Quite often, I hear from readers who express a great deal of hope that having money in the bank will solve a lot of problems in their life and bring happiness in other spheres of their life, or that buying some particular item will bring them a level of contentment that they don’t currently have.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a level of income that secures your basic needs – basic food, water, clothing, shelter, and hygiene and a small amount of financial flexibility – additional money has almost no connection to a person’s level of contentment with life and overall happiness. It’s virtually nonexistent.
The overall idea that some sort of change will make us happier is a good idea at its core, but there are two key issues with how many people interpret it.
First of all, you can’t make yourself be happy. Happiness isn’t something you can force. The more you chase it, the more elusive it becomes. Rather, you should strive to build a life that you’re contented with. View happiness as the product of a cultivated garden, not a rabbit to be chased. If you cultivate your life for contentment rather than constantly chasing happiness, you’ll find happiness bubbling up naturally throughout your life. I look at contentment as something you tend within yourself, like a garden, and happiness is the harvest from that garden. It’s never a guarantee, and harvest isn’t a constant thing, and different things bring happiness at different times, but it’s like the difference between hunter-gatherer living and the birth of agriculture.
Second, contentment comes almost entirely from within, particularly once your basic needs are met. Contentment comes from a deep understanding that you have a lot of good things in your life and that’s enough for a good life, which is entirely an internal sentiment. You can’t get that feeling from anything outside of yourself. No amount of purchases or trips or experiences can get you there. No amount of money in the bank can get you there, either. Once you’re past a very minimal level of financial stability – and if you’re reading this site, it is extremely likely you’re already there – contentment is almost entirely an internal matter, and money is entirely an external thing.
If you’re discontented without an iPhone, you’ll be discontented with an iPhone.
If you’re discontented before your trip to Italy, you’ll be discontented during your trip to Italy.
If you’re discontented before you get married, you’ll be discontented after you get married.
If you’re discontented before you have a child, you’ll be discontented after you have a child.
If you’re discontented before getting that higher paying job, you’ll be discontented after getting it (provided your current pay covers your basic needs and a little more, of course).
All of those things are external things. They don’t change how you feel inside. Oh, sure, external things can cause a brief burst of happiness, but that feeling fades so incredibly quickly and dumps you right back where you started.
While this obviously addresses the issue of spending to fill a hole in your life (or obsessive saving to do so), how does this perspective really guide personal finance? For me, it provides a strong nudge toward spending less than I earn and being frugal, because buying excessive things doesn’t bring any more happiness or contentment. Rather, money saved at a moderate pace – meaning in a way that doesn’t interfere with the actual important things you want to do – helps to preserve and secure the parts of your life that support contentment. It’s a lot easier to find contentment when the wolves are far at bay.
Ultimately, however, there is no magic recipe that will bring everyone to internal contentment. I wish there was an easy recipe I could just hand to everyone, but I’ve come to realize that it really is a journey that most people are on with no actual end point, just a gradual migration toward a gradually more contented life. I have found, over the last twenty years or so, that the more I feel that each area of my life is pretty good and that I don’t really need anything else to be happy, the more likely I am to actually feel happy on a somewhat consistent basis. I never reach a point where I absolutely feel all areas of my life are great – I don’t know if that’s really possible – but as time goes on, I feel that things are pretty good in most areas of my life and I can’t really ask for more than that, because honestly I have to give up something I have now to gain something I don’t currently have, and what I have right now is pretty good.
I guess that’s my first piece of advice for seeking contentment: understand that when you gain something you don’t currently have, you lose something in exchange; in other words, you simply can’t “have it all.” If I give more time to physical fitness, I might have a more fit and muscular body, but where does that time come from? If I give more of myself to anything – money, time, energy, whatever – that money, time, energy, or other element has to come from somewhere, so when I step forward in one area, I step back from another.
Thus, if you want something in life but there’s nothing you’re willing to give up right now to get it, that means your life is pretty good in terms of what you want out of it. As I said earlier, you can’t have everything – there are always things you lose when you try to gain something, and if you’re not willing to lose anything in your life, then it must be pretty good as it is.
At the same time, any self-improvement journey means that there’s something you don’t have that you want and that you value more than something you currently have. It means your values have shifted a little, and now there’s something you don’t have that you want more than something you currently have.
That’s really what I consider to be the fundamental principle of personal finance. If I decide I want to have more financial security, that means that I value that financial security more than I value my most frivolous current spending, whatever that may be, or that I value financial security more than the time and energy I need to invest to further my career. In simpler terms, if you want to improve your financial state, you need to spend less than you earn.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with what you personally decide is more important to you, as long as you understand there will always be something good that you don’t have, and that’s okay. There is far more good in the world than we can ever stuff into our individual lives, and that’s okay.
You can’t have it all, but as long as you have enough good already in your life that you can’t ever explore all of it, that’s good enough, and chasing more doesn’t help you to feel content or happy and it also takes away opportunities to explore the many good things you already have.
That’s why having more money rarely brings more happiness or contentment. Once you meet a basic level where your needs are met and you have a few good people around you and you can explore a few interests and desires, you’ve got a full life already. Anything more and you’re just swapping largely interchangeable pieces in and out of your life, and often in that process you’re just spending a bunch of money and time without really gaining anything, and that is why a sense of discontentment ends up eating a bunch of money and time without really bringing contentment.
For me, the best tools I’ve found for feeling content with everyday life are reflecting on the good things I have and that I’m grateful for (a gratitude journal is a good example of this), delving into actually doing things I’m interested in rather than just watching others do it or buying things related to it (and making sure I have time for doing so), daily meditation and journaling, and making a concerted effort to make each day my masterpiece. Those things make me realize again and again how many good things I already have in my life and to understand that while there may be other good things out there that I don’t have, that’s okay, because I have so much I care about that I’ll never have time in my life to appreciate and enjoy what I already have, and it’s also okay that other people do have those good things even if I don’t because I already have so much good.
That sense of personal abundance and “enough,” when I’m really feeling it, is probably the best dampener on unnecessary spending that I have. It’s not a constant feeling, but I find that when I’m consistently doing those things I listed above, I feel that way fairly often.
Money won’t buy that feeling, no matter how you use it. The best use I’ve found for money is to make sure you’ve got your basic needs covered along with enough breathing room to explore a few interests, and then the best thing it can do is to keep risks at bay (including the risk of steady employment) and maybe help you reach a few big goals that are tied to lifelong dreams and things you already deeply value.
Good luck in wherever life may take you today.