Five reasons to forget about money and focus on what makes you happy at work

I'm rich. But am I happy?

The constant hunt for more money, eternally chasing the next raise, measuring yourself against the number on your pay check is no way to run a career, and no way to live a work life.

Using money as your yardstick is seductive because it’s one of the few objective measures of progress in a career. If you made 100,000 last year and 150,000 this year you must be doing better, right?

Wrong. Your salary, no matter how large, can never make you happy at work. Sacrificing happiness at work for more money is a terrible trade – one that you will end up regretting.

Here’s five reasons why.

1: More money does not make you happier

Most people think that having a higher income would make them happier. They’re wrong!

That is the conclusion of a study by Two Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who say that:

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities.

The problem is that people still act on their mistaken belief that making more money makes them happier:

Despite the weak relationship between income and global life satisfaction or experienced happiness, many people are highly motivated to increase their income. In some cases, this focusing illusion may lead to a misallocation of time, from accepting lengthy commutes (which are among the worst moments of the day) to sacrificing time spent socializing (which are among the best moments of the day).

Which is just a fancy way of saying that you may think that switching jobs to get a 25% raise in return for a 2-hour commute or a 70-hour work week or ten days a month of business travel is a good deal. You’re wrong. You’d be happier with a lower salary, a more fun job and more time with your friends and family.

2: Always thinking of money is bad for you

“Money pushes people into a state where they become focused on achieving their own goals without help of others,” says researcher Kathleen Vohs, assistant marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

They performed a series of experiments where subjects were asked to solve a difficult puzzle and told they could ask for help. Some of the subjects were subliminally primed to think of money, eg. by placing a pile of monopoly money in their field of vision or by giving them a warm-up exercise where they had to de-scramble sentences related to money. (source)

The experiment showed that thinking of money had a significant, negative effect on the subjects:

  • They became less likely to ask for help
  • They became more reluctant to help others
  • They became less generous
  • They isolated themselves more from others

So if your success depends on you working well with others, on being able to help others and ask for help, thinking of money (even in a subtle and subconscious way) makes you less effective. On the other hand, if your success depends on you being selfish and isolated – go right ahead, make money your only goal :o)

One group of people who are particularly at risk are those who think that “time is money”. Bob Sutton, author of the excellent book The No Asshole Rule, has a great post on how the billable hour affects people. This constant focus on money even means that “lawyers watching their kids play soccer admitted to mentally ticking away lost income for each minute they stood on the sidelines.? Ouch.

3: The actual amount doesn’t matter – fairness does

Try this experiment: Get a bunch of Capuchin monkeys, and train them to give you a small, polished granite rock in exchange for a slice of cucumber. Capuchins are pretty clever, and soon the monkeys learn that when they hand over the rock, they get their treat.

Then try something new: Get two of these monkeys together, and give one of them a better treat. Capuchin monkeys like cucumber fine, but they like grapes even better because they’re sweeter. When one capuchin sees you paying another one in grapes, it refuses to cooperate, and will no longer hand over the rock in exchange for cucumber. “Listen, buster,? it seems to say, “you’re paying that guy in grapes and my work is at least as good. I want grapes too, or I’m going on strike.” (source)

In another experiment using brain-scanning equipment, this time on humans, researchers found a center in our brains that lights up whenever we believe we’re being treated unfairly. It seems that fairness is not just a nice ideal to strive for—we have a biological need to be treated fairly (source).

So we humans have a built-in desire for fairness that even seems to be present in other species close to us. If you feel that your salary is unfair, this will make you unhappy!

4: It’s not getting what you want – it’s wanting what you get

Stephen Shapiro, author of the excellent book Goal Free Living, writes about a German study that shows that what really matters is the gap between your current income and your desired income. When people wish for more money than they have, they tend to be unhappy.

There are of course two ways to close this gap, the traditional one being to make more money. The downside of this approach is, that very often, more isn’t enough and the more people have, the more they want.

