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How The “Happiness Trap” Might Be Damaging Your Life & Money

It’s an old cliché, “money can’t buy you happiness.” But why can’t money buy you happiness? Is it even true? First, let’s start with some questions whose answers might give us some insight:

Why aren’t more people saving for retirement? Paying down debt? Accumulating wealth? These are great questions. Because you’d think people would save for their future selves and think debt rather terrifying, right? Well, why is that?

Why Would We Save Money in the First Place?

We should be great at future planning. Human beings have a unique understanding of suffering — and not only present suffering. We understand future suffering as well. My dog doesn’t say, “Hey, have you checked the food supply lately? I’m worried we’re getting a little low. Hunger is something I want to avoid. You mind ordering the food earlier this month to soothe my anxiety?” No. Other animals have instincts, but they don’t forward project suffering. But we do.

That is why, before a snowstorm, the supermarkets run out of food. We don’t want to be snowed in, bored, cold, and hungry. Understanding future suffering is our burden, and I would argue it is what gives life meaning. In most cases — except the most tragic — suffering occurs in older age when many folks are too unwell to work. To this point, one survey says that Americans’ greatest regret is not saving for retirement. A historically large generation is telling the next generations, “I should have saved more.”

I want to point out this future suffering is so universally understood that our government tried to mitigate it with Social Security benefits. So why wouldn’t a human being put aside resources to mitigate expected health and economic suffering in the future? As you may have guessed, I have some theories. One is the happiness trap.

With Enough Money, Can’t I be Happy All the Time?

No. Striving for happiness is a huge mistake. Why? Because money can’t buy you happiness. Well, WHY can’t money buy you happiness? It’s complicated. You cannot be happy all the time — nor should you be. If you were to achieve such a state, then happiness would cease to exist, because happiness would be the norm. No more happiness.

That’s bad. Why would you ever want this? You don’t. Your biochemistry doesn’t want it at all. What you want biologically is to struggle, suffer, work, and persevere in order to get that temporary serotonin and dopamine – chemicals that provide momentary happiness. The best example of the state of happiness becoming the norm (i.e. obliterating happiness) is in the use of certain illicit drugs. These drugs provide a kind of euphoria – a high. The highs become lower and lower as your biochemistry adapts to the new happiness. You have to take more and more of these drugs to get the same high.

What once was happiness is now just being — and just being is not acceptable to the person whose life goal is happiness. Introduce suffering into the equation, and life becomes unbearable under the happiness philosophy. And, not coincidentally, withdrawals from a drug (struggles, suffering) are worse and worse the more and more drug it takes to achieve happiness. Happiness is nothing to mess with. If you synthetically try to induce it, the results can be deadly.

I Don’t Use Illicit Drugs. Can I Buy Happiness? Please?

Okay, now let’s compare synthetically induced, temporary happiness through drug use to the historically low interest rates we’ve had over the last ten years. Does it take any suffering or sacrifice to attain a $30,000 car or $5,000 trip to Thailand? Not on the front end. You simply finance the car at 6% or put the vacation on your credit card at 17% and pay the minimums. No struggle. Instant reward.

It was too easy, so now you have to find the next hit, and that hit has to be bigger. The next one bigger after that. And so on. You can see how financing a lifestyle you did not work to achieve, just like a drug addiction, will leave you broke and miserable. So no, you cannot buy happiness.

Why Can’t Money Buy You Happiness If You Won’t Go Broke? I Just Want to Keep Up with My Friends.

Even if you have a salary that can make the minimum payments, you’re living like a millionaire soon enough, and then what? Well, then you start to manufacture struggle — and this is where petty concerns and self-destructive behaviors come in. It’s synthetic happiness.

There was no long struggle to achieve the BMW or Southeast Asia vacation or the millionaire status symbols. You’ll ultimately feel devoid of meaning and try to create meaning through meaningless conflict and struggle. Or, struggle then becomes paying off the debt and that is what you hear everyone complaining about. Debts. (Don’t get me started on taking out school loans at 17 years old to go party with friends for four years — it’s predatory to even allow that). Happiness is fleeting, and that is why it’s so euphoric, and so elusive, as it should be. Said another way, we value what is scarce. If a state of happiness were plentiful, we wouldn’t desire it nearly as much. If attained too easily, synthetically, through money that isn’t even ours, then happiness becomes meaningless.

Why Does Everyone Want Me to be Happy?

You don’t want to be happy. That is what you think you want, because parents, teachers, spouses, and friends drill it into you. What else could be socially and culturally driving us to a state of happiness? Well, let’s take a look at social media. Social media has put keeping up with the Joneses of the 80s and 90s on blast. There are Joneses from all over the world right at your fingertips on your stupid phone.

Worse, it has introduced self-worth by superficial comparison at a much younger age. We view the social media accounts of others and strive for the curated happiness by mimicking more trips, fancier clothes, flashier jobs, more attractive spouses, more photogenic food, etc.

But should you be comparing yourself to the millions of Joneses on social media? Of course not. More than ever before, keeping up with other people’s happiness and trying to emulate it will bleed you dry financially — and ultimately emotionally. But we fear missing out on life and see the curated happiness of all our peers. It’s too much to resist.

Wow! Is Anyone Else Bringing Me Content That Looks to Be Helpful But is Actually Draining Me? 

Another astute question! Yes. It is not only social media that portrays happiness as the answer to your existential struggles, it is advertising as well.

Think about it. Companies that want you to buy things have billions of dollars to make you spend your entire paycheck every month. They can invade each and every one of your senses through TV, apps, social media, the radio — even the logos on your friends’ clothing!

You don’t stand a chance. What’s worse is that we voluntarily allow companies into our lives to try to sell us more crap. And they are experts at making us feel like the next purchase, vacation, or partner is going to be the magic bullet to happiness.

