The 3 Critical Elements of Human Happiness (& Why Unlimited Money Isn’t Enough)
Imagine you leave behind everything you know and everyone you love to cross the ocean. You arrived weary and penniless, but this new land provides the one thing you needed: an opportunity—a rugged and dangerous road to follow for a chance to give your children the option to pursue what you couldn’t. You set your sights ahead and persevere despite the exhaustion, the humiliation, the challenges.
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The story of America is a story of pursuit: a massive mosaic where millions of immigrant stories like these are welded together with sacrifice and purpose. The details may vary, but the plot is the same. We set goals and we chase after them until we achieve them or drop dead, whichever comes first. Then, once achieved, we set another goal. And another. We can’t help it—it’s in our DNA.
Fast forward to modern day America. It’s a time of abundance like no other in human history. Since most everyone’s basic needs (food, shelter, safety, social media :)) are generally met, you set money goals. You want to earn an income of X or build your savings and investments to Y or retire and live off a passive income stream of Z.
Why do we set such goals? So we can live the lifestyle we want, spend more time with our families and loved ones, and achieve financial independence. In short, so we can be happy. Therefore, we view money as the means to achieve happiness. In other words, we don’t seek money for money’s sake but rather for what it can do to bring about the things that make us happy. With me so far?
Now, suppose I wave my favorite magic wand and everyone has in their bank account an inexhaustible amount of money, effective immediately. Now you possess all the money you could ever need to do, buy, experience everything you could ever want.
Financial independence has been achieved. You can spend all day with your family or loved ones if you choose, and you can travel to all those dream places and stay as long as you like.
Are you happy? Initially, yes. Unlimited money would be pretty cool. But once the initial euphoria and binge purchases and travel have subsided, most of us would be bored out of our minds. Perhaps we’d even be depressed and lonely like the original founder of Minecraft, who sold the company to Microsoft for billions.
At first glance, this doesn’t make any sense. The average American adult spends the majority of their waking hours in pursuit of money so they can have the kind of lifestyle that will make them happy. Now they have achieved that lifestyle and they’re still unhappy? Something is missing.
Pursuit is Missing
We have an impetus to succeed, but we need to feel that we earned the success, that it wasn’t handed out to us undeservedly but was pursued and attained. Put differently, if we want to be happy, we must pursue and achieve our lifestyle goals. Sounds like common sense—but is that really true?
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
If pursuit and attainment are the keys to happiness, then why do successful people regret their pursuit on their deathbed (#2)? Most importantly, why are they identifying the pursuit as one of the ingredients that lead to an unhappy life (#5)?
Yet again, something is missing.
Connection is Missing
As Dr. Henry Cloud explains in his excellent leadership book Boundaries for Leaders, “There are two human drives. One is connection and the other is aggression. Aggression here […] means initiative and energy, used in the service of goals. Everything we do is either relational or goal directed—or, ideally, both. Basically we are ‘lovers and workers.’ We have relationships and we do things. We connect and we accomplish tasks. Care and drive. Be and do. Love and work.”
Yes! We have a need to accomplish, to push past obstacles and then attain the goal. To us, the pursuit is not just a means to an end—it’s an end in itself. Without it, we are rich but miserable, financially independent but bored, well-traveled but depressed.
But what’s also true is that the lifestyle we seek is a conduit to the connection we crave. All the names we give it (financial independence, more time with the family, travel) are the framework for the connection we seek with our loved ones. For instance, experiences (i.e travel) are fun but they only becomes soul-enriching when you share them with people you love. Wealth is great, but it will own you unless you have a clearly defined purpose for its accumulation. Passive income is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it’s of no use if it’s just funding a dreary life.
If we are to be happy we must balance and integrate our drives for connection and pursuit. We must anchor our love of the chase to the reasons we chase in the first place: work and family, success and friends, income and lifestyle.
But is that all? Could you be successful in your work and well grounded in the connections that matter to you most and still have something that eats you up inside? Unequivocally, yes. Yet again, something is missing.
Fulfillment is Missing
In his cornerstone 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow outlined his famous hierarchy of human needs.
Essentially, it’s a stacked progression. Once we fulfill our basic needs for food, water, shelter, safety and security (pursuit), we need to fulfill our psychological needs for relationships and friends, prestige, and accomplishment (connection). But there’s one major missing piece: self-actualization. In other words, in order to feel completely happy, we need to achieve our full potential and capitalize on our talents.
Turns out Calogero had it exactly right in the famous scene from A Bronx Tale: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever.”
Do you agree with this assessment of happiness?
Be sure to leave a comment below!