The other approach is much more sustainable, and it is to want what you have. To realize that once your most basic needs are met, more money, a bigger house, a larger car and flat-screen TVs in every room will not make you any happier than you are today!

But being happy with what you have, will.

5: Your salary can make you unhappy – but not happy

Herzberg’s motivational theory divides motivational factors in two categories: Hygiene and motivational.

The hygiene factors can make us unhappy when they’re not present, but their presence can’t make us happy. The motivational factors can actually make us happy. Salary falls squarely in the “hygiene” category, meaning that getting paid well can remove dissatisfaction – but it can’t create satisfaction.

What to do instead: cultivate a healthy attitude towards money

I want to make this very clear: I’m not against money. I looooooove money. Money is fun. There is nothing wrong with making tons of it.

And I’m not saying you should ignore money completely and just accept whatever your workplace is willing to pay you.

I’m also not saying that you have to choose – that it can only ever be money or happiness. You can have both. But the way to get it is to cultivate a healthy attitude towards money. Which is this:

Your salary makes it possible for you to come to work. It’s not what motivates you or makes you happy. It’s a means, not an end.

An unfair salary has the power to make you unhappy – a fair one can’t make you happy.

Never sacrifice your happiness at work for money.

If you make all your career decisions based on money you will always be chasing the next, larger paycheck, never stopping to think if you like what you do in pursuit of that next raise.

If you instead decide based on what will make you happy at work, there’s a much bigger chance that you will be. You will probably also make more money.

You should make an effort to be paid what you’re worth – to get what is fair considering how much value you create and what other people in the company and in similar positions elsewhere are getting. Then forget about money and focus on enjoying your job.

And you know what: This is pretty hard. I’m doing well financially, and I still dream of all the great stuff more money could by me. It’s damn hard to let go of. But I know that the main reason I’m happy today is not that I make more money than before – it’s that I enjoy what I have and that I live squarely within my means.

THAT is true wealth, and I’m not exactly the first to say so (by a long shot):

“Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty?
– Socrates

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
– Frederic Koenig

“There is no end of craving. Hence contentment alone is the best way to happiness. Therefore, acquire contentment.
– Swami Sivananda

And what about you? How important is your salary to you? What matters the most to you – money or happiness at work? How have you chosen in your career? Write a comment, I’d really like to know.

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41 thoughts on “Five reasons to forget about money and focus on what makes you happy at work”

  1. If having an unfair salary means that it can support you in a tight budget, I’ll choose to live my life working what I like even with an unfair salary. It may not be sufficient, but at least you do what you like.

  2. Pamela: Exactly. If you have trouble meeting your basic needs, more money does make you happier, and even an unfair salary is better than no salary.

    Ask M: Me too!

    John: Are you sure? If the goal is to make enough money to not have to work, then why do Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson and many other really, really rich people work?

    You don’t even have to be a billionaire. Check out this article about Southwest employees who are millionaires from their stock options – and still work as pilots or cabin crew!

    What if the goal is to find work that is so much fun, that no matter how rich you were, you’d still want to do it?

  3. Wow! What a great article, Alexander! So true!

    I am passionately interested in customer retention, and what you say is fundamental for businesses to keep their customers.

    Just like people, businesses can be focussed solely on money, and that makes businesses themselves unhappy. And it drives customers away.

    I thought you article was so good that I have reviewed it in my own blog!

  4. “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” -Benjamin Franklin

    I have money, and I am not happier than when I didn’t. I still have a car, a roof over my head and food, they are just faster, bigger and more pretentious. What makes me happy is feeling useful and having a purpose. Many people say they would retire if they won the lottery, but find depression soon after because they suddenly do not have a purpose. They spend more money to try and beat the depression, but unless you have a purpose for getting up that day, nothing you buy can help. Bill Gates could retire completely from everything, but he recognizes the need for purpose and so he will focus on helping children around the world and making peoples lives better. I fear retirement because I need a good reason to wake up early every day and my golf game just isn’t worth that.

