The Atlantic recently ran a series of articles on happiness by Arthur C Brooks. That sort of thing always gets my attention. After all, this is what it is really about. Whether it’s the way we work, organize our homes, foster friendships or manage our wealth, the end game is to be happy.
There is a school of thought that says that happiness is not created by our circumstances. It’s not something we can achieve. It’s something we choose. In fact, the happier we choose to be, they would say, the easier it becomes to create those pleasant circumstances or a life condition we believe will bring us contentment.
I’ve found it to be a bit of both. If your circumstances are awful, it’s hard to adjust your thinking and choose to ignore it all and just be happy. Similarly, terrific circumstances do not necessarily lead to happiness. We have all seen people who seem to have it all and who still struggle to be joyful, content, and find meaning in life.
Here is what I have found in dealing with people for over 17 years and helping them to achieve their goals. We will use money as the measure of a good living condition.
When we struggle to get by, it’s difficult to relax and be happy. Yes, there are people who have no attachment to material belongings and can be happy with nothing. But they are rare. Generally, we need to have security. We need enough to know we have food to eat, a roof over our head, clothes on our back, and a few dollars in our pocket in case something important comes up. That’s where most of the middle class stands.
But I believe that once you get to that point, the increase in your level of happiness is not likely to come from money. In fact, I’ve seen examples where the more money people have, the less happy they are (Line A). Usually, it’s because they worry about losing it or get stressed about taking care of it; for example: “Am I getting a good return? Am I paying too much tax? It is too much to leave to the kids? Will it mess them up?”.
The people who seem to have hit the sweet spot are those who have some money but for whom life is about all the things that money can’t buy. I can think of retired couples with modest pensions, modest homes, and a few dollars put away that give them a sense of security, to be sure. But when I visit them, I see signs that they are engaged in a life of simple pleasures. I can see that their happiness derives from their connection to one another; from their children, grandchildren, and friends; and for some, their faith. Sometimes I wonder if they think much at all about the money they have invested with me. I’m sure they’re glad they have it. But it is not bringing them joy or worry for that matter.
The people I serve are on the right side of the vertical line. I do my best to help the line keep pointing upwards. I put solutions in place that help ensure their money continues to give them a sense of security and doesn’t cause them to worry. But I also help them connect their money to what is most important to them and what they value the most. That’s what your money should be doing for you at that point. The money itself is not making you happier. But it is supporting the things that do.