If Money Doesn't Buy Happiness, What Does?

Filed under: Work Life, Opinions, Just for You

About seven years ago, I was laid off from my job. I was a marketing director at a well-known corporation, and, after a wonderful career there, I ended up with a boss I didn't like who didn't like me back.

I'll never forget the day he invited me up to his office and told me I could either leave or accept a performance improvement plan.

What? Are you kidding? I've been promoted almost every year I have been at this company. I've won performance awards. My appraisals have always been stellar! Are you kidding?!

He wasn't kidding, and I refused to accept the performance improvement plan. Later that day, I was boxing up my picture frames and memorabilia and going home.

The next day I had no idea what to do. I was reeling. I recall sitting in a shopping mall parking lot in my car crying my eyes out because I didn't know who I was anymore or whether I had any remaining value. I wasn't sure how I could find happiness, because I had tied my self-worth so closely to my job.

Whenever I think of what I would wish for my children, two things always rise to the top: health and happiness. As a goal, health seems pretty clear -- no disease, no chronic suffering and an ability to use their bodies to do whatever they want.

Achieving happiness, however, is not so clear-cut.

Everybody wants it. There are more than a few best-selling books about it. People make life-changing decisions -- including getting married, breaking up, having babies, changing jobs and moving residences -- to try and get it. There's no single picture of what it looks like, though, and I imagine many of the things we do, thinking they will make us happy, fall pretty short of the destination.

Because I'm nerdy that way, I was reading a book last night about creating social change, "The Dragonfly Effect" by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith. While I should have been focused on what I need to do to make my new nonprofit effective, I was stopped in my tracks by the discussion of happiness in the book's introduction.

Apparently, if you are between the ages of 25 and 30, money is linked to happiness. After that, though, the shine wears off and people start looking for meaningfulness to make them happy. The authors define meaningfulness as "a change in direction that leads to more sustainable happiness, the kind that enriches lives, provides purpose and creates impact."

In other words, instead of expecting money and other people to make us happy, we should find ways to give to others and contribute to the greater good, and the meaning that is created by doing such things will bring us happiness.

They add that human beings have " ... three basic needs in terms of their self-worth: competence (feeling that we are effective and able), autonomy (feeling that we are able to dictate our own behavior) and relatedness (feeling that we are connected to others)."

To be honest, I made a boatload of money at my corporate job, had the freedom to buy and do whatever I wanted and wonderful friends who worked there with me. I had the competence and even the relatedness, at least for a while (but not much autonomy), but I doubt I was enriching that many lives with my work. I tried to find meaning in it, but it wasn't really there for me.

I never would have believed I'd become a full-time advocate for women with postpartum depression whose annual salary would be very close to zero dollars and zero cents. I no longer work in a high rise in an office with a door. I no longer have an administrative assistant. No annual bonus. No free BlackBerry. No expense account. No more flying business class to meetings in Europe's capitals.

Instead, I sit here in my sweats with my laptop, and the furthest I travel is to the bathroom or the kitchen. Yet, I am surprised at how competent, autonomous and connected I feel. I am happy!

I hear back from women who have been helped by Postpartum Progress and I can see the difference it is making. I am in charge of what I write and what I do on a daily basis. Thanks to a combination of my friends, family and social media, I always feel connected to interesting people and ideas. I love being able to get to know and talk to many of you each week via comments and Twitter.

I went into uncharted waters and, to my surprise, came out chock full of meaningfulness.

Perhaps that is the lesson I need to give my children on happiness. Don't worry as much about being happy, just do what you can to make meaning in your lives. Reach inside to understand what compels you and where you feel passion, and do something about it. Help others.

By no means will I suggest they forgo day jobs, sell their belongings and move to an ashram in India. I just want them to carve out a place, however large or small, where they can make an impact. It could be volunteer work, or a hobby they enjoy or group involvement of some sort that gives them purpose. Whatever it is, I hope they get it in enough doses that they have the happiness for which I pray daily.

What about you? Are you experiencing competence, autonomy and relatedness? Could you get them somehow? Where do you find purpose in your own life?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.