The Money vs. Happiness Debate

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My nephew Jason was pretty excited about starting college. “Do you have any idea what you’d like to do when you graduate?” I asked. “Something in the sciences,” he said adding, “and where I can make a lot of money.” “Is that all?” I asked. Jason paused for a moment before replying. “Well, I just hope I can find a job I don’t hate too much.”

Time for a little auntie-to-nephew pep talk, I thought. “You have your whole life before you,” I said, “don’t you think you should be shooting higher than just short of misery?” Jason looked confused. “What should I be shooting for?” It was becoming obvious I was going to have to spell it out. “Satisfaction, fulfillment, you know – HAPPINESS!”

By the look on my dear nephew’s face I knew he wasn’t buying it. This got me thinking about the great debate raging inside many working adults today: Money vs. Happiness.

Money: 10 – Happiness: 2

At 41, my friend Eva is not rich, but she does earn a very good salary as a human resources manager in a federal agency. She has a closet full of clothes, owns a great house, drives a shiny new car and can afford in-home care for her two children. Last year she and her family rented a beach house for two weeks.

By all accounts, Eva should be happy, right? Wrong.

Eva works in one of those high-stress, need-it-yesterday type jobs. (Sound familiar?) Like a lot of people, she longs for the good old days. A mere decade ago, giving your employer a highly productive eight or nine hour day meant you were a dedicated employee. Give up a lunch hour once a week, come in on a Saturday once every few months and you were on a fast track to the top. How things have changed.

For Eva, career advancement isn’t even on the agenda. Instead, she’s just trying to stay afloat in the rising workflow rapids. Employees are expected to arrive before 8 a.m., work through lunch and often through dinner. On those rare occasions when she needs to leave by 6 p.m., Eva feels compelled to apologize for having to “skip out early.”

Then there’s personal time – what’s left of it that is. Tethered to her job by technology and the new “ever available” work ethic, Eva is expected to pick up voice and email messages from home, put in time on the weekends and check into the office during vacation. To say that Eva is unhappy would be an understatement.

Oh, but did I mention she makes a great salary?

Why There Is More To It

No one in his or her right mind sets out to be miserably well off. Quite the contrary. If we are to believe the advertising industry, money, and all the goods and services it can buy, is precisely what it takes to achieve that elusive state of “happiness.”

So earn and spend we do. But are we any happier?

Not according to Your Money or Your Life authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. The authors asked over 1,000 people from the United States and Canada to rate themselves on a happiness scale of 1 (miserable) to 5 (joyous), with 3 being “can’t complain.”

Even Dominguez and Robin were surprised to find there to be no correlation what so ever between income and happiness. In fact, people earning between $0 – 1,000 a month reported being slightly happier than those whose monthly income exceeded $4,000.

Even though we own more than our parent’s generation, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” peaked in 1957. Since then it has remained fairly stable or declined. This, despite the fact that American’s consume twice as much as they did in the 1950s, when the average size of a house was about the same as many two-car garages today.

What about you: Does your income far exceed your level of bliss? If so, you may be suffering from a case of “Affluenza?” Producers of the PBS television program by the same name, describe the disease as:

  • The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Jones
  • An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.

ETR University

Happiness: 10 – Money: 2

Ok, what if you could reverse the equation? What if you could trade money for happiness? Would you?

Doug Ellis did. While he was in the corporate world, Doug had a better than average income. The fact that he had retirement vesting and other so called “golden handcuffs” made it tough to think about leaving. In the back of his mind, though, he knew money was only part of the happiness equation.

As his fifth year rolled around, Doug began to question whether being constantly “stressed and squeezed by the pressures of middle management” was worth it. As Doug explained it: “There are a lot of pressures forcing you to conform to a Dilbertesque existence. Eventually you either leave the cube farm, or hunker down in your cube and become an occupational veal calf.”

For Doug, the choice was hard, but clear. He handed in his notice, packed up, moved to a small town in Colorado and never looked back. Surrounded by mountains, Doug now walks to his new job as a writer for a small software company. “Life is short,” he says, adding “…one of the saddest things that can happen in pursuit of making a living is enslaving yourself to your boss’s dream, or giving up your own dream out of fatigue and fear. No paycheck, no matter how steady and fat, is worth it.”