    There was the recent story of the Los Angeles transit worker, Arthur Winston in who retired at the age of 100. He had only missed one day of work in his 76 year tenure, and that was to attend his wifes funeral. A few weeks after retiring he died in his sleep. Here is a man who was happy in his work and had a purpose. I hope I can fully understand the importance of focusing on purpose in my life and not make money the center of it.

  5. Nice post! I say just focus on genuinely helping as many people as you can and making the world a better place. If you do that then everything that you want will manifest into your life rather effortlessly.

  6. Old hat !! Yesterdays news, and yesterdays news done badly. I’m sick of this ill considered rubbish

    We see some poor guy with nothing, happy as a sandboy.
    We see a millionaire who is miserable

    We conclude : money doesn’t make you happy

    Does anyone see anything wrong with that ? It’s a falsehood.

    What if they switched places ? We give the poor guy the millions and leave the rich guy with nothing ?

    In fact, both people are likely to keep the same disposition. The ex-millionaire is still sad, the guy who had nothing is still a happy soul albeit putting on a few pounds.

    What can we conclude from this ? That we are unable to determine the level of happiness using money as measure.

  7. I agree that money is not a measure of happiness, but I think the point of the post was that the pursuit and eventually acquiring of money will not bring the happiness that people expect. The studies mentioned showed that people with money were no happier than people without, and yet many have the continual goal to have more money because they think they will be happier.

    I know people who are constantly trying to move up the financial ladder and they are some of my most miserable friends because their lives didn’t suddenly become happier. I have a friend who won millions in the lottery 10 years ago and within 2 years her life was ruined. This does not mean that money makes you miserable, but for these people I know, they expected it to make them happy and when it didn’t, they found themselves unhappier than ever.

    You can be rich and be happy and you can be poor and be happy. I think the danger is when you think more money is all you need to be happy.

  8. If it helps reset that expectation, (that the pursuit and eventual acquisition of money will not bring happiness) then its useful.

    ..but then, isn’t that ‘greed’ that we should warn against rather than money itself ?

  9. Eliezer: I read your post, and I agree 100% – there are obvious parallels between happiness at work and customer relations and how money affects both. Great point!

    Bryan D. You got it! But it’s a hard belief to shake. I love the story of Arthur Winston – sounds like he got it too.

    Jason: You’re right, and as I write in the post I have nothing against money. Money is fun. What I’m against is putting the pursuit of money first. You can pursue money out of greed, out of a belief that more money will bring you a better life or simply because “everyone else does it.”

    But the fact remains that unless you’re poor, getting more money will make you no happier.

  10. More money DOES make you happier – this is pure drivel – anyone who thinks otherwise is severely disillusioned! This would imply that less money will make you happier ? MO’ MONEY IS GOOD.

  11. > “Money is Fun”

    I think you’ve made your fortunate position quite clear.

    Be grateful for your privilege and think carefully before preaching to others for which money is not so well aligned with “fun”

  12. Rabindranath Tagore said:
    I slept and dreamt that life was Joy.
    I woke and saw that life was Duty.
    I acted, and behold, Duty was Joy.

    When one surrenders to his passion, to his true Duty… work becomes Joy. If you love what you do… it matters less what you are paid as long as it is fair for your region, what truly matters is that you work with joy, you work as if you play.

  13. Sean: Actually, the research shows that lots of people think, as you do, that having more money would make them happier – and that they’re wrong. Look under heading 1 in the blog post for just one study that confirms this.

    Also, the fact that more money does not make you happier, does not logically mean that less money would.

    Jason: I have to agree – I am a very lucky person :o)

    Peter: Yes! Focus more on what you do, how well you do it and how much fun you have doing it, than on what you get paid for it, and you’re sure to be a lot happier.

