The Difference Between Cash and Happiness

Sunday, 11:16pm
Reno, NV


Let’s chat about money.

Cash, moolah, the big bucks, treasure. Greenbacks. Funds. Scratch. Coin of the realm.

You know — the stuff we kill ourselves (and sometimes each other) to get ahold of.

People who pretend to know will tell you that money cannot buy you happiness.

In fact, they say, too much of it can even cause you grief, and ruin your life.

There is ample evidence that there’s something to this, too — lottery winners are often right back where they started, financially, a short time after taking possession of their loot… wealthy business owners often lead lives of desperate loneliness, estranged from their own family and without any real friends… and many folks who strike it rich go into life-long funks worrying about losing it all, and the paranoia makes them suspicious, nervous, unlikeable pricks.

Still… most of us want to experience the horror of having lots of dough for ourselves, thank you very much.

We’ll take the risk of being ruined forever by a too-fat bank account.

Well… as with most of the good info in life, this topic bears a little airing out. It’s not black-and-white, and it’s definitely worth exploring a bit.

In fact… I just returned from a weekend brainstorm at my pal Joe Polish’s joint in Phoenix (attended by a bevy of bucks-heavy business mavens) where this very subject was a hot discussion point. (I was there as a guest lecturer. The regulars were all part of Joe’s schockingly-successful “$25K Mastermind Group” — who literally write twenty-five thou checks just for the privilege of attending four of these carefully-presented events each year.) (If you’ve ever demanded real-world proof that mastermind groups are worthwhile, this should shut you up quickly: The event I spoke at was the last of the year, and everyone in attendance considered the cost a genuine bargain… and most were eager to pay again for another year.) (Think about that.)


Joe asked me to clarify an operating statement I’ve been tossing around for years. It goes like this: Money will solve problems that not having money creates.

I came up with that slogan over a decade ago, in an attempt to explain to MYSELF the role money should play in my life. Other folks liked it so much, I’ve been bouncing it off of audiences every since.

The concept of money not making you happy is not unique, of course. I just googled the phrase, and there are deep references to brilliant minds (both ancient and modern) stressing that very point.

But for my mind (always antsy about details), the “money problem” wasn’t that simple. Yeah, money won’t make you happy. It won’t dissolve your psychological problems. It won’t magically grease the skids of life… at least not much.

But there’s a subtle reality to having money that isn’t so easily put into a motto.

What my phrase does — money solves problems that not having money creates — is to focus on the issue as I saw it back when I first started earning some Big Bucks.

See, I’ve been poor. In fact, it was a major catalyst for me — one day, as my bank account once again floated below solvency and I was again eyeing my precious ’64 Stratocaster as fodder for the pawn shop, I just snapped. I didn’t want to be that poor anymore.

Here I was, living in a free country oozing with opportunity and flush with the means to take advantage of that opportunity… and I was just floating along like driftwood on a stormy ocean, buffeted about without direction, plan or goal.

For me, it suddenly seemed criminal that I was languishing on the bottom rungs of the financial ladder. Rent was a problem every single month. If my rattle-trap Toyota broke down somewhere, I would have to just take the license plates off and leave it for thieves, cuz the price of a tow job would bankrupt me (let alone the price of having to fix any part of it). I was wearing clothes from thrift shops, not that there’s anything wrong with that… but one fine early autumn, everhthing just hit rock bottom: I lost my pitifully-low-paying job, my place to live and my girlfriend all within a couple of weeks.

And I discovered I could fit everything I owned into the back of my Celica (yes, including that precious Strat and the Princeton Reverb amp), with room to spare.

Now, the stories I have to tell you about the six-month period that followed are pretty wild… but that’s for some other time. I lived out of the car, slept on friend’s and near-friend’s couches, and spent many, many moments (sometimes in the drizzling rain) in foreign fields and driveways and streets keeping that car alive (barely) with used parts and desperate ingenuity. (Including chewing gum, bent paper clips and rubber bands keeping critical elements of the engine functional.)

In fact, I now consider it damned lucky that I went through that period of near-disaster. It was my personal “trek through the desert”, looking for America and relying on my wits and living in the gritty reality of never knowing where I’d be tomorrow.

You know — the classic American Road Novel.

So I don’t regret doing any of that. I’m glad I survived, because there were times of extreme danger (and occasional violence)… all very normal when you’re forced to sometimes rely on strangers for help, in unfamiliar towns where the nearest friend might be several day’s journey or longer away.