Since the Choice is Yours, Here’s How To Avoid Misery

Well, where do you come down on the great debate? Is that paycheck worth the sacrifices? If you are leaning toward the happiness camp, you’re not alone. In a survey of 1,000 workers conducted by Robert Half International, two-thirds said they would willingly trade pay for more free time. For many, making a living is starting to take a back seat to having a life.

Is the thought of earning less money scary? You bet. That’s why I stayed in my own high-stress job for as long as I did. Then, without warning, my mother died of heart attack. She was five months away from retirement.

It was only then that I understood that predictability is a double-edged sword. Financial security wasn’t the only thing I could count on. If I didn’t take control of my life, I was destined to remain miserably well off.

Walking away from a good job with good benefits was risky. To me though, the real risk is that of looking back at my life twenty years down the road and knowing, that I was miserable, but I at least I had a good dental plan. End of debate.

What are your thoughts on the money versus happiness debate? Can you have both?

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  • kathy

    Hi,

    I enjoyed your article. My experience is that I’ve worked as a environmental educator at a poorly managed non-profit nature center for the past 18 years, working long hours, weekends, taking work home all for very little pay. In fact, I make less than most entry level people make fresh out of college. I now look back with extreme disappointment at myself because I am not further along financially, in fact, I am deeper in debt, feel used up at 51 years old, very little retirement to show. For what? Is it the satisfaction that I’m trying to change the minds of our future mega-consumers about how important and necessary nature is in their lives? All for the greater good. Well, at the end of the day, at least those that have been miserable in their jobs made some serious money while us lowly environmentalists/educators barely can scrap by. It’s hard for me to have empathy for some “poor” guy who made great money but was miserable in his job who decided to leave it and move to Colorado and now his life is perfect. The take away for me is that no matter what I do or money I make, it’s important to be happy. Life is too short! I’m in the process of leaving my job with the hope of being an artist. Thanks for the article. I look forward to reading your articles every morning. Sincerely, Kathy

  • Elizabeth C

    I’ve been relatively “lucky” – I’ve changed career fields several times, jobs many times, and in selecting a job, used the criteria (1) job where I could learn / continue learning / learn something new (2) feel like I was making a difference (3) work I liked with people I liked… I’ve enjoyed life, taken vacations to places I wanted to go, had horses I loved trail riding all weekend, gardened, danced, and still managed to save enough to generate $4K per month in retirement income (in today’s dollars), on top of Soc Sec and a little pension. As you note – people today think buying more things will give them happiness – but really, happiness is how you make the journey in life, not the destination…. and you’re about as happy as you make up your mind to be. Small wonder so many kids today answered as in your article about making making – they don’t see people being happy separate from money…. Their parents buy them things to make them happy rather than showing them the joy in enjoying a beautiful sunrise, hearing the birds awaken, watching a flower unfold or the marvel of a hummingbird feeding on nectar, savoring the taste of a good cup of coffee or hot chocolate…..In some sense, you have to “work” at finding happiness / being happy – but people / kids today seem to want it given to them… Life is truly a banquet – but it tastes no better off of golden plates… and if you never learn to appreciate the tastes, aromas, and sights of the food, paying for a gold plate won’t give you the joy associated with enjoying a meal…. Happiness comes, in a lot of ways, from inside a person, not from outside.

  • I entered into college as an engineering student for the same reason Valerie’s nephew wanted to enter college as a student of the sciences. I only realized I had made a mistake – that I had done it for the money – two years later when I had a severe breakdown.

    While studying for engineering, taking tests and attending class, I felt anxious. Doing what I didn’t love was wearing on me, emotionally and physically.

    Eventually, I found the wisdom to take a step back and evaluate my interests. With a clearer head than normal, it was easy to see what I had a passion for – writing. Although I was afraid to “profit from this passion,” as Valerie might put it, I took a huge step. A scary step that I can now see was a step in the right direction.

