The Key to Wealth & Happiness: Ignore Other People (and other Paradoxes)

I’ve always had a beef with that societal notion of Happiness, and when reading the book Flow on what makes people enjoy life, I realized why. “Happy people” in the media always seem to be rich, thin, beautiful, lucky, brilliant, or talented – all unattainable notions to me or the average Jane. In the book Flow, an analysis of what makes people truly happy, it turns out none of those things drive Happiness at all. And in a recent update to the influential book The Millionaire Next Door, on how ordinary people achieve financial security, the message is similar. Ignore external messages; ignore social media; ignore commercials. Or as a folk singer once said, “it’s an inside job.”

I will note at the outset that this is a somewhat paradoxical entry. I’m telling you to read my explanation and advice on how to improve your life by ignoring other people. This reminds me a little of the Steve Martin bit where he would say, “Now, repeat after me, ‘I will not say things that other people tell me to say’…all together now….’”

But bear with me. The keys to discovering wealth and happiness are not avoiding other people’s advice or ignoring your friends and family, but rather learning when to react to cues from society and the environment and when to ignore them.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

millionairecoverLet’s tackle wealth first; it’s easier. The Millionaire made a very strong impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago. Since many have asked me how I have figured out how to leave the corporate world early, I would point to these principles. The book was based on large scale studies of affluent families and found that people accumulating wealth would probably not be recognized as such. They drive older cars, spend on few luxuries, and save the fruits of their hard-earned labor. They don’t tend to play the lottery but do understand the “miracle of compound interest.” They do take financial risk in keeping with appropriate rewards – save money, leverage money, but don’t gamble money.   A key theme is to ignore “keeping up with the Joneses”: affluent people don’t purchase things because their neighbor has them.

A recent update of the studies was done by the author’s daughter (ref MarketWatch article 3/3/2016) and points out that putting blinders on is much harder today than it was. Many more messages are delivered via social media today about cool products or a friend’s vacation, so it’s that much harder to ignore the temptation to respond in kind. Funny slogans like Whoever dies with the most toys wins are more common and hard to avoid.As Sarah Stanley Fallaw puts it:

I think the difference today is the unending nature of knowing what “the Joneses” do, given technology. Purchases, vacations, educations are all broadcast via social media and other means, and [dad] couldn’t have anticipated this in 1996. Still, the research we’re doing demonstrates that those who ignore trends have higher net worth, regardless of their age, income and percentage of wealth that they inherited. Building wealth means ignoring what others are doing, which may be more challenging today than in the 1990s.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

flowcoverWhat about happiness? When I left work, my wise friend Nancy pointed out the book Flow, which lays out the elements of enjoyment as only a University of Chicago researcher can do. As an alumnus myself of that icy institution, I can attest to its use of statistical processes for all purposes. At the University of Chicago, the study of social behavior, philosophy, art, humor, and history are subject to the same rules as economics – everything is quantifiable. All truths are those that reflect a high R2*.

Like the Millionaire, Flow’s analysis was based on a large scale research study of people in multiple professions, geographies, ages and social classes. The study found that happiness was a function of self-imposed goals, achieved through a continuous improvement loop. (I know all you Six Sigma Black Belts just pricked up your ears!) It didn’t matter what the goal was – it could be dairy farming in the Alps, chess played in the park, welding in a Midwestern factory, or climbing El Capitan. The goal was defined by the individual – with the environment providing an important element of feedback without dictating the goal itself. And the process was repeatable: goal, challenge, feedback, completion, new learning to overcome added complexity and challenge, new goal, and lather, rinse, repeat. People in the “flow,” as the theory goes, set up goals in stages, so that after they reach one, they establish the next one to be a bit more challenging. This way there is constant striving but also constant sense of reward.

FlowThe goals need to be achievable – even if difficult – and it’s key for you to define it. As Karin tells fledgling writers who ask how to be successful, think carefully about how you define success. To plan to be the next J.K. Rowling may not be achievable. But if success is writing a good children’s fantasy or being published or selling 10,000 copies or planning a series, those are reachable.

Work leads to Happiness more often than Leisure

The other key finding – something of a paradox – is that people were happier working than when resting or in leisure activities, such as watching TV or on vacation. Optimal experience requires activity. People relieve stress or combat exhaustion with relaxation, but they report experiencing sustained happiness more often when working in some way, either for pay or on some self-created project. (Part of the study involved having people use beepers to literally record when they were happy.) So, ironically, the best self-reported moments in our lives are not “livin’ the good life” sitting around, drinking champagne on a beach, but when we’re stretching our capabilities voluntarily to accomplish something that difficult that we deem worthwhile.

This is not to say that your current work is the only thing that could make you happy.  You  might be stressed out because your functions are either not challenging, not receiving feedback, not creating output that you value, or not achieving anything at all. Or the work may make you happy, but the working environment  — people, culture —  might make you miserable. Flow also presented examples where people in miserable situations were successful overcoming the environment (concentration camps, serious illness) by instinctively setting up the experience, creating small goals, mini-challenges to overcome, and using the flow process to help them ignore the negative situation they were in. More importantly, the Flow researchers definitely found that people in potentially ideal situations – rich, thin, beautiful etc. – were no more likely to report happiness than others. It was always a function of how the individual worked with whatever they had.

