“He that is of the opinion that money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” – Benjamin Franklin
How to Be Happy With Your Money
It is often said that money doesn’t buy happiness.
When I had no money, which was the case for the first 30 years of my life, I resented that notion. It seemed a glib sentiment expressed condescendingly by those that had to those that had not.
It was also an idea that I didn’t want to hear. I was on the threshold of a 20-year crusade to make money – as much money as I possibly could. If my ambitions had been to be an actor and some Hollywood celebrity said acting wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, I’d have felt the same way. (“You’ve done it. And you have it. I haven’t done it and I don’t have it. Yet. So don’t get in my way!”)
That was then. Now, so many years later, I have more money than I ever imagined I’d have. And guess what? I’ve come to the conclusion that the “money doesn’t buy happiness” cliché, like most clichés, is true.
Don’t take my word for it. There have been countless studies to support this thesis. And virtually all of them conclude the same thing: Once you have enough money to pay the bills, go to a restaurant now and then, and take a vacation once or twice a year, having more money doesn’t make you happier.
But I didn’t know this when I was wearing hand-me-downs in high school. And I didn’t know it when I started my career.
From 1982 to about 1998, I spent 60 to 80 hours a week working my ass off to make and save money. I approached those objectives with monomaniacal intensity. And largely because of that (I had no natural genius for business), I was successful, moving my net worth from zero to nearly mid-eight figures in 16 years.
During those years, I had countless pleasurable moments. But I can’t say I led a generally happy life. I was frequently excited, inspired, and impassioned. But I was also frequently on the verge of depression and despair.
Whenever news of some famous guy offing himself grabbed the media’s attention and people were asking “why,” I said nothing. But I got it.
In the winter of 2000, I started writing about wealth building in Early to Rise, an ezine I published for 10 years. One of the subjects I researched and wrote about on and off throughout that decade, was the relationship between money and happiness. And it was almost always about the wisdom of the money-doesn’t-buy happiness cliché.
But that didn’t stop me from continuing to make “getting richer” my number one goal in life.
Finally, the Realization
Then one day when I was vacationing with K in Rome, I had a life-changing moment. We were crossing a bridge over the Tiber River, and I was lost in thought, worrying, as usual, about some business deal, when K stopped. She said something, but I could not hear her. This was not the first time that happened. It had happened a thousand times before.
I asked her what she had said.
“I was thinking about how much I’m enjoying this trip,” she said. “And I asked if you were having fun.”
“Right,” I said. “Fun.”
And then I thought, “Wait! What am I doing? Enough of this! I’m not going to spend any more time oblivious to the world around me, thinking only about how I can get richer than I already am.”
And I meant it. When we got back to our hotel room, I opened my laptop, went to my yearly list of long-term priorities, and moved “financial goals” from the top to the bottom of the list.
It wasn’t a miracle cure, but it was a start. For the first time, I was able to let happiness seep into my life, a drop at a time.
An Unexpected Extra
Oddly, though, despite the fact that I was no longer fretting about adding to my wealth, my net worth continued to increase. In the 19 years that followed that walk over the Tiber, it doubled and then doubled again.
What happened was this:
I continued working because I liked the work I was doing. I continued to make plans and negotiate deals and create products and develop marketing strategies. But I did it with a different mindset. I set objectives and pursued them, but without caring about whether I accomplished them or not.
My 30-year-old self would have considered that last statement to be another case of condescending bullshit, but it didn’t feel like bullshit. It felt real.
What I finally figured out was another cliché, a biblical adage (Timothy 6:10) that is often misstated. The misstatement is: Money is the root of all evil. The actual statement is: For the love of money is the root of all evil.
I interpret that this way: If you can work towards building your wealth without attaching yourself emotionally to the goal, you can have your cake (gaining net worth) and eat it too. (Don’t worry! Be happy!)
In other words, if you accept the fact that money won’t bring you happiness and that desiring it will bring you (and those around you) myriad forms of pain, you can rid yourself of the ambition of forever acquiring more.
Let’s say you want to retire. You hate the work you’re doing and you want to quit as soon as you possibly can.
So you do this: You figure out the lowest possible amount of money that you need in your retirement account to live comfortably ever after. And you promise yourself that when you reach that “magic number,” you will quit your job.
By accepting the fact that more money won’t bring you more happiness, you won’t be tempted to ratchet that number up when you reach it. (As I did about a half-dozen times.)
Then you get back to work. And you work with a purpose. But your purpose will no longer be to earn more and more money. Your purpose will be to do a really good job until you reach your magic number.
I know this may sound like nonsense. If you think so, I believe it’s because you haven’t tried it. If and when you do, I believe you will find – as I did – that you will work better than you ever did. And as a bonus, you will enjoy your work much, much more.
Sometimes, Money Really Can Buy Happiness
There is another thing you should consider doing: Rethink the way you are spending the money you earn. When our hearts are attached to dreams of making lots of money, we tend to spend what we have in foolish ways.
You may have heard the argument that people generally get more long-term pleasure out of spending money on experiences rather than things.
The first time I heard it, I was repelled by it. It seemed illogical. Experiences are ephemeral, I had always believed. You have them and they are gone. Poof! But things – ah, things last!
It didn’t take me too long to realize the fallacy of this logic. Experiences can last. They can last a lifetime. And the pleasure they bring can be deep. Things usually bring a lot of immediate pleasure, which ebbs over time. Eventually, your things might give you no pleasure at all.
So I resolved to spend less on things and more on experiences. And that has worked wonderfully well.
For example, I long ago discovered that I was getting very little extra pleasure from the collectible cars I owned. The excitement I had driving them the first year or two had disappeared. Today, I want my cars to be comfortable and low maintenance. I still have a 1989 NSX, which I rarely drive. But the rest of my collectible cars are long and happily gone.
On the other hand, the art I own gives me pleasure all the time. It is not the art itself, the thingness of the art, that I enjoy, but my experience of enjoying it every day. So I continue to buy and sell art, always in an effort to improve the quality of my collection, because the experience of doing so gives me lasting pleasure.
I’ve also discovered – and this should not surprise you – that I can “buy” a considerable dose of happiness by spending my money on other people. Instead of buying a new car for myself, for example, I’ll buy one for my sister or lease a car for a friend that needs one.
In fact, when I think of the money K and I have spent over the years, there is no doubt that the greatest yield came from the financial help we’ve given to family and friends in need and to our Community Center in Nicaragua.
Still doubtful? That’s okay. I spent many years where you are – and I’m glad I lived beyond them. I wish the best for you.
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