    If you’re like me, Valerie, and many others who had to find out the hard way about the necessity of making a career out of your true passions, you have the obligation to explain the “profit from passion” equation to those who are “miserably well off.”

    Come one ETR crew! Let’s make this world full of happier people, one person at a time. But first, let’s focus on ourselves and doing what we love. Let’s profit from our passion.

    This is the only way to live.

  • This is a great debate. I think you can have both. With one exception, the money has to come from something you love. But unfortunately most people earn a great income doing things that are not in line with their passions. But it’s hard to leave a job for the unknown. Trust me I know. Thankfully though I am taking baby steps in that direction. The more action I take to leave this job the happier I am. Thanks for sharing this post.

  • Wanda

    What about . . .
    Happiness: 10 – Money: 10
    It does not have to be an either or situation. You do not have to give up a well-paying job to be happy. You may need to adjust your priorities, perception, and/or attitude. Grow a backbone and say NO. Leave work without apologizing for leaving on time. Don’t let others (including your boss) steal your joy. Use your time off to connect with family and friends, start a business you love to replace your job, and replenish your soul. And for goodness sake – take your time off!

    • Brian

      Amen Wanda!!

      Though I agree with the basic premise of this article, that if you give money the major weight in your career decision-making you are almost sure to be miserable, there are many lucrative careers that the individuals who pursue them have a true passion for.

      I am not one of “the lucky ones” who’s ever found a life’s passion that dovetails nicely with a career niche. I have, however, had three careers so far: Information/Computer Technology for 12 years, speech and language therapist for another 10, then on to independent business owner. At each and every change, I have been going *down* the income ladder, but have never regretted it one bit. That’s because at each and every change I knew I was walking away from something that just wasn’t working for me and wasn’t allowing me to be happy (or was actively contributing to me not being happy).

      The one thing I cannot emphasize enough, though, is the truth of your statement about growing a backbone. It’s the best investment in yourself you’ll ever make. As everybody’s being asked to do more and more with less and less most of them are active accomplices in allowing themselves to become a virtual slave to their jobs. I learned early on that I do not owe any employer anything other than my very best for a 40-hour week, with, perhaps, the occasional overtime when the odd crisis or deadline requires it. I do not owe them early morning through late night, no meals, 24/7 access, availability during vacations/my off hours/etc. I made that abundantly clear when pressed about it, too. I’ll also add that I have never been fired nor threatened with firing for having done so, and all of my former supervisors were willing to recommend me highly (and have done so). It is up to the individual to be their own advocate and to set limits.

  • Kim

    Yes I think you can have both if you are doing what you love to do and if you re-evaluate what makes you happy. I am giving up what most would call a really safe, secure life with all the perks but that isn’t what makes me happy. I really believe that by pursuing my dream and doing work that taps into my God given talents and gifts that I will live just fine. It really is about your perception of what makes you happy and what is really good money. I value my free time and my health so living a simplier life is the most important to me and you can’t buy either of those.

  • Denise White

    I think it is possible to be happy and earn a good income. The key is to not be afraid to try new situations and do what you love (or think you might love)! My husband and I have ran our own businesses, changed careers, lived overseas, worked and not worked and we are still on track to retire with no debt next year. We are not millionaires but will be quite comfortable. How did we accomplish this? 1. Never live beyond our means (always save). 2. Never be afraid to try something new. 3. Be willing to sacrifice to change the situation. 4. Be willing to call it quits if it does not work out. 5. Move on and don’t quit learning and searching 🙂

  • Hugh Benham

    I sure hope your nephew appreciated a little wisdom from his aunt! I too was very possession oriented for a very long while. Imagine how liberating selling your home with all its furnishings can be! Yes revel in the moment, fresh start, new ideas, a chance to explore new paths etc. The harder you hold onto something, the more someone of something will try and separate it from you. Consider myself very fortunate to be part of Early to Rise and be exposed to the plethora of intelligent articles that are a benefit of that association. Have a Terrific Thursday!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thanks Hugh!

