The Truth About Money and Happiness

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Today’s post is the second installment in the series, Lessons From the Gridiron. It follows the previous post, Uncommon Lessons From an Uncommon Coach – Part 1.

This piece first appeared as a guest publication on Dr. Wise Money.


I will never forget the evening of June 17, 1994. I can vividly recall sitting on my living room floor, watching the action unfold. I was watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks when NBC interrupted the programming with a breaking news corner-cut in. A white Ford Bronco raced down the 405 freeway and was chased by a convoy of police vehicles. Oddly, as time passed, it became clearer that the chase wasn’t really much of a chase.

When I awoke the next morning, I asked my parents about how the chase ended. They told me that OJ Simpson had finally stopped running after two hours and gave himself up to LA police.

O.J.: Made In America (Credit: ESPN)
O.J.: Made In America (Credit: ESPN)

All of my memories of this experience came flooding back to me recently when I watched the recent ESPN series, O.J.: Made in America.

As I watched the five part mini-series, I observed that Simpson’s happiness came from all the wrong places: fame, possessions, people, even alcohol and drugs. After being mired in controversy, Simpson’s fall from the throne was predictable. Like many celebrities before and after him, O.J. became addicted to alcohol and drugs later in life when money, notoriety, and women ceased to provide the happiness he craved.

In my opinion, it was his preoccupation with seeking happiness in all of the wrong places that led to his ultimate arrest and imprisonment on kidnapping charges in 2008.

The Mindset of More

Most of us will never know what it is like to a football star. We won’t experience the life of a film and television actor. In fact, few people, past or present, can claim to understand the life of Orenthal James Simpson. His nation-wide fame began at USC, where he played football and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. It only escalated as Simpson moved on to the NFL and the big screen.

O.J. Simpson appeared to have it all. Yet, in his mind, he was never satisfied, trapped in a race and perpetually seeking more. In his mind, the widening gap between his expectations and reality lead to unhappiness and discontentment. In his mind, chasing happiness and hoping to find it in people, possessions, and fame was akin to running toward an end zone that would always remain a few yards out of his reach.

It was a losing proposition.

How to Live a Life of Simplicity Instead of Enslavement

Like O.J. Simpson, the average person is destined for an unfulfilling life the moment she chooses a life of enslavement to possessions. By perpetually seeking more, she is likely to live a far less satisfying life.

It is no secret that money provides varying degrees of security. When utilized properly, money can meet the physiological, safety, belonging, and even esteem needs proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It can be leveraged to meet our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – as well as satisfy our vain ambitions – status, friendship, romantic relationships, employment, and socioeconomic status.

Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs (Credit: Wikipedia)
Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yet, despite our human instincts which seek to convince us otherwise, there is not a linear relationship between money and happiness. Researchers have not yet established solid proof that money can or cannot buy happiness; in fact, a quick review of the research over the past ten years reveals that behavioral psychologists may be more divided on this issue than ever before.

Furthermore, it can be argued that possessions do not contribute to increased happiness. At a basic level, we value possessions based upon their utility. If we do not or cannot utilize our possessions, they cease to provide value or retain a maximum level of importance to us. For example, if I gifted you a pair of Wave Runners but established the conditional precedent mandating that they sit on blocks in your garage on a year-round basis, they would not increase your happiness. In fact, their presence might even lead to unhappiness every time you drive by the beach and lament their lack of utility.

Perhaps the link between money and happiness does not lie within how much money or how many possessions one possesses, but instead lies in purposefully managing the money  and possessions which pass through his hands.

A UCLA study revealed that those people who would prefer having more time rather than more money also reported being happier. Respondents in the study frequently indicated that when life offered time/money “trade-offs,” more time led to greater happiness. Among the reasons cited for choosing time over money:

*Working 50 hr a week, with 2 hr of commuting a day, leaves only a few hours to spend time with my children and wife.

*I want to enjoy the pleasures of life and have artistic projects I want to complete.

*Because all I ever do is work. I just want to enjoy myself.