And no one knew where you were. I was a ghost, popping up every so often to let family and friends know I was still kicking, and then disappearing again.

But living literally on fumes like that helped me finally make up my mind that I wasn’t going to do it again. If there was a point to be proved, fine — I’d proved it. I could manage. I survived. I had wandered over the edge, without a safety net, and come back with only minor damage.

And, just to further make the point, I gotta tell you that I was happy, much of the time. Usually when I was deep into some adventure or other. However, the reality of encountering trouble I couldn’t solve with my wits was always hovering, and the free-floating anxiety was intense.

I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences.

So I learned, first-hand, some things about living life without money (or at least with the very minimum needed to scrape by). There was some real brotherhood among other broke people, even. A sense of shared plight.

But the problems that cascaded onto my life seemed mostly to be caused by not having enough money to deal with them in a dignified way.

Not having money created problems. I started to believe that having money would solve all my troubles. A pocketfull of cash was all I needed to attain bliss.

We all need motivations that ring true to us. These motivations are all over the map — people have charged machine gun nests because “duty” demanded they do so, and others have walked away from fame and wealth because some internal gauge of happiness directed them elsewhere.

For me, the motivation to finally stop being a slug and to put my nose to the grindstone of “success” (a concept I had only a vague notion of at the time), was as simple as the sudden realization that businesses sucked at writing things, and I could charge money for some very fundamental copy skills.

I had no idea at the time just HOW much those basic skills were valued in the biz world, however. I just wanted to rise above “scraping by”, and maybe get ahead one or two months in the rent. That was it — my idea of heaven was not having to worry about July’s rent in June.

The money started to arrive, as a direct reward for the hardest and most brain-twisting work I’ve ever attempted… and in a relatively short time, I realized I hadn’t worried about the rent for a while. I could go buy a new car, for cash, if I liked. That very night, in fact. The fridge was stocked, and the price of an airline ticket to anywhere in the world actually seemed a true bargain, cuz I could pay it in full and not even notice the dough gone from my ever-burgeoning account.

However… I wasn’t anywhere near as HAPPY as I’d figured I’d be at that point.

Money had solved all the pressing problems in my life that not having any money had created.

But I merely moved up another step on Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs — from mere survival, to the new problems of “what’s it all mean?”

This was the part about having money that tends to confuse people who aren’t prepared for it.

For my entire adult life, to that point, I knew how to navigate being broke. I was comfortable about it, even if the anxiety ate away at my stomach.

I wasn’t severely unhappy being broke, because I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have oodles friends in the same boat, so I never felt too alone in my sense of not “making it”.

Still, I had a few friends break away from the pack and get serious about biz and life, and there was a noticeable cooling of our friendships. When everybody’s broke, there are no screaming social problems. When only one of you can’t afford to pick up a round of drinks, the disconnects start popping up.

I was paying attention during this entire journey, and I took notes because I sensed there was something important going on. Being suddenly free of the worry about the rent didn’t open up any grand new opportunities — it simply took that time-consuming problem off the table.

In my Zen moments of gratitude, I try to remember to be thankful each time I write a big check for our big house (with its big mortgage)… but the main thing is that I simply don’t spend much time thinking about it.

So money solved the problems that not having money created. I’m neither throwing money away now, nor hoarding it. I was able to settle the issue in my brain and heart, by not falling into the trap of believing the slogans.

Money and happiness are two entirely different things. One has almost nothing to do with the other. I know many wealthy people who are miserable on every level, and I know people of very modest means who feast on life to a degree that shames their richer friends.

For me, separating the issue helped me come to terms with how money fit into my life. I haven’t lost a single friend because of it. I neither flaunt, nor hide my success.

I have, however, taken full advantage of the things that money offers: More time to do the things that fuel my passions, for example.

Being chronically broke will drag you down. You can still be a jolly fellow, but you’ll have to devote energy and attention to things that — with money — become minor details, easily solved.

It’s an issue worth exploring for yourself.

Many newly successful entrepreneurs are deciding NOT to grow too quickly — they, instead, groove along with a very fat income of a few hundred K and indulge in the non-biz pleasures of life. Later on, they can (if they so choose) pursue the million-buck ventures that will require more attention and energy.

Depending on your age, your goals, and your situation… sooner or later, you’re going to wake up one day and wonder what it all means. Broke or rich, you will face this crucible in life. It’s inevitable.