  • nagendra

    I was struggling for security…some thing for a retired life. Once I reached my target, my stress is reduced & my happiness is increasing with my bank balance. I am not rich enough to afford a car. This story tells the importance of money. However, if I am obsessed with money, I can make money. Note, that obsession is to make money, not to be happy. If one has a obsession for happiness, he shall find happiness by sittig in cool breeze, enjoying full moon, sitting on a beach side, looking at the stars in the sky, looking at the birds, looking at the flowers, looking at beautiful things of nature. None of them require money. So what is required is bare necessities to be happy. When your needs are minimum, your fear is less & you feel carefree & happy. I have seen poor people having hearty laughter than egotistic wealthy deluded man.

  • K King Lewis

    Brava to you Auntie! I hope your nephew appreciates you and your sage wisdom.
    Our society is turning people into automatons; ready and dispensable all at the same time. Our young people see young entrepreneurs becoming instantaneous “wealthy” and think that is the only measure of success for their lives. We need more people to show the value in following your true self.
    The rewards are far greater than money can buy!

  • It’s real easy to walk away from a job IF you are only taking care of yourself. If one has responsibilities, like say children, you have to suck it up & do what’s necessary. I agree College is pushed on every student in this country, many who don’t want it, can’t do it, or not fit for it, meanwhile 660,000 jobs go wanting as plumbers, electricians, etc. It seems these are considered BENEATH our BELOVED children. The Trades jobs are no longer respected yet many would fit them & earn perhaps less BUT be much happier.

  • raybe

    I believe Denise is a bit closer to my reality. Accepting to open your mind and to adjust to circumstances. Telling the truth is much harder when a straight answer between money and happiness in play. One of the real truths I believe is money can by you happiness. But what does that really mean and if you are going to use the word perception then are we really talking about a truth or frame of mind? I always used that saying,”Perception is truth to people”. I see it everyday(even magic shows) and I have used it. I think being honest with yourself and the goals that you always thought would make you happy can be filled and but yet feel different. There are many types of happiness as well as love. Maybe your dream was to become a dancer but after getting married it just wasn’t going to work but we find maybe a different or more fulfillment in our new family. If we are going to be honest there is always that, “What if factor” maybe I could have accomplished both. Realistic, not for me to say… But just settling so you have a false sense of security or happiness because there is less pressure & responsibility doesn’t cut it because in fact you have stopped living as well. I do believe that people are in a great spot of having there cake and eating too but the majority not so lucky. Every decision we make can eliminate all other possibilities. Being individuals makes this debate relative to the differences and beliefs we all have.What is money and it’s value to my life and what is my true happiness? I can only say that the person that coined the expression, “Money can’t buy happiness” probably never had any. No arguments here just my opinion’s.
    Thanks,
    raybe

  • John M.

    Money vs. Happiness. Are they mutually exclusive? Well at 38 years old I am still desiring a way to have both more abundantly but I would rather have the scales tipping toward happiness.
    Since ’99 I worked my way from laborer, to boss, to third party Utility Inspection and loved it and was very well paid. The work required travel and I lived very simply staying in “Roach Motels” and RV’s to save money.
    With family changes in 09 I took an job at a small water system that served a subdivision near my home at approx 1/4 the money I could demand traveling and had a lot more free time and was at home but was on call 24/7 which is nerve racking and would get calls at 5 or 6 in the evening on occasion and really was not all that happy but I was “at home”.
    Then I thought, if I put in a store in town I can live on my salary and use the store profit for investment, now the water system job is gone and despite all the things I have tried the store is failing and I am going to have to leave strangely I feel at peace and over all perfectly happy even though I don’t know where I will even get the traveling money to get to my first job to start over.
    When I rebuild my life I will do something hopefully using an model similar to Craig’s just haven’t figured out an niche/sub niche yet.

    • RethinkHappy

      I would love to suggest here that there is a big difference between happiness and joy. Happiness depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is an attitude we choose to have despite the circumstances.

