Leaving Work Behind

On Happiness

Written by Tom Ewer on November 25, 2014. 19 Comments

Smiley FaceHow can one be happy?

We all have our own answers – or perhaps our own delusions.

So many of us are driven by extrinsic motivations: money, power and fame. And yet it is logically apparent (if one cares to look) that true happiness comes from intrinsic motivations: the things that we do without regard for reward or recognition. The things that don’t cost money and don’t require power or fame.

To focus primarily on one’s desire for extrinsic rewards is to travel a rocky path fraught with disappointment (and worse). And yet you probably already find yourself on that path. I want to show you a better way.

Money and Happiness

Currency has been around in one form or another practically since the dawn of mankind.

We are a naturally societal species: we thrive through co-existence and cooperation. As such, we rely on the help of each other to survive. Before money we had bartering, and before that our most primitive of ancestors had separate responsibilities that, when combined, added up to a cohesive whole that enabled a tribe to survive.

My point is this: the coexistence and exchange of unique skills is necessary for the survival of humanity. And the capitalist system has proven to be the most effective means for this requirement to be fulfilled. It has allowed humankind to thrive over the past several thousands years.

But money is ultimately what you make of it: a tool that can be used and abused.

Unfortunately, the perspective that most people in our generation have on money is dangerously skewed. They see it as a means to have more – not in a sense of simple subsistence, but in terms of unnecessary material wealth and possessions.

It is believed by most that material growth will lead to greater happiness. But in reality, material growth has very little to do with happiness.

Don’t get me wrong: for most people, having money is a requirement of living happily in our society. The vast majority of us need money to subsist. Our happiness can be affected hugely depending on whether we live above or below the breadline, which correlates directly with the amount of money we have.

But beyond the point of subsistence, the effect that money has on happiness changes drastically. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the effect of money on happiness dissipates drastically once a person has enough to subsist. To put it another way, once you have everything you need (on the most basic level), getting hold of the material objects you want doesn’t have a huge effect on your happiness.

Despite this, we build our lives around the desire for more money. I know I have in the past, and still do to an extent. I have been brainwashed by our society from an early age to believe that earning more is the key to happiness. The idea of earning no money than I currently do in the long term still strikes me as somewhat depressing, despite the fact that I can objectively rationalize the falsity of my reasoning.

Even worse, we build our lives around the need for more money – not just in an emotional sense, but in order to sustain what we consider to be a necessary way of life. We take out mortgages and loans for houses and cars we can’t afford, then experience ever-growing levels of stress when the reality of our financial situation catches up with us. We put ourselves in positions where we feel that we have to continue to earn at least the same amount of money – or even more – just to keep ourselves afloat in the material world we have created for ourselves.

And all this is for what exactly? Money doesn’t ultimately bring happiness. In my experience, it is far more likely to bring stress or worry (or worse) into our lives through its misuse.

Where Happiness Comes From

I recently watched a documentary entitled Happy. It tells a compelling story of what happiness is truly about.

When watching this documentary, I was fascinated (yet not particularly surprised) to observe the pure, unadulterated happiness of so many people who many of us might delude ourselves into feeling sorry for.

On the purest level, happiness has very little to do with extrinsic rewards and everything to do with what comes from within. Love, compassion, and altruism. Close personal and societal bonds. Meaningful interactions both with the people we love and the natural world in which we live. Personal growth in ways that feel most genuinely rewarding to the individual. Fulfilling work.

And yet so much of this is at odds to the society in which we have built. I don’t know how we’ve got to where we are as a society (I don’t yet understand how it all went so wrong), but in my opinion, here isn’t where we should be. If you want to be happy, you must make a concerted effort to focus on what truly matters, even if it flies in the face of what society teaches us.

What This Means in Terms of Leaving Work Behind

I still come across people who don’t appreciate what I intend the phrase ‘leaving work behind’ to mean.

It’s not about quitting your job and never working another day in your life. It’s not even necessarily about quitting your job (although that is in this site’s tagline!). It’s about living life in such a way that your work doesn’t feel like “work” in the negative sense that so many people perceive it. With this site I try to provide means for people to achieve that (through articles like this and resources like Paid to Blog, Paid to Blog Jobs and so on).

There is nothing wrong with hard work. In fact, working hard can be very good for one’s physical and mental health (just observe the pensioner-age Okinawan woman featured in Happy who seems positively gleeful about the physical demands of her daily agricultural toils). But we must get away from doing work with the sole aim of earning more.

Chances are that you don’t need more – you probably need less. A smaller house and a more economical car. No cable TV and fewer kitchen gadgets. Less reliance on your supermarket and a greater willingness to grow and cook your own food. Not only can these ‘sacrifices’ reduce your need for more money, they can also ultimately contribute to your wellbeing and happiness by encouraging more intrinsically rewarding actions.

You must get over the notion that you are what you have, and that you need what you have. What you need is within you. It cannot be purchased.

What Next?

If you are already well ingrained into a material way of living, or even just a fixed manner of living that prevents you from getting away from the immediate need to chase for more, adjusting your priorities and detaching yourself from financial burdens is easier said than done.

I am not suggesting that you have it easy. But to recognize that happiness comes from within – not from what you own or how much money you have – is the first step you must take in creating a new habitat for your healthier outlook on life.

And it’s not just about acknowledgement: it’s about belief and action. One can acknowledge the relative unimportance of earnings above the breadline while contradictorily seeking more. The key is that you truly believe what you acknowledge, and take action based upon that belief.

