“Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.” — Alain De Botton
To a certain extent, the pressure that we feel to earn as money as possible isn’t our fault; Our economic system survives off of encouraging us to consume unnecessary material possessions.
With this in mind, it’s important to differentiate what’s within our control and what isn’t: we may not be able to force Instagram to stop pushing sponsored content, but we can be mindful of its intent when we scroll through our social media feeds.
Like you, I used to believe that I needed to become financially rich in order to be happy. I had to change my mindset and, in order to do that, I had to ask myself some tough questions.
1. What is enough?
I had to be real with myself: my aspirations of seeing a seven digit number in my bank account was an utterly arbitrary goal. I never did the math to see if I actually needed that money. In fact, if I were to calculate everything now, factoring in my monthly expenses, my hobbies/interests, and the big ticket items I hope to purchase in the next five years, I could still do everything I wanted and not work for a year and still come nowhere close to a million dollars.
You need to ask yourself what your dream life looks like. Is it travelling abroad every month and staying in five star hotels or travelling a few times a year and backpacking to get an authentic experience? Are you driving a Ferrari or are you fine with a Honda Civic? Do you have a spouse or flying solo? Do you have children or none at all? Where are you living? Is it right downtown in an urban city? Or on a farm with rolling hills for miles? Depending on your ideal lifestyle, you may not need as much money as you think.
2. Think about when you were happiest in the past month. What were you doing?
Marketers do a wonderful job at manipulating us to think that we need the best of everything in order to be satisfied, but ephemeral pleasures don’t contribute to long-lasting happiness. When I think all about the times I’ve been happy over the past month, I think about spending time with my significant other, relaxing with a warm cup of coffee and a good book, and exploring my neighbourhood with my dog. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most. And these things can’t be commodified.
3. Understand that happiness is not the result — It’s a by-product of progress.
It’s dangerous to qualify your happiness: If I just lose 5 lbs, then I’ll be healthier. If I upgrade to the latest Macbook Pro, then I’ll be more productive. If I just have $1,000,000, then I’ll be happier. This is reckless thinking for a host of reasons. One, your happiness rests on the achievement of a specific goal. Two, you focus on the results rather than the work you invest to reach your results. Happiness can’t be found in external sources; it’s found inside ourselves. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting goals and working hard to achieve them — but focus on the means rather than the ends.
4. Making making involves give and take.
As a lawyer, I see the trade-offs that fellow colleagues make: the more hours you’re willing to work, the more money you’ll earn but less time you have for all the other areas in life. Are you willing to work 60 hour weeks just to make more money but neglect your health, loved ones, and the interests that you have? Are you fine with putting your personal life on hold in order to slog it out in a job that you potentially dislike all because it pays well? What if you have a demanding boss or malicious coworkers? Again, perhaps you’ll be lucky and find a job you enjoy that also pays well, and that, of course, is the ideal circumstance. But for many, especially in the legal profession, that’s often not the case.
5. Research tells us that millionaires are not happier than those who earn $75,000.
Researchers have determined that above a certain threshold, money does not increase happiness levels, as diminishing returns start to set in.
Grant E. Donnelly and Michael Norton, two researchers from Harvard Business School, concluded:
“The more we have of it, it seems, the more money wears off. Indeed, research by Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton suggests that the happiness benefits of increased income diminish around $75,000 — in part because increases beyond that point likely don’t exert as large an impact on people’s ability to live comfortably.”
Skeptical about the research? Duncan Riach, a computer process engineer who became a multi-millionaire at age 27. He claims that despite “having it all” he still wasn’t happy. “I remember driving my brand new luxury sports car and noticing that my identity was becoming tied up with the car. I realized that this super-expensive car would wear out and then I would need to buy another one. To keep my identity, I would need to keep generating a lot of money. It was like having a drug habit.”
Most of what I’m describing is embodied in the concept of hedonic adaptation, coined by Brickman and Campbell. It’s a widespread theory that as a person earns more money, their desires and expectations rise in tandem, which ends up in no permanent increase in happiness. Michael Eysenck expanded on this concept, characterizing it as the “hedonic treadmill theory.” Eysenck claims that one’s pursuit of happiness is akin to walking on a treadmill: walking to stay in the same place. Further, regardless of what happens to you — good or bad — ultimately you will return to your ‘Happiness Set Point’: your general level of happiness.
As the great Lao Tzu eloquently stated:
“If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the world belongs to you.”