about and who care about us. We are social creatures. It also means that we cultivate a healthy relationship with ourselves.

E stands for emotional wellbeing. Emotional wellbeing means not suppressing negative emotions. Emotions are information and a part of being human. The belief that happiness means being free from painful emotions is a source of unhappiness. Emotional wellbeing means cultivating more positive emotions, being resilient, and being able to cope when there are negative emotions.

One thing to note is that there is no financial wellbeing on this list. That might be surprising, but on further inspection, you realize that money is not an end in itself. Money is worthless on its own. Money is not a goal.

Instead, money is a tool that we can use to satisfy all the other SPIRE elements.

SPIRE happiness doesn't include financial wellbeing because money is a tool


Intuitively, many people think that money will bring happiness. Forced to articulate it, though, many people have heard the old saying that money doesn't buy happiness. Let's investigate that claim.

The first thing we'll find is that money can buy happiness if you are living in poverty. If you are in poverty, then more money will make you happier because you're able to satisfy your basic needs. Once you get outside of your basic needs, though, the curve becomes less steep.

Once you start making more money, the slope is less steep, but it's still upward sloping. That means that more money and happiness are correlated. The bad news is that it takes a lot more money to get a little bit more happiness. Another way to say that is that using all that energy to make more money for a little bit of happiness might not be the best use of our time. It means that there are probably better ways for us to use our time and energy to become happier.

Also, just because they're correlated doesn't mean that extra money causes more happiness. It simply means that they move together. There's a school of thought that says it is a reverse relationship, meaning that instead of money making people happy, happy people make more money. After all, happier people are more likely to seek out opportunities, get along with bosses, and make more connections than unhappy people.

money brings happiness only up to a point


Bringing in more money isn't likely to make us happier, but that doesn't mean we should ignore money and happiness.

Money coming in isn't likely to make us happier, but money going out can. That means that how we use our money can impact our happiness.

For example, buying stuff isn't likely to add to our long-term happiness. Instead, buying experiences can lead to more happiness. When we use our money to have experiences, we are more likely to be in the present moment (spiritual wellbeing), probably doing it with loved ones (relational wellbeing), experiencing joy and other positive emotions (emotional wellbeing), and perhaps being active (physical wellbeing) and trying new experiences (intellectual wellbeing). Additionally, we retain the memories of these experiences.

We all have the same amount of time, therefore buying time is a way that can bring happiness. This can be done by paying somebody to do the things that you don't enjoy doing. It can be done by delegating tasks that aren't worth your time.

It feels intuitive that spending money on ourselves will make us happy, but research shows that we feel better when we spend money on others. This can be through charitable giving or through helping out somebody in person.

But it can also be used to treat yourself. This does not mean splurging on things you can't afford. In fact, it's the opposite. It means taking something that you may buy regularly and making it something you get less frequently. You take something that's become part of you, and you make it a treat. This prevents you from getting used to it and taking it for granted.

You can also use your money to support your purpose, which is tied to spiritual wellbeing.

getting money doesn't bring lasting happiness but how we use it can

The relationship between money and happiness is complicated, but that need not be the case. Separate from the idea that more money will make you happier and try to use your money in a way that will support your happiness. Try to find ways to increase your wellbeing without having to spend a lot of money.

Happiness is not a binary choice. You're not either happy or unhappy. You can be happier tomorrow than you are today, and that should be the direction you go.

You get one life; live intentionally.

With gratitude,


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: Even Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happiness Studies

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness

Dunn, Elizabeth & Michael Norton: Happy Money

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin: Flourish

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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