How to have material success; and still be happy

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, March 8, 2007

She slipped off her Shearling coat, carefully placed down her Chanel bag, and slowly lowered herself into her chair. “I have everything I could reasonably want, so why am I still so unhappy?” she complained. She frequently wrestled with this personal gremlin during our sessions.

I purposely haven’t given you her name because she is not one particular person. This dilemma is one faced by many who have visited me in my office, and no doubt, innumerable people (especially in this area) who have never set foot in my, or any therapist’s, office.

While many of us give lip service to the cliché that money can’t buy happiness, we still can’t quite let go of believing that we should be happier with it. There are so many good things that money can buy. A beautiful neighborhood. A good education for our children. Enjoyable travel experiences. These things enrich our lives. So how can it be that when we have it all—or a good share of it all—we are still wanting? We feel frustrated with ourselves and guilty for our lack of appreciation.

No doubt, beating yourself up has not helped you become happier. It never does. Not to mention, if you are upset about your lack of gratitude for your good fortune, you obviously do appreciate what you have. You are grateful and still feel that something is amiss in your life. The source of your unhappiness is clearly someplace else.

This is not to say that money is irrelevant to your happiness. Money can be very useful in helping you meet your goals. For example, you might take your children on a ski trip as a way of spending enjoyable time together. In this instance, money is helpful in building a connection with your children. However, money is simply a tool; it does not create the connection for you. People with more money might have weaker bonds with their children, and, likewise, people with less money might have stronger bonds with their children.

We often get so caught up in wanting to achieve status or obtain the things that money can buy (for ourselves or our children) that we loosen our grip on our relationships, personal needs and values. And, too often, we let go of them altogether.

The trite solution is to stop worrying about money and focus on “the important things” in life. However, money is a real concern and it can help you get things that you value. So, rather than face this dilemma, you might choose to simply ignore the problem. You might falsely reassure yourself that everything will fall into place once you have earned financial security. This thinking only makes the problem worse. You will inevitably feel guilty or angry with yourself for being unhappy when you have so much.

Instead of minimizing or ignoring the problem, pay more attention to it. Listen to yourself with a sympathetic ear to learn what’s really wrong. Perhaps you are sad, or lonely, or lack meaning in your life. Once you identify the problem, sit with this knowledge. Allow yourself to feel sympathetic toward this person (you) who is struggling. Although these experiences seem like they should be easily recognizable, it can take time to see them clearly and understand them with compassion.

Once you truly feel compassion for your pain, your frustration will naturally give way to a desire to help yourself. Understanding your pain will lead you to what you need to do this. For example, loneliness requires connection. Boredom requires engagement and exploration. Confusion about what you want in life requires self-exploration. After you figure out what you need, you can work out the specific steps for how to get it.

Whatever your goal, it will require some risk to attain. For a happier marriage, you might need to “rock the boat.” This might help you change course, but it also just might capsize the boat. If you feel disconnected from the community, you will need to venture out to meet new people or extend yourself in new ways to the people you already know. As a result, you might finally feel the connection you crave, but you are also risking feeling rejected. Clearly, some goals require more risk than others.

Upon evaluation, you might decide that you do not want to take the risk. You might prefer to live an unfulfilled life in certain important areas so that you can maintain your life in other areas. For example, after 25 years of marriage, you might decide to remain in that “dead” relationship so that you don’t need to face conflict, financial risk, and the social changes that come with divorce. If this is the case, be honest with yourself. Allow the sadness that belongs to this situation. Then find meaningful fulfillment in other areas of your life rather than just trying to soothe yourself with pampering—such superficial attempts to ease the pain are likely to magnify it.

That said, my experience has been that people who choose not to address major areas of emotional distress do suffer. Their pain is deep and affects their whole life. Their ability to find fulfillment in other areas is limited by this pain.

As a human being, you are wired to have certain wants, desires, and needs. When you are unfulfilled in those areas, you will undoubtedly feel that something is missing. We simply cannot buy enough things to fill that space. Let’s face it, an unending supply of caviar might keep you from starving, but it can still leave you malnourished. In being honest with yourself about what is causing your unhappiness, you can compassionately understand your problem and move toward finding the fulfilled life you seek. And, while it’s up to you to get on the right road, a Lexus with heated seats can make the trip much more comfortable.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