As you work through this Zen-like question, you may decide that neither happiness (however you define it) nor money is worth the struggle. You may crave something deeper, more profound, or more relevant to your heart’s desires. For many people, both happiness and wealth are overrated.

For most of us — and I’m speaking from the benefit of having lived a while here — this crucible comes after the turmoil of early adulthood. During that time of growth, you will be doing yourself a huge favor by exploring how YOU react to making too much money. Thus, getting hip to the wonders of entrepreneurial and small biz success makes sense on a personal level.

That’s my two cents, anyway.

It resonates tremendously with successful entrepreneurs and small biz owners.

Think about it.

And stay frosty…

John Carlton

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  • Rick Spinelli says:

    “…cuz the price of a tow job would bankrupt me…”

    Isn’t it nice now, being able to afford all the “tow jobs” you want? Personally though, I’m more of a rear-end sort of fellow 🙂

  • […] The Difference Between Cash and HappinessBy john-carltonI was wearing clothes from thrift shops, not that there’s anything wrong with that… but one fine early autumn, everhthing just hit rock bottom: I lost my pitifully-low-paying job, my place to live and my girlfriend all within a couple …John Carlton’s Big Damn Blog – […]

  • […] The Difference Between Cash and HappinessBy john-carltonHere I was, living in a free country oozing with opportunity and flush with the means to take advantage of that opportunity… and I was just floating along like driftwood on a stormy ocean, buffeted about without direction, plan or goal. …John Carlton’s Big Damn Blog – […]

  • […] The Difference Between Cash and HappinessBy john-carlton(If you’ve ever demanded real-world proof that mastermind groups are worthwhile, this should shut you up quickly: The event I spoke at was the last of the year, and everyone in attendance considered the cost a genuine bargain… and most …John Carlton’s Big Damn Blog – […]

  • Anonymous says:

    The Difference Between Cash and Happiness…

    There are deep issues involved with every entrepreneur’s quest for success, and it’s important to understand for yourself what’s in store when you start reeling in the Big Bucks.

    It’s different for everyone. But there are certain core things to …

  • Larry Foster says:

    I’m not a believer in the randomness of the universe. Nothing happens without a reason.
    That’s why I think your latest blog post was aimed right at me.

    Now, this isn’t True Confessions or “woe is me”.
    At the age of 57, I’m in a situation a lot like you were when you were dreading the possibility of even the slightest glitch could put you on the streets.

    My wounds are self-inflicted. Procrastination and lack of action have had their effect. Pressure from my wife forces me to look for a job.
    I have an interview tomorrow and I may screw up and actually get hired.

    I don’t want a job!

    I’d be interested in hearing a little more about your turn around. The mental stuff or what was your breakthrough. Could you have gone either way? If so, why didn’t you sink?

    Thanks, John for that post. I have printed it out and highlighting parts of it and putting it where I see it often.


  • John, this is a great post! With all the commercialism of the holiday season, this is fitting. Remember where you’ve been, but never stop looking forward in the direction of where you’re going.

    I am a freelance copywriter, working to pay the bills in a plastics factory, living in a polebarn. Yes, I do have running water, heat, electric and Internet. We don’t have cable, we don’t go out to eat all the time, but we have a roof over our heads and we are grateful. Some of my family are ashamed to tell anyone where we live. I’m not. Check out my blog:

    I have been homeless 2 times in my life, and will take a polebarn apartment over the streets any day. Besides. I have plenty of room in the “garage” part of it for my hubby’s 1956 Chevy! Life is good. And whether I make the “Big Bucks” at my writing or not, I’m living my dream. You can’t put a price tag on that!

    Happy Holidays, from a fellow “misfit”! 🙂

  • Lilly Holmers says:

    There are definitely some problems that money cannot solve. I recently read some very interesting personal accounts on about how a successful internet entrepreneur was battling against health problems. His solutions hardly involved any money at all. The website inspired me and I’d like to share this with you.

    Here’s to living better,


  • Lilly Holmers says:

    Since having last visited your blog, I discovered something that removes the necessity of seperating cash and happiness. It is called String Theory or more affectionately known as The Theory of Everything. This is not a random idea someone came up with, but it is a solid theory based in quantum physics. At its core, String Theory says that everything in the universe is one and the same thing. They are simply different representations of that one thing. If one becomes conscious of this fact, the issue of the negative relationship between cash and happiness disappears altogether. For anyone interested in learning more, there is an interview with a leading thinker in the field on in the better-than-tv section. Lilly

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