In Search of the Good Life


“Happiness is what you get right before you want more happiness.” – Don Draper, Mad Men

As humans, we are not very good at predicting how future events will impact our life. We tend to overestimate the degree to which misfortune (divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one) will set us back. However, when you talk with someone who has lived through such experiences, you’ll find they came through the ordeal intact. Humans have a tremendous capacity for adaptation. It’s a survival mechanism. Without this resilient quality, our species would not have populated the globe.

However, our capacity for adaptation comes with a price. Our unshakeable ability to adjust to changing circumstances works for positive events as well as negative events. When we purchase a new car we feel a temporary jolt of happiness, but then the sheen quickly wares off. The raise that was going to change our life, six months later, feels like the new normal.

Psychologists call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation. No matter the hedonic experience we crave – money, sex, status, fame – once our desire is sated the feeling of contentment is ephemeral. In short order, the desire returns and this time, we want more. It’s sometimes called the hedonic treadmill – we can run faster and faster yet find ourselves no closer to our ultimate goal of happiness or contentment.

How do we break the cycle? Brain Portnoy, in his book The Geometry of Wealth: How to Shape a Life of Money and Meaning, suggests an answer. Step one requires acknowledging the problem. Unless we change our mindset, we are doomed, like Sisyphus, to push a boulder up the same mountain day after day. If our ultimate goal is happiness or well-being, and we acknowledge that we’ll never achieve it by earning (and spending) more and more money, we are left to answer the question, “how do we achieve happiness?” The answer can be found in using our time more wisely to pursuing activities that lead to fulfillment and contentment.

Portnoy invites us to accept this truth: “Having both more time and more money is a luxury few can enjoy.” The key is trading money for time.

In a recent study, participants were given the choice of more money or more time – most went for the money. However, participants electing for time were happier and more content. Portnoy describes the results; “Those who preferred time over money were more likely to be self-reflective and engage in more joyful activities. Eliminating distraction and creating the space for more achievement drives contentment.”

In our quest for money, we often give up more of our time. Without a clear idea of what contentment looks like, we never reach the milestone that triggers us to step off the treadmill. We just keep working.

When we feel the urge to upgrade our lifestyle ask, why? To what end? Will the next level of status or wealth really deliver the happiness we seek? The answer is no.

Observe your life today and reflect on the attributes that bring you joy. If you’re like me you’ll find that spending time with family, community, friendship, serving others, learning and pursuing mastery in my professional life is what really delivers happiness. The key is to feel appreciation and gratitude for what you have today. The ancient Stoics developed a mental practice that can assist in this reflection. Before falling asleep at night, the Stoics would imagine everything in their life going to zero. A complete loss of wealth, family, friends, house – everything. Then, when they woke up in the morning, if everything was “back” in their life, they would feel a tremendous since of gratitude.

We can be fully content with what we have today, we just have to let go of the desire for more.  Step off the treadmill. Seek a level of earning power and wealth that funds contentment. Portnoy calls this funded contentment, and it is a powerful concept that we can all benefit from taking seriously. When you feel the pull of the hedonic treadmill, replace it with funded contentment.

The Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, Seneca, put it succinctly;

“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who handers after more.” – Seneca

Each of us has a choice. We can continue spending our time and money seeking ephemeral experiences, or we can live below our means and seek a more modest level of funding that enables us to not just be content, but to flourish.


The Geometry of Wealth: How to Shape a Life of Meaning & Money by Brian Portnoy

People Who Chose Time over Money are Happier by Hal Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, Uri Barnea in Social Psychology and Personality Science.

About the Author

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management. Learn more at RealTime Performance.

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