We often hear from both clients and students, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably find only frustration. It is subjective and emerges from how you live, and is not an end in itself. Making happiness a goal in your life is not an advisable step toward effective coping. You will fail and develop thoughts and actions designed solely to help you avoid future frustration.

Outcomes simply are just not responsible for happiness. One of our clients was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit involving the wrongful death of one of his children. Unfortunately, he said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” The real tragedy here is that with some guidance and thought, he and his wife could perhaps have developed a plan to use the money more wisely.

We also know a couple who were in a car accident and received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden turn in their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.

We all hear people say, “If I win the lottery I will be rich and happy!” Rich, maybe — happy maybe not! Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? When we ask that question we forget that we are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from the perspective of our present state, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to us and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For the people who actually live in those circumstances, however, their current estimates of happiness are seen in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.

The lottery winners have learned that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics have learned that the challenges imposed by the injury need not be overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their state of happiness; rather it was the state of mind they had about their life conditions. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits.

These psychological dynamics are by no means limited to things like sudden wealth or severe injury. The same principles apply to loss of loved ones and any other traumatic experience in life.

OK, if the search for happiness is not the key to effective coping, what is? Login tomorrow and we will look for the answer in the flip-side of happiness: Optimism.


3 thoughts on “”

  1. I enjoyed this blog very much as it relates to my sometimes irrational train of thought. I think everyone at some point in their lives wish their situations were eased with money. The truth is it isn’t, all money does is make it all more complicated. So yes, I agree with, “happiness being one of those elusive states; which when seeking it only tends to bring upon more frustration.”

    I have a “friend.” This friend was always and continues to be very ambitious at heart. While very caring, his ambitious ways always take over many facets of his life. As a teenager he dropped out of high school to go work as a salesman in Honda because that is where the “money is.” He always worked long hours to ambitiously climb up the ladder. The more money he saw coming the “happier” he became, the more he wanted. The more he had, the more expensive his purchases became, the next always trying to overcompensate the last. He eventually became general sales manager, making a six figure salary. Yes he was happy, but he now needed a “trophy wife” to look good next to him. He fell in love with someone whom he proposed to a year into the relationship. She, very high maintenance, began to ask for more and more and more of him, never satisfied as he. 8 years later they yet to get married and live a very unsettling relationship. Anyone living their turmoil and in the right mindset would have separated already. He yet to buy the house of his dreams because no house he sees is good enough for any them. His younger daughter pushes him away just like his mother does. He continues to fantasize about making millions of dollars with the two small businesses he opened. None of which make him happy anymore. He has gained weight, is depressed and even went as far as having an extra-marital affair (well not that they ever wed) and having a child with the lover of which his fiancée yet to find out. What will happen next? Who knows, but one thing I am certain is, none of of those “Benjamins” he has saved, will bring his happiness back. If anything it will break him apart even more.

    I am not saying that money is not important because in the society we live in, without it we cannot survive, but it sure cannot buy happiness. Many people see money as their main goal of life turning them into superficial beings. Don’t make it your focus because you will then lose sense of what really holds importance. It’s best to live a happy life poor, the a rich, miserable, lifeless one.


  2. I hear so often that money does not make you happy. Money reduces so much of my stress because I always worry about how am I going to pay my bills this month? Am I going to have enough money to put gas in my car and make it to school? Am I not going to be able to pay my cell phone bill this month? When I get extra money on a pay check, it makes these stressors go away, but it doesn’t necessarily make me happy.
    If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I would be excited, thrilled, but it would not make me happier. Winning the lottery wouldn’t take away my daily struggles of having to deal with my personal issues. Money wouldn’t take away the pain of dealing with a family death, dealing with a family illness, dealing with anxiety.
    I think we need to look for happiness in being with family, having a fulfilling career, doing good deeds, and not looking for happiness in money. Looking to money to make you happy is only going to end in failure.


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