Big deal, you say, you already heard this from Shakespeare, The Brady Bunch, or The Gilmore Girls. “To thine own self be true.” So, Jan Brady, then why are you still looking at Marcia to set your benchmark? Find a copy of either or both books at the library (America’s best kept secret) or online and see if they help you take an earnest look at your goals. You might be closer to achieving your own dreams than you think.



*R2=A magical statistical result that reveals how accurately reality has been predicted. In the examples in statistical textbooks, it’s always 90 something. In practical usage, 40 something is cause for celebration.

0 Replies to “The Key to Wealth & Happiness: Ignore Other People (and other Paradoxes)”

  1. Funny you should mention El Capitan! I’ve been trying to climb that ‘mountain’ ever since I upgraded my iMac—let me tell ya, if you’ve got an R2 to reverse the infuriating SLOG that has overtaken my computer since I upgraded, hahaha, spill it, sister.

    Here’s my progress so far (following your formula, naturally):
    Goal: speed up computer
    Challenge: offset lack of magic by dispensing with magical thinking
    Feedback: someone in my home who shall remain nameless suggested, with what most resembled a sneer but could have been exhausted empathy, that 1) I should clean off my desktop screen which contains folders that contain…things, and that 2) assured me it’s OK to delete first through 10th draft of first novel, written 5 years ago, over the 10-years prior, as well as copies of copies. Oh that’s gonna happen!
    Completion: removed two folders from desktop and deleted two drafts of first novel, being sure to leave copy of each in cloud backup
    New learning to overcome added complexity and challenge: don’t discuss aloud, ever, how slow computer is with new El Capitan OS
    New goal: call Apple
    And lather: what they said made SOOO much sense (until I got off phone)
    Rinse: delete one more desktop folder containing 13 drafts of second novel
    Repeat: call Apple for Genius Bar appointment, lug computer to mall, walk in, absorb looks of pity, or disdain, adjust neck scarf, run hand through grey hair like a model in the “because you’re worth it” ads, look around at all the nerds and machines that taunt me, pull off rather brilliantly the supremely bored by entire display look, take off sunglasses to tell guy with clipboard that I have appointment, watch while he frowns and double checks list, appear placid when he smiles and says ‘you’re appointment is at 11 tomorrow, but you can leave it here and pick it up tomorrow’—wait! Leave my 63 drafts of all my novels with who know who? I think NOT. With immediate disinterest, he lamely suggests maybe it’s my Internet connection.

    On the way home from a round trip that is now approaching three hours, I call AT&T to upgrade internet connection to super-duper turbo hunky dory blah blah blah. I turn on computer, get on line and immediately zoom through my 50 favorite sites.

    I see I’ve missed 19 Facebook updates, 9 emails, 19 sites I’ve been meaning to unsubscribe to, and 4 calls to action from four women in Nigeria who begin their emails with “Hello, my darling…”

    So, based on what you said, I have a question. Why am I 100 bucks less wealthy and 30 degrees less happy?

    LOL–great blog. No, really, it’s full of info I wish I’d known 40 years ago with or even without the miracle of compound interest!

    Never too late, you say? Well I got onto one of those savings calculators, now that I can travel the Internets in speed and some degree of style. It said if I save $450 a month for 40 years, I’ll have just shy of a million bucks. I’ll also be 110 years old.

    “Hello back to you, my darling…about that lottery you say I’ve won…”

    Did I mention I love your blog? Well, I do. I share with you a fascination for the arcane, though your ratiocinative tendencies could cause some concern! LOL…

    So, what’cha got for wives of writers who finish the book but are unable to be happy with the 9th rewrite of Chapter 1?

    She who remains unnamed says if I’d let her just read each of those 9 revisions, she’d be able to tell me in a California minute. But I can’t show an unrevised chapter, or even a series of revised ones until I’m…happy? Besides, she’d want to send at least 8 of those revisions to Trash.

    But more importantly, should I save all 9 versions to my desktop in their own folder, and btw, should I name them by Book name and date or book name and (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc) revision of Chapter 1. Or should I save those versions to my Documents and just pray? What’s my R2 on writing a Chapter 1 I will love? And don’t say Scrivener…I already use it. Then I transfer to Word. Then I transfer back to Scrivener. Then I hate Word. Then I hate Scriv. And now I’m not too fond of you, either! Hahahaha!

    Welcome to the WWW. Writers’ Wives World. My wife sends her implausibly fond regards!

    1. Flippin’ awesome comment — there’s so much there, I hardly know what to say. I’ll keep it simple. Just because enjoyment derives from activity/work, it does not follow that all work leads to enjoyment. I do NOT enjoy weeding my backyard no matter what diagrams I draw to try to make it interesting. As far as the R2 (it’s R-squared, but I was too lazy to find a superscript input) for writing goes, I will work on that model and come up with some variables in a future iteration. Keep the comments coming — I love it!

  2. Perhaps addressing contentment might be a tad more reasonable than “wealth and happiness”. Our society has created an environment that disallows happiness without the ability to purchase things we do not need. Happiness has become yet another purchasable commodity (and, apparently, publishing opportunity).
    I, frankly, am quite content with my inability to find the time to read about how to be wealthier and thus happier.
    just sayin’….

    1. Fair but part of my point was that these researchers measured what people themselves said made them happy. And as you say it wasn’t purchasing things at all! Plus I know that for you, reading is active, practically at an Olympic level so for you, it is the key activity. In the end, I thing we agree it certainly isn’t whatever is flogged on tv.

Leave a Reply