You can start small by doing anything from making your own bread to canceling your cable subscription. More pivotal steps would be to downsize your car (or go without) and even your home. And perhaps most exciting of all, you could seriously consider making a change in your working situation, even (or perhaps especially) if it means taking an unconventional approach.

Each of us deserves a roof over our head, a warm place to sleep and food in our bellies. Those can reasonably be called our needs. Beyond that, we should all take a long hard look at what we have and whether we need it. Because happiness beyond subsistence is far more about what can be obtained without money than otherwise.

Photo Credit: Phil Dokas

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19 Responses to “On Happiness”

  1. Debashish
    November 25, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Excellent post, Tom. It mirrors my thoughts exactly.

    Society promotes a sort of scarcity mindset, and sets everyone on a blind rush towards attaining more and more material wealth. The value of meaningful work and making an impact get lost in the way.

    However, I disagree with one point. We, as a society, are exactly where we need to be. It’s because of the things that have gone wrong that people are becoming aware of the futility of chasing after money (proven by the growing interest in minimalism). It’s only when societal situations reach a boiling point that the seeds for the next revolution are sown.

    Case in point – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/the-cheapest-generation/309060/

    • Tom Ewer
      November 26, 2014 at 11:29 am

      Hi Debashish,

      Point taken, but being at the cusp of “revolution” in of response to generations of excess doesn’t strike me as the perfect place to be 😉

      Cheers,

      Tom

  2. Julie Perrott
    November 26, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Morning,

    I’m a great believer that money is energy, no-more-no-less and I think we need to stop giving it such a place of importance in our lives, because where would it be without us? Obselete, is where.

    I agree we require money to live in today’s society, but it’s a human invention, and if we’re almost; giving it a life of it’s own, which is how most humans treat it, then ‘money’ should be grateful that we’re willing to spend it…..and I for one, am always happy to do that.

    Happiness is a totally different mindset, and needs to be given more credit in our lives, because it can be induced by anything, and not just a bit of paper or metal in our pockets.

    I truly believe, that we need to look at the enjoyment we can gain from; a few hours, or a day, a week’s even better, where we; consciously try not to think, or worry about money. It just adds stress to our lives.

    • Tom Ewer
      November 26, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Hey Julie,

      …‘money’ should be grateful that we’re willing to spend it…

      This statement gave me pause for thought; a really good way of looking at the issue of money. But how does that work in terms of necessities? Should money be grateful that we turn a tap on to drink water, or turn a radiator on to keep us warm?

      Cheers,

      Tom

  3. Patrick
    November 26, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Enjoyed this post, Tom. Living life in such a way that your work doesn’t feel like “work ” is what really hit home with me.

    Earlier this year, I decided to walk away from a business that was no longer a joy to work in, and became just about the income. Making that shift was quite freeing, and has allowed me to work on things that are much more fulfilling.

  4. Neil
    November 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Tom;

    Great points. Since i look at happiness and money for a faith outlook my take may be a bit different; yet maybe not so much.

    I see happiness in the root word of it all,”happenings”. Where we are in the moment, at the moment speaks considerably to our happiness. For it to have any constancy there must be something bringing us the happiness that extends through time. Maybe that is why, for me, it is about “joy”. The word is different and the meaning is deeper. Joy is that deep set satisfaction that happiness can initiate.

    Your take on money is great too. Its presence is necessary; but its power needs to be mediated. We establish, or curtail, its importance to the work it was created for when we realize that is not a living thing…but a tool for us to choose to use.

    Sure I am making a living at freelance writing so that I can earn more. That “more” is never for meeting the roof over our head and food to eat necessity. But when I take the walks with my wife and see my sons doing well in college, I am feeling happy and that transcend into joy.

    My take;
    Neil

  5. Joseph Ho
    November 27, 2014 at 7:19 am

    great post i will check out the movie happy! thanks for that

    • Tom Ewer
      November 27, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      It’s a great documentary, and only about 75 minutes long! Definitely one to watch to lift your spirits and put things in perspective.

  6. Peter
    November 29, 2014 at 3:22 am

    Fantastic Advice. I’ve found that simply making money doesn’t do it, I need to get out an be productive in the world to get some personal satisfaction.

  7. Sarah
    December 1, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you Tom, your post is so relevant to my life right now.
    I will revisit this message when the fear of poverty wakes me and I feel that I am bonkers for quitting my comfortable salary and swish apartment in Bangkok to go and live in the jungle with my daughter.
    Having a year away from the crazy consumerism of Thailand’s capital has opened my eyes to my priorities. It is very obvious with hindsight how damaging the struggle for more is. I believe a simpler life is a longer and happier one. The less I have the less decisions I need to make and the more space I have for the creative and authentic things in my life.
    The question is how will this pan out in a move back to the UK? Is it possible to be happy with little there?

  8. Ivy
    December 8, 2014 at 12:49 am

    This is exactly what I needed to read today, thanks Tom! I just quit my job after having my second child, and very soon my family will be down to one income for the first time. I am going to try my best to make extra income through free-lance writing, but this is great to read when stressing over bills!

    Another thing I like to think about when I get to worrying about my finances, is how “rich” I am in family and friends. I have a great support system of friends, and my sons are so lucky to have 2 sets of wonderful, involved grandparents, aunts and uncles. I know that no matter what, I will always have a place to go if times ever got too rough.

    I’m going to check out that documentary as well!

  9. Tiare
    January 16, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Absolutely! Happiness is a perspective, a practice, and a progression, and it is the gateway to many other profound and important feelings, such as joy and fulfillment.

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