adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Stepping Off the Happiness Treadmill

11 September 2013

"Happiness is not something that you pursue; it is something you allow."
— Chade-Meng Tan

I did not expect to have a life-altering insight while tidying my kitchen some night during the winter of 2011. Yet there I was, sponge in hand and mind on idle, when out of nowhere: "No matter how much money you make, you will never feel like you have enough. Some part of you will always want more."

Whatever I was doing at that moment - scrubbing a pot, wiping up crumbs, I don't remember exactly - I stopped. My stomach sank, and I felt a kind of melancholy blossom. What a sobering realization!

Ultimately, I'm glad that some wayward neurons shoved those thoughts into my consciousness. The changes I've made since then have made me much more satisfied and without a doubt saved me from years of needless stress and frustration.

At the time, I had been investing tremendous energy into building a web app in hopes that I'd start earning a little passive income. True, I also did it for the joy of conquering a technical challenge and to meet a need of my own. But I was largely motivated by anxiety, a ceaseless feeling that I had to find some way, any way, to make more money.

You see, I grew up poor. Meal ticket poor, welfare housing poor, single Vietnamese refugee mother raising two children on a McDonald's wage poor. Wear the same outfit twice before washing it to save on soap and water poor. "Toys for tots" - I was one of those tots. In that kind of climate it's almost inevitable that you internalize a constant fear that you will not have enough money.

Eventually my mother, through her own extraordinary effort and later with the help of my stepfather, was able to pull our family out of poverty and into a comfortable, lower-middle-class lifestyle. But the money worries never went away. My mother took a night job because it paid well, but even then she would often study when she wasn't working or sleeping so that she could advance herself further. The result was that she didn't get to spend much time with my brother and me, something she still regrets. One of my most heart-breaking experiences was hearing my mom reveal how lonely she was, that she never got to see me or my brother. She would come home at 3 in the morning and her only company was the hamster busily running nowhere on her hamster wheel.

Thus it was that at 26 years old, firmly situated in a great job which more than met my financial needs, I too continued to busy myself with schemes to earn more money. And thus it was that some pre-conscious part of my brain, clearly wiser than the guy at the controls, shouted at me while I cleaned: "This is going to get you nowhere."

After the initial shock, I understood how unwise my path was. That whatever part of me feels anxiety about money will never, never be quieted by more money. One idea that's stuck with me in my reading is that you get better at whatever you're doing. By allowing my actions to be driven by my compulsion for more money, I was not making things better. I was only reinforcing a broken behavior. I had to find another way. If I couldn't learn to be satisfied with what I had - which was enough to meet my basic needs and much more - then I was screwed.

That night I resolved to put my effort into only those things I truly want to get better at: being a good friend, being a good brother, being a good partner, and being more creative. But I knew that the desire for more money would always be there, trying to siphon my time away and pour it into pointless schemes.

And then I read about the difference that gratitude makes. First, in "The Pursuit of Perfect" by Tal Ben-Shahar. Then, in "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. And yet again in "The Tools" by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. I began my own daily gratitude practice, beginning each day by thinking of three things that I'm grateful for. I even created a little online community for sharing gratitude.

This practice has been instrumental in helping me overcome my compulsion for more money. The craving has diminished as, daily, I take stock of my life and recognize the good things in it. I let myself fully experience the truth that my life is full of reasons for wonder and joy.

In a way, I think of my craving as my mom internalized. Always looking out for me, always vigilant about my well being. Day by day I tell her, "It's OK. You don't have to work so hard. Things are OK. You can relax." And day by day, she does.

In the mean time, I have flourished. I've done the creative work and learning that I find meaningful, taking up the violin, throwing myself into improv comedy, and learning more about programming. I've moved much closer to my family and have gotten to see them more in the past eight months than in the past eight years. And in a few weeks I will be marrying the love of my life. Life is good, and I am grateful for it.