While money can’t buy lasting happiness, it can buy you a whole lot of pleasure. The problem is, pleasurable feelings only last till the newness wears off—when the final episode plays, or the bottle of wine runs dry, the happiness you might have briefly felt also disappears.
Material items and bought experiences can make us feel good. But by only focusing on what makes us feel good, we bypass real, sustainable happiness and settle for fleeting pleasure that needs constant replenishing. That puts us into a vicious cycle of always trying to feed an insatiable need. And that is nowhere near happiness.
Happiness is often misunderstood and misrepresented by what shows up in our feeds or what we see in the media. We tend to think it can only exist in the absence of “bad stuff,” so we spend money to avoid the unfavorable and uncomfortable. But in reality, happiness can be found when we confront (and in some cases even embrace) the discomfort, so we experience the depths of our lows and heights of our highs with a lens of self-awareness of what it means to truly be alive. This is the most important form of work in our lives: the work we do on ourselves, and it has little to do with the pursuit of pleasure.
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Having more money might bring pleasure, but it does not bring intrinsic happiness that’s sticky to the soul. Personal growth, meaningful relationships, and states of our physical and mental health contribute to the intrinsic happiness that grounds us regardless of the unknowns that swirl around us. Of course, it is difficult to be happy without meeting your basic physiological needs. But after that, studies show that more money doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. A Harvard Business School survey of 818 millionaires, for example, found that “The core challenge to reducing…unhappiness is not financial but psychological: the erroneous belief that wealth will make our lives better. Even individuals with a net worth of $10 million think they need to increase their wealth dramatically to be happier.”
What’s “right” for your happiness depends on what’s meaningful to you and what nurtures you on a deeper level. If you are spending money on things you think should make you happy, but still feel empty and miserable, then perhaps you’re not spending it on the right things.
When I binge on a TV show, I know it’s a guilty pleasure of entertainment. After it’s over, my instinct is to find the next show. But when I put intention into what I do (and how I spend my time and money on) there’s a different result. By organizing an outing to a new restaurant with friends I’m feeding my happiness with senses of progress (trying something different) and connectedness. When I take a trip that’s truly off the grid I know it’s refueling my energy and adding a new experience—intrinsic things that make me happy.
Understanding what happiness means to us involves digging into our highs and lows to realize what values we want to live, then choosing to live them in a way that nurtures what’s important. In late 2001, when I was hit with the trifecta of getting laid off, 9/11, and my dad getting diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer, I realized life would get harder unless I grounded myself in what’s purposeful and important. By sitting with those lows, I came to realize my personal values: freedom, authenticity, and meaningful relationships. More recently, one of my best friends (and my co-founder of Delivering Happiness) passed away suddenly, and I had to dig deep to make sense of it all. I revisited those values and it gave me the grounding I needed to move forward. It was not easy by any means, but with the support of people that cared, it was just enough to get me through it.
I call this having a “greenhouse mindset”—focusing on experimenting with your own conditions for happiness and nurturing what works. Instead of giving energy to short-lived pleasures, a greenhouse mindset orients you towards discovering a sustainable type of happiness based on what actually motivates and means everything to you.