Madness! What is one to do? Well, don’t get overwhelmed, and take small steps to combat the infiltration. For example, we no longer have cable in our home. Can we afford the $1,200 a year? Yes. But that isn’t the point. Getting rid of cable has way more benefits than the simple subscription savings. First, I feel better not paying some company for the privilege of invading my home with their own curated messages. (I think this would be especially appealing to other introverts.) Second, who knows how much money we have saved by not watching the commercials professionally aimed at us. Without being psychologically manipulated by commercials, we are free to make our spending decisions based on our true needs and wants. Third, I was spending a lot of time basking in the glow of others’ accomplishments (literally the TV glow and the glow of their victories) instead of tackling my own initiatives.

Are You Gonna Tell Me to Cut Out Cable TV Like Every Other Personal Finance Blogger?

Yes. But I have a really compelling reason. I mainly watched hockey on cable TV, so I get it. The not giving up sports and other entertainment question is asked about a lot in the personal finance community. Well, the reason your partner is so resistant to giving up his cable TV sports is that it is another form of synthetic happiness.

That’s right! Men watching a winning team vicariously experience that team’s success and it boosts their testosterone and men watching a losing team have a decrease. Understanding the chemical addiction to watching sports, it is easy to see why men have a hard time cutting cable — and why advertisers spend so much money marketing to men during sporting events. Viewers are high, or low, and can be manipulated into euphoric purchases or purchases to take the sting out of a loss. Advertisers are telling you, “Keep this feeling going,” or, “Hey there trooper. I’ve got something to make you feel better during this tough loss.” (Looking at you, alcohol!)

I still follow my favorite team and don’t feel deprived without cable. It actually frees up a lot more time to develop individual competencies (e.g. writing, guitar, running, weight lifting, reading, philosophy). Again, the goal should be to find actual, momentary happiness through individual struggle and sacrifice, but TV (and fantasy) sports allow us the benefit without the struggle — at a cost to our health from being sedentary and our actual happiness by avoiding struggling to develop individual competencies. Removing or reducing the amount of time we let advertisers into our lives will have positive benefits for debt reduction and wealth accumulation.

Anyway, sorry about the loss this weekend. Tough one.

Then What Is It I Want If Not Happiness?

This obsession with happiness is imprecise and it is making us spend more money and become miserable. What you want (and probably what your loved ones want for you) is the opportunity for happiness. The answer for how to be happy is counterintuitive: an opportunity for happiness is gained through struggle, challenge, and suffering. But no one who professes to love you is going to wish that on you — though maybe they should.

What you want is to struggle — and persevere. What your loved ones want is for you not to be sad. You, and them, think that the struggle and sacrifice are unhappiness. But they are actually the key to being happy, momentarily, and then returning to the thing that gives you meaning and eventual happiness again — struggle and sacrifice. So, the ultimate goal is to bear (even embrace) suffering, without letting it consume you into despair. These types of people, after all, are the ones we admire most. You can embrace life’s suffering because you know it leads to happiness — and in that the suffering is justified.

Money can’t buy this understanding, nor this disposition. Stop trying to be happy. Seek out struggles that will compound in the future to more earnings, better health, and deeper social connections.

If I’m Going to Suffer Anyway to be Happy, Why Do You Write Your Blog?

There is a big difference between inherent suffering and needless suffering. I view a lot of what I went through with debt and introversion as needless suffering that you can learn from (at least partially) to mitigate or eliminate some of your own needless suffering. Then, through the freedom of time gained through financial independence, you will have less self-inflicted suffering and more self-directed suffering — as well as the resources and time to deal with externally inflicted suffering. That is my desire for you, and why I write.

Will I be Happy When I’m Financially Independent?

Why can’t money buy you happiness when you’re finally financially independent? Isn’t that what we’re all chasing?

Financial independence is not happiness. It is, at best, the freedom to choose our suffering — in place of mandatory work. For example, you can self-direct your suffering by going to the gym more, climbing a mountain, learning Chinese, reading, taking on a new career, volunteering or starting a non-profit. At worst, financial independence is mitigating externally imposed suffering by, for example, having the time and resources to spend with a dying loved one or to provide resources for yourself in your own illness. So no, financial independence won’t make you happy. The ability to self-direct your challenges will.

My examples for you are that when I am financially independent, I would like to be a ski instructor. Both the skiing and teaching are challenging. But, there are moments of happiness from both the actual skiing and from helping others. I also may go back to school for a clinical psychologist PysD when I reach financial independence. (Of course, this expense would have to be baked in or covered by a side hustle – like teaching skiing. See how that works?) That would certainly be a challenge.

The work should not and will not ever stop. Financial independence gains you the ability to self-direct that work. If you spend yourself into debt, well, you will be compelled to pay it off as your struggle. How life-enriching. Just what we all imagine as children — someday I want to grow up and be tied to debt! Living a sedentary life will compel you to struggle with heart and joint problems, for example (as well as out of pocket costs).

To be alive is to suffer. Being human is to know suffering — specifically future suffering. Planning for future suffering is a sacrifice. Sacrifice is giving up something now to improve your future. I am suggesting you sacrifice some of your income to plan for future suffering. I personally am trying to get to financial independence as quick as possible to increase the chances I can self-direct my suffering for as long as possible.

The FIIntrovert’s goal is to help 1,000 introverts reach financial independence through his blog. Extroverts and ambiverts are welcome too, but he knows they didn’t need a special invite. When he’s not writing about personal finance and career advice, he enjoys making his wife jealous by spending copious amounts of time with his dog, consuming non-fiction, playing guitar, and skiing. 

Image via Unsplash

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