Happiness For Sale

The gist: Happiness can’t be bought, but it can be sold. Selling happiness is something we do every day, often without realizing it.


Whoever said you can’t put a price on happiness probably never actually tried. The truth, I believe, is actually the opposite. Not only can you put a price on happiness, you can value it to the exact dollar for each and every person. Give me ten minutes to ask you any question I want, and I’ll tell you how much your happiness is worth to you.

And though it’s true you probably can’t actually buy it, at least not with dollars, euros, or any other currency I know of, you can most certainly sell it. Selling our happiness is something we do every day, and if we don’t take a second to recognize it, we run the risk of losing it.

This is part one of a two part series on happiness. Subscribe to my free updates if you don’t want to miss the conclusion later this week.

Take your neighbor, for instance, that comes home each day and tells you how terrible his day at the office was over the backyard fence. What about your cousin who just bought a new car because she didn’t want her friends to think she couldn’t afford it. Or how about your friend that has a new toy every week but complains that he’ll never be able to afford to travel.

Every decision you make in life comes with an opportunity cost. If you buy that pair of jeans now, you can’t use that money to buy anything else. If you go to that networking event, you can’t go anywhere else as long as you’re there.

Each decision comes with a price, be it money, time, or something else. This is not a revolutionary concept; we all know this. But what we rarely think about is the fact that each of these decisions adds to the bottom line of the value that we put on our own happiness.

The price for your peace of mind is the sum of all the decisions you make in a day, week, month, or year that don’t align with what you know will actually make you happy. Add them all up and there you have it—the price of your happiness—a simple equation.

The Usual Suspects

Where are a few common places we trade our happiness for money? Everyone has their own set of circumstances, but I think a few things come up regularly for many people:

  • Work ­– By working at a job you hate because it pays the bills or because it’s easy, you trade your happiness for time and money.
  • Cars – If you a buy a car that provides temporary excitement that eventually fades, you’re trading your happiness for money. If that car breaks down all the time, you’re probably trading your time as well.
  • Houses – The same rule that applies to cars applies to houses.
  • Cable TV – If watching TV every night is a distraction from things you’d rather be doing but don’t know how yet, then you’re trading your time for happiness. And, at $50 or more a month, your money as well.
  • Meaningless junk – If you buy lots of stuff but can’t afford the big things you really want, then you have a habit of buying meaningless junk and you trade your happiness for money.
  • Friends you don’t care about – If you hang out with people you don’t like because it’s too much work to make new or different friends, you trade your happiness for time.
  • Debt – If you do any of these things and they cause you to go into debt, you haven’t just traded your happiness for time and money, you’ve traded your future happiness for it also.

These are just a few common examples. Your mileage, of course, may vary. But to give you an example of just how easy it is to calculate the actual value of happiness, let me give you an example from my own life.

A few years ago I accepted a job I knew I didn’t really want because the pay was good—about $56,000/year. That job, including the commute and time spent working at home took up about 65 hours of my time every week.

Since I felt like I was making enough money, I bought some nice furniture—about $2,000 worth. I didn’t need it and some of it I don’t even like anymore, but hey, I had the money. Since I enjoyed music, I also decided to spend around $1,000 on stereo equipment.

I liked the idea of being handy, so I bought about $1,000 worth of tools as well. Add in the fact that I spent at least an hour a week fiddling with all these things I had that I didn’t care about, and there’s another 52 hours of time gone each year.

Of course, I didn’t have much time during this period, so I liked to go out for expensive meals to make myself feel like it was all worth it. Those probably added up to around $2,000 that first year.

When it’s all said and done, you could safely say I traded my happiness—the time and money I’d have spent doing things that really mattered to me—for about $62,000 and 3,432 hours every year.

At least I set the price high, right?

The Meaning Behind the Madness

Why did I make these decisions? Why does anybody decide to trade their time or money for happiness? I say that it’s because reality makes the situation more complex and less easy to see. When looking at it objectively, the calculation is really simple. But when you add in real life and the complexities that come with it, the situation gets cloudy.

Decisions you’ve made in the past affect the obligations you have today. Maybe you’re making choices now to sacrifice for other choices you’ve made in the past.

And it’s fair to say that not every decision you make will result in 100% satisfaction or dissatisfaction. There were times during my 65-hour workweek when I did have fun and I did enjoy myself. And buying some those things did give me some happiness, even if it was fleeting.

And there are times now when, even though I’m pursuing things I care about, I get frustrated and don’t always feel happy. Life never seems to provide us with an obvious solution to our problems.

What I can say, though, is that when I was headed the wrong direction, most of my decisions felt like sacrifices and compromises and happiness cannot be achieved through those kinds of choices.

Most importantly, why did I stay on that path so long even though I knew it was the wrong direction? Because I didn’t know what else I’d do with myself. I suspect this is a sticking point for a lot of people.

The Laws of Physics do not Apply

James Joule was the first to popularize the law of conservation of energy. The idea is that energy within the universe cannot be created or destroyed—only converted into another type of energy. Happiness does not follow this law. Perhaps the most tragic part of this whole mess is that when we sell our happiness, it’s usually not converted into happiness for anyone else.

Why? Because what’s actually being purchased from you isn’t your happiness at all. Instead, it’s the time that you’d spend doing something that made you happy. Your happiness is only a casualty of the transaction, destroyed when you make the decision to ignore it.

But regardless how you look at it, the important thing to remember is that happiness is, in fact, a commodity, and even though no one can buy it from you, you’re more than capable of selling it, and the price that you choose to let it go for ought to be carefully considered.

This is part one of a two part series on happiness. Later this week we’ll look at how to avoid selling your happiness and how to get it back if you already are. Hint: it involves taking some risks. Subscribe to my free updates if you don’t want to miss it.


For more incredible insight about what makes up happy, be sure to read Tammy Strobel’s thoughts over at Rowdy Kittens.

Image by: Stuck in Customs