  14. Pingback: Michael's Thoughts
  15. Definitely, Just working for money is not enough. If you think of your work only as a source of money then you have only one or two days a month that you are actually happy(payday). It’s not a matter of hating money, as Alexander said “Money is Fun” but “Money is not life”. You rely your complete happiness on something so volatile, so intangible. My happiness is completely tangible I can see it everyday I wake up and look at the mirror, smile that think “No regrets”.
    That’s why every person in the world have experienced ups and downs regarding money, Why? Why life, God take something from me when I’m so happy? Remember that Life and God does not take money from you, make you poor or rich, why? Because they know that Money is not the source of happiness so for them is not important if you have money or not, They only care that you are Happy with yourself

  16. “Most people think that having a higher income would make them happier. They’re wrong!”

    Alexander – I’m a big fan. Surprised why you would print such a known inaccuracy on your blog. I’m 100% sure you’ve read many of

    Perhaps it’s just that you did not qualify the statement enough.

    More money makes people happier up until *at least* the point where their basic needs are being net.

    Seeing how the average American with at least 1 credit card has over $8-9k in credit card debt, shows that clearly we are a nation that has ever expanding basic needs, or cannot live within our means (or both in many cases).

    I was raised in the ghetto but have always had plenty of educational opportunities, and went through a rough patch a few years ago where I loaded up on credit card debt just to pay the bills. So it always annoys me when people say without qualification that more money does not equal more happiness (especially when they are now sitting on the other side of the fence).

    But now biz’s gross over $4.5k per month (passively) so I’m happy =)

  17. Shanti,
    I think you misread the quote… the keyword is “think”… their thinking is wrong… seeing money as a solution to get to happiness is wrong. You will not get happiness… maybe some relief… but not happiness.

  18. If you consider money so cheaply, can you pls. trnsfr. some money you have made by writing this book. Or why dont you give this book for free of cost to those who are intrested…

    Logically, it doesnt make any sense to ignore money….. doesnt mean if you get less money you will be happy….

  19. Test,
    the book is available for free online: just click the link from the top left and then… “Read it free on line” ;)

  20. I think either some people here are missing the point, or I am.

    What is being suggested here is not a scale of 0 – 100 for happiness

    it’s a scale of -100 to 100, where zero is as happy as you should be.

    Having enough money to afford to live brings you from -whatever towards zero, and enjoying your life takes you from that zero into the positive numbers.

    That’s what I am getting out of it.

  21. Due to some reason i feel as i can’t get what i need and start wishing lot of money since i think that is the only solution but
    right now i understand the way to get it is to cultivate a healthy attitude towards money.

  22. I suggest that everyone should read this great article. It is an eye opener. A cobweb cleaner. A universal ageold wisdom, revisited. The article has made me feel so much better and happy. I am rearing to free myself from the bondage called “more money”. This is somehting which cna never happen and hence you can never be happy.

    So just live within your means and be happy with what you have. Start loving and wanting what you have and what you are getting.

  23. Dear Chief Happiness Officer:

    I have another paradox emerging. I have given up need for “More” money.
    This has made me comparatively at peace. But now I have another problem. I do not know what to do with the excessive spare time that I have. Earlier it was spent earning more. Now I am bored with my life.

  24. Wow, for some reason this article triggered my reaction to my parents growing up. They always focused on money. But I didn’t know how great an impact it had until last night. I had a dream that led me to believe I am struggling with money to avoid the pain of having parents that focused on money to avoid their own pain. It is hard to stop focusing on money now because it really does release a lot of pain. This should help since awareness is necessary for change. Thanks!

  25. continuing what i wrote, my boss is great person and i want to do anything, instead of doing nothing. he deserve productivity.
    what should i do??????????????????????????

  26. Right now I’d take an unfair salary if one was offered, because neither an unfair nor fair salary seems to have come my way. And if I could get that unfair salary, my life would improve. I’m not going to “stop worrying about money.” Only people who already have money can afford to talk about not worrying about it and just “doing what they like.”

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