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How Much Does Happiness Cost? The Not So Secret Secret

In one of my meetings as a young financial planner*, I was surprised by the unhappiness of a client who seemingly “had it all.” He was a neurologist earning over $1,000,000/ year with a home that could have been featured in House Beautiful, several fast German sports cars, and a travel budget that allowed for multiple Instagram worthy vacations each year. Dr. Smith** wasn’t just unhappy, though, he was miserable. He did not enjoy his work, he was overweight with chronic health problems, and he had difficult relationships with his children from his first marriage. I was so puzzled because what I saw in Dr. Smith contradicted a belief that many of us hold: money can buy happiness.

Why do so many of us believe that money can buy happiness? Why do we spend so much of our time and energy on making more money? And why do we often sacrifice our health in pursuit of our wealth? Maybe we should begin by asking what happiness is. Dictionary.com defines happiness as “the quality or state of being happy.” Hmmm…maybe defining happiness is not so easy after all. That conclusion was drawn by Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. She decided not to “spend a lot of energy exploring the distinctions among ‘contentment,’ ‘positive affect,’ ‘subjective well-being,’ ‘hedonic tone,’ and a myriad of other terms didn’t seem necessary.” Instead, she followed the example of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who defined obscenity by saying, “I know it when I see it.” Rubin went on to say, “I think it’s enough to think about being “happier.” Even if we don’t agree about what it means to be happy, we can agree that whatever happiness means, it would be nice to be happier.”

Rather than asking whether money can buy happiness, the better question may be: can money make me happier? Harvard Business School professor and behavioral scientist Ashley Whillans surveyed 100,000 working adults around the world and found that the happiest people “prioritize time over money.” I saw how prioritizing time over money leads to happiness in some clients I’ll call Jim and Nancy. Jim and Nancy’s vacations may not result in thousands of followers on Instagram, but they do lead to more happiness because they plan trips with their friends and family. One of their favorite trips with family was spent cheering on the Cubs to their first World Series win in over 100 years! Jim and Nancy also prioritize time by living in a condominium where several close friends also live. While their condo fees are higher than the expenses they had when they owned a home, they appreciate not having to do lawn work and routine home maintenance. They use their “extra” time to volunteer at a local medical clinic and literacy organization and to meet their neighbors regularly for supper.

Jim and Nancy regularly express gratitude for where they live and for the community they have. They are certainly a lot happier than Dr. Smith. How might you become a little happier by following Jim and Nancy’s example of prioritizing time over money? At Bridgeworth, we believe “one-size-fits-none”™ and we look forward to hearing your unique answer.

As summer draws near, you might also enjoy this post from the Bridgeworth blog about Designing Your Summer.

*I may or may not have begun working as a financial planner when I was 12.

** Code name