  • Patti Grunkemeier

    I’ve thought alot about this. We are managing to save a little, go on an occasional trip, and are not in debt. However, we have nothing saved up for retirement. We had a little but the stock market crash reduced it considerably and we used the rest of it to downsize with. That was a good decision. We have very little available for extras. Extras meaning: a good stock of vitamins as opposed to the cheaper, worthless ones, going to a doctor who is not in the network plan because he suits our purposes better, buying organic foods, etc. It equals to quality of life. Therefore, I am now working part-time and trying to build up an internet based income that will get us through our “golden years”. I like what I’m doing that way but it is a real challenge and consumes much of my time. So the good part is I like it. What I would like to change is the feeling I need to do this for quality of life. I think there must be a balance. I suppose there are “poorer” people who don’t care to have much more than they do and they are “happy” or “satisfied”. I am certainly not “unhappy”. But I care about the quality of health care I receive, etc etc. And for that I need extra money. I think not having it is not going to make me “depressed” or “unhappy” (there would be something wrong with that attitude) but the lack will definitely affect my quality of life. However, I would rather live with less than be in a job I hated. I don’t think I could do that. Right now, my part-time job isn’t stimulating and therefore I’m bored. I don’t like that. Boredom is a waste for me. I’m hoping to generate some residual income doing the things I love: one is writing. However, if I didn’t have to be concerned about that, I probably wouldn’t bother. I would take some writing courses and use my time volunteering. My daughter, who is single and makes $200k a year, and I argue over this topic. She says she has never sought out a job for the money. I suggest to her that she leaves out a word here: she has never sought out a job JUST for the money, She doesn’t comment. So I think it is both: money in and of itself DOESN’T bring happiness. It is only a tool and I think we forget that. But, if we can design our working time so we enjoy what we do AND have a standard of living that doesn’t compromise our deepest values, i.e. spending time with family and friends then…I think that is something worthy to spend time developing.

  • Le Thi Nhung

    Hi you
    I certain number of think inversed link you to take to leave is one cause very good for every need to and nephew of you have one wish of his that . When gradute will selt stand up equal foot of his that if be de feated down continous stand up and go on way invesed link his choose for itselt and also is exprience for his learn you let’s for his have chance and in after back help mutually when need have moment you for his that be the feated and feeling of his that will have one energy for body of itselt . Have left me also have certain number of feated before I continous learn language and understand about english and have chance meet every person that is one happy big of me. We let’s nature all every good will to with certain number person understand must law of nature that is think small of me sent you good luck to you

  • Hi Valerie,

    I enjoyed your post.

    I think the money vs. happiness debate is summed up best by your statement:

    “Walking away from a good job with good benefits was risky. To me though, the real risk is that of looking back at my life twenty years down the road and knowing, that I was miserable, but I at least I had a good dental plan. End of debate.”

    I’d rather be happy and have the money I need than have a good salary and title that I do not enjoy – I’ve had this experience, this is not happiness.

    Thanks for your post.

  • David Shawn

    Great article and the bain of my own particular motivational message. Sure you can have both. But how ’bout this: focus purely on creating a LIFESTYLE that you’ll be joyous to wake up to everyday, and I’ve got news for ya…it matters not what you actually do “for a living” from that point on. The concept of “money” becomes merely a tool–a means of sustaining the LIFESTYLE.

    As a former [non-headlining] Vegas entertainer, I can tell you I’ve had the privilege of making over $100K for 3 1/2 years. When the gig dried up May of 2003, I instantly took a $70K paycut–going back to working “normal jobs”. BUT, because I had already created my LIFESTYLE (living my message)…my life is absolutely FANTASTIC.

    Would I like to make that kind of money (or more) again? Absolutely! But these days, I only need to work 3 DAYS A WEEK–on a $30K income–to pay my bills. The rest of the time…I can just chill out.

    There’s obviously a little more I haven’t disclosed…but that’s for another post.

  • Brando Malone

    Firstly Valerie I’d like to thank you for the post, it is very interesting indeed and extremely well presented.

