We all (including myself) get caught up in the idea that more money will mean more happiness. But as one of my personal finance gurus, J.D. Roth, points out, “When we focus on monetary goals, we run the risk of becoming trapped on the “hedonic treadmill” (also known as lifestyle inflation), working harder and harder to make more and more money.”
This materialistic cycle does not lead to true happiness.
Can’t Money Buy a Little Happiness?
Sure, more money can make us happier. More money can mean less worry about finances, more freedom to do what we love, or more time with friends and family.
As Enrico and I continue on our path to creating financial security, I am seeing what Roth means when he says that money is a powerful tool. If you know how to use it and you are intentional about the way you use it, it can be used to build great things. “But if you’re not careful,” Roth says, “if you don’t have a plan, the life you construct with your money can be a tenuous thing — even dangerous.”
I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where the attachment to money begins to break down what I feel is most important in life — relationships, finding meaning, making a contribution to the world. However, who am I to be immune? Money (like power) is also like a drug: dangerous if not controlled and used in the right way.
How Money is Related to Well-Being
Roth, who experienced his own personal transformation as he went from indebted to millionaire, thanks to the success of his website Get Rich Slowly, says most of us would be better off focusing on being happy, rather than rich.
Here are some lessons he has learned along the way — principles that are also based on research — and that resonate with me too:
- People who set their goals around relationships or personal fulfillment tend to be happier than those whose goals are built around money and more Stuff.
- Saving too much and depriving yourself in the process can make you unhappy. Be reasonable with your savings and treat yourself along the way.
- Experiences, rather than things, incite more intense emotion that lasts longer.
- Advertising raises our expectations about what we should have, which makes us more unhappy if we don’t have those things.
What Do You Need To Be Content?
To me, the hardest lesson he mentions is this one:
“True happiness comes when you learn to be content with what you have.”
My late mother-in-law embodied this philosophy. She adored her apartment — the same, 70s-decor two-bedroom she’d had since she married 40 years ago. She relished her daily routine and the familiarity of her neighborhood. She loved the basics in life: cooking and eating, children and family, church and friends.
Her neighbor once remarked, almost irritated, “You talk about your apartment as if it were a palace or something.” And she replied, “Because to me, it is a palace!”
Always Striving for More
Most of the time, I’m comfortable with my perfectionism and the high standards that drive me to continually better my life, my house, my parenting, my writing. However, sometimes the constant striving just wears me out. Sometimes I long to be more like Enrico’s mom: content with what she had.
J. D. Roth says that the key to finding this happiness-inducing attitude is to figure out what is Enough.
In many ways I have found this enough: I’m fine about my ten-year-old banged-up used car, I’m OK with one or two pairs of shoes that I wear all the time, and I don’t care that my washer and dryer were in style in 1982 — they work like tanks. Most parents can identify with how priorities change when children arrive. Fashion out, function in.
Yet it’s not like I’m coasting. I always seem to find other areas of my life to improve. Whether it’s my website design, my writing career, or our basement. Most of the time I enjoy the process of creating and refining to get things just the way I want them. I think it’s when I set unrealistic goals that don’t take advantage of my strengths or take on more than I can handle that I make myself unhappy.
In Order to Add, Try Taking Something Away
When nothing seems to be going forward or you’re at an impasse, Matthew E. May for The New York Times says try cutting something out. It is very difficult for many people (like me) to give up on an idea, a dream, or a commitment. But giving up — taking away what does not fit, or deciding not to do something — takes as much discipline as persisting.
May, who is author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, discovered a snippet of ancient Chinese philosophy that changed his thinking:
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”
Sometimes the key to our problems — or to creating a great life — is not adding more. It’s editing out.
As you know, I’m already seeing that the key to being organized is getting rid of things, not buying more bins or creating more space. Here are some other ways I see how subtracting has improved my life.
Not long ago, I narrowly avoided a very expensive kitchen renovation. What started as an effort to improve the flow quickly dominoed into an entire make-over where every single surface and appliance was being re-designed. When I came to my senses and decided to cancel the renovation and simply repair the 1970s range which had inspired the cascade of change, I felt a huge sense of relief. A year later, I could not be happier with my choice. My funky country-industrial kitchen has grown on me, and really, the most important thing? It works.
Even more recently, I gave up my ambition to try to turn my blog into a money-making enterprise. Turning down opportunities that were poorly paid and that I didn’t find meaningful greatly improved the quality of our life and has allowed me to save more money than I was making.
I also reduced the posting frequency on Frugal Mama. Instead of three, we publish one article per week, and I hardly spend any time on social media anymore. Yet I was surprised, and grateful, to find that readership continues to grow.
The principle of subtraction applies to big successful corporations, May points out:
Steve Jobs revolutionized the world’s concept of a cellphone by removing the physical keyboard from the iPhone. Instagram, acquired last year by Facebook, grew quickly once its first version, called Burbn, was stripped of many of its features and reworked to focus on one thing: photos.
Maybe ‘Enough’ is Behind You, Not Ahead
Finding your Enough and what works best for you can require painful decisions. It may mean cutting out something that you’ve spent tons of time or money on. Maybe it means giving up a cherished dream. Sometimes, for me, it has meant letting go of a certain image I have of myself (or that I want other people to have of me).
To find Enough, Roth says, you must set goals. You must figure out what matters to you. What makes your life meaningful. It can take years, and it may involve lots of turns and twists in the road. We will be tempted, we will get off track, life will throw us curveballs, we will try new things, re-evaluate, and have regrets.
It’s all worth it, because trying to make choices that line up with our priorities — living a life that feels true to our values — is one of our best shots at happiness.