Seven Action Steps to Increase Your Happiness

In accordance with your values, strive to live a life of relative simplicity rather than enslavement to money and possessions by following these seven steps:

  1. Identify your values and spend accordingly. Spending money can make you happy when it aligns with your values.
  2. Give 10% of your income (gross or net is up to you) to a worthwhile charity, religious organization, or research fund each and every month. In doing so, you will gain emotional and psychological control over your money and practice good stewardship. The joy of giving money is unlike any other feeling, and it is often contagious!
  3. Wait 30 days before making unnecessary purchases. Write down the desired purchase and reasons for making it, and if you still want the item after 30 days have passed, then make a decision which aligns with your values. A majority of the time you will discover you no longer want the item as badly as you once thought.
  4. Dream big, but do not allow your happiness to depend on the achievement of your dreams. I have made this mistake and paid dearly for it.
  5. Slow down, unplug, and cherish experiences with loved ones. Relationships are the real treasure in life.
  6. Do not allow the fear of missing out to influence your spending. Social media envy can easily incite jealousy and lead you to believe that more possessions or experiences will increase your happiness. Do not yield to those desires!
  7. Spend money on other people. Spending generously on others will make you happier than spending on yourself. After all, there is a reason that Warren Buffett is delighted by his own plan to give away 99 percent of his wealth.

In 2008, O.J. Simpson’s improbable run of good fortune came to an end. At his sentencing, Simpson offered an apology, telling District Judge Jackie Glass he was “sorry, somewhat confused, [and] apologetic. I just wanted my personal things. I was stupid. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was doing anything illegal. I thought I was confronting friends. I thought I was retrieving my things. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, and I didn’t mean to steal anything.”

These were the words of a man desperately clinging to the hope that once again, his charm and charisma could rescue him. In a moment of opportunity, Simpson squandered his chance to take responsibility for a lifetime of seeking happiness in all the wrong places and damaging countless lives in the process.

Denise Brown, the sister of Nicole Brown-Simpson, offered a much more succinct and sincere assessment of all that had transpired.

“It is very sad to think that an individual who had it all, an amazing career, beautiful wife and two precious children, has ended up like this. Allowing wealth, power and control to consume himself, he made a horrific choice on June 12, 1994, which has spiraled into where he is today,” she lamented.

May we all strive to develop a healthier attitude toward wealth and never allow money to control our happiness.

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10 thoughts on “The Truth About Money and Happiness

  1. Some really nice thoughts in here, Hero. Many thanks for writing this.

    I like your idea for a “cooling off” period before making certain purchases! Installing that plan ahead of time and enforcing it (maybe with the help of a spouse) is a good way to detach the old lizard brain from spending decisions.

    And OJ – wow – just wow. What a super disappointment.

    1. My pleasure, FL. The lizard brain can definitely be a big barrier to success, as you so eloquently outlined in a recent post.

      As for OJ, I agree. I don’t mean to disrespect the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, but OJ’s spiral out of control only serves to add another element of tragedy to an already horrible situation.

  2. #3 on your list is a good one and I can imagine very effective in deterring impulse, unnecessary purchases. Even though the item may be a limited time sale/discount saving a few bucks may not be worth it if the item just goes unused after a couple months. The 30 day list is a great idea and I’ll try that out next time I want to buy something I don’t need.

  3. “Working 50 hr a week, with 2 hr of commuting a day, leaves only a few hours to spend time with my children and wife.”

    Every time I see commuting stats like that I cringe, turns a 9 hour day into an 11 hour day. One of our biggest factors in where we bought a house is commute time to work and public transportation.

    Great advice Mr. Superhero.

    PS we watched the OJ series too, it was interesting to watch since we were pretty young when it happened and I didn’t fully understand all the ins and outs.

  4. Thanks for the insight. We often focus on the good examples that people set and try to mimic those, but we should also be looking at the people that have done things wrong and learn what not to do from their stories.

    I like the action steps that you lay out. I started doing number 2 this year and have found that it does help and gives me a sense of contributing to something larger than myself.

  5. I love your action step #1 – as it aligns with a lot of what you need to do to make good decisions in general! It’s all about those goals! The OJ story is one that touched many of those in our area because he was the hero of our local team the Buffalo Bills. To watch “the Juice” driving down that highway, knowing what had happened was just so hard to believe. A sad day for so many people.

    1. I didn’t realize that OJ played for the Bills until watching Made in America, believe it or not. That must have been rough for your regional community to see him fall so far in a short time.

  6. I love the action points. Since getting rid of our debt, the wait to buy rule has helped us a lot. It’s also helped with my kids. Now instead of arguing with them in a store when they ask for something, I just say “if you still want it tomorrow, we can talk about it.” They never remember!

  7. I also remember watching that chase as an elementary schooler and then the trial. Sad sad choices he made.

    I love the cooling off period for major purchases. Impulse shopping can be so hard to combat. I like this tool in my belt to give myself a rational out.

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