    Similarly to David Shawn I think it is less important to have an enjoyable job and more about creating a lifestyle that you dream of, which can be very different to different people. For example to some people waking up at 6am to go for a run before having an ice cold shower, followed by getting into their office prior to anyone else, with a health drink in hand feeling like they’re bettering themselves and “getting ahead of the game” is a dream come true. Whereas another bunch of people may prefer rolling out of bed at 11am, spending the day watching adult films and then working an evening shift in a supermarket with their “best buddy’s” then clocking-out just before the local kebab shop closes.

    The above examples are extremes, however the message is clear – life is very subjective and is all about perception. What I may love you may hate, what you may hate may be a fantasy of someone else.

    The best thing to do is to live in the present moment and ensure you’re doing what makes
    you happy and since happiness is a state of mind (and not about your surroundings) you have the choice to be happy when you want to be.

    As Leo Tolstoy once said – “Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them”.

    Follow me
    @BrandoMalone

  • Roman Box

    Rich is a person full of memories, experiences and strong relationships and free is a person who can manage his time as he wishes. This kind of wealth and this kind of freedom are the two wings of happiness and its not my opinion only its the life review of the most important people from ancient greek philosophers to modern psychologists and succsesful men. Weak personalities tend to beautify what enslaves them and that is the example all states and corporations want for all of us to follow. The happy for nothing fool who gives away his “gold” (free time and soul) for “faux bijou” like indians were forced in many cases to do …

  • RethinkHappy

    I am on the happiness side of the story, but I’ve been stressed, busy and wildly successful. I certainly wasn’t as happy as I am now.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback, glad to hear things are going great now!

  • JulleeJullee

    Thanks for this article and thanks for all the people who are sharing their own stories. So, with my job, it’s all for what? The high salary and great benefits? I changed my 4 day work week to a 5 day one in order to sleep longer and spend more time with my child in the mornings, but this job hasn’t made me happy since the new CEO came in. The outsourcing of my work will be a blessing in the long run, I can feel it. The people around me are being laid off month after month. I speak with those who already left and guess what? They’re happy! So, yeah, we been making ourselves suffer.

    • Thank you for sharing!

  • Jc Otero

    Great read. I’m 31 and have walked away from two promising corporate careers and each time everyone thought I was crazy for doing so. But looking back, I’m so glad that I did something about that awful feeling in my gut I would get when dreading going into work. When it got to that point, I decided to walk away. It may be because I overcame cancer at age 19 and feel that my life since is a gift and can be taken away from me anytime so I just remember those days in the hospital and remind myself that there is more to life than slaving for someone else’s dream. The crazy thing about it all is that after leaving these “promising” careers, I doubled my income each time. Although I currently work for a company, it is on my terms and for the most part stress free and allows me to travel. I’m nearing that point of moving on but not now. My advice to anyone dreading their current day to day is to just go for it and do what makes you happy because yesterday is not guaranteed and all you have is today. Make today so great however you can that yesterday gets jealous!

    • Well said, Jo, thank you for sharing!

  • I’ve dodged and weaved around full time employment my entire life. I had to move to Australia and then Cambodia to do it, but I am pretty happy most of the time. I see many retired expats who look like life has battered them. A retirement income isn’t very helpful if you can’t enjoy it. Most of the world doesn’t get a pension, but many countries rate higher on the happiness index than the U.S.

  • catie

    I worked at a law firm and I liked it – loved my co workers. I left to work in the city at a Finance firm and yes the money was awesome, I was miserable. It was an odd feeling, knowing I was making more than I have ever in my life – I doubled my salary, I wasn’t happy. I could buy material things I only dreamed of but it didn’t satisfy me. I hated the job, the people, the commute, everything!! Then I was laid off. I was panicking. A family friend had offered for me to work at his non profit a couple days prior to being let go and I had declined. A couple days after I got laid off, I told him I was laid off. He offered me the job again. I took it knowing I would look for something else and do it temporarily. Well 1.5 years later, I am still here and I am in love with my job. It was a pay cut but I would do this for free. I have never been happier in my entire life. I have ZERO stress and my job is not only fun, it’s rewarding. Life has never been so great! I have had to cut back on certain things, but what I am ‘missing’ out on doesn’t even compare with how happy I am in my life and my job 🙂