by Shelley Murasko
“Money can’t buy happiness.”
It’s easy to agree with this popular cliché if you have first-hand experience with someone who has money ... but lacks joy. Perhaps you have a rich friend living with soured relationships or know a wealthy colleague with failing health. In these cases, it certainly seems that money can’t solve all of a person’s problems.
But what about someone who is unhappy because he or she is struggling financially and, thus, unable to achieve his or her life goals? Surely, some extra cash could help improve the situation.
So how do we resolve the ever-present tension between wanting to be happy and our need for money?
Let’s start by uncovering which behaviors lead to happiness, then touch on money strategies that can relate to these behaviors.
In the 1990s, the idea of “positive psychology” was introduced to find the keys to understanding what makes us flourish. This science of happiness grew in popularity, spawning numerous books, seminars and programs that promised to reveal the secrets to living a life of contentment.
Today, this trend has exploded into a full-blown movement. The demand for best-selling books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and the prevalence of Positive Psychology conferences across the country prove that achieving happiness is an important goal for many of us.
Even nationally renowned Yale University has gotten on the bandwagon. The school’s “Psychology and the Good Life” course teaches students how to be happier through personal accountability and behavioral changes. The class attracted nearly one-fourth of the undergraduate population to become Yale’s most popular class ever.1
To dig even deeper, I wanted to uncover the drivers of a happy life and money’s role in this equation. So I did what any logical person in the internet age would do: I asked Google.
A search of “secrets to happiness” led me to an article in the Observer called “The Secret to Happiness is 10 Specific Behaviors” by Benjamin Hardy.2 In this piece, the author outlines key actions that lend to a happy life.
Since I believe money is a factor that contributes to living a happy life, I’ve included my own thoughts on finance-related behaviors that tie in with Hardy’s points.
1. Let Go of The Need For Specific Outcomes. While setting goals and having a financial plan is one of the healthiest steps you can take to ensure alignment between your money and life intentions, you can’t lose site of the fact that life will happen. The stock market may go down right after you retire. Your 50 lb. dog might cost you a fortune in medical bills. The IRS could throw you a surprising tax bill. Despite these negative events, you should still have a plan. Set some goals. Then quickly forgive yourself when things go off course and recalibrate so you can move back in the right direction.
2. Define Your Own Success and Happiness. As John Rushton, psychologist and author, once said, “Be everything to everybody and you’ll be nothing for yourself.” The point here is, only you can really know what you’re aiming for with your money. Is it freedom? Is it security? Define what matters most to you and only you, and then put a plan in place to get there. If you’re married, the marriage will have the best chance of thriving if you work on these goals together.
3. Commit 100% to The Things That Make You Happy. People are really good at self-sabotage. We humans often behave in ways that are inconsistent with our hopes and dreams. The biggest hurdle to our good intentions is thinking we can let something slide just this one time. Have you found yourself saying this before: I really shouldn’t eat a donut, but how bad can one donut be for my waistline? The best way to move toward better health is to refuse to ever eat a donut—commit 100%. In the same vein, the best way to shore up your retirement goals is to automate your savings monthly, increase your contributions toward savings annually, and don’t waver from that commitment.
4. Be Grateful For What You Already Have. Both abundance and lack of it exist simultaneously in our lives as parallel realities. When we choose to focus on what’s missing instead of what we have, it’s a slippery slope to never feeling satisfied. Instead, make note of your own personal prosperity by journaling about what you appreciate. Another useful exercise could be making it a goal to send three thank you notes each week. Regarding your wealth, take a moment to be grateful with how far you’ve come so far. Reference a past financial plan or income tax return to acknowledge the progress in savings and/or income. Build into your life a habit of showing gratitude.
5. Say “I Love You” More. As Hardy reports, it may seem strange to tell friends and family that you love them, but they’ll be blown away. He tells a story about a missionary who began saying “I love you” to everyone, which made him feel more love for the people in his life. The missionary explained, “When I tell people that I love them, it not only changes them, it changes me. Simply saying the words, I feel more love for that person. I’ve been telling people all around me I love them. They feel treasured by me. Those who know me have come to expect it. When I forget to say it, they miss it.”
You can apply this same idea to your finances. Along with “I love you,” you can say, “I have enough.” This will help you feel less inclined to spend time, energy and money pursuing things that don’t bring you joy.
