The unhappy millionaire

Simon earns more than a million dollars a year, but his life is far from ideal.

"I've got all the money I could ever dream of, but have nothing in my life that really excites me," he recently told me.

Simon spent close to 30 minutes telling me about what he did for a living, how much money he earned and how he had "millions stashed away after years of earning a seven figure salary".

But upon asking him about family and relationships he said: "I can tell you about what I do and how much I earn but when you ask me about my relationships I respond with 'I'm married with three kids' like I've ticked a box. I just can't think of anything else to say".

As an executive coach I have had this type of conversation many times before, and I'm sure I'll have it again in the future. Simon's coaching session raises a universal theme that has spilled tonnes of ink and burned through wads of paper over the years – what is it that really makes us feel happy and connected?

The Western World has become largely obsessed with living an affluent life, achieving double-digit growth and having all of the latest digital apps. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to have nice things and achieve rewards and recognition at work; we need to balance this with pleasure, meaning and purpose. 

Psychologists tell us people with non-concordant goals (a big word for disconnected) have higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Information overload
The rapid growth of information that workers in the digital age need to process on a daily basis poses a new set of challenges, sometimes resulting in information overload.

Workers with overload devote significantly less time to contemplative activities and this results in reduced capacity to concentrate and self-reflect. We can spend all day connected to the world through technology – but go home and be totally disconnected emotionally and socially.


We also know that beyond a certain level, money doesn't buy happiness. A 2010 study at Princeton University showed beyond an income of US$75,000, money had no impact on an individuals ability to do what mattered most to their emotional wellbeing including spending time with people they liked, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure pursuits. The researchers concluded that while a high income improves evaluation of life, it makes little to no difference to emotional wellbeing.

Hunting down the good life
Back to Simon… For the remainder of the coaching session Simon and I explored the difference between the 'goods life and the good life'. The goods life is all about money, status, and power. The good life is about meaning, pleasure and purpose. I told Simon I believe you can have a balance of the two, but you need to put time and effort into both. To this end, I posed the following questions.

•     Are you focused on 'having thing's or 'doing things'?

•     Do you schedule time in your diary each week for activities outside of work?

•     What daily or weekly activities provide you with meaning?

•     What can or does provide a sense of purpose to your life?

I explained to Simon that a large part of my job is telling really smart people things they know – but don't necessarily do. So Simon was going to have a different goal every week for the following month. Judging by the look on his face, I knew this was not going to be easy.

Before outlining Simon's goals, I gave him a personal example.

A few months back my father and I made a vegetable garden for my 3 year old daughter Mikaela. Every day I arrive home I'm greeted by an excitable little girl, ecstatic at the thought of "watering her begetable garden with her daddy". As soon as the hose starts nourishing the plants, Miki gives me a running commentary "cawwots, snow peas, tomatoes, spwing onions, lettuce, cucumber". When I'm in the garden with Miki I forget about work and everything else in my life. My mind is truly present when we're "watering the begetables" together…

The goal for Simon over the next month was to start 'living again' and to engage in passionate pursuits outside of work. We set an explicit goal for each of the four weeks.

Week 1 was focused on nature. Simon's goal was to reconnect with his inner hippy. This involved going for a bush walk, and stopping along the way to smell the flowers and lemon-scented gum tress - to feel the crackle of sticks beneath his boots and just reconnect with the outside world without the distraction of a mobile phone.

Week 2 was about relationships. Simon booked a table for two and took his wife out to dinner. She originally asked him "what's wrong?" He then spent quality one-on-one time with each of his three children, and they too asked "what's wrong?" After explaining to all of his family he just wanted to spend more time together, Simon enjoyed reconnecting with the people he really loves (even though it was awkward at the start).

Week 3 involved hobbies and passions. Simon loves jazz music but hadn't been to see live music or even listened to his favourite albums for years. Even talking about this seemed to put some life back into his expressionless face. Simon was traveling in week three so he decided to download his favourite jazz album onto his iphone and listened to it throughout the week.

Week 4 centred on community involvement. Simon's company donated millions of dollars every year to charity but in his own words this was a "corporate transaction, rather than a personal interaction". Simon tracked down a service providing meals for homeless people and he spent 3 hours on Saturday providing food for appreciative people all with needs much greater than his own. Simon was humbled by the team of volunteers who run this service not just one Saturday afternoon as part of a PPI (positive psychology intervention) – but every day of their lives.

When I next caught up with Simon, while he wasn't bouncing around with copious amounts of energy – he certainly had a bit of spark back. His eyes looked nowhere near as tired and his grey features were starting to catch a few colourful hues. Simon agreed the intervention was a lot harder than it sounded, but he was humbled by how much he got out of prioritising activities around meaning, pleasure and purpose. The key for Simon is to now make this part of his life, not just a four-week phase.

This article has chronicled the intervention followed by Simon – but let's shift the final focus to you.

Do you have a balance between the goods life and the good life? What makes you feel happy and content? Is it work, money, relationships or hobbies and passions? 

Andrew May is a performance coach specialising in leadership in the office and on the sporting field.

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