I once had a client who made very good money, but was miserable at his job. Really hated it. We talked for a while about other career paths, but the question of money kept coming back up. Every time we’d come close to discovering something else he might do for a living that would make him happy, he would worry that it wouldn’t make him as much money as his current high-paying profession.

So we started to get into finances a little. The guy was living WAY below his means. He was saving more than 50% of his income (which is awesome!). He was frugal and sensible and more than capable of taking a huge pay cut in order to find something else that didn’t make him so unhappy. But he couldn’t get away from this idea that he would somehow be failing if he did so, especially if he did so willingly.

I eventually framed the question differently. I asked him: “If there was some gadget you could buy that with a push of a button just made you happy and removed the anxiety and stress and anger you feel from your job, would you pay 25% of your annual salary for it?” And he said he would, in a heartbeat, without question. He’d pay more, in fact. Why then, I asked, was he unwilling to take a 25% pay cut in order to just have a job he liked?

Surprisingly, he actually had an answer – and it was telling. He said, “It fundamentally feels different to have a $100,000/year job and spend $25,000 on something you want than to have a $75,000/year job and not need that thing.”

We dove in, and the conversation was enlightening. Many people lack a feeling of accomplishment, and in lieu of internal self-worth we look for external motivations. Your income is a common one. Not because it’s a good measure, but because it’s an easy measure. It’s hard to compare, apples-to-apples, whether you’re happier than you were a year ago, happier than you would be in a given hypothetical scenario, or happier than someone else (not that you should be comparing yourself to others!). Comparing salaries, however, is easy.

Too often we use income as a sort of “points system” for measuring how well we’re doing in life. I’ve fallen into this trap myself.

And listen, I’ll never say money doesn’t matter. It does; my kids have to eat, my bills have to get paid, all these things cost money. But that’s what money is – a means to an end. It’s not the end itself. It’s not my self-worth.

I prize ambition. I think we should be eager and excited to go out and make big changes and work for what we believe in and create value for others, and the end result of doing all of that well is often a solid paycheck. But everything costs something. Be aware of what each extra dollar costs you, and don’t pay more than $1.01’s worth of happiness for it.

There is no gadget. Happiness is hard to buy back once you’ve spent it on a paycheck.

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