6. Have Hobbies Directed Toward Your Dreams. Most people have hobbies that are just hobbies. Sometimes the hobbies even conflict with our dreams. If your hobby is watching football in a sports bar on Saturday mornings, you might not be building those amazing abs you’ve been dreaming about. Instead, take time to have a hobby or two that contribute toward your dreams. If your dream is to pay down a mortgage, perhaps changing your hobby from golfing each Saturday to hiking in nature can lead you closer to that goal.
7. Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow For What You Can Do Today. Procrastination often leads to regret, so take the time to manage your most important tasks today. If you put them off, you may miss a golden opportunity to make a memory or plan for your future.
“When I was thirteen and my brother ten, Father promised to take us to the circus. But at lunchtime there was a phone call; some urgent business required his attention downtown. We braced ourselves for disappointment. Then we heard him say into the phone, ‘No I won’t be down. It’ll have to wait.’ When Father came back to the table, Mother smiled and said, ‘The circus keeps coming back, you know.’ ‘I know, said Father. But childhood doesn’t.’”
As this story by author Arthur Gordon illustrates, happiness comes from embracing the now. Be cognizant of the moments you can’t miss and the essential experiences of life in front of you today. Don’t let money get in the way of being there. From a financial planning perspective, it’s important to design a life that allows you to have flexibility. For some, that might mean spending frugally to achieve financial freedom by age 40. For others, it’s simply having an emergency fund to cover unexpected life events.
8. Do Something Every Day That Terrifies You. Happy people tend to take calculated risks to move toward the life they most want. Elevated risk makes you feel more alive and puts you in state of flow. In fact, often times our most creative juices flow when we are the most challenged to solve a problem or work toward an urgent goal. Sadly, most people play life small, safe, and easy without discovering their greatest talents and ideas. Only by occasionally pushing what’s possible can you make real progress.
With money, the act of investing can be terrifying for many. When it’s handled sensibly, despite some fear of the unknown, the risk rewards investors over time. Also, by setting big, hairy financial goals, your creativity might open up to achieve great things. If you don’t try, however, you’re surely destined for the status quo.
9. Put “The Important” Before “The Urgent.” Regardless of which time management guru you adore, they all encourage tackling the day’s important items before the urgent tasks. And yet, most of us wake up and do our emails first thing each morning. Happy people primarily put the important stuff first, including exercising, reading good books, writing in a journal, and spending time with people they love.
When it comes to money, the important items include creating a financial plan and having an idea where you are today and where you want to go with your life. Then ensure that you are taking the most critical steps with your money to get you there. A financial plan can be accomplished under the guidance of an experienced certified financial planner (CFP). A good CFP will help you understand the most important things for you to do now, given your situation.
10. Forgo the Good to Pursue the Best. Each day you wake up and find a thousand ways to spend your time, money, and energy. The key is to be intentional. Take the time to identify what matters most to you and what you feel is most lacking in your life. Then direct your resources in the best way possible toward those interests.
For example, you might get an invitation to a seminar on how to reduce taxes. That might sound like a great idea as April tax season rapidly approaches. But if you know a bigger priority for you is reducing your spending so you can save more, you might be better served reading a book or article on ways to save. If your financial house is in order, you may want to put your resources toward spending time developing your closest relationships….a day at the zoo with your kids or a special outing with your best friend.
You must know yourself and your needs first to know what to pursue. Remember that happy people say no to amazing opportunities. They do not get derailed by distractions. They leave room in their lives to do what is most important and review their priorities every day. And, of course, they learn to say no for the greater good of their own values.
In conclusion, the key to a happy life is not simply one thing. But there are consistent themes that lead you toward happiness, such as living in the present, not missing the moments that matter, and being grateful. Happy people focus on what’s important and essential, and they’re not afraid to decline events or tasks that aren’t in line with their goals.
Of course, there is more to life than money. But working to ensure your finances are in alignment with your highest values is as important as committing your time to what is essential. Your happiness in life might largely come down to ensuring that you are dedicating your life resources—time, money, energy, and effort—to the things that matter most to you.
1. Ben -Shahar, Tal. (2018, January 26). Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/nyregion/at-yale-class-on-happiness-draws-huge-crowd-laurie-santos.html.
2. Hardy, Benjamin. (2015, July 6). “The Secret to Happiness is 10 Specific Behaviors.” The Observer. Retrieved from: https://observer.com/2015/07/the-secret-to-happiness-is-ten-specific-behaviors/.