Happiness is an Inside Job

by Dennis Perry on September 20, 2011

How do you define happiness?  Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines happiness as: 1) good fortune: prosperity and 2) a state of well-being and contentment: joy.

When I ask people what it would take to make them happy one of the quickest responses is “more”.  More money, more time, more friends, more “toys”, more knick knacks, etc.

Thanks to the post World War II euphoria, the industrial revolution, and some very effective marketers, we in the US came to believe that more stuff is what makes us happy.  And so began a period of unbelievable consumption.  Sadly, the rest of the world is now beginning to fall in line with the model set by Americans.

In my experience as a coach, in conversations with psychologists, and in my own life, quite frankly, what I find is that having more stuff is definitely not the answer to happiness.  In fact, it seems that the more stuff we accumulate, the less happy we become.

I am not a psychologist and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to what it will take to make you happy but I do have some thoughts on the subject.  And, with your permission, I would like to share them with you now by telling you a bit of my story.

I grew up rather poor.  I didn’t realize it until I got to high school and saw how a lot of my friends lived.  There were five humans, 1 dog, and a cat or two sharing a very small 3 bedroom, 1 bath house.

To the best of my recollections, however, I had a pretty happy childhood.  Didn’t have a lot of stuff but I did have a lot of friends and played a lot of baseball and football in the backyard.

I met my wife when I was still a student.  After we married, she supported us as a teacher until I finished school and started my residency.  We had very little in the way of material things but we had dreams.

I mentioned in the article on the Magic of Making Lists that we used to dream about the future and would make lists of things we wanted.  We called them our “wish lists”.

As time passed we earned more and more money and accumulated a lot of the “stuff” our earlier dreams were made of.  It was rather amazing actually that we were able to manifest most of the items on those lists even though we never looked at them again until recently.

Over the past few years, though I have been in a period of deep reflection.  I guess most of us begin to wonder if that’s all there is as we begin to reach an age where we realize that we are well past the half way mark, statistically speaking.

As I have reflected and had very deep conversations with my wife, I have realized that many of the items on our wish lists have not brought me or us joy.  Oh, we have had great joy in our lives but it was not the stuff that brought it.  It was the experiences we have shared, the people we have known, the moments that have defined our lives.

As we have gotten into deeper conversations over this we have both come to realize that, in many ways, we were far happier when we had nothing but dreams than we are now with a pot-full of “stuff”.

I have come to realize that happiness doesn’t come from an outside source.  It certainly isn’t in the form of more money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, having money is very nice.  I have been poor and I have been pretty wealthy and, if given the choice, I would much rather have money.  But, don’t let yourself fall into the trap that having more money is what it will take to make you happy.  If that is what you feel, I have some pretty bad news for you.  It won’t!

Having more of anything will not be the source of happiness.  Happiness comes from within.  If you are unhappy because you don’t have money, you will still be unhappy when you do have money.  There is always someone who will have more money than you or a bigger house or a nicer car.

It is not the material possessions that can make you happier.  More comfortable perhaps but not necessarily happier.

I remember a lesson shared with me by a mentor when making a career decision nearly 30 years ago.  I was trying to decide whether to continue my education for another 3 years to reach the next level in my profession.

He sat down with a pencil and paper and drew a stick man figure with a vertical line to the right of it.  He suggested that the vertical line was a wall or obstacle that had to be climbed in order to reach the next level.

He then drew several more vertical lines each one just a little further to the right and just a bit higher than the one before it.  His lesson was that for every hurdle you cross, there is a bigger one just beyond.  At some point, you have to decide that this career space you are in at the moment is good enough.

There will always be another level you can aspire to, another mountain to climb.  But, a successful career does not require that you scale them all.  Pick the point you are happy with and then be the very best you can be at that level.

I have never forgotten that lesson.  I picked my space and made a very successful 27 year and counting career.  Believe me, there have been many colleagues that have gone on to scale higher mountains and have more accomplishments.  And I am happy for them.  But I have had a very nice career here.

The same can be said of material possessions.  If there are a few things you want then go for it.  Just remember, having them will most likely not make you happier if that is what you seek.

If it is happiness that you seek or desire, then take a good deep look inside of yourself.  What is it that you truly want?

If you ask a person with a terminal illness what would make them happy almost none of them will say more things.  They want one more day to see the sunrise or sunset.  They want to tell their families that they are loved one more time.  They want to leave their families with great memories.

As in everything I speak and write about, clarity is one of the keys.  Take some time, today if you can, and try to become clear about what you want to accomplish in your short time on this big rock we call Earth.

Make yourself a list or lists of the places you want to see, the people you want to meet, the experiences you want to have.  Listen to the great song by Tim McGraw Live Like You Were Dying.

Surround yourself with the things in life that you enjoy:  good music, art, great friends, good food.  Happiness is, indeed, an inside job.  Learn to enjoy what you now have and where you are right now.  If you are not fully contented, that’s OK.  Reach higher.

I find I am often happier in pursuit of a goal than I am in the actual accomplishment of it.  Dream big.  Let you imagination run wild.  Define for yourself what it takes to live a rich life and then go get it.

Most of all, be happy in the journey.  Find the things in life that give you joy.  I will close with 2 questions from one of my all-time favorite movies The Bucket List for you to ponder:  Has your life brought you joy?  Has your life brought joy to others?

Make this day great and your life truly rich in every way!

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Annie Born September 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I so love the story of he stick figure!
At what point can I be happy!
When I choose!
Thank you for these awesome life lessons!
Create a great day!

Learn nonverbal communication September 21, 2011 at 3:25 am

All great points, I get to see people in all stages of their lives in their houses and it is interesting to see that some poeple just want trophies or another object and no matter how many they get or obtain they are still not happy.
Scott Sylvan Bell
Learn about body language
Now go implement!

Michael D Walker September 21, 2011 at 2:10 am

Another stellar post that I can really relate to. I spent most of my early years accumulating things and now I find myself wondering why as I try to reduce how much I own because I feel bogged down and trapped by having so much stuff.

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Michael Paulse September 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm

I remember read an article awhile back that said as a trend, the happiest people lived in the poorest countries. (I assumed that they had at least food, clothing and shelter.)

I also remember being newly married. I lolved the feeling of being part of a team pushing back the world, together, with very little but the desire to do well for the other person. That feeling is not there so much when you can buy almost anything you want.

Neil Dhawan September 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Another great article, Dennis! I remember hearing, a long time ago, something to the effect of, “he who has many cows, has to care for many cows” … I really enjoy reading these kind of inspirational articles … keep ’em comin’

Stay Extraordinary and Do Great Things, Neil

Los Angeles Singles Events Advice September 20, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Hi Wealth Doctor,

Happiness is indeed completely subjective. My late husband pointed out that many people past a certain age say that if you have your health, you have everything.

Happy Dating and Relationships,

April Braswell
Finding Love Online After 40

Cherie Miranda September 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I find your articles very inspiring and insightful.

I couldn’t agree more about “stuff.” It’s my opinion that stuff actually consitutes a burden. More stuff, more burden, more responsibility, less freedom.

Don’t get me wrong. I like having nice things, and I certainly enjoy being financially secure. But when it comes to happiness, stuff just doesn’t cut it.

Thanks again for the reminders and the wonderful article.

Cherie Miranda

Holistic Health Expert

Rob Malone September 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm

There is an old Jewish saying, “The wealthy man is the one who is satisfied with his portion.”

I think a lot of people confuse financial security for happiness. You can be poor and happy – but you can’t have financial securtiy.

The Knowledge Stylist September 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Timeless advice. I like the motto “want what you have” also; that can help in the happiness department. Experiences are the key to a happy life, not things, as you so astutely observe.



Kevin Bettencourt September 20, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Joy is relative and often misplaced. The passage about playing sports in the backyard choked me up a little because they may have been the pinnacle of joy for me. I’ve often wondered if those who never had wealth and therefore lived in closer quarters would be happier.

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Sonya Lenzo September 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Joy is not stuff, but living in the moment…but it is a bit of a trick to learn what that means for you.Just on my little street here in Escazu it is something different for different people…the little boy who laughs as he plays for hours with his new puppy, the proud elderly man who shows off his garden, the young enterpreneur with Internet Cafe on the corner. the two small girls next door who dance for hours to salsa music on their front porch. all of them waving happily to me as I walk to town..
Sonya Lenzo

Clare Delaney September 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

That is such a great post Dennis! I agree absolutely – stuff doesn’t make us happy (plus, you can’t take it with you). It took me a long time to realise that we made our own happiness, and much of that was enjoying Now and appreciating it.

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Eva Palmer September 20, 2011 at 9:57 am

Many years ago I heard someone on the radio talk about happines and remember that he defined it as contentment. I did not know that contentment comes from the latin word contenere which means that “has within”. That’s sort of how I define happiness now.
Thanks for the great post and the questions you made me ask myself!

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